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This is Part II of my series on Bach’s life.
Read Part I Here: Bach’s Childhood
Read Part III Here: Bach’s Music & Legacy
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Bach’s Musical Career
Weimar, Arnstadt, Mühlhausen (1703 – 1708)
After 3 years at St. Michael’s School, Bach – now 17 – received an invitation for a position as court musician at the Duke’s palace in Weimar. He immediately left St. Michael’s and set out with his violin to join the royal orchestra. Though his time at Weimar was short, Bach flourished.
After only 6 months, he took a trip to Arnstadt to visit his uncle. While there, Bach was offered the position of church organist. He accepted the position and made the arrangements necessary to move to Arnstadt and begin a new life once again.
In addition to leading the congregation in song for Sunday services, Bach played organ for four services a week at Arnstadt. His contract held him “…personally responsible for the use and condition of the organ.” It also instructed him “…to live uprightly, to fear God, to love peace, and to appear promptly at all rehearsals and services.” With this new position, Bach enjoyed a substantial amount of private time to study and create.
There was, however, an amount of friction between Bach and his superiors at Arnstadt. Bach, absorbed in his creativity, sometimes took the liberty of improvising during church services. This lack of protocol on Bach’s part frustrated the church leaders, and he was reprimanded.
In 1705, word reached Bach that the greatest organist of his time, Dietrich Buxtehude, was to perform in Lübeck. He desperately wanted to hear the great Buxtehude, and he asked permission from his superiors to allow him leave to attend the concert. They granted permission, and Bach embarked on another 200-mile walk. He was enthralled by Buxtehude’s performances and was greatly influenced by his style. He used the musical knowledge he gained in Lübeck well, and his music was never the same.
Bach’s trip, however, expanded from four short weeks to four long months, and when he returned to Arnstadt, his superiors were greatly displeased with him. This new friction, coupled with previous conflicts over spiritual issues, compelled Bach to seek a new position. He auditioned for the prestigious position of organist at St. Blasius’s Church in Mühlhausen and was gladly accepted.
In October 1707, a few short months after arriving in Mühlhausen, Sebastian married Maria Barbara Bach – a cousin he had become acquainted with during his time in Arnstadt. Barbara was also a music lover from a musical family, and she and Sebastian enjoyed a happy marriage.
Sebastian and Barbara lived in Mühlhausen for a few short months before Bach embarked upon yet another season of life – this time, Weimar.
Weimar (1708 – 1717)
In 1708, Bach accepted the position of court organist for Duke Wilhelm in Weimar. Bach was only 23, but he would keep this position at Weimar for nine years.
During this period, Bach invested much of his time at the organ, and it was here that he wrote most of his organ compositions. Bach’s proficiency on the instrument was incredible, and it was said that with his two feet, he could play “things on the pedals that other skilled players could not play with their hands”.
In December of 1708, Bach’s first child and daughter, Catharina Dorothea Bach, was born. His first son, Wilhelm Friedmann was born in 1710, and Carl Philipp Emanuel was born in 1714. Bach continued to nurture his family and his music, and as the years passed, his fame grew.
In 1717, Bach traveled to Dresden to participate in a harpsichord contest with the boastful, famous French virtuoso, Louis Marchand. Marchand, hearing Bach perform the evening before the contest was scheduled to take place, was so impressed with Bach’s skill that he fled town the following morning. When the time arrived for the contest to begin, Marchand was nowhere to be found, and Bach found himself performing in a solo concert instead of a contest.
When Bach arrived back in Weimar, he requested leave of his position to accept an offer given to him by Prince Leopold in Anhalt-Cöthen. Duke Wilhelm, holding a grudge against Bach from a previous disagreement, executed revenge by refusing to let him leave Weimar. Bach continued to ask for release, and the Duke, unreasonable and angry, threw Bach in prison. After four weeks in this state, Bach received sudden release from both the prison and his position at Weimar, and he set out with his family for a new beginning at Anhalt-Cöthen.
In Anhalt-Cöthen, Bach enjoyed a personal relationship with Prince Leopold as his respected friend and traveling companion.
Prince Leopold was a Calvinist and held a more sober view of music in worship than Bach’s previous superiors . Bach, not needing to produce the elaborate music for the services that had previously been required of him, now focused his creative energy on instrumental works. He was incredibly productive!
During this period, Bach produced many of his famed non-church works – his six Brandenburg Concertos, part I of The Well-Tempered Clavier, the Goldenberg Variations, the French Suites, the Two-Part Inventions, his Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin, and his cello Suites.
In 1720, Bach accompanied Prince Leopold on a musical trip to Bohemia. When he returned to Cöthen, he was given the tragic news that his beloved wife, Barbara, had become ill and died. Bach, now a widow with four children, was stricken with grief, but he had to continue in his work.
One and a half years later, in late 1721, Bach married Anna Magdelena. She was a loving wife to Bach, assisting him in his work and nurturing their children. Anna was a professional soprano, and together she and Bach copied many of his detailed manuscripts.
Around the same time as Bach’s marriage, Prince Leopold married a young princess who had no appreciation for the arts. She made circumstances difficult for Bach. Conditions worsened, and when Bach received an invitation for the post as Cantor at St. Thomas’ School in Leipzig, he accepted without hesitation. With Leopold’s blessing, he packed up his little family once more and moved on to Leipzig.
Leipzig (1723 – 1750)
When Bach accepted the position in Leipzig, his annual salary was less than what he had been lead to believe, equaling slightly over one-fourth of his previous salary at Cöthen. With his growing family, this proved to be a struggle at times. To alleviate the dramatic adjustment, he was given free housing, payments for heat and light, and a few additional allowances.
Bach was busy. As music director at Leipzig, Bach was in charge of the music of four city churches. He taught at the St. Thomas’s school and gave private instruction and tutoring in his home, as well. Selecting texts, composing, and conducting rehearsals were also a regular part of each week.
At Leipzig, Bach composed at an astonishing rate, composing almost 150 cantatas in the space of 30 months. He also produced his two Passions according to St. Matthew and St. John, his Magnificat, part II of The Well-Tempered Clavier, and his Mass in b minor. He began his significant work The Art of Fugue while at Leipzig, but he was unable to complete it before his death.
During their time in Leipzig, Sebastian & Magdelena had thirteen children – six of whom survived into adulthood. Bach loved his family, and spent much time with them each day in prayer and song. He taught them to play instruments, and they often enjoyed playing ensemble music together.
In early 1750, Bach’s eyesight weakened considerably – a condition incurred, at least in part, by the strain he had put on his eyes as a child. He suffered from a serious illness, but he recovered. In May, he underwent optical surgery – an effort to improve his failing eyesight. Sadly, the operation was not successful, and his constitution was weakened from the stress of the surgery. Although he was now completely blind, he still composed by dictating the music to those who could write the manuscripts for him.
A few months later, in mid-July, Bach suffered a stroke. Bach, who must have realized that his remaining days were few, dictated the music for a chorale to his son-in-law – the title was “Before Your Throne I Now Appear”.
Days later, on July 28, 1750, Johann Sebastian Bach met his King.
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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