People Behind the Music

The Life Of Johann Sebastian Bach | Classical Music on Calm Radio

By Ryan Spooner

“It’s easy to play any musical instrument: all you have to do is touch the right key at the right time and the instrument will play itself.” - Johann Sebastian Bach

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) is one of the greatest and most prolific composers in the Late Baroque period. Known for some of the greatest works of all time: Art of the Fugue, Goldberg Variations, Brandenburg Concertos and St Matthew’s Passion.

To honour this giant of classical music, here are some facts about his life, his legacy, and how he is still impacting the world of music today.

Celebrating This Giant of Classical Music: All in the Family

Bach was born into a family of musicians going back several generations. His father was the town musical director, his brother, Johann Christoph, taught him harpsichord, several uncles were all professional musicians, and four of Bach’s sons also went on to become composers.

The Well-Tempered Clavier

Bach composed an unbelievable 1128 pieces of music that have been preserved, but there are a further 23 pieces that were either lost or unfinished.

The Well-Tempered Clavier is one of his most famous works and is regarded as one of the most important works in the history of classical music. It’s amazing to think that a work of such technical mastery was likely composed while Bach was on a work trip and away from the keyboard! (He is thought to have been on a trip with Prince Leopold.)

Historians believe that these pieces were designed for the instruction of Bach’s sons. We do know that he intended the 24 preludes and fugues “for the profit and use of musical youth desirous of learning, and especially for the pastime of those already skilled in this study.”

Lots and Lots of Kids

Not only was he prolific in his compositions, Bach also had lots of kids. He had 20 children in total, 7 with his first wife and 13 with his second. Only 10 of his children lived to adulthood.

His sons, Wilhelm Friedemann, Carl Philipp Emanuel, and Johann Christian Bach, who was called the “English Bach,” all became composers.

Anna Magdalena Bach

Anna Magdalena Bach (1701-1760) was a singer and the second wife of Johann Sebastian Bach. She established her music career before meeting him. By the age of 20, she was employed as a singer at the princely court of Anhalt-Cöthen - the place she would eventually meet Bach.

They married December 3, 1721, 17 months after the death of his first wife, Maria Barbara. Anna regularly worked as a copyist, transcribing Johann’s music, which she sold as a means to contribute to the family income. Bach wrote a number of compositions dedicated to her, most notably Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach.

Her story ends with tragedy. After Bach’s death in 1750, she was left alone with no financial support from family members. Things spiraled downward from there, to the point that she relied on public begging to survive.

First Sleep Music Composer Ever?

One of Bach’s pieces, the Goldberg Variations, was said to have been composed to help Count Keyserling sleep. The Variations were played by Johann Goldberg for the Count to help with his insomnia.

One of the most famous performance of the variations is by Canadian composer Glenn Gould. He chose them as the subject of his debut album in 1955. The work launched Gould’s career as a renowned international pianist, and became one of the most well-known piano recordings of all time. By the year 2000, 18 years after Gould’s death, sales of the album exceeded two million.

Wild About Coffee

Bach loved to drink coffee - he consumed up to 30 cups of Joe a day! He was inspired by people’s superstitions towards this new drink of his time, and wrote a humorous Coffee Cantata that tells of a young woman in love with coffee.

Early Lasik

Bach died of complications from an eye surgery at 65. It was performed by a British eye surgeon John Taylor, a charlatan who blinded hundreds of patients, including Händel. Ironically, Taylor also ended up completely blind in his final years, and died in obscurity.

Bach Festivals

There are Bach festivals occurring all over the world. Close to our home in Toronto is The Toronto Bach Festival. Founded in 2016 by John Abberger, the Festival promotes “the music of this iconic composer with historically informed performances that engage audiences across the wide diversity of [Toronto].”

Closer to Bach’s home is The Bachfest Leipzig (Leipzig Bach Festival). It’s a music festival which takes place annually in the city of Leipzig, where J. S. Bach worked as the Thomaskantor from 1723 until his death in 1750. The festival dates back to 1904. Each year there are approximately 100 individual events during the Bach Festival, beginning with an opening concert conducted by the serving Thomaskantor. The final concert is traditionally a performance of Bach’s Mass in B minor in the St. Thomas Church.

Bach For Our Modern Age

These days if you want to be remembered, a Google Doodle is a popular way. On March 21, 2019, Google celebrated Johann Sebastian Bach with his own Doodle.

It was their first ever AI-powered Doodle. It gave users an interactive experience, encouraging players to compose a two measure melody of their choice. With the press of a button, the Doodle then uses machine learning to harmonize the custom melody into Bach’s signature music style.

Listen To Bach On Calm Radio

You can listen to Bach on Calm Radio for free. We have a whole classical music channel that celebrates his intellectual depth, technical command and artistic beauty. Happy listening.

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