Johann Sebastian Bach: CDs & DVDs: Best CDs & DVDs of Johann Sebastian Bach

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Johann Sebastian Bach: CDs & DVDs - The Best CDs & DVDs of Johann Sebastian Bach

Johann Sebastian Bach: Overview

Johann Sebastian Bach: Johann Sebastian Bach (b. Eisenach, 21 March 1685; d. Leipzig, 28 July 1750).

The Bach family in Northern Germany contained musicians from the early 16th century, and no doubt earlier. They remained of purely local fame until Johann Sebastian was born as the youngest child of Johann Ambrosius Bach. His education was irregular, but like virtually every male in his family he studied music and, as the possessor of what was said to be an 'uncommonly fine soprano voice', sang in the church and school choirs. A famous, perhaps apocryphal story, told of Johann Sebastian Bach as a child, describes how he ruined his eyesight for life by his practice of copying out secretly, and by moonlight, volumes of clavier compositions by older German masters. At the age of fifteen, through the influence of the local cantor, Herder, Johann Sebastian gained an appointment as boy soprano at Luneberg. Here he met the distinguished organist, Georg Bohm, at whose instigation he walked thirty miles to Hamburg to hear Bohm's old master, Johann Adam Reinken, play at the Katharinenkirche.

It was while he was still in his teens, and at Luneberg, that Johann Sebastian Bach's earliest known compositions, preludes and variations for the organ, were produced. He had also studied the violin, and at the age of eighteen became, briefly, a violinist in the orchestra of Duke Johann Ernst of Weimar. Weeks later, however, he was appointed organist in the Bonifacius-Kirche at Arnstadt. It was here that he began to write his great series of church cantatas for performance at the Sunday services. In October 1705, he obtained a month's leave from Arnstadt, and made a pilgrimage, again on foot, to Buxtehude in Liibeck. Buxtehude, the most famous composer of his time in North Germany, was then an old man, though he was still active in Liibeck as organist. It is not known whether Johann Sebastian Bach took lessons from him, or indeed whether the two men met at all. The twenty-year-old composer may simply have listened to his performances without making himself known. But there is no doubt that Buxtehude's influence upon Johann Sebastian Bach was enormous, especially upon his compositions for the organ. After spending four months away from Arnstadt, Johann Sebastian Bach returned to find himself in trouble because of his prolonged absence, and also because of the strange and unusual style of the compositions he produced for the church. He began to look for employment elsewhere and, in 1707, at the age of twenty-two, went to Muhlhausen as organist. Here he married his cousin, Maria Barbara, and attempted to concentrate upon his duties and upon the composition of music for the church. As a pious Lutheran, Johann Sebastian Bach viewed music less as art than as an adjunct of his religion. In Muhlhausen, he found a great deal of dissension within the Lutheran church, and within a year he had decided to remove himself from it, and to accept an engagement at Weimar where he knew he could pursue his own ideas in composition without opposition or controversy. In 1708, he became court organist at Weimar, and chamber musician to the reigning Duke Wilhelm Ernst. Here he was to remain for the next nine years.

It was only in the last three years of his Weimar period that Johann Sebastian Bach became Konzerimeister or conductor of the court orchestra. At first, his most important duty was as organist, and thus it was that many of his great compositions for the organ were composed during this time: the C minor Passacaglia and Fugue, the arrangements of Vivaldi concertos, the Orgelbuchlein, and a great many of the preludes and fugues. Johann Sebastian Bach's fame began to spread, both as composer for the organ and as performer. When, in 1714, he played for the future King Frederick I of Sweden, it is recorded that his feet 'flew over the pedalboard as if they had wings'. After he became Konzertmeister at Weimar, Johann Sebastian Bach began to produce, in addition to the organ works, a number of cantatas for performance in the court chapel. In 1716, the coveted position of Kapellmeister became vacant on the death of Johann Samuel Drese, and it was not unreasonable for Johann Sebastian Bach to expect that the post would be offered to him. It was not, however, and he began immediately to look for an opportunity to move again. Within months, such an opportunity presented itself at Cothen, at the court of Prince Leopold. Leopold, whose sister had married the nephew of Johann Sebastian Bach's Weimar employer, became acquainted with Johann Sebastian Bach at Weimar, and offered him the position of Kapellmeister at Cothen in August, 1717. But Johann Sebastian Bach's Weimar employer refused to let him go, and, annoyed at the manner in which Johann Sebastian Bach had asked to be released from his employment, had the composer placed under arrest, and confined for some weeks. It was not until early December that Duke Wilhelm August of Weimar finally allowed Johann Sebastian Bach to travel to Cothen and take up his duties there.

