Away back in 1685, one of the
greatest musicians of the world first saw the light, in the little town
Eisenach, nestling on the edge of the Thuringen forest. The long
cottage where little Johann Sebastian Bach was born, is still standing,
The name Bach belonged to a long race of
musicians, who strove to elevate
the growing art of music. For couple hundred years there had been
organists and composers in the family; Sebastian's father, Johann
Bach was organist of the Lutheran Church in Eisenach, and naturally a
of music was fostered in the home. It is no wonder that little
should have shown a fondness for music almost from infancy. But, beyond
learning the violin from his father, he had not advanced very far in
studies, when, in his tenth year he lost both his parents and was taken
care of by his brother Christoph, fourteen years older, a respectable
musician and organist in a neighboring town. To give his little brother
lessons on the clavier, and send him to the Lyceum to learn Latin,
and other school subjects seemed to Christoph to include all that could
be expected of him. That his small brother possessed musical genius of
highest order, was an idea he could not grasp; or if he did, he
the boy with indifference and harsh treatment.
Little Sebastian suffered in silence
from this coldness. Fortunately
force of his genius was too great to be crushed. He knew all the simple
pieces by heart, which his brother set for his lessons, and he longed
bigger things. There was a book of manuscript music containing pieces
Buxtehude and Frohberger, famous masters of the time, in the possession
Christoph. Sebastian greatly desired to play the pieces in that book,
his brother kept it under lock and key in his cupboard, or bookcase.
day the child mustered courage to ask permission to take the book for a
little while. Instead of yielding to the boy's request Christoph became
angry, told him not to imagine he could study such masters as Buxtehude
Frohberger, but should be content to get the lessons assigned him.
The injustice of this refusal fired
Sebastian with the determination to
get possession of the coveted book at all costs. One moonlight night,
after every one had retired, he decided to put into execution a project
had dreamed of for some time.
Creeping noiselessly down stairs he
stood before the bookcase and sought
the precious volume. There it was with the names of the various
printed in large letters on the back in his brother's handwriting. To
his small hands between the bars and draw the book outward took some
But how to get it out. After much labor he found one bar weaker than
others, which could be bent.
When at last the book was in his hands,
he clasped it to his breast and
hurried quickly back to his chamber. Placing the book on a table in
of the window, where the moonlight fell full upon it, he took pen and
paper and began copying out the pieces in the book.
This was but the beginning of nights of
endless toil. For six months
whenever there were moonlight nights, Sebastian was at the window
at his task with passionate eagerness.
At last it was finished, and Sebastian
in the joy of possessing it for
very own, crept into bed without the precaution of putting away all
of his work. Poor boy, he had to pay dearly for his forgetfulness. As
lay sleeping, Christoph, thinking he heard sounds in his brother's
came to seek the cause. His glance, as he entered the room, fell on the
open books. There was no pity in his heart for all this devoted labor,
anger that he had been outwitted by his small brother. He took both
away and hid them in a place where Sebastian could never find them. But
he did not reflect that the boy had the memory of all this beautiful
music indelibly printed on his mind, which helped him to bear the
disappointment of the loss of his work.
When he was fifteen Sebastian left his
brother's roof and entered the
school connected with the Church of St. Michael at Lüneburg. It
he had a beautiful soprano voice, which placed him with the scholars
were chosen to sing in the church service in return for a free
There were two church schools in Lüneburg, and the rivalry between
was so keen, that when the scholars sang in the streets during the
months to collect money for their support, the routes for each had to
carefully marked out, to prevent collision.
Soon after he entered St. Michael's,
Bach lost his beautiful soprano
his knowledge of violin and clavier, however, enabled him to keep his
in the school. The boy worked hard at his musical studies, giving his
time to the study of the best composers. He began to realize that he
more for the organ than for any other instrument; indeed his love for
it became a passion. He was too poor to take lessons, for he was almost
entirely self-dependent—a penniless scholar, living on the plainest of
fare, yet determined to gain a knowledge of the music he longed for.
One of the great organists of the time
was Johann Adam Reinken. When
Sebastian learned that this master played the organ in St. Katharine's
Church in Hamburg, he determined to walk the whole distance thither to
him. Now Hamburg was called in those days the "Paradise of German
and was twenty-five good English miles from the little town of
but what did that matter to the eager lad? Obstacles only fired him to
strive the harder for what he desired to attain.
