Johann Sebastian Bach: Biography, Music & Facts

Instructor: Emma Riggle

Emma has taught college Music courses and holds a master's degree in Music History and Literature.

In this lesson you will learn about composer Johann Sebastian Bach, one of the most prominent figures in music's Baroque period. Read about the music he wrote, and why his works have fascinated generations of listeners.

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

Bach Playing the Organ
Bach playing the organ

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

St. Thomas Church, Leipzig
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.

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