Biography of baroque-era composer Johann Sebastian Bach, who lived from 1685-1750 and is considered one of the greatest composers of all time. He is well-known for being a master of counterpoint, as exemplified in The Well Tempered Clavier and The Art of Fugue, but also wrote a great deal of lesser-known church cantatas and other vocal music.
Bach was born in Eisenach (central Germany); the Bach family produced a lot of musicians so the name “Bach” was almost synonymous with musician in the area. His parents died when he was nine years old, and he went to live with his brother. He acquired a reputation as an expert organist and was able to charge good fees for organ inspections and recitals.
During his career, Bach took various musician posts in Arnstadt, Weimar, Cöthen, and finally Leipzig. In this time, especially at Leipzig, he composed an enormous quantity of church cantatas (vocal and instrument ensembles set to lyrics from Bible verses and other religious texts), composing about one every week for several years. Some of these cantatas are now lost; he considered his St. Matthew Passion as his greatest work. Still, he had time to compose other music on the side: parts of his Well-Tempered Clavier originated during his brief time in prison, and his inventions and sinfonias were for teaching students and his own family.
Not much is known about Bach’s personal life, as he was too busy composing and didn’t have time to write much about personal matters. He was apparently a stubborn man and frequently got into disputes with his superiors and other musicians; once he walked for 10 days to Lübeck (a city in northern Germany) meet with a famous composer, and this caused him trouble as he missed the Christmas service back home. He had 20 children with two wives, out of whom 10 survived to adulthood. His second wife, Anna Magdalena Bach, was a soprano singer and they raised a musical family — his son Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach became a famous composer of the later classical style.
Bach died in 1750, after a few months of illness that left him blind. He divided his compositions among his sons, but only Carl’s portion survived intact, and a lot of his church music was lost to time as his sons sold his manuscripts during times of financial difficulty. The book ends at Bach’s death, even though he was not extremely famous during his lifetime; his music surged in popularity only in the 1800s but the book does not talk about his influence on later generations of musicians.
Overall, this is a comprehensive biography of Bach’s life and his work, and probably the first biography book that I’ve finished. The author focuses less on Bach’s personal life and more on the analysis of his music, which I found quite technical despite knowing a reasonable amount of music theory (I studied piano up to RCM Grade 10). Large parts of the book felt like dry lists of hundreds of similar church compositions, the musical properties of each one, musicians he worked with, etc, so I skimmed those parts to get the rough gist of it. Still, this was a worthwhile read and helped me understand the broader context for some of my favorite keyboard pieces.