The great joy of listening to such a
master made him forget the long
and all the weariness, and spurred him on to repeat the journey
had saved a few shillings to pay for food and lodging. On one occasion
he lingered a little longer in Hamburg than usual, until his funds were
well-nigh exhausted, and before him was the long walk without any food.
he trudged along he came upon a small inn, from the open door of which
came a delightful savory odor. He could not resist looking in through
window. At that instant a window above was thrown open and a couple of
herrings' heads were tossed into the road. The herring is a favorite
article of food in Germany and poor Sebastian was glad to pick up these
bits to satisfy the cravings of hunger. What was his surprise on
the heads to pieces to find each one contained a Danish ducat. When he
recovered from his astonishment, he entered the inn and made a good
with part of the money; the rest ensured another visit to Hamburg.
After remaining three years in
Lüneburg, Bach secured a post as
in the private band of Prince Johann Ernst of Saxe-Weimar; but this was
only to fill the time till he could find a place to play the instrument
so loved. An opportunity soon came. The old Thuringian town Arnstadt
new church and a fine new organ. The consistory of the church were
looking for a capable organist and Bach's request to be allowed to try
instrument was readily granted.
As soon as they heard him play they
offered him the post, with promise
of increasing the salary by a contribution from the town funds. Bach
found himself at the age of eighteen installed as organist at a salary
of fifty florins, with thirty thalers in addition for board and
equal, all in all, to less than fifty dollars. In those days this
was considered a fair sum for a young player. On August 14, 1703, the
organist entered upon his duties, promising solemnly to be diligent and
faithful to all requirements.
The requirements of the post fortunately
left him plenty of leisure to
study. Up to this time he had done very little composing, but now he
about teaching himself the art of composition.
The first thing he did was to take a
number of concertos written for
violin by Vivaldi, and set them for the harpsichord. In this way he
to express himself and to attain facility in putting his thoughts on
without first playing them on an instrument. He worked alone in this
with no assistance from any one, and often studied till far into the
to perfect himself in this branch of his art.
From the very beginning, his playing on
the new organ excited
but his artistic temperament frequently threatened to be his undoing.
For the young enthusiast was no sooner seated at the organ to conduct
church music than he forgot that the choir and congregation were
on him and would begin to improvise at such length that the singing had
stop altogether, while the people listened in mute admiration. Of
there were many disputes between the new organist and the elders of the
church, but they overlooked his vagaries because of his genius.
Yet he must have been a trial to that
well-ordered body. Once he asked
a month's leave of absence to visit Lübeck, where the celebrated
was playing the organ in the Marien Kirche during Advent. Lübeck
miles from Arnstadt, but the courageous boy made the entire journey on
foot. He enjoyed the music at Lübeck so much that he quite forgot
promise to return in one month until he had stayed three. His pockets
quite empty, he thought for the first time of returning to his post. Of
course there was trouble on his return, but the authorities retained
spite of all, for the esteem in which they held his gifts.
Bach soon began to find Arnstadt too
small and narrow for his soaring
desires. Besides, his fame was growing and his name becoming known in
larger, adjacent towns. When he was offered the post of organist at St.
Blasius at Mülhausen, near Eisenach, he accepted at once. He was
might name his own salary. If Bach had been avaricious he could have
a large sum, but he modestly named the small amount he had received at
Arnstadt with the addition of certain articles of food which should be
delivered at his door, gratis.
Bach's prospects were now so much
improved that he thought he might
home for himself. He had fallen in love with a cousin, Maria Bach, and
were married October 17, 1707.
The young organist only remained in
Mülhausen a year, for he
more important offer. He was invited to play before Duke Wilhelm Ernst
Weimar, and hastened thither, hoping this might lead to an appointment
Court. He was not disappointed, for the Duke was so delighted with
playing that he at once offered him the post of Court organist.
A wider outlook now opened for Sebastian
Bach, who had all his young
struggled with poverty and privation. He was now able to give much time
composition, and began to write those masterpieces for the organ which
placed his name on the highest pinnacle in the temple of music.
In his comfortable Weimar home the
musician had the quiet and leisure
he needed to perfect his art on all sides, not only in composition but
in organ and harpsichord playing. He felt that he had conquered all
difficulties of both instruments, and one day boasted to a friend that
could play any piece, no matter how difficult, at sight, without a
In order to test this statement the friend invited him to breakfast
after. On the harpsichord were several pieces of music, one of which,
though apparently simple, was really very difficult. His host left the
to prepare the breakfast, while Bach began to try over the music. All
well until he came to the difficult piece which he began quite boldly
but stuck in the middle. It went no better after several attempts. As
friend entered, bringing the breakfast, Bach exclaimed:—"You are right.
One cannot play everything perfectly at sight,—it is impossible!"
