Born into a well-connected musical family in 1685, Johann Sebastian Bach learned violin, harpsichord, and organ at a young age, first from his father, and then from his older brother Johann Christoph. The family was from Eisenach, a town in Thuringia in central Germany that was strongly associated with Martin Luther and the German Reformation. Bach absorbed the deep religious feeling of Eisenach, and would come to express it throughout his work.
Despite the early death of both parents, the young Bach was well positioned for a promising career. As a child, he received a broad music education with the support of his brother Johann Christoph. As an adolescent, Bach received a scholarship to sing with a choir in the northern German town of Lüneburg. At the age of 18, he became a court musician in Weimar, near his hometown. Then, within a few months, he took the post of organist with a church in nearby Arnstadt. Just a few years later, he moved again within the region – to the town of Mülhausen and another position as organist. Finally, in 1708, Bach was offered a prestigious post – concertmaster at the ducal court in Weimar, then among the most cultured in Europe.
This quick rise reveals two aspects of Bach’s personality. He was immensely talented, but apparently not always the most contented or cooperative employee! The historical record shows that conflicts often accompanied his sudden moves. In 1717, one such conflict led Bach to move from Weimar to a less sophisticated court, that of Prince Leopold von Anhalt-Köthen.
Bach’s new home was in the town of Köthen, somewhat distant from the region of his birth. He spent five years there, in what would prove to be a productive time. While in Köthen, for example, Bach wrote such masterworks as the Brandenberg Concertos and Well-Tempered Clavier.
In 1723, Bach accepted a position offered by the city council of Leipzig, an important commercial center in Saxony. Bach was appointed Cantor of Thomasschule, a leading educational institution, as well as Director of Music for two principal churches, St. Thomas and St. Nicholas. This role led Bach to create much of his extraordinary religious music. In 1733, Bach also accepted the commission as royal composer to the court of Augustus III, ruler of Saxony, Poland, and Lithuania. The composer enjoyed renown in Germany and beyond, but remained based in Leipzig until his death in 1750.
Bach’s reputation then fell into eclipse. To most listeners in the classical era, his contrapuntal rhythms seemed hopelessly out of date. Some composers – such as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Beethoven – did seek out and appreciate Bach’s music. However, in general, Bach was probably better remembered for having been an excellent organist, rather than for having been an excellent composer. (Bach was also remembered for his large family; he had married twice and fathered 20 children, some of whom also enjoyed notable careers in music.)
In the early romantic period, however, Bach’s work was rediscovered. For this, we owe thanks especially to Felix Mendelssohn and Louis Spohr, both of whom championed Bach’s music and brought it to wider audiences. It was soon recognized that much of Bach’s work – which had been created in various places and under various circumstances – was perilously close to being lost. The Bach Gesellschaft was formed in 1850, with the mission of finding, editing, and publishing the complete works of Bach.