His Life and Work
Bach was born in Eisenach, Germany in 1685 and died in 1750 in Liepzig.
Orphaned by 10 y/o and stayed with older brother until 15. He was a difficult child… and a difficult adult.
In 1703 as an 18 y/o, he got first job as a court musician. And then almost immediately got another prestigious position at the New Church in Arnstadt. He impetuously disappeared for several months to hear and study with Dietrich Buxtehude without informing his employer. He bounced around between several organist/composer positions for a few more years. Eventually he landed a position with Duke Wilhelm Ernst in Weimar. It was here he began to compose some of his most famous organ works and the cantata “Herz und Mund unt Tat” or Heart and Mouth and Deed. This cantata which contains the famous “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.”
After about a year’s service, Bach won yet another position, this one with Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen. Duke Ernst was loath to release Bach to work for his superior, the prince, so he imprisoned Bach for about a month before finally releasing him at the Prince’s bequest. It is during his years in the Prince’s service that Bach wrote most of his instrumental music, his suites, concertos, organ works, etc.
In 1723, the Prince dissolved his orchestra and Bach was unemployed. He took a position at the St Thomas Church in Leipzig, where he would spend most of his remaining years. His contract simply stipulated that music would be provided for Holy days and festival for the church, about 60 different occasions each year. It was expected he would compose some, reuse others, and borrow freely from the libraries of the churches in the area. However, Bach committed to himself to write all new music. So he averaged better than 1 new complete cantata every week; text chosen, music written, parts copied, and orchestra and singers rehearsed… every week. In addition to these weekly requirements, which were usually about 20 – 25 minutes in length, High Holy Days such as Holy Week, Easter, and Christmas demanded much larger works which would often approach 2 hours in length. For two years he kept this brutal pace, before finally slowing down in the third year. Much of this work has been lost, but it is estimated he wrote nearly 400 cantatas in his lifetime.
What Made the Man
That is just a partial glimpse at what the man did, but what made the man? An orphan at 10, living with a brother who already had a family and little extra time to raise a very head strong boy, and yet fully immersed in the Church and church life. He married his first cousin Maria Barbara Bach when he was 21. They had 7 children, most dying in infancy. In fact Bach was traveling with his employer, the prince, far from home when Maria Barbara became ill and died during their fourth year of marriage. He came home to find that his young bride had been dead and buried for several weeks and his household of small children in the care of neighbors. A year later he married Anna Magdalena Wulcken. They had 13 children, more than ½ dying in childhood.
This is a man who knew sorrow and anguish. Yet his scores for both sacred and secular music often bear the sign: SGD for soli Gloria Deo and INJ for In Nomine Jesu. His faith utterly permutated his life. He was not a self-aware “artist” in the likes of Mozart or Beethoven who viewed their art as some gift they might bestow on us lesser mortals. Rather, Bach was a typical Baroque era composer, music was needed for some state or church function and Bach wrote it. Much like Handle wrote the “Royal Fireworks Music” music for, well, the royal fireworks. Bach never would have dreamed that 300 years later his music would be heard around the world.
There has been an interesting phenomenon occurring with his music in recent years, particularly his dance music of which he wrote hundreds of pieces. Most recently, performers like Yo Yo Ma has been filling massive concert venues, The Proms in London and the Hollywood Bowl, in Hollywood, for the explicit purpose of listening to over 2 hours of solo cello music, with just Mr. Ma and his chair on a dimly lit stage. And Andras Schiff has been doing complete cycles of Bach’s keyboard suites, 18 of them, dressed in a priest like garb in European cathedrals to great acclaim. The world recognizes a deeply spiritual aspect to even the simplest of Bach’s dance music… his dance music of all things!
Every aspect of his work was with an understanding of his place in God’s creation and his need of the saving grace which is freely given.