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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: The Art of Fugue / Angela Hewitt
Release Date: 10/14/2014   Label: Hyperion  
Catalog: 67980   Number of Discs: 2
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Glenn Gould - The Complete Bach Collection
Release Date: 10/30/2012   Label: Sony  
Catalog: 196114   Number of Discs: 44
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Bach: St. Matthew Passion / Kozena, Padmore, Rattle
Release Date: 09/30/2014   Label: Berlin Philharmonic  
Catalog: 140021   Number of Discs: 3
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Bach: The Six French Suites / Sergey Schepkin
Release Date: 11/11/2014   Label: Steinway & Sons  
Catalog: 30046   Number of Discs: 2
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Bach: St. John Passion / Kozena, Padmore, Rattle
Release Date: 09/30/2014   Label: Berlin Philharmonic  
Catalog: 140031   Number of Discs: 3
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Work: Concerto for 2 Violins in D minor, BWV 1043

 

About This Work
This music was composed at Cöthen between 1717 and 1723, and very likely first played by Joseph Spiess and Martin Friedrich Marcus with Prince Leopold's court orchestra. At Cöthen, Bach had no organ to play, despite his pan-German Read more reputation as a virtuoso on that behemoth among Baroque instruments. However, he was proficient as well on the violin, the viola da gamba, and of course the clavier. Without his first choice available, or church duties such as Leipzig demanded later on, Johann Sebastian concentrated on instrumental music in various combinations -- much of it subsequently lost. Along with the Brandenburg Concertos as a set, only two more concertos for solo violin and the D minor for two violins survived out of who knows how many, beyond the ones Bach rewrote at Leipzig after 1729 for one, two, three, and four claviers. All of his concertos, Brandenburgs included, had Vivaldi as their point of departure, and some were even transcriptions of the Italian master's works. Bach's genius was, of course, that he could individualize as well as transcend the music of a man indirectly his mentor. His works hadn't the sensuality or esprit of Vivaldi's; Bach was German Lutheran, bound beyond climate and environment by a religion that denounced the secular excesses in which Roman Catholicism (as Luther viewed it from within) had wallowed since the Middle Ages.

While opera had no place in Bach's education, life, or music, he was nonetheless sublimely capable of lyricism, warmth, and gentleness, never more so than in the Largo, ma non tanto middle movement of this Double Concerto, with its 12/8 Siciliano rhythm and solo lines that seem to caress one another as they overlap and intertwine. On either side of this blissful duolog, however, the Baroque contrapuntist displays his mastery of synthesis and organization. The concerto opens with a fugal exposition of two contrasting themes, and their "development" in the ritornello style through G minor and C minor before the orchestra "reprises" the opening theme one last time. The allegro finale, in triple meter, likewise features imitation and repetition with the soloists front and center. Even more than in the first movement, there is a feeling of sonata form in embryo, with the charming surprise of a reprise in G minor instead of the tonic D minor.

- Roger Dettmer Read less

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