Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), German musical composer.

The Bach family was of importance in the history of music for nearly two hundred years. Four branches of it were known at the beginning of the 16th century, and in 1561 we hear of Hans Bach of Wechmar who is believed to be the father Family. of Veit Bach (born about 1555). The family genealogy, drawn up by J. Sebastian Bach himself and completed by his son Philipp Emanuel, describes Veit Bach as the founder of the family, a baker and a miller, "whose zither must have sounded very pretty among the clattering of the mill-wheels." His son, Hans Bach, "der Spielmann," is the first professional musician of the family. Of Hans's large family the second son, Christoph, was the grandfather of Sebastian Bach. Another son, Heinrich, of Arnstadt, had two sons, Johann Michael and Johann Christoph, who are among the greatest of J. S. Bach's forerunners, Johann Christoph being now supposed (although this is still disputed) to be the author of the splendid motet, Ich lasse dich nicht ("I wrestle and pray"), formerly ascribed to Sebastian Bach. Another descendant of Veit Bach, Johann Ludwig, was admired more than any other ancestor by Sebastian, who copied twelve of his church cantatas and sometimes added work of his own to them.

The Bach family never left Thuringia until the sons of Sebastian went into a more modern world. Through all the misery of the peasantry at the period of the Thirty Years' War this clan maintained its position and produced musicians who, however local their fame, were among the greatest in Europe. So numerous and so eminent were they that in Erfurt musicians were known as "Bachs," even when there were no longer any members of the family in the town. Sebastian Bach thus inherited the artistic tradition of a united family whose circumstances had deprived them of the distractions of the century of musical fermentation which in the rest of Europe had destroyed polyphonic music.

Johann Sebastian Bach was baptized at Eisenach on the 23rd Biography. of March 1685. His parents died in his tenth year, and his elder brother, Johann Christoph, organist at Ohrdruf, took charge of him and taught him music. The elder brother is said to have been jealous of Sebastian's talent, and to have forbidden him access to a manuscript volume of works by Froberger, Buxtehude and other great organists. Every night for six months Sebastian got up, put his hand through the lattice of the bookcase, and copied the volume out by moonlight, to the permanent ruin of his eyesight (as is shown by all the extant portraits of him at a later age and by the blindness of his last years). When he had finished, his brother discovered the copy and took it away from him. In 1700 Sebastian, now fifteen and thrown on his own resources by the death of his brother, went to Lüneburg, where his beautiful soprano voice obtained him an appointment at the school of St Michael as chorister. He seems, however, to have worked more at instrumental than at vocal music. Apart from the choristers' routine, his position provided only for his general education, and we know little about his definite musical instructors.

In any case he owed his musical development mainly to his own incessant study of classical and contemporary composers, such as Frescobaldi (c. 1587), Caspar Kerl (1628-1693), Buxtehude, Froberger, Muffat the elder, Pachelbel and probably Johann Joseph Fux (1660-1741), the author of the Gradus ad Parnassum on which all later classical composers were trained. A prettier and no less authentic story than that of his brother's forbidden organ-volume tells how, on his return from one of the many holiday expeditions which Bach made to Hamburg on foot to hear the great Dutch organist Reinken, he sat outside an inn longing for the dinner he could not afford, when two herring-heads were flung out of the window, and he found in each of them a ducat with which he promptly paid his way, not home, but back to Hamburg. At Hamburg, also, Keiser was laying the foundations of German opera on a splendid scale which must have fired Bach's imagination though it never directly influenced his style. On the other hand Keiser's church music was of immense importance in his development. In Celle the famous Hofkapelle brought the influence of French music to bear upon Bach's art, an influence which inspired nearly all his works in suite-form and to which his many autograph copies of Couperin's music bear testimony.

Indeed, there is no branch of music, from Palestrina onwards, conceivably accessible in Bach's time, of which we do not find specimens carefully copied in his own handwriting. On the other hand, when Bach, at the age of nineteen, became organist at Arnstadt, he found Lübeck within easy distance, and there, in October 1705, he went to hear Buxtehude, whose organ works show so close an affinity to Bach's style that only their lack of coherence as wholes reveals to the attentive listener that with all their nobility they are not by Bach himself. Bach's enthusiasm for Buxtehude caused him to outstay his leave by three months, and this, together with his habit of astonishing the congregation by the way he harmonized the chorales got him into trouble. But he was already too great an ornament to be lightly dismissed; and though his answers to the complaints of the authorities (every word of which makes amusing reading in the archives of the church) were spirited rather than satisfactory, and the consistorium had to add to their complaints the grave scandal of his allowing a "strange maiden" to sing in the church,[1] Bach was able to maintain his position at Arnstadt until he obtained the organistship of St Blasius in Mühlhausen in 1707. Here he married his cousin, easily identified with the "strange maiden" of Arnstadt; and here he wrote his first great church cantatas, Aus der Tiefe, Gott ist mein König and Gottes Zeit.

Bach's mastery of the keyboard attracted universal attention, and prevented his ever being unemployed. In 1708 he went to Weimar where his successes were crowned by his appointment, in 1714, at the age of twenty-nine, as Hofkonzertmeister to the duke of Weimar. Here the composition of sacred music was one of his most congenial duties, and the great cantata, Ich hatte viel Bekümmerniss, was probably the first work of his new office. In 1717 Bach visited Dresden in the course of a concert tour, and was induced to challenge the arrogant French organist, J. Louis Marchand, who was making himself thoroughly disliked by the German musicians who could not deny his powers. Bach was first given an opportunity of listening secretly to Marchand's playing, then a competition on the organ was proposed, and a day was fixed for the tournament at which all the court and all the musical celebrities of the town were to be present, to see nothing less than the issue between French and German music. Marchand took up the challenge contemptuously, but it would appear that he also was allowed to listen secretly to Bach's playing, for on the day of the tournament the only news of him was that he had left Dresden by the earliest coach.