The Kennedy Center

J.S. Bach


Johann Sebastian Bach was born in Eisenach, Germany on March 21, 1685. During his lifetime, Bach was better known as an organist than as a composer. It wasn't until the 19th century that his genius came to be recognized. Since that time his reputation has grown steadily. As choir director, Bach composed some 300 sacred cantatas. There are also over 30 secular cantatas, composed at Leipzig. In his instrumental and choral works, he perfected the art of polyphony, displaying a combination of inventiveness and control of his great, striding fugues.

His first exposure to music was lessons on the violin, taught by his father. Following the deaths of his parents, Bach's oldest brother, Johann Christoph, assumed the care of the 10 year old, who moved with his brother to Ohrdruf. From his brother, Bach received his first instruction at the harpsichord and possibly the organ.

In 1703 Bach was formally installed as organist in a new church at Arnstad. He had plenty of time to practice on his favorite instrument and to develop his creative talent. His dramatic flair could be seen in his Prelude and Fugue in C Minor and Toccata and Fugue in C Major.

Bach's education was mainly through independent studies. He had an insatiable curiosity about music and would walk great distances to hear organist Johan Adam Reinken in Hamburg and Buxtehude at Lubeck. In 1703 he became violinist in the private orchestra of the prince at Weimar, but left within a year to become organist at Arnstadt.

In 1707 Bach went to Muhlhausen as organist. No doubt under the influence of Buxtehude, Bach wanted to present Muhlhausen with what he considered "well-ordered church music." The Cantata No. 71, God Is My King was scored for strings, woodwinds, trumpets, tympani, and the usual chorus and soloist. The following year he was made court organist and chamber musician at Weimar. From 1708-1710, Bach produced an enormous amount of organ music. Preludes, fugues, choral preludes, and toccatas. In 1714 he became concert master. Three years later he was named musical director at Kothen.

In 1723 he took the important post of music director of the church of St. Thomas in Leipzig and of its choir school. Here, he composed the bulk of his choral music that included 295 church cantatas, 6 motets, 5 Masses, including the B Minor Mass, and the great Passions and oratorios. His last work was the Art of the Fugue, in which he demonstrated the complete possibilities of the fugal and canonic forms.

In his final years Bach was afflicted with gradual blindness, and he was totally blind the last year of his life. He died in Leipzig on July 28, 1750.

J.S. Bach


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