Johann Sebastian Bach's principal duty in Cothen was to conduct the court orchestra, in which the Prince himself liked to play the viola da gamba, and to provide compositions for it. The Brandenburg Concertos, so-called because of their dedication to Duke Christian Ludwig of Brandenburg, the suites for orchestra, the violin concertos and much chamber music, all date from the Cothen years. For the most part, they were tranquilly happy years for Johann Sebastian Bach. His relationship with his Prince was one of mutual respect, and he travelled with his master twice to the spa of Carlsbad. The Prince became godfather to the youngest child of Johann Sebastian Bach's first marriage, but the child did not survive infancy. The charming secular cantata for solo soprano, 'Weichet nur, betrubte Schatten', known as the Wedding Cantata, was composed for an unrecorded Cothen occasion.

After four or five years, Johann Sebastian Bach again became restless. In 1720 his wife had died while he was absent from Cothen with his employer. He returned to find her dead and buried. Cothen no longer seemed so happy a place to him. Eighteen months later, he married again. His new wife, Anna Magdalena, was the daughter of Johann Caspar Wilcken, a musician. At the age of twenty, she became step-mother to Johann Sebastian Bach's growing children, whose education was now a matter of some concern to their father. In the Calvinist town of Cothen, the best school was a Calvinist one, which Johann Sebastian Bach would not permit his children to attend. Also, his master had just married a youthful princess who, according to Johann Sebastian Bach, was opposed to the arts and therefore likely to make life difficult for him. When Johann Kuhnau, cantor of the Thomasschule, or St Thomas School in Leipzig, died in June 1722, Johann Sebastian Bach applied for the position. The Leipzig council preferred two of the other candidates for the post, Telemann and Graupner, but Telemann withdrew and Graupner failed to obtain a release from his previous employer. So the Council settled for Johann Sebastian Bach.

While he had been at Cothen, Johann Sebastian Bach had continued to improve and extend his reputation as an organist and as an advisor on church organs. It was also during his Cothen period that the famous non-meeting of Bach and Handel occurred. Johann Sebastian Bach travelled to Halle in the autumn of 1719 specifically to meet Handel, but discovered that he had already returned to England. The two greatest composers of the age were never to meet, though they made two or three attempts to do so.

As Cantor of the Leipzig Thomasschule, Johann Sebastian Bach was required to instruct the scholars, to compose music which would not be operatic in style, and to seek the Mayor's permission whenever he wished to leave the town. The Cantor was also responsible for the music in two churches, the Thomaskirche and the Nicolaikirche, whose choirs were provided by the School. The Cantor personally conducted the choir and orchestra of the Thomaskirche, and it was for the Sunday services in these churches that Johann Sebastian Bach's great series of church cantatas was composed. He was also expected to provide music for certain University occasions, but Johann Sebastian Bach's relations with the University were, from the beginning, uncordial. More congenial to him was the conductorship of one of Leipzig's two musical societies, for which he was happy to compose as well.

Although he found himself involved in various disputes with the Leipzig Council and other bodies, mostly arising over lines of demarcation, or what he regarded as slights to his eminence, Johann Sebastian Bach remained at Leipzig for the remainder of his life. When his son Carl Philipp Emanuel, now aged twenty-six, was appointed to the service of the Prussian Emperor Frederick the Great, in 1740, this gave Johann Sebastian Bach an opportunity to extend his own reputation as far as the Prussian court. In 1747, at the invitation of Frederick the Great, Johann Sebastian Bach travelled to Berlin. The story is told of how, scanning one evening the list of passengers brought by the coach, Frederick suddenly exclaimed in excitement, 'Gentlemen, old Bach has arrived.' 'Old Bach' was immediatel) called for, and came from his son's lodgings still in his travelling clothes. An enjoyable evening was spent in impromptu musical performance, and in due course, upon a theme which Frederick gave him that evening, Johann Sebastian Bach composed for the Emperor his 'Musical Offering'.

Johann Sebastian Bach's domestic life in Leipzig appears to have been tranquil and well-ordered. The four children of his first marriage were, over the years, increased by seven more. In 1749, Johann Sebastian Bach's eyesight began to fail, and soon he became completely blind. He died in his sixty-sixth year of a stroke, his eyesight having returned ten days before his death. He was buried in the Johanniskirche, though with no tablet to mark the spot. His grave was rediscovered in 1894 during excavations to extend the foundations of the church.

Johann Sebastian Bach was no innovator in music. For him, his art existed only as part of his religion. The perfection to which he brought polyphony was not something to which the generation immediately following him could be expected to respond. His greatness reveals itself, however, in this and in the variety of the forms of music in which he excelled. Understandably, he eschewed opera as being too frivolous. But in the realm of sacred music he has left a number of masterpieces. High among these are the 295 church cantatas, the St Matthew Passion which is a more deeply devout oratorio than Handel's Messiah, and the B minor Mass. The organ compositions have already been mentioned: Johann Sebastian Bach's finest secular works include the set of six Brandenburg Concertos and the forty-eight preludes and fugues of The Well-tempered Clavier.

Johann Sebastian Bach: CDs

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