Johann Sebastian Bach’s Life and Legacy: One of the Most Influential Musicians Ever

Byvu lita

Jul 29, 2023

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) is one of the most influential musicians of all times – in 2011, the New York Times named him the most important composer in the history of music. Although the story of his life still holds some white spots, his life and legacy are being kept alive – especially in Leipzig, where he served as Thomaskantor for 27 years.

A life for music

Bach came from the largest family of musicians in music history, with well over 100 musical family members documented. Music was always present and performed at annual family reunions and large family gatherings. In such a context, this Wedding Quodlibet BWV 524, a satirical collage of various songs, must have been composed by Bach at the age of about 22. Bach developed his own personal style early on, among other stations while working in Weimar, Köthen and eventually Leipzig.

“I was obliged to be industrious; whoever is equally industrious will succeed equally well.” (Johann Sebastian Bach)

Bach spent the first few years of his childhood in Eisenach, where his father Johann Ambrosius was the town musician director.

Eisenach was the home of the Dukes of Saxe-Eisenach and had about 6,000 residents at the time. Following his parents’ death, Bach left the town in 1695 and from then on lived with his older brother in Ohrdruf.

Bach & friends, Weimar 1708-1717 — California Bach Society

Bach was made organist at the Weimar court in 1708. In 1714, the Duke promoted him to concertmaster, which required him to compose one cantata each month for the court chapel service.

In Weimar, a scholar of the Bach Archive made the most spectacular Bach discovery of the last few decades. In a collection of the Herzogin Anna Amalia Bibliothek that had previously remained unnoticed by Bach researchers, the scholar discovered a hitherto unknown work in 2005: a birthday aria that Bach had composed for the Weimar Duke in 1713.

“He was a gracious Prince, who both loved and knew music.” (Johann Sebastian Bach on Prince Leopold)

In Köthen, Bach had reached the highest stage in his career. As the Kapellmeister, music director to the princely court of the young, music-loving Leopold, he could freely work on his music in an inspiring and creative environment from 1717 to 1723.

But he was also destined to experience the worst event in his life in Köthen. In 1720, his first wife Maria Barbara died while Bach was on a trip for work. The following year he married court singer Anna Magdalena.

As Thomaskantor and music director of the city of Leipzig, Bach was responsible for the music performances in the Leipzig churches. He composed most of the pieces himself, with older members of the St. Thomas Choir assisting him in finishing the vocal performance parts and during rehearsals. Researching manuscripts by the St. Thomas Choir members helps us today to more accurately date Bach’s works.

Many of the original vocal performance parts remained in St. Thomas School after Bach’s death. In 1951, they were donated to the Bach Archive to be stored permanently.

The autograph scores which served as templates for the vocal performance parts were often hastily composed by Bach. Crossed-out sections and corrections give Bach researchers insight into the creative process behind the compositions. After Bach’s death, his scores were divided among his sons and eventually released across the world.

In 2016, the Bach Archive was first able to purchase the cantata autograph “O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort” [O eternity, thou word of thunder] BWV 20—after it had traveled from Hamburg to Berlin, Leipzig, Frankfurt, New York, and London—from the Basel Paul-Sacher Stiftung.

“Here the authorities are odd and little interested in music” (Johann Sebastian Bach)

In August 1730, as a result of an ongoing dispute with the Leipzig City Council and repeated interventions from the Town Hall into the cantor’s responsibilities, Bach wrote his famous “Draft of a well-appointed church music”. With this memorandum, the Thomaskantor wanted to show the city council the consequences of the current anti-music school policy.

Effective cultural policy decisions to fill vacant places in the St. Thomas Choir boarding school would lead to increasing member shortages for cantata performances. Bach complained about this situation, which he thought was unsustainable, and made suggestions for improvement.

From 1726, Bach published his compositions for piano and organ in several parts as a “clavier exercise”. In 1741, the fourth and final part appeared in the Goldberg Variations.

