Johann Sebastian Bach is perhaps the greatest composer who ever lived. But the son of a prolific family of Thuringian musicians was little known as a composer during his lifetime; he was famous instead as the most outstanding organist of his time. It was above all his improvisational abilities, including up to five voices in counterpoint, that earned him admiration. The self-taught composer wrote around 300 cantatas - 200 of which have survived -, 13 keyboard concertos, 6 solo suites for violoncello, 6 sonatas and partitas for violin solo, the Goldberg Variations, the lone late work The Art of Fugue, and the keyboard cycle The Well-Tempered Clavier (which he regarded as a pedagogical work).
The catalogue of Bach’s complete oeuvre made by Wolfgang Schmieder in 1959 (known by its abbreviation “BWV”) includes around 1100 works, while keeping in mind that a single number may refer to a large-scale work lasting up to three hours or to a prelude less than a minute long. His humility still touches us today: “I have had to work hard. Anyone who will work equally hard will be able to do as much.”
1685-1695 - Childhood in Eisenach, attends school, death of his mother and father
1695-1700 - In Ohrdruf his elder brother takes over his education and training
1700-1702 - Bach becomes a choir singer at the Michaeliskloster in Lüneburg and earns his university entrance qualification
1703-1708 - Bach works as an organist in Arnstadt and Mühlhausen. Marries his cousin Maria Barbara Bach
1708-1717 - Court organist and chamber musician under the Duke of Saxe-Weimar, appointed Konzertmeister in 1714
1717 - Arrested and imprisoned in Weimar and “ungraciously” released
1717-1723 - Kapellmeister under Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Köthen, his wife Maria Barbara dies, marries Anna Magdalena Wülken
1723-1750 - Thomaskantor in Leipzig, composes over 200 cantatas. Late contrapuntal works.
1750 - Blindness and eye operation. Bach dies and is buried on July 31.
Did you know?
Although Bach enjoyed a reputation as the most outstanding organist of his era, many critics regarded his contrapuntal style as outdated. At the time, homophonic works in the pre-Classical style were in demand.
Author Henning Mankell has one of his characters say, “I find that it has been a great blessing to live in an age after Bach. In my personal reckoning, I divide history into the world before and the world after Bach.”
After his death, his works, which in any case had been known only to a few connoisseurs, are completely forgotten. Not until the arrival of the masters of Viennese classicism, and above all Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, did the composer experience a renaissance, which has continued to this day.
Reading the few letters that have survived, we learn little about Bach as a person; even a letter to one of his childhood friends is signed, “Your highborn, most obedient and humble servant.”
“Listening to music . . . for example Glenn Gould. And not Beethoven, but Bach.” - former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt upon being asked what activity gives him the greatest joy in life.
"Bach is the beginning and end of all music." - Max Reger.
“This is what I have to say about Bach’s life work: listen, play, love, revere - and keep your mouth shut.” - Albert Einstein.