Today is the birthday of German composer Johann Sebastian Bach – 1685. He was born into a large extended family of Lutheran musicians — most of whom were also named Johann; they were distinguished by their differing middle names. Bach’s parents both died when he was 10, and he went to live with his older brother Johann Christoph, who was a church organist. The younger Johann soon followed in his brother’s footsteps, and held a series of organist jobs in churches all around the region. He also gave lessons to the church choirboys, but he did so reluctantly, refusing to spend much time on rehearsals. Worse, he would sometimes take off for weeks at a time, traveling to meet other musicians and not letting his employers know when he would be back. And he was known to sneak off during the sermon for some hanky-panky with a local girl in the church’s wine cellar. The local girl was most likely his second cousin, whom he would soon marry.
Many of his best-loved pieces, like Toccata and Fugue, and Joy of Man’s Desirin, were composed while he was an organist in the court of the Duke Wilhelm Ernst in Weimar. The duke was so pleased with Bach that he had him arrested: Bach had accepted another position with Prince Leopold and the duke did not want to let him go. Bach was jailed for several weeks before the duke relented. Leopold was a young man with a consuming passion for music, and Bach grew very fond of him. It was an enjoyable and productive time for the composer. While with Prince Leopold, Bach composed the Brandenburg Concertos, as well as The Well-Tempered Clavier, a set of exercises for students of the harpsichord.
In 1706, Bach married his second cousin, Maria Barbara Bach. They had seven children together in 14 years of marriage. Along with Maria came her unmarried sister, Friedelena. Maria died in 1720, but Friedelena remained, helping to run the Bach household until her own death in 1729. Bach remarried a year after his first wife died, this time to a singer named Anna Magdalena Wilcke. His patron Leopold married soon after that, and Leopold’s new bride didn’t care much for music, so his support of Bach waned, and Bach moved on to Leipzig. There he became the musical director of Leipzig’s main churches and also Cantor of St. Thomas, a boarding school. He remained in Leipzig for the rest of his life.
Bach and Anna had 13 children, but less than half of them survived past the age of five. Four of Bach’s children — two from his first marriage and two from his second — went on to become musicians and composers in their own right, carrying on the Bach family tradition. Bach was a happy family man and proud of his children. He was also deeply devout, and he once wrote that music “should have no other end and aim than the glory of God and the re-creation of the soul; where this is not kept in mind there is no true music, but only an infernal clamor and ranting.”
By about 1740, Bach’s eyesight had begun to deteriorate. For several years, he was still able to perform and even traveled to Prussia to perform for King Frederick the Great. But by the spring of 1750, it had gotten so bad that he allowed an English surgeon to operate on his eyes. The surgery had disastrous results: he was completely blind, and he developed complications after the surgery that may have contributed to his death of stroke, complicated by pneumonia, a couple of months later.