Johann Sebastian Bach
1685-1750. German composer. Born in Eisenach, where he went to a school once attended by Luther, this greatest member of Germany's greatest musical family was grounded in the strict Lutheran orthodoxy to which he clung throughout his life. Orphaned at ten, he was taken to live with his brother, the organist at Ohrdruf. Here he was subjected to the Comenian principles of education and probably to Pietistic influences. At fifteen he fended for himself as choir boy and violinist and soon as church organist. At twenty-three he was court organist to the pious duke of Weimar. Here he met and absorbed the Italian concerto and operatic style, which he fused with his N German heritage of churchly choral and organ music.
For six years as Kapellmeister of the princely court at Köthen, his concern was secular chamber music that differed in function but not in essence from that of the church. Many a movement from works written here reappeared in later masterpieces refurbished with sacred words. From 1723 till his death he was cantor of the historic Thomasschule in Leipzig.
Bach was known to his own generation for his transcendent skill at the organ. The worth of his compositions, especially his choral ones, filled with intricate contrapuntal craftsmanship and baroque musical rhetoric, went unrecognized in an age of changing musical taste. They were, however, cherished and perpetuated by a small circle of pupils and connoisseurs. The Welltempered Clavier in particular profoundly influenced the great classical masters, Haydn,* Mozart,* and Beethoven.*
Bach was unquestionably the greatest composer of all time for the organ. His toccatas, preludes, and fugues, and over 100 pieces based on Lutheran chorales were conceived for various functions in the church. He composed five cycles of cantatas for the Sundays and feasts of the ecclesiastical year-about 300 in all, of which almost 200 survive. These were functional service music, related to the Gospel of the day. The Christmas Oratorio is a series of six such cantatas. Today they are largely relegated to the concert hall. The Mass in B minor and the St. Matthew Passion are his most monumental works. The revival of the latter in 1829 by Mendelssohn marked the beginning of a deep and continuing appreciation of Bach's significance as a sacred composer. Every major composer of sacred works since has been in varying degree his debtor.
See H.T. David and A. Mendel, The Bach Reader (1945); and K. Geiringer,, the Culmination of an Era (1966).