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The Bach Choir of Bethlehem

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Bach came from such a large family of musicians that the name "Bach" came to mean "musician." (Sources give anywhere from 50-80 musicians as part of Bach’s family.)

Birth — Johann Sebastian Bach was born in Eisenach, Germany on March 21, 1685. He was the eighth and youngest child of Johann Ambrosius (1645-1695) who served the town band at Eisenach.

Childhood - Both of Bach’s parents died before he was 10. He then went to live with his older brother Johann Christoph at the small town of Ohrdruf. Johann Christoph taught his young brother how to play the organ and harpsichord, and Johann Sebastian also sang in the choir of the church where Johann Christoph was the organist, and he probably also learned to play the violin at this time.

When Bach was living with his older brother, he very much wanted to study a book of keyboard pieces which his brother owned. His brother, perhaps fearing he would tear or dirty the book, kept it locked up in a bookcase with a wire lattice, and Bach’s only possible plan was to get up on moonlit nights, when everyone was in bed, roll up the book so that it could be pulled through the lattice, and make a copy of it. This big task took 6 months, and then his older brother found the copy and confiscated it. But Bach had gained knowledge and skill in the course of copying those compositions. Bach did get the book in the end, but not until 25 years later, when his older brother died.

1700 — At age 15 Bach went to further his studies at Luneburg, where he became a member of the choir at St. Michael’s School.

1703 — Bach became organist and choirmaster of the new church of St. Boniface at Arnstadt. He had little patience with some of his colleagues who were not very good musicians, and in 1705 he got into trouble with the church authorities for fighting with a bassoon player whom he had called a "nannygoat."

1705 — Bach walked to Lubeck from Arnstadt (260 miles) to hear the great Danish organist Buxtehude play. He took a month’s leave of absence from his job, but eventually overstayed his leave by three months. His employers at Arnstadt did not approve, and in 1707 he took another job as a church organist at Mulhausen.

1707 — Bach married his cousin Maria Barbara Bach. They had seven children before she died in 1720.

1708 — Bach came to work in the court of the Duke of Saxe-Weimar for nine years as court organist and chamber musician. Until now Bach had gained a reputation as a brilliant organist and composer of clever and showy keyboard pieces and he continued to write such works at Weimar. At this court he wrote one of his most famous works, the "Toccata and Fugue in D Minor." He also made harpsichord arrangements of works by the Italian composer Antonio Vivaldi.

1714 — Bach was made Konzertmeister (director of the court orchestra) and had to compose one cantata every month. He had written church cantatas at Mulhausen, but the ones he wrote now were secular ones, rather like miniature operas without action.

1717 — At the age of 32 Bach heard that the famous French harpsichordist and composer, Marchand (organist to Louis XIV), was a t Dresden. He went to Dresden to hear him play and someone suggested a competition between the two players. Each was to play at sight any piece the other put before him. Bach appeared to play as did the judges and a large audience. But Marchand did not show up! They sent a messenger to his lodgings, and it was found that, afraid to meet such an opponent, he had quietly left the city.

Duke Wilhelm Ernst quarreled with his nephew, for whom Bach sometimes directed musical performances. Seeing no chance of further advancement at Weimar, Bach accepted the post of Kapellmeister (court music director) to Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cothen. At first the Duke of Weimar would not release Bach from his post and even put him in jail for a while. His wife and children were allowed to visit and he was provided with good food and drink. During this time he turned out a tremendous amount of his best music, including "Orgelbuechlein", the Little Organ Book. Eventually Bach was dismissed from the Duke’s employ.

Cothen — Bach got along well with his patron and his musical colleagues. He composed a large amount of chamber music, following both the French and Italian styles. His works included the six "Brandenburg Concertos," the six suites for unaccompanied cello, and keyboard works such as the first book of the 48 preludes and fugues of the "Well-Tempered Clavier."

1720 — Bach returned from a journey to Cothen to be met with the shocking news that his wife Maria Barbara had died and been buried during his absence. He had several children to care for, ranging in age from one year to twelve years.

1721 — Bach married Anna Magdalena Wilcken, a professional singer. Bach and his second wife had 13 children, which with the seven from his first marriage added up to 20. However, 11 of them died as babies. He wrote a great deal of music for his second wife such as she could play or sing, including "Anna Magdalena’s Book" (in 2 parts), which many keyboard students still use today.

1723 — Bach became Cantor of St. Thomas’s School in Leipzig, the last appointment of his career. This new job required Bach to train choirboys, conduct the music every Sunday at St. Thomas, St. Nicholas and two lesser churches, as well as to teach Latin. Every Sunday for four years, Bach composed a major cantata, which told in music the lessons read from the Gospel and the subject of the sermon for the day. This was a tremendous amount of music. Just to copy the parts required the help of four of Bach’s choirboys and his family.

