Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750) was born into a family of musicians who had been at their craft for many generations. He was born in the city of Eisenach, Germany, the city where Martin Luther, the man whose protestations against the Catholic Church had sparked the protestant Reformation, had been in hiding in the castle that still overlooks the city. Being born into such an environment had a profound effect of J. S. Bach throughout his life. He was a devout Lutheran and composed literally for the glory of God. His great output of music, much of which was written for the church, demonstrates a sincere spiritual devotion and faith. There is no way to understand Bach’s music unless we understand that he was a man of faith. Bach never traveled outside of Germany but studied the music of composers from other parts of Europe, notable the Italian composer Vivaldi, and incorporated their styles into his own music. He wrote the famous keyboard French Suites and also composed a Catholic Mass, the B minor Mass. However, he never wrote opera, though his cantatas and oratorios have the same dramatic expressivity.
J. S. Bach was a craftsman. He did not think of himself as a “genius” or and “artist” as these were concepts which came to be priorities for people later on in history. Bach had a craft, just as many Bachs had had generations earlier, and it was a craft that could be learnt and taught yet allowed him the ability to experiment, express, and develop ideas as well as praise and make offerings to God.
Bach is a prime example of how musicians lived in society at this time. The two main patrons during the 1600 and 1700’s were the Church and the court. Bach worked for both, as church organist in Weimar, as capelmeister in court in Cöthen, and as the music director for the city of Leipzig where he was in charge of writing the music for four of the city’s churches and teaching and rehearsing four boys choirs. It was there in Leipzig that Bach wrote an amazing number of church cantatas, two complete cycles of one for every week of the Lutheran church year. Yet it was a difficult environment to be a composer and music director in. Bach didn’t always have the support and understanding of his employers, the town council as we can see in his famous letter, “Short but Most Necessary Draft for a Well-Appointed Church Music, With Certain Modest Reflections on the decline of the Same (1730)”.
It is easy to deduce that Bach was of a very strong character and yet also had many things and experiences in his life that his music helped him to deal with. After the death of his first wife he re-married. He was the father of 20 children, three of whom became famous composers in their own right and made significant contributions to music history. He was an organ virtuoso and could improvise on the spot. They say he could play as well with his feet as most organists could play with their hands. Though he was a devout spiritual man, he also had a strong temper and opinions which he often shared. He spent time in prison for not listening to one of his employers and had a brawl in the street with a bassoonist who he insulted for inferior playing. He was a passionate, inspired, unique individual.
“Bach: A Passionate Life” with John Eliot Gardiner
Excerpt from “Short but Most Necessary Draft for a Well-Appointed Church Music, With Certain Modest Reflections on the decline of the Same (1730)”
[Here Bach is requesting more musicians and more money for them so as to provide for the musical needs of the city of Leipzig. Students from the university of Leipzig participated and were formerly given honorarium but because the meager money or beneficia that was allotted to them had been successively withdrawn, fewer and fewer were performing in the church orchestras.]
“[…] Now, however, that the state of music is quite different from what it was, since our artistry has increased very much and the taste [gusto] has changed astonishingly, and accordingly the former style of music no longer seems to please our ears , considerable help is therefore all the more needed to choose and appoint such musicians as will satisfy the present musical taste, master the new kinds of music, and thus be in a position to do justice to the composer and his work. Now the few beneficia, which should have been increased rather than diminished, have been withdrawn entirely from the chorus musicus. It is, anyhow, somewhat strange that German musicians are expected to be capable of performing at once and ex tempore all kinds of music, whether it come from Italy or France, England or Poland, just as may be done, say, by those virtuosos for whom the music is written and who have studied it long beforehand, indeed, know it almost by heart, and who – it should be noted – receive good salaries besides so that their work and industry is richly rewarded, while, on the other hand, these things are not taken into consideration, but they [that is, German musicians] are left to look out for their own wants, so that many a one, for worry about his bread, cannot think of improving – let alone distinguish himself. To illustrate this statement with an example one need only go to Dresden and see how the musicians there are paid by His Royal Majesty. It cannot fail, since the musicians are relieved of all concern for their living, free from chagrin and obliged each to master but a single instrument; it must be something choice and excellent to hear. The conclusion is accordingly easy to draw: that with the stopping of the beneficia the powers are taken from me to bring the music into a better state.”
(Oliver Strunk, “Source Readings in Music History”, Leo Treitler, General Editor, 1998, 1950, Yew York: W.W. Norton & Company, 565 – 566.)
Bach wrote in every significant genre of his time except for opera. He never wrote one single opera. But he did write about 200 cantatas. A cantata means the piece is “to be sung”. Most of Bach’s cantatas were written for the Lutheran church services at the various churches he worked at throughout his life. Though they are not staged like opera, Bach’s cantatas have the same dramatic power and emotional variety and contrasts. Cantata No. 156 is an example of this type of piece. It’s title is “Ich steh mit einem Fuss im Grabe” (I stand with one foot in the grave), a seemingly dismal title, but for a man of faith life Bach, it is an opportunity to call on the mercy and care of God. This is reflected in the text from the second movement,
Ich steh mit einem Fuß im Grabe,
Mach’s mit mir, Gott, nach deiner Güt
I am standing with one foot in the grave,
Do with me, God, according to Your goodness,
The famous so-called “Arioso”, so often heard today in chamber groups and church settings, is the first movement of the cantata and is purely instrumental. It is titled “Sinphonia”, a word which speaks about many sounds harmonizing ans sounding together. The Sinphonia is so much like a conversation between the soul and God, with distinctive high and low voices answering each other. It is originally scored for oboe (with the melody), violin 1, violin 2, viola, cello, and basso continuo. Apparently Bach made use of this same melody in a harpsichord concerto as well. It is also speculated that he had previously used it in a lost oboe concerto, so it seems appropriate that today it is played in a variety of settings by many different instruments. (See Zohn, Steven and Payne, Ian. “Bach, Telemann, and the Process of Transformative Imitation in BWV 1056/2 (156/1),” The Journal of Musicology, Vol. 17, No. 4. Autumn, 1999: 548.). Here is the link to the IMSLP website containing the score in case you are interested in seeing the music for yourself. http://imslp.org/wiki/Ich_steh_mit_einem_Fu%C3%9F_im_Grabe,_BWV_156_%28Bach,_Johann_Sebastian%29
In my opinion, the Brandenburg Concertos comprise some of the most glorious, motivating works of art in the world. Written during his time at the court of Köthen, Bach had marvelous musicians under his direction and some of his most famous instrumental music originated during this period of his life, including his sonatas and partitas for violin solo, solo cello suites, and the orchestral suites. Here the Brandenburg Concertos are beautifully performed in a historically informed manner by the Freiburger Barockorchester.