Bach, J. S. (to distinguish him from the many other composers in a ridiculously talented lineage that included two of his own sons) is today recognised as one of the greatest composers in history, having produced music in every genre of the Baroque with the sole exception of opera. For many years, however, he was something of a composer’s composer, his Well-Tempered Clavier a foundational necessity for anyone intending to master any of the keyboard instruments, but much of the rest of his repertoire sadly neglected.
This is less the result of any intentional oversight than it was the product of the musical culture of his time: in Bach’s day, and for more than a century afterwards, no composer of any particular standing would make a career out of productions of works not his own. Much like the pop artists of today, a composer’s job was to compose, and to oversee the performance of his compositions. An exception might be made for the odd cover – indeed, J. S.’s successor at St. Thomas Church, Leipzig broke with tradition by keeping some of his predecessor’s repertoire in use – but by and large the idea of keeping the music of the past alive through regular performance (recording technology barely predating the 20th century) is a relatively modern innovation. Although hailed as a genius by composers from Mozart to Mendelssohn it appears that it wasn’t until the latter’s revival of his St. Matthew’s Passion in a much-celebrated 1829 performance that his work began to return to the wider musical consciousness of Europe.
And J. S. himself did not help his cause. The composer of such sublimely sacred works as the Passions of St. Matthew and St. John was a confirmed perfectionist, regularly frustrated by the perceived shortcomings of people in general and other musicians in particular. In his youth, he resorted on at least one occasion to a knife in an effort to settle a dispute. In maturity, he apparently discovered the legal system, on one occasion taking his case all the way to the king. So it may have been a desire to protect the integrity of his music from the inevitable corruptions of performance by the ‘unskilled’ purchasers of pirated scores that led him to keep much of his work in manuscript form; out of the hands of printers and thus out of widespread circulation.
J.S. Bach was born in Eisenach, the capital of the duchy of Saxe-Eisenach in what is now Germany, in March 1685. He was the youngest of eight children born to Johann Ambrosius Bach, church organist and director of the town musicians, and the nephew of other church organists, chamber musicians and composers. Steeped in music and musical theory from birth, he was also part of a network of men well-positioned to help his musical career along, culminating in his appointment in 1723 as cantor at St. Thomas Church, Leipzig (the first-choice composer Telemann having turned the post down), a position which he would occupy until his death.
It was a position to which J. S. was, in many ways, ideally suited. Unlike many other composers, who undertook religious work primarily because it paid, he appears to have been a devout, though severe, Lutheran, capable of turning out the huge volumes of sacred music expected of him with strict Protestant discipline and ensuring that it was performed to the appropriate standard. Indeed, if any criticism can be made of Bach’s beautiful, elegant work, which is possessed of an almost mathematical sense of order and precision, it is that it is almost entirely lacking in humour and whimsy. This is not to imply that he did not turn his hand to secular compositions. Well over a thousand of Bach’s works survive today, including not only his Mass in B Minor, the two Passions, and numerous church cantatas, but also educational works like The Well-Tempered Clavier, four orchestral suites, chamber music, and the famous Brandenburg Concertos (my personal favourite, for its combination of beauty and simplicity, is his Cello Suite No. 1).
J. S. married twice, fathering a total of twenty children, of which nine survived him and two, Carl Philipp Emanuel and Johann Christian, went on to achieve considerable fame in their own right. His death in 1750 is often regarded as marking the end of the Baroque era in music, even though a number of other composers in the Baroque style outlived him, and (in something of a reflection of the way his music would be overlooked until Mendelssohn) his grave at Old St. John’s Cemetery in Leipzig was lost for 150 years before being rediscovered (probably…) during renovations in 1894.
When did you discover Bach? Do you have a favourite piece?