Johann Sebastian Bach, Part I: His Childhood

 

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This is Part I of my series on Bach’s life.
Read Part II Here: Bach’s Musical Career
Read Part III Here: Bach’s Music & Legacy

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Johann Sebastian Bach – one of the greatest and most-loved composers the world has known, considered by many to be the greatest composer of all times. But who was this man? What did he do, and what made him great?

Let’s take a look at the life, work, and legacy of Johann Sebastian Bach.

 

Bach’s Childhood (1685-1703)

 

Eisenach, Germany

 

It is 1685.  We are in the small German village of Eisenach, and one family has just welcomed a new baby boy into the world. His name is Johann Sebastian Bach.

Little Johann was the eighth and last child of Ambriosus and Elisabeth Bach. The Bach family was known for their musical heritage – over seventy musicians had been born into the family during the previous two hundred years.  Music was a significant part of Johann’s life from the start. His father taught him to play harpsichord and violin from his early years, and his willingness to work caused his skill at the keyboard to develop rapidly. So did his love for music.

Sebastian’s family was not wealthy, and his early years were not luxurious. But he was well-loved, and his home was happy.

When Sebastian was only nine, his mother died.  A few months later, his father also died, leaving him an orphan.  As the heart-broken young Sebastian grieved, his older brother, Johann Christoph, took him to live with his family in Ohrdruf.

Christoph was a student of Johann Pachelbel – composer of the beloved Canon in D.  A proficient musician himself, Christoph held the position of church organist at St. Michael’s Church in Ohrdruf.  He gave his brother formal instruction on the clavier, and Sebastian flourished.

It wasn’t long before Christoph recognized the unusual musical abilities of his little brother – abilities which exceeded his own.  Christoph, likely moved with jealousy, limited Sebastian’s practice to one hour a day and denied him access to the music manuscripts in his library*.  Sebastian begged to use the scores, but Christoph refused.

 Bach copied out music so he could practice more difficult piecesIt is of this scenario that we hear the story of the lengths Sebastian went to have the manuscripts.  When Christoph persisted in his denial, Sebastian began sneaking into the library each night and taking the manuscripts to his room.  There, by the moonlight, he copied the scores note by note onto manuscript sheets he stored in his room.  At the end of six long months, Sebastian’s task was complete.  He delighted in studying the manuscripts and undoubtedly spent countless hours at the keyboard with his newly-acquired compositions

In time the secret was too big to keep, and Christoph discovered Sebastian’s actions. He confiscated the manuscripts again, but by this time, Sebastian had learned much.  People will argue over whether or not Sebastian was justified in what he did, but there is no doubt that this exercise sharpened his musical sensibilities, developed his understanding of theory and composition, and contributed much to his musical maturity.

After five years, Christoph could no longer support Sebastian.  In 1700, Sebastian left with his friend, Erdmann, to walk over 200 miles to St. Michael’s School in Lüneburg in the hopes that St. Michael’s would accept them into the school choir.  They were not disappointed. Both were, in fact, placed in the “Matins Scholars” – a select singing group of about fifteen members honored with more challenging music and additional performances.

choir


At St. Michael’s School, Sebastian was, at last, able to pursue music with all of his energy, and pursue music he did.  He had free access to the school’s music library, and he immersed himself in the manuscripts.  In addition to his vocal studies, he devoted much time to practicing clavichord, playing violin in the orchestra for Sunday services, and composing.

It was here at Lüneburg that Bach first began to study organ – a skill that would become his area of expertise in his musical career to come.

 

Check back on Wednesday for Part II: “Bach’s Musical Career” and Friday for Part III: “Bach’s Music & Legacy”.

 

FOOTNOTE:
*We don’t know exactly why Christoph denied Sebastian use of the manuscripts.  He could have been afraid that Sebastian would ruin them (manuscripts were precious at that time) or concerned that the music was too difficult, but the likelihood is that Christoph’s jealousy got the better of him.

RECOMMENDED RESOURCES FOR FURTHER STUDY:

Glory and Honor: The Musical & Artistic Legacy of Johann Sebastian Bach (G. Wilbur)
Bach & Baroque Music (Stefano Catucci)
Sebastian Bach: The Boy from Thuringia (Opal Wheeler)
The Story of Bach in Words & Music (Narrated CD)

 

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