If Johann Sebastian Bach had a destiny, it was written on a stave: the last of seven children – seven, like the musical notes – and a descendant of a 150-year lineage of musicians, when little Johann was born in Eisenach, Germany, in 1685, he was literally surrounded by music experts and melomaniacs. His father Johann Ambrosius Bach was a Stadtpfeifer, a town musician, his brothers, uncles and friends were accomplished performers: the child grew up on ‘bread and notes’, naturally learning musicality and his first lessons in violin and harpsichord, areas he would become an absolute master in.
At the age of 10, the death of both parents accelerated the fundamental traits of his personality: firm, reliable, pragmatic. Taken in by an older brother, he began to slowly build up what would become an immense musical culture, reading and rehearsing the many scores available in the house. Allowed or not: it is said that he would use the nights to steal the ‘forbidden’ scores – those that his brother considered too complex for him – and study them on his own.
Dedication and method helped him to continue his musical studies despite his financial straits: at the age of 15, while in grammar school, he managed to join the poor boys’ choir of the Michaeliskirche in Lüneburg, where he studied 16th and 17th century music. After finishing his studies, as he could not afford university, he began his career as a musician, first as a violinist at the court of Saxony-Weimar, then, in 1703, as an organist in the church of Arnstadt. He was 18 years old.
His methodical and thoughtful approach never stifled his burning passion for music, which he lived in an all-encompassing and uncompromising manner. Once, in disgust, he called one of the church’s instrumentalists a ‘Zippel Fagottist’ (“third-rate bassoon player”), coming to blows. On his feet, he traveled almost 400 km to attend a concert by Dietrich Buxethude, the most famous organist of the time. On his return to work, after a leave of four weeks that turned into four months (and a reprimand), he is a different musician: “After this trip, he performed astonishing variations on chorales and mixed in unfamiliar harmonies to such an extent that they confused the faithful,” his superiors noted. The more famous he became, the more indifferent he was towards his audience.
Two marriages and 20 children kept him rigorous, measured, methodical, and regular in his lifestyle as a capable family man, which made him subvert even the traditional view of the creative artist: instead of ‘genius and excess’, Bach preferred ‘genius and rule’, taking on jobs that were sometimes uninspiring or unfit for his genius in order to guarantee a steady income for his family while living a life dedicated to music.
But rigour is above all the stylistic hallmark of his music, characterised by the meticulous study of every detail at the harmonic, technical, rhythmic and expressive level. His writing is extremely detailed and full of flourishes but at the same time clear and clean. His compositions are as beautiful and engaging as works of art that are accessible to all, and at the same time as intellectually cultured and profound as philosophical works.
His musical pursuit went hand in hand with the search for commitments that would suit him. From 1707 to 1717, employed as concert master at the ducal court of Wilhelm Ernst of Saxony-Weimar, he delved into the Italian style of Corelli, Albinoni and Vivaldi and was absorbed by fugues. From 1717 to 1722, when he was chapel master at the court of Prince Leopold in Köthen, he composed the 6 Brandenburg Concertos, numerous sonatas for instruments and solos and suites, as well as writing the first book of the monumental ‘The Well-Tempered Clavier’.
Neither assignments nor fame made him any less impetuous. When he presented his resignation to the Duke of Saxony-Weimar in 1717, tempers became so heated that he ended up in prison for four weeks. So what does Bach do? He used his time in jail to write organ preludes! And when, in the same year, he was challenged to an organ battle with French organ star Louis Marchand, his strategy was simple: annihilate his opponent. When it is his turn to play, Bach played from memory the theme his opponent had just played, including the variations, and added twelve more difficult and brilliant variations. Game-set-match: Marchand could only leave for France the next morning, with nothing more to add.
In 1723, Prince Leopold married a woman who did not like music and threatened to limit his creativity. Bach was unwilling to tolerate this, so he packed his bags again and took the post of Kantor at the Thomasschule in Leipzig. The new position is modest and monotonous, not worthy of his ambition or fame: as a simple employee, he had to produce new pieces every week and teach Latin to the boys of the St. Thomas school. Underestimated by the rector and the local authorities, he spent 25 years living in conflict, fulfilled only by his family and music.
However, the Leipzig period was fruitful: entirely focused on sacred music, it saw the production of almost 300 religious pieces, including absolute masterpieces like the Masses and oratorios of extraordinary beauty such as the Magnificat and Christmas cantatas, the Easter Oratorio and the Passion according to Matthew for Good Friday. Works influenced by his studies in theology and by an intense religious feeling.
Regarded as the most virtuoso of organ virtuosos, in 1747 he received an invitation from King Frederick II of Prussia, one of his most ardent fans. Received at the court in Potsdam, he was challenged to invent a fugue on the spot and Bach showed off his genius, improvising for hours on the organ and harpsichord. Back home, he reworked these improvisations and presented them to the king under the title ‘Musical Offering’.
Suddenly, the eyesight problems he had suffered from all his life grew worse. Unable to work, he decided to undergo eye surgery. But he fell into the hands of a charlatan and the situation went from bad to worse: rendered blind and debilitated by strong medication, as he dictated The Art of Fugue to his son-in-law Altnikol, Bach succumbed to a post-operative infection that led to his death.
On July 28, 1750, the world lost one of the greatest composers of all time, the originator of a synthesis of the German musical tradition from the Renaissance to the Baroque and the forerunner, to some extent, of all future developments in music. An authentic genius who was able to grasp and utilise every resource of the musical language that was available at his time, creating a totally new and rich way of making music, of boundless communicativeness and emotion.
A Maestro who was called ‘the greatest’ by the greatest: from composers such as Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann and Rossini to the guitar heroes of the past and the giants of rock, progressive, psychedelic, jazz and pop music such as Simon & Garfunkel, the Doors, the Beatles, the Beach Boys, Procol Harum, ELP, Mike Oldfield, Keith Jarrett, Charlie Parker…
A descendant of a long genealogy of musicians, the ancestor of generations of virtuosi, an inspiration to artists for centuries to come, Johann Sebastian Bach was the father of all harmonies.