johann sebastian bach was better known as a virtuoso organist than as a composer in his day. his sacred music, his works for organ and choral, and other instrumental music had an enthusiasm and an apparent freedom that concealed an immense rigor. Bach’s use of counterpoint was brilliant and innovative, and the immense intricacies of his compositional style, often including religious and numerological symbols that seemed to fit neatly into a deep puzzle of special codes, still amaze musicians today. many consider him the greatest composer of all time.
bach was born in eisenach in 1685. his father, johann ambrosius, a court trumpeter in the service of the duke of eisenach, taught him to play the violin and harpsichord. Young Johann was not yet ten years old when his father died, leaving him an orphan. he was taken in by his newly married older brother, johann christoph, who lived in ohrdruf. Because of his excellent singing voice, Bach obtained a position at the Michaelis Monastery in Lüneberg in 1700. His voice changed shortly thereafter, but he remained an instrumentalist. After taking a brief position in Weimar in 1703 as a violinist, Bach became organist at the Neue Kirche in Arnstadt (1703-1707). his relationship with the church council was tenuous as the young musician often shied away from his responsibilities, preferring to practice the organ instead. One account describes a four-month leave of absence granted to Bach, to travel to Lubeck where he would become acquainted with the music of Dietrich Buxtehude. he returned to arnstadt much later than expected and to the dismay of the council. he later served briefly at st. Blasius in Mühlhausen as organist, beginning in June 1707, and married his cousin, Maria Barbara Bach, that autumn. Bach composed his famous Toccata and Fugue in D minor (bwv 565) and his first cantatas while in Mühlhausen, but it quickly outgrew the musical resources of the city. He then took a position for the Duke of Sachsen-Weimar in 1708, serving as court organist and playing in the orchestra, eventually becoming his leader in 1714. He wrote many organ compositions during this period, including his Orgel- büchlein. Due to politics between the duke and his officials, Bach left Weimar and took a position in December 1717 as Kapellmeister in Cöthen. In 1720, Bach’s wife died suddenly, leaving him with four children (three others had died in infancy). Shortly thereafter, he met his second wife, the soprano Anna Magdalena Wilcke, whom he married in December 1721. She would have 13 children, though only five would survive childhood. the six brandenburg concertos (bwv 1046-51), among many other secular works, date from his cöthen years. Bach became cantor of the Thomas School in Leipzig in May 1723 and held the position until his death. It was in Leipzig that he composed most of his religious and secular cantatas. Bach ultimately became dissatisfied with this position, not only because of its meager financial rewards, but also because of its burdensome duties and inadequate facilities. He therefore took on other projects, most notably the directorship of the city’s collegium musicum, an ensemble of professional and amateur musicians who gave weekly concerts, in 1729. He also became music director of the Dresden court in 1736. in the service of frederick augustus ii; although his duties were vague and seemingly few, he allowed her the freedom to compose whatever she wanted. Bach began making trips to Berlin in the 1740s, not least because his son Carl Philipp Emanuel served as court musician there. In May 1747, the composer was warmly received by King Frederick II of Prussia, for whom he wrote the gloriously abstruse musical offering (BWV 1079). Among Bach’s last works is his Mass in B minor from 1749. Beset by diabetes, he died on July 28, 1750.