Johann Sebastian Bach1685 – 1750

Johann Sebastian Bach has done everything completely,
he was a man through and through

FRANZ SHUBERT (1797-1828)


Johan Sebastian Bach was born on 21 March 1685 in Germany.

If Bach was alive today he would be 337 years old! He died at the age of 65 so he lived twice as long as Mozart.

He was born 70 years after William Shakespeare. He died 6 years before Mozart and he lived at the same time as the scientist Isaac Newton and the founding father of USA George Washington and Benjamin Franklin.


I think we know a lot about Bach as a person; one thing that is important to know about him was Bach’s deep religious conviction. He was a devout Lutheran Christian and commended his music to God. That is why so much of his music is filled with a deep spirituality. And although Baroque music wasn’t as emotionally raw as Romantic music, you can hear profound and controlled emotion in many of Bach’s seminal pieces: his Chaconne (from Partita No.2 in D minor for violin) is widely considered one of the greatest pieces for solo violin, and was composed shortly after Bach learned of the death of Maria Barbara Bach.

So we actually have quite a complex man– yes, temperamental, strong-willed and stubborn. He was also a delinquent in his youth and was known to get into fights. However, he was deeply devoted to Lutheran Christianity, devoted to his music, a strict and attentive father, and a man affected by loss throughout his life: he lost both his parents, his siblings, his first wife and 10 of his 20 children. That’s a lot of grief, which he channeled into his music.


After losing both parents by the age of ten, Bach was sent to live at Ohrdruf with his married elder brother, Johann Christoph, who was organist there. It seems likely that his brother helped with his young brother’s musical training, but once Johann Sebastian reached the age of 15, there was no longer room for him in the Ohrdruf household, and he obtained a free place at St Michael’s School in Luneburg, 320 km away in north Germany. There he benefited from a solid musical education and sang in the choir, but his formal education came to an end in 1702.

At the age of 17, Bach returned to his native Thuringia to look for a job.

After his marriage in 1707 with Maria Barbara he moved again to the ducal court of Weimar.

It was in Weimar that Bach began composing Cantatas in earnest for performance at court, and he also provided instrumental music for the court orchestra.

While most of Bach’s compositions up to 1717 had been organ works and sacred cantatas, he now exploited the instrumental resources available to him at the Cothen court. Most of his work there was secular, since the Calvinist Prince Leopold required little sacred music.

In 1721 Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cothen married his cousin, and life changed irrevocably the the Cothen court. The frivolous new princess was uninterested I music, and Bach soon felt obliged to move on – probably with some regret.

On 22 May 1723 he moved into his new quarters in the Thomasschule, where he stayed until his death 27 years later.


Bach worked during the last years of the life, when his sight began to fail. He was almost totally blind when he died, leaving his wife in dire financial straits.

By the time of Bach’s death, musical fashions were fast changing, and his music was perceived as antiquated. During his life time he had been more celebrated as an organist than as a composer. Unlike Mozart of Beethoven, he had little posthumous influence until Mendelssohn rediscovered his choral masterpieces in the 19th century, and his works began to be performed once more.

He is now revered as one of the greatest of all composers.

Steven Isserlis says “If I must choose just the one composer, and stick with him for life, it would have to be Johann Sebastian Bach”.

What was so great about him was his music – it is – total genius. Every note that he ever wrote sounds completely right! And he wrote some of the saddest music there is, some of the happiest music, some of the most beautiful, the most exciting…

Facts about Bach

  • His great-great grandfather Veit Bach, was a baker, who couldn’t bear to be without his musical instrument, a very old sort of guitar called the cittern. His father Johann Ambrosius was a musician as well.
  • More than seventy-five Bachs became professional musician
  • Bach had two wives (not at the same time). The first, Maria Barbara, was his first cousin. They had seven children together.
  • His second wife was Anna Magdalena and they had thirteen children together.
  • He was the greatest organist and harpsichordist of his time.
  • When he was young, he got into a sword-fight with a student whose bassoon-playing Bach didn’t like; and later in life, he got so furious with a musician for playing wrong notes that he snatched the wig off his ow head, and hurled it at him!

Major works

Brandenburg Concertos (1721); 4 orchestral suites; 7 harpsichord concertos; 3 violin concertos; Goldberg Variations (1722); The Well Tempered Clavier (1722-44); over 200 cantatas; St John Passion (1723); St Matthew Passion (1729); Christmas Oratorio (1734); Italian concerto (1735); The Musical Offering ((1747); Mass in B minor (1749); The Art of Fugue (1750).