Today Johann Sebastian Bach's name and music are known virtually around the world. Amazingly, during his lifetime he never traveled more than about 200 miles from the town of Eisenstadt where he was born.
Going back many generations, Bach's family tree was filled with so many musicians, that in his native region of Thuringia by the time little Johann was born the word "Bach" was simply used as a nickname for any "musician."
Bach and Handel were born within months of each other in 1685, in towns less than 80 miles apart.
Bach was a middle-class family man who never traveled. Handel roamed to Italy and England and died in London (a naturalized English citizen). The two men never met.
JS Bach was certainly a family man. He had 20 children, the largest family of any of the great composers. Nine of his children lived to adulthood, and several became renowned composers themselves.
In 1722 the Leipzig town council considered applicants for the important job of choir master. The City Council minutes read: "Since the best men are not available, mediocre musicians must be considered." And so they chose Bach.
For JS Bach, nothing in life, however mundane, was considered unspiritual. In a humorous poem about his beloved tobacco pipe, he wrote: "On land, on sea, at home, abroad, I puff my pipe and think of God."
In Bach's day a member of the Leipzig musicians' guild was called a "Stadtpeiffer" - town piper. Every one of these "union" members was expected to play violin, oboe, viola, cello, flute, horn, and trumpet.
JS Bach was an active music teacher, and he once gave some disarmingly direct advice to one pupil: "Just practice diligently and you will do very well. You have five fingers on each hand just as healthy as mine."
JS Bach once offered an organ student some remarkably simple advice. Organ playing he said, "...is nothing remarkable..., all one has to do is hit the right notes at the right time and the instrument plays itself."
Bach compared the playing of a certain bassoonist to the bleating of a nanny goat. When the player and five accomplices ambushed Bach in the night, Bach drew his ceremonial sword and they fought briefly. School authorities later cited Bach for failure to get along with his students. The students who threatened Bach's life received a mild reprimand.
Four of Bach's sons -- Carl Philipp Emanuel, Wilhelm Friedemann, Johann Christoph Friedrich, Johann Christian -- went on to significant musical careers.
Johann Sebastian Bach's compositions are filled with musical and graphic symbolism and numerology. Scholars believe he was simply amusing himself with his own private word and number games even as he was composing his greatest masterpieces.
Of all Bach's great vocal and choral compositions, only one - an early cantata - was actually printed and published during his lifetime. All Bach's other vocal works existed only in handwritten manuscripts in his own study.
Bach was a busy man all his life: organist, choir master, music teacher, court musician, and instructor at a boys school, father of 20 children. The mystery is how he found time to compose music at all, much less create great musical masterpieces.
Johann Sebastian Bach probably was unaware of the his monumental importance to future generations. Although he wrote much music, he published very little of it.
"B-A-C-H" In mystical numerology, B is 2, A is 1, C is 3 and H is 8. The total is 14. 14, and its mirror, 41, were among Bach's favorite numbers. Scholars have found these numbers hidden countless times within the notes and musical structure of Bach's music.
Bach worked for the City of Leipzig for more than a quarter of a century. Yet after he died the town council voted to reduce the pension to his widow, Anna Magdalena. She died in abject poverty 10 years ten years later, and was buried in a pauper's grave.
JS Bach's son Johann Christoph was a composer who went to Italy to study Italian opera. As Giovanni Bach, he was organist of Milan Cathedral for two years. He then went to England where he was know as John Bach, and in 1764 gave music lessons to Mozart.
After JS Bach's death, all his original musical manuscripts were divided among his family. Some of the music was sold, much of it lost. Today we probably have less than half of all the music Bach actually composed during his lifetime.
Bach was buried in Leipzig following his death in 1750. His remains were exhumed in 1894 by Professor Wilhelm His for "scientific" study. And it was concluded, among other things, that Bach's height was 5' 7 1/2", and his ears were exceptionally suited to music!
Johann Sebastian Bach's religious devotion, artistic discipline, and musical inspiration gave the world a musical and artistic legacy which Richard Wagner described as "the most stupendous mirace in all of music."
"Bach" is the German word for a little stream or brook. Of Johann Sebastian Bach, Ludwig van Beethoven said: "His name should not be Brook, it should be Ocean."
© Copyright 1999 David Gordon
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