The art of music has produced many great composers but only one Johann Sebastian Bach. Asked on a final exam to sum up the composer's accomplishments, a student in a music history class scribbled: "Bach was a master of the passion, and the father of 20 children." True, though not in the way it sounds. Born in 1685 in the Thuringian town of Eisenach (the same town in which Martin Luther had been raised two centuries earlier), Bach belonged to the most musical family in German history--he was the descendant of four generations of professional musicians. He received an unusually thorough education, covering such subjects as Latin, history, mathematics, and theology. As a child, Bach was a good singer, but it was only in his teens that he developed into a capable instrumentalist. In composition he was largely self-taught.
After completing his studies in Lueneburg, not far from Hamburg, Bach held positions as a church organist in several small German towns. In 1705, he made a pilgrimage to Luebeck, in the north of Germany, to hear Dietrich Buxtehude, the greatest organist of the day and a composer whose music was to have a profound effect itself. Bach's own fame as a virtuoso was beginning to spread, and by the end of his decade of service as court organist and concertmaster in Weimar (1708 to 1717), he had secured a reputation as the greatest organist and improviser in Germany. Many of Bach's most celebrated pieces for organ were written during his Weimar sojourn.
Some of Bach's happiest years were spent at the court of Coethen (1717 to 1723), where Bach's young patron, Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Coethen, a fine musician himself, treated him with respect and remarkable generosity. The bulk of his output consisted of chamber and instrumental scores for the prince's music-hungry court. It included such stellar achievements as the Sonatas and Partitas for Violin, the Suites for Cello, and the Brandenburg Concertos.
"Organ Toccatas & Passacaglia"
"Complete Sonatas & Partitas for Solo Violin"
Also available here
"The 6 Cello Suites" (performed by Pablo Casals)
"Brandenburg Concertos no 1-6"
In 1722 the death of Johann Kuhnau left vacant the position of cantor at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, that city's most important church and musical center. Of the six applicants for the job, Bach was neither the most famous nor the town council's first choice. But by default, he was eventually offered the job, making him responsible for all music related to the church, and in 1723, he took up residence in Leipzig.
Bach remained the cantor at the Thomaskirche until his death in 1750, composing five complete annual cycles of sacred cantatas, other sacred works--including such masterpieces as his Magnificat, the St. Matthew Passion, and the B-Minor Mass--numerous secular cantatas, and a vast amount of keyboard and instrumental music as well. In April of 1729, shortly after the first performance of the St. Matthew Passion, Bach was offered the directorship of the Leipzig Collegium Musicum, an association of professional and student musicians that gave regular public concerts. Founded by Telemann in 1704, it enjoyed an excellent reputation for the quality of its performances. After six years of occupying himself almost exclusively with sacred composition and working with limited forces to get his music performed, Bach was eager for the chance to return to the sphere of orchestral composition and to work, as he had in Coethen, with topflight instrumentalists. Among the works he wrote for this group were the second and third of his four orchestral suites. He withdrew from the Collegium in 1741; during the next few years, he completed the score of the B-Minor Mass, wrote the Goldberg Variations, and undertook two remarkable series of contrapuntal studies that summarized his knowledge of the art and theory of music: "A Musical Offering" and "The Art of the Fugue."
"St Matthew Passion"
"Messe en si"
"4 Orchestral Suites" available here
"Goldberg Variations" (performed by Glenn Gould) available here
"The Art of Fugue, Musical Offering" available here
"Die Kunst der Fuge" available here
Bach had a uniquely inspired way of suiting the action to the word in his vocal settings. And he was equally brilliant when it came to composing for instruments alone: he understood their capabilities and never failed to make what he wrote for them substantive and virtuosic at the same time. He was a master of every musical idiom known in his day, from intricate 16th-century polyphony, already considered archaic, right up to the "gallant" style that began to sweep Europe in the 1730s. In spite of this eclectic reach, he seemed to many of his contemporaries to be old-fashioned, if not completely out of touch. Today, we can see that he was simply marching to the beat of a different drummer. His music reveals him as both the most profound summarizer and the most brilliant innovator of his era--a composer whose ability to synthesize elements of different styles into a magnificently rich personal idiom set him apart from all his peers. And his influence as a master of counterpoint and large-scale musical structure extended to nearly all the great composers of the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, including Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, and Shostakovich.