Johann Sebastian Bach

Biography

Born: 1685   Died: 1750   Country: Germany   Period: Baroque
Johann Sebastian Bach was better known as a virtuoso organist than as a composer in his day. His sacred music, organ and choral works, and other instrumental music had an enthusiasm and seeming freedom that concealed immense rigor. Bach's use of counterpoint was brilliant and innovative, and the immense complexities of his compositional style -- which often included religious and numerological symbols that seem to fit perfectly together in a Read more profound puzzle of special codes -- still amaze musicians today. Many consider him the greatest composer of all time.

Bach was born in Eisenach in 1685. He was taught to play the violin and harpsichord by his father, Johann Ambrosius, a court trumpeter in the service of the Duke of Eisenach. Young Johann was not yet ten when his father died, leaving him orphaned. He was taken in by his recently married oldest brother, Johann Christoph, who lived in Ohrdruf. Because of his excellent singing voice, Bach attained a position at the Michaelis monastery at Lüneberg in 1700. His voice changed a short while later, but he stayed on as an instrumentalist. After taking a short-lived post in Weimar in 1703 as a violinist, Bach became organist at the Neue Kirche in Arnstadt (1703-1707). His relationship with the church council was tenuous as the young musician often shirked his responsibilities, preferring to practice the organ. One account describes a four-month leave granted Bach, to travel to Lubeck where he would familiarize himself with the music of Dietrich Buxtehude. He returned to Arnstadt long after was expected and much to the dismay of the council. He then briefly served at St. Blasius in Mühlhausen as organist, beginning in June 1707, and married his cousin, Maria Barbara Bach, that fall. Bach composed his famous Toccata and Fugue in D minor (BWV 565) and his first cantatas while in Mühlhausen, but quickly outgrew the musical resources of the town. He next took a post for the Duke of Sachsen-Weimar in 1708, serving as court organist and playing in the orchestra, eventually becoming its leader in 1714. He wrote many organ compositions during this period, including his Orgel-Büchlein. Owing to politics between the Duke and his officials, Bach left Weimar and secured a post in December 1717 as Kapellmeister at Cöthen. In 1720, Bach's wife suddenly died, leaving him with four children (three others had died in infancy). A short while later, he met his second wife, soprano Anna Magdalena Wilcke, whom he married in December 1721. She would bear 13 children, though only five would survive childhood. The six Brandenburg Concertos (BWV 1046-51), among many other secular works, date from his Cöthen years. Bach became Kantor of the Thomas School in Leipzig in May 1723 and held the post until his death. It was in Leipzig that he composed the bulk of his religious and secular cantatas. Bach eventually became dissatisfied with this post, not only because of its meager financial rewards, but also because of onerous duties and inadequate facilities. Thus, he took on other projects, chief among which was the directorship of the city's Collegium Musicum, an ensemble of professional and amateur musicians who gave weekly concerts, in 1729. He also became music director at the Dresden Court in 1736, in the service of Frederick Augustus II; though his duties were vague and apparently few, they allowed him freedom to compose what he wanted. Bach began making trips to Berlin in the 1740s, not least because his son Carl Philipp Emanuel served as a court musician there. In May 1747, the composer was warmly received by King Frederick II of Prussia, for whom he wrote the gloriously abstruse Musical Offering (BWV 1079). Among Bach's last works was his 1749 Mass in B minor. Besieged by diabetes, he died on July 28, 1750. Read less
Bach: Partitas / Igor Levit
Release Date: 08/25/2014   Label: Sony  
Catalog: 307630   Number of Discs: 2
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Glenn Gould Plays Bach
Release Date: 06/12/2012   Label: Sony  
Catalog: 683932   Number of Discs: 6
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Bach: The Well-Tempered Clavier I / Aimard
Release Date: 08/19/2014   Label: Deutsche Grammophon  
Catalog: 002119902   Number of Discs: 2
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Bach: Complete Edition
Release Date: 09/02/2014   Label: Brilliant Classics  
Catalog: 1116165   Number of Discs: 142
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Bach: Toccata & Fugue; Thalben-Ball, Boellmann / James Parsons
Release Date: 10/12/2010   Label: Royal Philharmonic Masterworks  
Catalog: 28580   Number of Discs: 1
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Work: Brandenburg Concerto no 6

 

About This Work
Johann Sebastian Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 in B flat major, BWV 1051 is the final concerto in a set of works dedicated to Christian Ludwig, Margrave of Brandenburg. (It may actually have been the first composed, however.) They were intended Read more as a job application, but the job did not appear. Bach's sonic imagination was seemingly limitless, and for this final concerto he chose to limit the work's instrumentation to strings and continuo, meaning that the only non-bowed instrument heard is the harpsichord. Every other concerto in the set made extensive use of contrasting timbres, balancing the strings with the winds, often in unprecedented ways. This limitation of timbre is also extended to register; there are no violins, just two violas, two violas da gamba, a cello, and the violone, which is near the cello range and is from the gamba family. The overall effect of this decision is a spirit of repose and conclusion. There are no visceral contrasts in the music, though the final Allegro is faster than the other two movements; the concerto, whenever it was actually composed, makes a splendid way to end the overall set.

Bach's writing for these instruments was unconventional for the time. In the early eighteenth century the lower members of the violin family were considered orchestral instruments with supporting roles. They were given comparatively easy parts to play, while the gamba and its relatives were regarded as chamber instruments and necessarily received more difficult lines. Bach chose to reverse the level of difficulty, giving the viola and cello the tough solo parts, while the gamba players were free to cruise along in the supporting roles. In the second-movement Adagio, they are completely silent.

The form of the three-movement work is also filled with reversals. The opening movement sounds initially like a freely composed fugal arrangement, free of the stark contrasts normally associated with concerto form. Its ritornello, normally a focused bit of recurring melody, rambles along without drawing much attention to itself, while the music that is supposed to be spun out of the ritornello is concise and sharp. Compounding the irregularities further, the second movement (lovely and languid) ends in a different key from the one it starts in. The final movement assumes the character of a fugal gigue, but reveals itself to be a set of variations based on the initial ritornello, which is a much freer demonstration than the traditional spinning-out of the initial material.

Overall, these surprises result in what in many ways is the most various and striking among the Brandenburg Concertos. Its beauty is equal to its invention.

-- John Keillor Read less

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