Bach Spark Notes

This essay has a total of 2760 words and 12 pages.

Bach

Johanna Sebastian Bach was a composer of the Baroque era, the most celebrated member of a
large family of northern German musicians. Although he was admired by his contemporaries
primarily as an outstanding harpsichordist, organist, and expert on organ building. Bach
is now generally regarded as one of the greatest composers of all time and is celebrated
as the creator of the Brandenburg Concertos, The Well-Tempered Clavier, the Mass in B
Minor, and numerous other masterpieces of church and instrumental music. Appearing at a
propitious moment in the history of music, Bach was able to survey and bring together the
principal styles, forms, and national traditions that had developed during preceding
generations and, by virtue of his synthesis, enrich them all.

J.S. Bach was born at Eisenach, Thuringia, on March 21, 1685, the youngest child of Johann
Ambrosius Bach and Elisabeth Lammerhirt. Ambrosius was a string player, employed by the
town council and the ducal court of Eisenach. Johann Sebastian started school in 1692 or
1693 and did well in spite of frequent absences. Of his musical education at this time,
nothing definite is known; however, he may have picked up the rudiments of string playing
from his father, and no doubt he attended the Georgen Church, where Johann Christoph Bach
was organist until 1703. This Christoph had been a pupil of the influential keyboard
composer, Johann Pachelbel and he apparently gave Johann Sebastian his first formal
keyboard lessons. The young Bach again did well at school, until in 1700 his voice secured
him a place in a select choir of poor boys at the school at the Michaels Church, Luneburg.
He seems to have returned to Thuringia in the late summer of 1702. By this time he was
already a reasonably proficient organist. His experience at Luneburg, if not at Ohrdruf,
had turned him away from the secular string-playing tradition, though not exclusively, a
composer and performer of keyboard and

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sacred music. The next few months are wrapped in mystery, but by March 4, 1703, he was a
member of the orchestra employed by Johann Ernst, Duke von Weimar. This post was a mere
stopgap; he probably already had his eye on the organ then being built at the New Church
in Arnstadt. When it was finished, he helped test the organ in August 1703 he was
appointed organist at the age of 18. Arnstadt documents imply that he had been court
organist at Weimar; this is incredible, though it is likely enough that he had
occasionally played there (Kirby 2).

In June 1707 Bach obtained a post at the Blasius Church in Muhlhausen in Thuringia. He
moved there soon after and married his cousin Maria Barbara Bach at Dornheim on October
17. At Muhlhausen things seem, for a time, to have gone more smoothly. He produced several
church cantatas at this time; all of these works are cast in a conservative mold, based on
biblical and chorale texts and displaying no influence of the "modern" Italian operatic
forms that were to appear in Bach's later cantatas. The famous organ Toccata and Fugue in
D Minor, written in the rhapsodic northern style, and the Prelude and Fugue in D Major may
also have been composed during the Muhlhausen period, as well as the organ Passacaglia in
C Minor (BWV 582), an early example of Bach's instinct for large-scale organization.
Cantata No. 71), God is my King, of Feb. 4, 1708, was printed at the expense of the city
council and was the first of Bach's compositions to be published. While at Muhlhausen,
Bach copied music to enlarge the choir library, tried to encourage music in the
surrounding villages, and was in sufficient favor to be able to interest his employers in
a scheme for rebuilding the organ. His real reason for resigning on June 25, 1708, is not
known. He himself said that his plans for a "church music" had been


3
hindered by conditions in Muhlhausen and that his salary was inadequate. It is generally
supposed that he had become involved in a theological controversy between his own pastor
Frohne and Archdeacon Eilmar of the Marien Church. Certainly, he was friendly with Eilmar,
who provided him with librettos and became godfather to Bach's first child; and it is
likely enough that he was not in sympathy with Frohne, who, as a Pietist, would have
frowned on elaborate church music. It is just as possible, however, that it was the dismal
state of musical life in Muhlhausen that prompted Bach to seek employment elsewhere. At
all events, his resignation was accepted, and shortly afterward he moved to Weimar, some
miles west of Jena on the Ilm River. He continued nevertheless to be on good terms with
Muhlhausen personalities, for he supervised the rebuilding of the organ, is supposed to
have inaugurated it on October 31, 1709, and composed a cantata for February 4, 1709,
which was printed but has disappeared (Schonberg 4).

