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Johann Sebastian Bach
Johann Sebastian Bach


Johann Sebastian Bach
© Fred Münzmaier / DG

To Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, Bach was a master of keyboard counterpoint. To Mendelssohn, he was a composer of epic choral works. To Stravinsky he was a master craftsman. In recent decades, the period performance movement has helped to return a sense of historical context to Bach’s music, and fresher, lighter instrumental and vocal textures. All of these ideas remain current, and the great German composer’s huge catalogue of works continues to invite new interpretations. Bach was born in the Thuringian town of Eisenach into a family of church musicians. His early education included the study of rhetoric, which some modern scholars have suggested influenced his approach to musical form, and he learnt several instruments and studied composition. Both of Bach’s parents had died by the time he was ten, and he was sent to the small town of Ohrdruf, into the care of his half-brother, who had been a pupil of Johann Pachelbel. While in Ohrdruf, Bach developed abilities in keyboard playing, improvisation, fugue writing and all of the other skills then required of a church musician. He also copied out many keyboard works and became acquainted with musical styles from across Europe. In 1703 he gained the position of organist at the Neue Kirche in Arnstadt, although some disputes with the church administration may have contributed to Bach’s decision to take an extended leave of absence in 1705–06 to visit the organist and composer Dieterich Buxtehude in Lübeck. There was talk of him succeeding Buxtehude at the Marienkirche. But a condition of the appointment was marrying Buxtehude’s eldest daughter, and Bach, now engaged to his cousin, Maria Barbara, did not pursue matters. Bach moved to St Blasius Church in Mühlhausen in 1707, where his first task was to supervise the building of a new organ. Better resources were at his disposal, as is shown by the technical demands of his Cantata BWV 4 Christ lag in Todesbanden. But employment difficulties soon led him to search for other positions. Within a year he had broken his family’s long tradition of church music by becoming a court musician in Weimar. There he embraced new musical styles, in particular those of Vivaldi. Initially he was appointed court organist, with responsibility for providing church choral music. But Weimar was divided between two palaces and Bach quickly expanded his activities to include secular music. At first Weimar proved a congenial place to work, and the increased salary was no doubt helpful with the composer’s growing family. In 1713 one of the younger members of the Weimar royalty, Prince Johann Ernst, returned from the University of Utrecht. He brought with him a large amount of new Italian music including Vivaldi’s Op.3 (L’Estro Armonico). Bach arranged four of these concertos for organ and two others for multiple harpsichords. He also learnt from Vivaldi how to harness rhythmic drive and longer-term harmonic expectations to extend his musical structures. Court squabbles and the reluctance to promote Bach to Kapellmeister again led him to look for another post. In 1717 he accepted a position in Cöthen, and was imprisoned in Weimar for a short period for entertaining the idea of leaving. At first Cöthen offered comfortable employment and seemed to be confirming Bach as a court rather than a church musician. The Cöthen court was Calvinist, so Bach worshipped in the local Lutheran church, and composed no Sunday-by-Sunday church cantatas. Instead he devoted his energies to secular music, notably the Brandenburg Concertos and the Orchestral Suites. In these he synthesised north German harmonic richness with the new-found energy of the Italian style. Cöthen proved less congenial when it became clear that the prince’s new wife disliked music. Bach applied for the post of Cantor of St Thomas’s Church in Leipzig, his last appointment. His salary would be reduced but his children would receive a free education at the school. His Lutheran disposition and an intention to enlarge his cantata output may also have played a part in his decision. Telemann was first choice for the position, perhaps because he was a graduate of Leipzig University. But Bach secured the job, which he took up in 1723. It is usually thought that he devoted almost all of his time in Leipzig to choral music. In fact, over half his cantatas and the original versions of both surviving Passions were written in the first seven years. This suggests he was trying to speed through his contractual obligations. Nonetheless, the cantatas form a remarkable body of work. They are particularly notable for their use of obbligato instruments in the solo arias. Bach’s use of chorales is another striking feature. Their melodies are often elaborated or extended in choruses and arias, and each cantata ends with a sublime harmonisation of the chorale on which it is based. The high point of Bach’s choral music came with his largest work, the St Matthew Passion, written in 1727 and revised in 1736 and 1740. French, German and Italian musical styles are employed to explore the story’s wide range of spiritual and emotive connotations, and Bach takes the art of chorale harmonisation to new heights with multiple arrangements of the ‘Passion’ chorale (O Sacred Head Sore Wounded). The work is a microcosm of the composer’s innovations during his Leipzig years and a startling contrast to his more intimate St John Passion. As director of a student music-making body, Bach composed or re-wrote many violin and keyboard concertos for the group, which may also have performed earlier works such as the Brandenburg Concertos. Bach also began taking a serious interest in the publication of his works. He assembled some of his greatest keyboard compositions into sets, which were published as Clavierübung. These included the keyboard Partitas, the English and French Suites and Das Wohltemperierte Klavier (The Well-Tempered Clavier). ‘Well-tempered’ in this context refers to the keyboard tuning system that had only just made it possible to play in every major and minor key without re-tuning. Bach uses this as an opportunity to showcase a wide range of keyboard styles and contrapuntal techniques, while exploring the newly available tonalities. A similar range is shown in the Goldberg Variations, particularly in its succession of canons that form a separate cycle within the 30 variations. Das Musikalische Opfer (The Musical Offering), written for Frederick the Great of Prussia, is another fine exposition of Bach’s unparalleled contrapuntal skills. So too are Die Kunst der Fuge (The Art of Fugue), left incomplete at his death, the Sonatas and Partitas for unaccompanied violin and the Suites for unaccompanied cello. With one eye on posterity, Bach put a great deal of effort in his last years to completing his monumental Mass in B minor. Much of the music for the Mass dates back to the early 1730s, when Bach applied for an honorary position with the Catholic court of Dresden. But he continued work on it until not long before his death in 1750. The result is an epic survey of the many vocal and liturgical styles Bach had mastered over the course of his career. Widely regarded as one of the greatest masterpieces of Western music, it is a fitting testament to his exceptional life and a work.

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