Emma has taught college Music courses and holds a master's degree in Music History and Literature.
Introduction: The End of an Era
'The end of an era!' That might be my melodramatic reaction if the local coffee shop discontinued my favorite brew. But when the composer Johann Sebastian Bach died in 1750, it really was the end of an era: music historians use Bach's death in 1750 to mark the end of the Baroque period in music. The Baroque was an exciting time when musicians wanted to express passionate emotion, while also exploring complex, virtuosic musical techniques. People cherish Bach's music today, not just because it's intricate and beautiful, but because he brought the unique, Baroque brand of musical style to a spectacular height.
Bach's Early Career: A Brilliant Young Organist
Johann Sebastian Bach was born in 1685 in a German town called Eisenach. His family was locally famous for producing six generations of professional musicians. From childhood, Bach was trained in the family trade of music. After mastering the harpsichord and pipe organ, Bach worked as a church organist in the towns of Arnstadt and Mühlhausen and began composing a huge repertoire of organ music. During this time, he also married his first wife, Maria Barbara Bach. The couple had seven children before Maria Barbara's tragic early death, and several of their sons became famous composers.
Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor is a great example of the over-the-top music that this young organist created to show off his chops. This piece shows how Bach was already mastering the challenging technique of counterpoint, which was very popular in the Baroque. Counterpoint is a musical texture with multiple simultaneous melodies: in the Toccata and Fugue, one can hear the organist playing many tunes at the same time!
Bach's Middle Career: A Court Composer
Starting in 1708, Bach began working as a court musician, first for the Duke of Weimar, and later for Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen. As a court musician, Bach provided musical entertainment in the courts of aristocrats - basically, his job was to be a human iPod for the wealthy social classes that could afford to enjoy music in their homes. In Anhalt-Cöthen, Bach composed music for a talented group of musicians with whom he worked - one of whom was the singer Anna Magdalena Wilke, who became his second wife.
Perhaps the most famous pieces from Bach's time as a court musician are his Brandenburg Concertos. These are a set of six works for orchestra, featuring dazzling instrumental solos. The opening of Bach's Brandenburg Concerto no. 2 is a great example of the energetic music Bach wrote for his orchestra at Anhalt-Cöthen. This piece also uses counterpoint, as a trumpet, violin, flute, and other instruments weave many jaunty melodies together.
Bach's Late Career: Cantor of St. Thomas Church in Leipzig
In 1723, Bach began the final stage of his career: his position as Cantor (that is, Music Director) at the St. Thomas Church and School in the German city of Leipzig. In Leipzig, Bach's job was to teach children at the parish school, and oversee the city's church music. It was an exhausting job, especially in the first several years, when Bach wrote new church music for services every single week.
Bach was a devout Lutheran, and he liked to make his church music both moving and relatable by interweaving his compositions with familiar Lutheran hymns, called chorales. Bach's listeners had known these chorales since their childhood, so hearing the familiar tunes helped them feel a personal connection with the music - just like you might relate to a movie that quotes one of your favorite pop songs in its soundtrack. For example, Bach used the traditional chorale 'O Sacred Head, Now Wounded' in one of his most famous church pieces, his monumental St. Matthew Passion. This is an epic work for choir, soloists and orchestra, which uses dramatic music to tell the story of the suffering and death of Jesus.
But Bach didn't just compose church music during his time in Leipzig. He also led a group of musicians in his free time at a local establishment called Zimmermann's Coffeehouse. One famous piece he wrote for Zimmermann's was a work for singers and orchestra called the Coffee Cantata. Telling the hilarious story of a teenage girl who defies her father by refusing to give up coffee, the Coffee Cantata shows that Bach could rock the indie music scene with the best of them.
Bach's Late Music: The Height of the Baroque
Late in his life, Bach composed several grand pieces that summarized his approach to music. His Mass in B minor was one of the last pieces he completed. In this large choral work, Bach gathered together many of the most important musical techniques and instruments of his time, creating both a gallery of Baroque musical ideas and a personal expression of faith. Bach combined musical emotion and intricate technique in countless moods throughout his Mass in B minor: including a joyful, dancelike section entitled 'Osanna in excelsis,' and its finale, the sweeping, powerful 'Dona nobis pacem.'
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) was a composer of the Baroque period. He worked as a church musician and a court musician, and composed many works for organ and other instruments, as well as sacred choral works. He was a master of Baroque techniques such as counterpoint, and after Bach passed away in 1750 his music would come to symbolize the height of the Baroque for many listeners.
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