Bach was, from the outset, court organist at Weimar and a member of the orchestra.
Encouraged by Wilhelm Ernst, he concentrated on the organ during the first few years of
his tenure. From Weimar, Bach occasionally visited Weissenfels; in February 1713 he took
part in a court celebration there that included a performance of his first secular
cantata, Hunt Cantata. Late in 1713 Bach had the opportunity of succeeding Friedrich
Wilhelm Zachow at the Liebfrauen Church, Halle; but the duke raised his salary, and he
stayed on at Weimar. On March 2, 1714, he became concertmaster, with the duty of composing
a cantata every month. Unfortunately, Bach's development cannot be traced in detail during
the vital years 1708-14, when his style underwent a profound change. There are too few
datable works from the series

4
of cantatas written in 1714-16. However, it is obvious that he had been influenced by the
new styles, and forms of the contemporary Italian Opera. His favorite forms appropriated
from the Italians were those based on refrain da capao schemes in which wholesale
repetition—literal or with modifications—of entire sections of a piece permitted him
to create coherent musical forms with much larger dimensions than had hitherto been
possible. These newly acquired techniques henceforth governed a host of Bach's arias and
concerto movements, as well as many of his larger fugues, and profoundly affected his
treatment of chorales (Kupferberg 3).

There, as musical director, he was concerned chiefly with chamber and orchestral music.
Even though some of the works may have been composed earlier and revised later, it was at
Kothen that the sonatas for violin and clavier and for viola da gamba and clavier and the
works for unaccompanied violin and cello were put into something like their present form.
The Brandenburg Concertos were finished by March 24, 1721; in the sixth concerto—so it
has been suggested—Bach bore in mind the technical limitations of the prince, who played
the gamba. Bach played the viola by choice; he liked to be "in the middle of the harmony."
He also wrote a few cantatas for the prince's birthday and other such occasions; most of
these seem to have survived only in later versions, adapted to more generally useful
words. The Well-Tempered Clavier, eventually consisting of two books, each of 24 preludes
and fugues in all keys and known as the Forty-eight. This remarkable collection
systematically explores both the potentials of a newly established tuning point. For the
first time in the history of keyboard music, made all the keys equally usable and the
possibilities for musical organization afforded by


5
the system of "functional tonality." Which is a kind of musical consolidated in the music
of the Italian concerto composers of the preceding generation and a system that was to
prevail for the next 200 years. At the same time, The Well-Tempered Clavier is a
compendium of the most popular forms and styles of the era: dance types, arias, motets,
concertos, etc., presented within the unified aspect of a single compositional technique;
the rigorously logical and venerable fugue. On December 3, 1721, Bach married Anna
Magdalena Wilcken, daughter of a trumpeter at Weissenfels. Apart from his first wife's
death, these first four years at Kothen were probably the happiest of Bach's life. He was
on the best terms with the prince, who was genuinely musical; and in 1730 Bach said that
he had expected to end his days there. But the prince married on December 11, 1721, and
conditions deteriorated. The princess described by Bach as "an amusa" required so much of
her husband's attention that Bach began to feel neglected. He also had to think of the
education of his elder sons, born in 1710 and 1714, and he probably began to think of
moving to Leipzig as soon as the cantorate fell vacant with the death of Johann Kuhnau on
June 5, 1722. Bach was so deeply committed to Leipzig that, although the princess had died
on April 4, he applied for permission to leave Kothen. This he obtained on April 13, and
on May 13 he was sworn in at Leipzig. He was appointed honorary musical director at
Kothen, and both he and Anna were employed there from time to time until the prince died,
on November 19, 1728 (Farb 1).

Bach's first official performance was on May 30, 1723, the first Sunday after Trinity
Sunday, with, Die Elenden sollen Essen. New works produced during this year include many


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cantatas and the Magnificent in its first version. The first half of 1724 saw the
production of the St. John Passion, which was subsequently revised. The total number of
cantatas produced during this ecclesiastical year was about 62, of which about 39 were new
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