German composer and virtuoso organist (1685-1750), whose works represent the culmination of the Baroque era and whose death is generally considered to mark the point of transition into the Classical era. Bach, Mozart and Beethoven are seen as the three main contenders for "Most Sublime Music in Western History," and not without reason.
Bach was the most prominent member of an extended family of musicians. Though today he is considered one of the most influential composers in history, in his lifetime he was better known as an organist than a composer; particularly towards the end of his career, his work was deemed outdated by his contemporaries. He was generally not seen as one of the great composers until his works were re-popularized by composer Felix Mendelssohn in the early 1800s, and has since been Vindicated by History.
Noted in particular for his masterful use of contrapunctal technique, Bach's oeuvre consists of well over a thousand works. Some of the more well-known ones are:
- Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565, the opening of which has become a Standard Snippet for Ominous Pipe Organ moments. Here's the whole thing played on the most awesome pipe organ in Australia.
- The Well-Tempered Clavier, two sets of twenty-four preludes and fugues, a prelude-and-fugue in every key in each set. The very first prelude, in C major, is something you might recognize.
- The Mass in b minor and the St. Matthew Passion, two breathtaking works that are cornerstones of Western sacred choral music.
- The six Brandenburg Concertos, used widely in period dramas and various other works. The harpsichord solo from the fifth concerto could quite reasonably be considered the great-great-great-grandfather of metal. The second, with its high, treacherous trumpet part (played in Bach's day on a valveless instrument, no less) is the first piece of Earth music aliens will hear should they manage to acquire and decipher one of the Voyager golden records.
- The Six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello are some of the most widely known cello pieces ever. The prelude to the first suite is the best known from them. Pretty good considering there isn't even an original copy.
- Pieces From The Little Notebook is a book of piano (originally harpsichord) pieces, written for his wife. They are some of the more popular works used to introduce piano students to classical (not Classical) music as a whole, due to their relative simplicity.
In addition, Bach's church gig at Leipzig's Thomaskirche required him to perform a sacred cantata on every Sunday and feast day of the Lutheran calendar. He composed at least three complete yearly cycles of cantatas—over 300 works (1/3 of which, alas, are lost). The variety of form and style, mastery of polyphonic vocal writing, and breadth of instrumental tone color found in these works were unrivaled by his contemporaries.
Despite Bach's virtuosity and deep spirituality he was also refreshingly human. He was once rebuked for stretching a brief leave of absence into several months without apology or explanation. He often battled his employers over the duties and responsibilities of his position. He once wrote a cantata about a man's concern over his daughter's consumption of coffee (he was for it, by the way). Then there is the wonderful story of Bach drawing his sword in an altercation with an instrumentalist that he had insulted, calling him a "nanny-goat bassoonist."
Interestingly, Bach shares not only a year of birth with George Frideric Handel, but also a possible cause of death: they were both unsuccessfully operated on by the same eye surgeon—an "oculist" called the Chevalier John Taylor, often referred to as "the poster child for 18th century medical quackery."
Tropes present in Bach's life and work
- Dawn of an Era: 1685, the year J.S. Bach was born, is widely held to be the year when Tonality in music (as we know it today) was invented by Archangelo Corelli. 1750, the year J.S. Bach died, is widely held to be the year when the Baroque period in music history ended and the Classical period began.
- Dead Artists Are Better: Bach was better known as an organist than a composer during his lifetime. It was only when Felix Mendelssohn rediscovered his compositions in the 1800s that Bach became known as "The Father of Classical Music."
- Family Business: Most of Bach's relatives (great-grandfather, grandfather, father, cousins, nephews, sons, grandsons, etc.) were musicians.
- No less than three of J.S. Bach's sons—Johann Christian, Carl Philip Emanuel, and Wilhelm Friedemann—became noted composers in their own right. (And, no, PDQ Bach was not among them.)
- Hair-Trigger Temper: He constantly bickered with his employers and musicians. One tantrum was so spectacular that it landed him in jail for almost a month. He also called one of his musicians a "nanny-goat bassoonist."
- Happily Married: Two happy marriages that produced twenty children, although only ten of them would reach adulthood.
- Massive Numbered Siblings: The aforementioned twenty children, many of whom went on to become successful composers and performers in their own right. Granted, he was married twice, and several died in infancy, but still.
- Must Have Caffeine: Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht, AKA "The Coffee Cantata", which comments on the problem of coffee addiction, is the Ur Example.
- Overshadowed by Awesome: A strange case. From Bach's death until his music's rediscovery, historians and musicians considered his sons' accomplishments more noteworthy than his. Of course, the tables have turned.
- Passion Play: The St. Matthew Passion, of course, and also a lesser-known Passion from Luke's gospel.
- Strictly Formula: Necessary. He had to compose a new cantata just about every week for three years.
- However, there has been some debate as to whether he wrote the piece at all; it contains a number of stylistic anachronisms which suggest it may have been written after 1750. Another school of thought holds that it may have been originally written for violin (possibly by Bach but likely by another unknown composer), and then transcribed to organ by Bach.