The link between this work and Bach’s pupil Johann Gottlieb Goldberg can be traced back to an anecdote from Johann Nikolaus Forkel. In his biography of Bach written in 1802 he states that Goldberg had to play variations for his employer Hermann Carl von Keyserlingk, the Russian ambassador at the Dresden court, each night “for restlessness”.

“What I have to say about Bach’s lifework: Listen, play, love, worship and – shut up!” (Albert Einstein)

Through The Art of Fugue, Bach wanted to establish his musical legacy. Today, the work is still famous for having the greatest set of counterpoints in music history.

He had even started preparing for the printing of the work and first rounds of corrections himself. However, after Bach’s death, the work had to finally be printed by his son Carl Philipp Emanuel. The work was published in the spring of 1751. A second edition followed as early as 1752.

If Johann Sebastian Bach has shaped the evolution of classical music like hardly any other composer, no painting has shaped our modern Bach picture as much as the portrait Elias Gottlob Haußmann created of the Thomaskantor. There are two originals of the portrait, both of which are located in Leipzig. They show the only authentic representation of the musician. Bach presents himself with a serious look and shows the viewer a sheet of music. It carries a canon in the strict contrapuntal style that identifies him as a learned musician.

The center of Bach’s life and work was St. Thomas Square in Leipzig.

St. Thomas School, which adjoined the church on the left, not only included classrooms and rehearsal rooms for the St. Thomas choir but also the Thomaskantor residence. This is where Bach lived with his family, was visited by musicians from all over, and died on July 28, 1750.

St. Thomas Church is now the center of the Leipzig Bach preservation efforts.

In St. Thomas Church, Bach’s works are performed by the St. Thomas Choir in weekly motets and by international artists during the annual Bach Festival.

290 years ago: Bach becomes cantor of St. Thomas′ Church | Music | DW ...

The old St. Thomas School (including Bach’s residence) was demolished in 1902. A Bach monument has stood in its place in the center of St. Thomas Church square since 1908, created by Carl Seffner.

For Bach’s birthday on March 21, Leipzig elementary school children meet here each year to sing a birthday canon together. They then cut the birthday cake.

The Leipzig Bach Archive

Opposite St. Thomas Church and Bach monument, the Bach Archive Leipzig is situated. As the world’s pre-eminent centre of Bach scholarship its purpose is to research the life, work and influence of the Bach family of musicians, to preserve their heritage and to communicate it to a general public. The scientific work of the Bach Archive is the basis for the Bach Museum’s exhibitions and shapes the annual Bach Festival and the biennial Bach Competition.

Oldest Bach manuscripts discovered | News, Sports, Jobs - Lawrence ...

The greatest treasure of the Bach Archive are the 44 sets of original performance parts, which his widow Anna Magdalena transferred to the Thomasschule shortly after his death. Today the precious originals are kept in an air-conditioned vault in the Bach archive and made available for research.

The research database Bach digital offers access to Bach’s manuscripts for everyone. High-resolution images allow scholars and Bach enthusiasts worldwide to view the autographs in detail. Musicians can download, print and play from digital reproductions of Bach’s originals.

Bringing research to life

Scientists examine Bach’s paper types on special light tables and investigate every aspect of his handwriting in detailed forensic work.

You can experience the researchers’ working method for yourself in the Bach Museum research laboratory. By analyzing manuscripts, paper types, and watermarks, we can often accurately date the origins of Bach’s works.

Making research audible

The work of the Bach scholars leads time and again to new insights into the sound and form of Bach’s works – this is where science happens that can be heard.

Every year in June, Bach admirers from all over the world come to Leipzig for the Bach Festival. Taking place over ten days with more than 100 concerts, Bach’s works are performed at the original venues for which they once were written. The festival is a celebration of a composer so invested in his craft he was able to create timeless compositions that have captured audiences to this day.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *