Music History 102

The Baroque Age

Johann Sebastian Bach

Born: Eisenach, March 21, 1685

Died: Leipzig, July 28, 1750

portrait of Johann Sebastian Bach

Regarded as perhaps the greatest composer of all time, Bach was known during his lifetime primarily as an outstanding organ player and technician. The youngest of eight children born to musical parents, Johann Sebastian was destined to become a musician. While still young, he had mastered the organ and violin, and was also an excellent singer. At the age of ten, both his parents died within a year of each other. Young Sebastian was fortunate to be taken in by an older brother, Johann Christoph, who most likely continued his musical training. At the age of fifteen, Bach secured his first position in the choir of St. Michael’s School in Lüneburg. He travelled little, never leaving Germany once in his life, but held various positions during his career in churches and in the service of the courts throughout the country. In 1703, he went to Arnstadt to take the position of organist at the St. Boniface Church. It was during his tenure there that Bach took a month’s leave of absence to make the journey to Lübeck (some 200 miles away, a journey he made on foot) to hear the great organist Dietrich Buxtehude. One month turned into five, and Bach was obliged to find a new position at Mülhausen in 1706. In that year he also married his cousin, Maria Barbara. Bach remained at Mülhausen for only a year before taking up a post as organist and concertmaster at the court of the Duke of Weimar.

In 1717, Bach moved on to another post, this time as Kapellmeister at the court of Prince Leopold in Cöthen. During the years Bach was in the service of the courts, he was obliged to compose a great deal of instrumental music: hundreds of pieces for solo keyboard, orchestral dance suites, trio sonatas for various instruments, and concertos for various instruments and orchestra. Of these, the most famous are the six concerti grossi composed for the Duke of Brandenburg in 1721, and the Brandenburg Concerto no. 3 exemplifies the style of the concerto grosso in which a small group of instruments (in this case a small ensemble of strings) is set in concert with an orchestra of strings and continuo. Of Bach’s music for solo instruments, the six Suites for violoncello and the Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin are among the greatest for those instruments. The Violin Partita no. 3 contains an example of a popular dance form, the gavotte.

Maria Barbara died suddenly in 1720, having borne the composer seven children. Within a year, Bach remarried. The daughter of the town trumpeter, Anna Magdalena Bach, would prove to be an exceptional companion and helpmate to the composer. In addition, the couple sired thirteen children. (Of Bach’s twenty off-springs, ten died in infancy. Four became well-known composers, including Carl Philipp Emanuel and Johann Christian.) Soon after his second marriage, Bach began looking for another position, and eventually took one in Leipzig, where he became organist and cantor (teacher) at St. Thomas’ Church. He remained in Leipzig for the rest of his life.

sketch of St Thomas Church Leipzig

A devout Lutheran, Bach composed a great many sacred works as his duties required when in the employ of the church: well over two hundred cantatas (a new one was required of him every week), several motets, five masses, three oratorios, and four settings of the Passion story, one of which, The St. Matthew Passion, is one of western music’s sublime masterpieces. Bach also wrote vast amounts of music for his chosen instrument, the organ, much of which is still regarded as the pinnacle of the repertoire. One such work is the tremendous Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor.

Toward the end of 1749, Bach’s failing eyesight was operated on by a traveling English surgeon, the catastrophic results of which were complete blindness. His health failing, Bach nevertheless continued to compose, dictating his work to a pupil. He finally succumbed to a stroke on July 28, 1750. He was buried in an unmarked grave at St. Thomas’ Church.

Bach brought to majestic fruition the polyphonic style of the late Renaissance. By and large a musical conservative, he achieved remarkable heights in the art of fugue, choral polyphony and organ music, as well as in instrumental music and dance forms. His adherence to the older forms earned him the nickname “the old wig” by his son, the composer Carl Philip Emanuel Bach. In fact, his use of uncomplicated motoric rhythms with steady changes in base harmony led to Bach’s music often being considered out of date during the Classical period; the musician was appreciated more as an organ player rather than as a composer. However, a few Classical composers like Mozart and Beethoven still looked for and were inspired by Bach’s music.

It wasn’t until later in the Romantic era that his work was revived. The discovery of the St. Matthew Passion in 1829 by Felix Mendelssohn initiated the nineteenth century penchant for reviving and performing older, “classical” music. With the death of Johann Sebastian Bach in 1750, music scholars mark the end of the Baroque age in music.

What stands out about Bach’s music even today is that it can be played on any instrument. The melodies remain so relevant that several present-day musicians have repurposed them over time, even in genres like jazz and pop. Bach’s music is also often considered absolute, meaning that it can exist by itself as a constructional idea.


  • Where and when was Johann Sebastian Bach born?

Johann Sebastian Bach was born in Eisenach, a town in modern-day Germany on March 21, 1685.

  • How many children did Johann Sebastian Bach have?

Though 20 children were born to him with his two wives, Maria Barbara and Anna Magdalena, only 10 of them survived to adulthood.

  • What instruments did Bach play?

The exact number of musical instruments that Bach played is not precisely known. He is reliably reported to have been able to play the violin, viola and all the keyboard instruments proficiently. It is also speculated from his compositions that he had, at the very least, a deep understanding of a further wide range of instruments, including (but not limited to), the bassoon, cello, flute, lute, trumpet, horn and the oboe family.

Related Resources

Music History 102: a Guide to Western Composers and their music
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Robert Sherrane