Over the next few weeks, we’ll be looking at unique moments in the lives of several key composers in musicology. These moments in time are to make the composers a bit more approachable and real to students (and some teachers) who may be a little leery of getting involved with classical music because they feel intimidated by it. We need to recognize that these composers were real people who faced hardships, worked diligently, and had very personal reasons for composing the music they did. Understanding a bit more about their lives makes their music even richer and more enjoyable.
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
J.S. Bach was from a large family of musicians, and passed along that love for music and composing to his own children. He had twenty children, so he definitely did his part to continue the musical legacy. Typically, he is referred to as J.S. Bach or as Sebastian because within the Bach family there were fifty-three individuals with the name Johann. In his own family of twenty children, five of his sons had that same first name, and two of his daughters were named Johanna! His early career was devoted to working as an organist, and he later served in the courts of the Grand Duke of Weimar and young Prince Leopold in Germany. In his final years of work, he was employed as the cantor at the St. Thomas Choir School, in Leipzig. This responsibility also included supplying music for the five principal churches in the area.
While he wrote music for nearly every genre of his time, because of his involvement in so many churches, his choral music production is unrivaled. He had to compose new music for the churches each week. J.S. Bach’s Lutheran background influenced much of his writing, and he often used specific selections of Scripture to carry his musical theme. He wrote nearly three hundred cantatas (choral works of some length that usually include solo voices and instrumental accompaniments), plus numerous masses, oratorios, and passions (musical settings of biblical texts revealing the life of Christ up to the crucifixion).
J.S. Bach had large hands, which could stretch across twelve notes on a clavier or keyboard. He was also revolutionary in performing running passages or scales with his three middle fingers, something that had never been tried before. Actually, his abilities as an organist were better known than his work as a composer during his lifetime. It is said that Bach would even use a stick in his mouth to reach certain notes on the organ’s keyboard that he couldn’t otherwise reach with his hands.
While he wrote more than one thousand works, 75% of which were for church worship services, only ten of J.S. Bach’s compositions were ever published in his lifetime! Now, however, he is considered the “Father of Modern Music” because of his influence on other composers such as Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Chopin, Schumann, and Brahms. Furthermore, Bach’s works are available throughout the solar system – literally. In 1977, the Voyager spacecraft was launched deep into our solar system. Included in that spacecraft was a gold-plated record on which three of Bach’s pieces are recorded, and the very first communication on the record is Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 2.
Want to learn more about Johann Sebastian Bach? Try the wonderful family read-aloud Sebastian Bach: The Boy from Thuringia, by Opal Wheeler and Sybil Deucher.