Leipzig — In Bach’s first five years at Leipzig he wrote at least 150 cantatas and revised many others from earlier years. He also completed three major settings of the Passion (trial and death of Jesus Christ) in the versions according to St. John, St. Mark and St. Matthew. The St. John Passion (1724) and the St. Matthew Passion (1729) have survived and are still frequently performed. In the 1730s and the 1740s he wrote much keyboard music, including the second book of the "Well-Tempered Clavier", the "Clavier-Ubung (keyboard course) and the "Goldberg Variations." (These were written by Bach for his friend Johann Goldberg, a brilliant harpsichordist who had lived with the Bachs for several years. Goldberg became the personal musician of Count Keyserling, who wanted Goldberg to play for him all night, so he asked Bach to compose some new music for him. Bach wrote a set of 30 variations for the Count, covering all styles of music, from majestic to popular tunes. The Count was so pleased he sent Bach a magnificent solid gold cup filled with gold coins. From then on whenever the Count could not sleep, Goldberg would play the "Variations."

From the very beginning the Leipzig authorities treated Bach ungraciously. They had hoped to persuade the celebrated composer Telemann to accept the post of Cantor and Director of Music at St. Thomas’s Church and Choir School, but Telemann preferred writing theater music in Hamburg. The disappointed members of the City Council wrote, "Since we cannot get the best man, we must put up with a mediocre one." Bach had to rehearse the choir boys in the music to be sung and played during Sunday services. For one week out of every four the Cantor had to act as Inspector in the school; taking morning and evening prayers; seeing that the boys were called at 5 AM in the summer and 6 AM in winter; calling the roll; saying Grace before meals were being eaten. After evening prayers he had to be sure that no one was missing and that no lights were taken into the dormitories.

Working conditions in the school were unnecessarily difficult. For there was little organized planning. Every request for books and writing materials had to go through several stages of a committee meeting. Discipline in the school was maintained by the threat of heavy fines. There were fines for losing the key of the door, for swearing, for not getting up in the morning, for missing prayers, for not tidying the cubicles and for scribbling on the walls with charcoal. A large notice warned "Food may not be taken into church!" This rule must have been particularly difficult, for the long Sunday services went on from 7 AM till mid-day. The boys could not daydream, for they had to write down what they remembered of the sermon after the service was over. Bach spent a lot of time arguing with his employers, particularly when they admitted singers into the choir whom he had rejected as "useless." Bach’s "St. Matthew Passion" made no impression on the authorities who employed him, and they even voted to reduce his salary. They would have been far happier with an orthodox school teacher instead of a musical genius! Bach considered leaving Leipzig for other employment, but in the end stayed on for the remaining twenty years of his life.

1747 — Bach’s son, Carl Philip Emanuel, was harpsichordist to Frederick the Great, at his palace near Berlin. In 1747, Bach, then 62, came to the King’s court. He was welcomed by the King who made him improvise a fugue in six voices (parts) on a tune which he made up for the purpose. When Bach got home he composed this tune or "subject" his wonderful set of pieces called "The Musical Offering" and sent them to Frederick. As the King played the flute, Bach tactfully included in this set of pieces one which employed that instrument.

1750 — About 1740, Bach began to have serious eye trouble, and in his last years he was nearly blind. He died in Leipzig of a stroke in 1750. Three of his sons; Wilhelm Friedemann, Carl Philip Emanuel and Johann Christian became composers and musicians in their own right.

Religion — Bach was a devout Lutheran, and his deeply religious feeling dominated his works. With other baroque composers, he felt that everything people do and believe is religious. Bach often wrote I. N. J. for the Latin words meaning "In the Name of Jesus" on the manuscripts of even his nonreligious works. Bach wrote S. D. G. at the bottom of almost every piece of music he composed. These initials stood for the Latin words "Soli Deo Gloria," meaning "To God alone the glory."

After Death — When Bach was buried, none of the church authorities thought about putting up a tombstone or any other monument in his memory. Anna Magdalena had to leave her home. Of the six surviving children out of her family of thirteen, the youngest was eight years old. Anna Magdalena died ten years later, in an almshouse, and was given a pauper’s burial.

For about 100 years, Bach’s genius as a composer was not recognized, and his works were ignored. Mozart (1756-1791) was deeply impressed by Bach’s compositions, which he discovered when he happened to hear a choir practice at St. Thomas’s. However, even his interest could not prevent Bach’s music from falling into oblivion. At that time, it was the custom for each organist to compose and play his own music, so Bach’s compositions were not performed.

People remembered Bach, but they thought of him as a brilliant musical performer, especially on the organ, and as a fine teacher, rather than as a great composer. His worked had been considered inflated, artificial and confusing, even in his lifetime. People much preferred the compositions of his sons.

Then, around 1830, the famous composer Mendelssohn discovered the "St. Matthew Passion" and the "Passacaglia." He recognized immediately the greatness and the beauty of Bach’s music. Under his leadership the "St. Matthew Passion" was performed in the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig.

From then on, Bach’s music began to be appreciated, first by professional musicians, then by the general public. The Bach society was founded. The manuscripts that still existed — a great many were lost — were printed and reprinted. People began to feel the beauty, universality and uniqueness of Bach’s music and to consider him the greatest composer Europe had ever known. His use of many voices and instruments to weave various melodies together was beyond compare and opened the way for new music to come.

Over 200 years after his death, Bach speaks to us directly; he is a poet, a painter and an architect in music. Johann Sebastian Bach has something to say to everyone: in time of grief, in happiness, in loneliness and in collective joy. His music expresses our most important experiences — life, death and love.


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