Duke Wilhelm Ernst, in 1714, raised him
to the position of Head-Concert
Master, a position which offered added privileges. Every autumn he used
annual vacation in traveling to the principal towns to give
on organ and clavier. By such means he gained a great reputation both
player and composer.
On one of these tours he arrived in
Dresden in time to learn of a
player who had just come to town. Jean Marchand had won a great
in France, where he was organist to the King at Versailles, and
as the most fashionable musician of the day. All this had made him very
conceited and overbearing. Every one was discussing the Frenchman's
wonderful playing and it was whispered he had been offered an
The friends of Bach proposed that he
should engage Marchand in a
to defend the musical honor of the German nation. Both musicians were
willing; the King promised to attend.
The day fixed for the trial arrived; a
brilliant company assembled.
made his appearance, and all was ready, but the adversary failed to
After a considerable delay it was learned that Marchand had fled the
In 1717, on his return from Dresden,
Bach was appointed Capellmeister
the young Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen. The Prince was an
lover of music, and at Cöthen Bach led a happy, busy life. The
journeyed to different towns to gratify his taste for music, and always
took Bach with him. On one of these trips he was unable to receive the
news that his wife had suddenly passed away, and was buried before he
return to Cöthen. This was a severe blow to the whole family.
Four years afterward, Bach married
again, Anna Magdalena Wülkens
every way suited for a musician's wife, and for her he composed many of
delightful dances which we now so greatly enjoy. He also wrote a number
books of studies for his wife and his sons, several of whom later
good musicians and composers.
Perhaps no man ever led a more crowded
life, though outwardly a quiet
He never had an idle moment. When not playing, composing or teaching,
would be found engraving music on copper, since that work was costly in
those days. Or he would be manufacturing some kind of musical
At least two are known to be of his invention.
Bach began to realize that the
Cöthen post, while it gave him
leisure for his work, did not give him the scope he needed for his art.
Prince had lately married, and did not seem to care as much for music
The wider opportunity which Bach sought
came when he was appointed
of music in the churches of St. Thomas and St. Nicholas in Leipsic, and
Cantor of the Thomas-Schule there. With the Leipsic period Bach entered
the last stage of his career, for he retained this post for the rest of
his life. He labored unceasingly, in spite of many obstacles and petty
restrictions, to train the boys under his care, and raise the standard
musical efficiency in the Schule, as choirs of both churches were
from the scholars of the Thomas School.
During the twenty-seven years of life in
Leipsic, Bach wrote some of
greatest works, such as the Oratorios of St. Matthew and St. John, and
the Mass in B Minor. It was the Passion according to St. Matthew that
Mendelssohn, about a hundred years later discovered, studied with so
zeal, and performed in Berlin, with so much devotion and success.
Bach always preferred a life of quiet
and retirement; simplicity had
been his chief characteristic. He was always very religious; his
works voice the noblest sentiments of exaltation.
Bach's modesty and retiring disposition
is illustrated by the following
little incident. Carl Philip Emmanuel, his third son, was cembalist in
royal orchestra of Frederick the Great. His Majesty was very fond of
and played the flute to some extent. He had several times sent messages
Bach by Philip Emmanuel, that he would like to see him. But Bach,
his work, ignored the royal favor, until he finally received an
command, which could not be disobeyed. He then, with his son Friedmann,
out for Potsdam.
The King was about to begin the
evening's music when he learned that
had arrived. With a smile he turned to his musicians: "Gentlemen, old
has come." Bach was sent for at once, without having time to change his
traveling dress. His Majesty received him with great kindness and
and showed him through the palace, where he must try the Silbermann
pianofortes, of which there were several. Bach improvised on each and
King gave a theme which he treated as a fantasia, to the astonishment
of all. Frederick next asked him to play a six part fugue, and then
Bach improvised one on a theme of his own. The King clapped his hands,
exclaiming over and over, "Only one Bach! Only one Bach!" It was a
evening for the master, and one he never forgot.
Just after completing his great work,
The Art of Fugue, Bach became
blind, due no doubt, to the great strain he had always put upon his
in not only writing his own music, but in copying out large works of
older masters. Notwithstanding this handicap he continued at work up to
the very last. On the morning of the day on which he passed away, July
28, 1750, he suddenly regained his sight. A few hours later he became
unconscious and passed in sleep.
Bach was laid to rest in the churchyard
of St. John's at Leipsic, but
stone marks his resting place. Only the town library register tells
Johann Sebastian Bach, Musical Director and Singing Master of the St.
Thomas School, was carried to his grave July 30, 1750.
But the memory of Bach is enduring, his
fame immortal and the love his
beautiful music inspires increases from year to year, wherever that
is known, all over the world.