Johann Sebastian Bach was born into a musically gifted family and was devoted to music throughput his childhood and adult years. He was taught by his father and later by his brother Johann Christoph, and was a boy soprano in Luneberg. His education was acquired largely through independent studies. In 1703 he became a violinist in the private orchestra of the prince of Weimar but left within a year to become an organist at Arnstadt.
Bach went to Muhlhausen as an organist in 1707. There he married his cousin Maria Barbara Bach; together they had seven children. In 1708 he was made court organist and chamber musician at Weimar, and in 1714 he became concertmaster.
In 1720 Bach’s wife died, and in 1721 he married Anna Magdalena Wulken, a woman of considerable musical cultivation; they had 13 children. In 1723 he took the important post of music director of the church of St. Thomas, Leipzig, and of its choir school; he remained in Leipzig until his death.
In all his positions as choir director, Bach composed religious cantatas: a total of some 300, of which nearly 200 are in existence. Actually I think my church may have used one or more Bach’s cantatas recently. There are also over 30 secular cantatas. The bulk of his work is religious: he made four-part settings of 371 Lutheran chorales, also using many of them as the bases of organ preludes and choral works. He also composed an astonishing number of instrumental works, many of them designed for the instruction of his students. In his instrumental and choral works he perfected the art of polyphony, putting two melodies together unexpectedly, displaying an unmatched combination of inventiveness and control in his great, striding fugues.
At Kothen he concentrated on instrumental compositions, especially keyboard works: the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue; the English Suites; the French Suites; the Two-Part and Three-Part Inventions, written to teach his son Wilhelm Friedemann; and Book I of the celebrated Well-Tempered Clavier. He also wrote several unaccompanied violin sonatas and cello suites, and the Brandenburg Concertos, recognized as the best concerti grossi ever composed.
The St. John Passion was performed (1723) at Leipzig when Bach was a candidate for musical director at St. Thomas. His Magnificat was presented shortly after he assumed that post. Many more of his superb religious compositions followed: the St. Matthew Passion (1729), the Christmas Oratorio, the sonorous Mass in B Minor, and the six motets. The principal keyboard works of this period were Book II of The Well-Tempered Clavier and the four books of clavier pieces in the ClavierUbung, which includes: six partitas (1726-31); the Italian Concerto and the Partita in B Minor (1735); the Catechism Preludes, the Prelude and Fugue (St. Anne) in E Flat (1739), and four duets; and the Goldberg Variations (more formally Aria with Thirty Variations, 1742). His last notable compositions were the Musical Offering composed (1747) for Frederick the Great and The Art of the Fugue (1749).
During his lifetime, Bach was better known as an organist than as a composer. For decades after his death his works were neglected, but in the 19th century romantic composers such as Mendelssohn and Schumann recognized his genius. Since that time his reputation has grown steadily.
I listened to Five pieces of Bach’s work: Ava Maria, Minuet in G for the Harpsichord, Violin Concerto, Allegro Concerto #3, and Air in G for string.
Ava Maria, I believe is a religious symphony that is absolutely beautiful. I have heard many different renditions of Ava Maria and I have decided that Bach’s version is the greatest thus far. In the beginning of the song I hear violins and, I think, a harp. The two instruments give this piece a sense of, shall I say heavenly, beauty that is unparalled by even the greatest composers. I find it amazing that Bach was not renowned for his work as a composer during his lifetime.
Minuet in G for the Harpsichord was the second piece I listened to and, even though this piece may have been a great work for Bach, I am not overly fond of it. It may be that I am not fond of the harpsichord because it reminds me of an old music box that is on its last leg. I feel that this piece would be better used in old western tavern than a piece of classical listening.
Violin Concerto, the third piece I listened to, is fast and easy to listen to. It gets my head moving as if I am conducting it myself. That is a feeling a greatly enjoy because music has always been my passion. I may not be able to play any instruments but I love the sounds most instruments make, and this piece helps to feel that passion. It is a passionate piece, that much is certain, and it calls out to the listener. It makes the listener want more, and that, I believe, is what music is all about.
Allegro Concerto #3 is another passionate piece. It does not quite compare to Violin Concerto. I believe this is because Violin Concerto is louder and it feels more passionate. However, Allegro Concerto #3 is beautiful in its own right because it seems to hold a little less passion and a little more subtlety. It is fast but quiet and gives the listener a little bit of suspense.
The final piece I listened to was Air in G for String. A piece that I have heard many times before but have never really listened to. I must say that it is my favorite Bach piece. The contrast between the violin and cello gives this piece a romantic yet somewhat suspenseful aura. When I listen to it I picture Mother Nature in all of her splendor on the first day of spring. She is dancing among the trees that have seemed to die in their winter slumber and atop the grass that has browned beneath the snow. She begins her dance with a single sweep of her arms and so begins the spring. The trees begin to blossom, slowly at first, gradually taking on speed. She softly whispers her secrets to the flowers and they blossom excitedly as if begging to hear more. Mother Nature blows a kiss to her charges and the breeze from that kiss flows like water through the trees, flowers, and grass to spread the spring across the land. Again it is a beautiful piece, and one that will bring piece and serenity, and even a springtime beauty to almost anyone’s home.
In listening to these pieces I have decided to listen intently to more of Bach’s music. I never thought of Bach as anything more than a composer that I was going to have to learn about until now. His music touches me and even brings a smile to my face when I hear it. I now know the composer that will softly lull my children to sleep at night when they have trouble sleeping. I even listen to Bach in the morning, as his music gives a calm, and somehow more beautiful start to my day.
Johann Sebastian Bach Reference Music: History, Composers, And Performers, Biographies 3/15/04