It’s the birthday of German composer Johann Sebastian Bach born in Eisenach, Germany (1685). His many compositions, including the Brandenburg Concertos (1721) and Goldberg Variations (1741), are considered some of the finest music ever written. He once said, “I play the notes as they are written, but it is God who makes the music.”
Bach came from a musical family. His father was a string player, town piper, and court trumpeter, and all of Bach’s siblings played music. Bach learned Latin and sang in the school choir. When he was nine, he lost both of his parents and went to live with his older brother. His brother taught him how to play the clavichord and to write music, even though ledger paper of that time was costly. When a new organ was under construction at the Ohrdruf Church, Bach was given special permission to watch.
He had a beautiful singing voice, which meant he could go to school for free as long as he sang in the boys’ choir. But his voice changed, so he quickly became an organ virtuoso. He was also something of a rogue, often leaving on foot for faraway towns to see new church organs. He earned a stipend teaching the boys choir, but he didn’t really like it, and once got into a fight with a bassoon player in the street. He was even chided for “making music with a stranger maid” in a town church.
Bach wrote both of his famous Passions while serving as the “Thomaskantor,” or music director, of the boys choir in Leipzig. Passion music was typically written for Good Friday services. He was the Thomaskantor in Leipzig until his death in 1750.
His compositions were complicated, and sometimes unwieldy, requiring many more instruments than people were used to. During his lifetime, even though he received commissions and was able to make a living, he wasn’t fully appreciated. At the time of his death, his sole estate was listed as “5 harpsichords, 2 tule-harpsichords, 3 violins, 3 violas, 2 cellos, a viola da gamba, a lute, a spinet, and 52 ‘sacred books.’” His eldest son immediately began selling off most of his music, piece by piece, after Bach’s death. For 150 years, Bach’s grave at Old St. John’s cemetery in Leipzig went unmarked. His remains were removed in 1894 and moved to a vault inside the church, but that building was destroyed by bombing in World War II. In the 1950s, his remains were moved to St. Thomas Church.