Musical Focus: Johann Sebastian Bach (Germany, 1685 – 1750)

Bach and His Music
Bach had to endure the loss of his mother, and less than a year later, his father. They had provided his initial music training. He was adopted by his brother, who continued his music education. As a young boy, his music education was provided by the Lutheran Church where he was part of a "professional” boy’s choir. After his voice matured he continued his musical career as an instrumentalist. He was especially gifted on the organ and harpsichord. (The piano had not yet been invented.) While the Catholic Church provided their congregation with Gregorian Chants, Bach was employed throughout his career to provide the Lutheran Reformation with "new” music.

Bach’s style celebrates the Baroque Period, and he is considered by many musicologists as the period’s greatest composer. He developed "counterpoint” to new heights: "the weaving together of two or more melodic line to make a tightly knit, complex texture.” (Lloyd’s Encyclopedia of Music.) "Counterpoint was in Sebastian Bach’s blood…compare any of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos with any of Handel’s concerti grosse: neither is artistically superior…[but with Bach] listen to what happens between the top line and the bass; it isn’t just chords.” (Galway’s Music in Time.) I find this counterpoint character to be most obvious in his organ and harpsichord compositions.

Additional Biographical Information
Bach had 20 children. He had seven children by his first wife, Maria Barbara. After she died he married a famous singer, Anna Magdalena, with whom he had 13 additional children. Bach was a very religious man who was dedicated to his family. Bach’s life, however, contains a number of surprising incidents: he was confined to a dungeon for a month because he wanted to be excused from his employment, he was dismissed once for unsatisfactory performance, he was detained and questioned after getting into a fight with a former student, he took an unexcused extended absence of three additional months and walked hundreds of miles to study under a master organist.

During his life Bach wrote over 1,200 pieces of music. Unfortunately many were misplaced and lost during his lifetime and after his death. His music was rediscovered and popularized by Felix Mendelssohn in the 1800’s (Mendelssohn composed many wonderful pieces, but may be best known for "Here Comes the Bride.”)

Bach had a very successful musical career. He championed a method of tuning keyboard instruments that allowed the musician to expand in range of the instrument and also provided for maximum flexibility in what keys the music could be played. This strategy was very helpful in developing the modern piano. Bach was also a tireless advocate for the importance of music in the church.

American History and Bach
  • During his lifetime the first pipe organ was brought to the English colonies (Virginia)
  • Singing societies became popular in the colonies
  • France established a presence in Detroit and New Orleans
  • England, Scotland, and Wales were unified as Great Britain

Five Recommended CD’s
1. J.S. Bach: Organ Favorites, Ruebsam, Naxos.
2. Bach: Brandenburg Concertos, Musica Antiqua Koln, Archiv.
3. J.S. Bach Concertos for Harpsichord and Strings, Trevor Pinnock and Enlish Concert, Archiv.
4. A Bach Celebration, Christopher Parkening, EMI.
5. Bach: English and French Suites, Safri Duo, Chandos.

Lesson Opportunities
Music Appreciation: Children can quite easily perceive the counter-point interactions between the right hand, left hand, and foot pedals in the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor which results in a kind of musical tag. I found them to be also quite intrigued by Bach’s life, his adventures and the good natured Brandenburg Concertos. Finally, they experienced the guitar-symphonic transcriptions on A Bach Celebration as very calming, and the Safri Duo’s approach to be quite "jazzy.”