Sunday, March 21st, 2010
Johann Sebastian Bach was born on this day in 1685.
Here’s an article about him that I wrote few years ago for a children’s magazine. As I read it again this morning, I am reminded what a gift God gave to Bach, and through him to us.
Johann Sebastian Bach produced more works in his lifetime than most musicians, and he influenced the development of Western music more than any of them. Yet during his lifetime, his music was not very popular.
He began studying music when he was 8 years old. His parents died when he was 9. He sang in the soprano section of the school choir and learned to write, compose, and play music on the harpsichord and organ. Recognized as a virtuoso—a person who has exceptional musical talent and creativity—he became a church organist at the age of 18.
Church was a good setting for his creativity, which he saw as God’s gift. Struggling for the right notes, he would jot a prayer on his manuscript, Jesu juva (Help me, O Jesus). At the end, he often wrote thankfully, Soli Deo Gloria (To God alone be the glory).
Even his first cantatas—songs written for a combination of voices and instruments—were masterpieces. Unfortunately, only one appeared in print during his life. The rest were scribbled by hand.
One of these works is called the Coffee Cantata. During the late 17th century, coffee was all the rage in the high societies of Europe. This piece tells the story of a father who gave his daughter an ultimatum: Either she has to marry her suitor or give up her daily two cups of coffee.
At times he was making so much music that he was composing a cantata a week! In all, he composed over 200 choral works, 17 concertos, hundreds of works for the keyboard and organ, and oratorios for every season of the church year. (An oratorio is a cantata telling a specific story).
Before he came along, folks played the harpsichord or the piano (a recent invention during his lifetime) with only 6-8 fingers. He decided that he should put all 10 fingers to use. Can you imagine playing the piano any other way?
He rose above any particular style by combining old with new. The older counterpoint style used different melodies woven together or playing off one another. The use of harmony was a little newer in his time, and blended notes into a smooth sound. Sometimes he would combine complex versions of both styles, making them precise and beautiful.
Johannes Brahms said of him “Study Bach. There you will find everything.”
His 2-volume work, The Well-tempered Keyboard, gave a new definition to tuning. He spread the sound-steps evenly over the keyboard and was able to present each of the “well-tempered compositions in 12 major and 12 minor keys. This was revolutionary. If a song, say, is too high for your voice, no problem—just transpose it to a lower-pitched key! Any music can be played in any key. It would be hard to find other music books that have been so much studied and played and enjoyed as The Well-tempered Keyboard.
However, many of his compositions are lost. When a church musician took over after Bach’s death, his work didn’t seem to matter anymore. Some manuscripts were even sold as scrap for wrapping meat.
When he died in 1750, the Baroque Era of music ended. But one 20th-century musician [Max Reger] called him “the beginning and end of all music.”
In German, the word bach means brook. The great German composer Beethoven, contemplating the depth of the global influence of Johann Sebastian Bach, exclaimed, “Not brook (Bach)! Sea should be his name.”
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