Johann of the most recognised and significant musicians and

Johann Sebastian Bach, 1685-1750, is renowned for being one of the
most recognised and significant musicians and composers of the Baroque era.
From 1703-1723, Bach spent much of his time travelling throughout central
Germany seeking to improve his status of his employment together with his
musicianship. It was only when he moved to Leipzig on May 22nd 1723,
that he settled down and he remained there for the rest of his life. The
frequent moves Bach made around Germany resulted in him carrying out a range of
musically related positions and this variety of work certainly appears to have
influenced his compositional output. This is evident from the differing styles
of compositions he produced prior to moving to Leipzig.

Bach’s strong religious beliefs had a significant influence on his
career, and this is reflected in his work. Bach was a highly skilled organist
and it was these specific musical talents that were his main focus in his early
working life when travelling across central Germany. Being an organist, it was
probably natural that Bach’s early works were predominately for this
instrument, although in later life he diversified into composing for a much wider
musical range. Initially however, his early career was mainly based around his
musicianship rather than his compositions. Based on historical evidence, Bach’s
most musically prolific, prominent and interesting period of his working life,
was certainly during his time in Leipzig.

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With Bach’s Protestant background it was perhaps inevitable that
many of his early employment positions were in German churches. He also worked
at the Court of Anhalt-Cöthen, which he thoroughly enjoyed mainly due to his
positive personal relationship with Prince Leopold. Furthermore, they both
shared a passion for a modern style of compositional writing and the Lutheran
religion.

 Traditional Church music
was not however played at the Court of Anhalt- Cöthen and this was in direct
contrast to his previous positions. Instead, Bach was encouraged to play
cantatas as well as having the opportunity to focus on composing instrumental
works. This period turned out to be a significant point in Bach’s musical
career as he was encouraged to compose music for individual instruments other
than the organ and also for chamber orchestras. In addition, Prince Leopold and
Bach travelled on musical excursions around Germany. His role at the Court of
Anhalt- Cöthen came to an end however for two principal reasons. Firstly, the
Prince’s bride did not like his music and also because the Court’s emphasis on
the arts was significantly diminished. This resulted in Bach leaving his
position and moving to Leipzig where he remained until his death 27 years
later.

Another
huge influence on Bach’s career and indeed his compositional output was
Dietrich Buxtedude who was an outstanding organist. In 1705, while working for
the Church in Arnstadt, Bach was granted permission to attend Buxtehude’s
concert in the northern city of Lübeck. Bach was given leave to go to the
concert on condition he returned to Arnstadt shortly thereafter, but such was
the impression that Buxtehude made on him musically that he remained in Lübeck
for several months.

On
returning to Arnstadt he was disciplined by his employers for not adhering to
their pre-arranged agreement. More importantly however, he returned with
intriguing and creative ideas for his compositions and he immediately
incorporated these new concepts into his Church organ playing. The Church
Council, congregation and choir were initially un-impressed with Bach’s
experimental work, but soon realised that he was displaying exceptional musical
prowess.

It was
however his time in Leipzig that was the most musically productive period of
his working life. This was where he created most of his pedagogical works. His
principal role of employment was with the Council where he held the post of
Director of Music at St Thomas’s school where his main duties were as a teacher
and musician. This was also the period in his life when Bach produced most of his
cantatas. The sacred Cantata 137: Lobe den Herren, den mächtigen König der
Ehren which translates as ‘Praise the Lord, the mighty King of honour’, was
featured prominently in the Lutheran liturgy of Leipzig.

At an earlier point in Bach’s career and before going to Leipzig,
he had written forty-six chorale variations, which were later entitled
‘Orgelbuchlein’, or also known as the ‘Little Organ Book’. Bach used this book
of chorales when teaching private students at St Thomas’s and in particular
organists, on how to master pedal techniques as well as demonstrating to them
the different approaches on how to develop and perform a chorale.

Research shows that his compositional output gives a clear vision
of the pedagogical mind-set he had, and this is shown throughout his entire
collection of masterpieces. An example of this is shown in ‘Bach’s
attachment to the German tradition of the 17th century.’ Geoffrey Hindley (1971, Page 200.) It is probably beyond any doubt, that Bach’s drive and
enthusiasm emanated from his strong religious beliefs. This is established
through his great desire to ensure that everything he did in terms of composing
and performing was for the ‘…greater glory of god…’ Geoffrey Hindley: (1971, p199.)

At that time in history, the social status of composers differed
depending on the individual patron’s views and the composer’s views carried
less importance.
For example,
the composer Haydn, focussed solely on composition and so unlike Bach, he was
favoured for his composing style. As previously stated Bach was primarily an
organist as well as a composer who used experimental styles and techniques.
This included introducing counterpoint, which at that time was quite unique. It
could be argued that Bach was more popular and indeed successful across Germany
than Haydn, as he moved from church to church and people were intrigued by his
talents and warmed to his new ideas and concepts.  Bach also had the advantage in that he was not
restricted to a specific patron and so therefore had the freedom to write and
explore extensively. The skills Bach possessed by being a brilliant organist
gave him the opportunity to play a range of music of different genres and
composers. In particular, he used the influence of French and Italian writing
styles and incorporated these into his work. Again, these more complex
compositions often confused the Church congregations. Similarly, some people
were of the view that as a result of Bach’s unusual writing style, his music
was ‘cluttered or forced’ and indeed
some people felt that it was even ‘old
fashioned’ according to Burkholder et al: (2009 p 439).  Most commentators however recognised
the immense skills Bach was displaying and his work appealed to many listeners.

Having a duel role as a musician and composer, with the emphasis
being mainly on his music teaching, Bach was restricted in his ability to
present new, modern compositions. Haydn by comparison, was solely a composer
and he was therefore able to solely focus on his compositional work.
Furthermore, Haydn was answerable to only one patron whereas Bach had to
contend with the Church or Court which was at times musically problematic for
him. Haydn was also more financially stable in comparison to Bach whose income
was derived mainly from his organ playing and much less from his compositions.
This made it difficult for Bach to cope financially and support his growing
family. Career prestige, also played a part in Bach’s career, but as he always wanted
to increase his teaching related work remuneration, there was at least one
occasion when he moved employment to earn more money, but it resulted in less
prestige.

Following Bach’s death on 28th July 1750, his music was
extensively revived, and it soon became hugely popular with a variety of
listeners. These ranged from the general public to famous performers and
subsequently in the following century with composers such as Mozart, Beethoven
and Mendelsohn.
His music was
almost universally described as modern, intriguing and like nothing they had
ever experienced before.

Throughout his life, Bach collected and collated musical ideas
from the churches he played for and the concerts he attended and added them to
his repertoire. His
enthusiasm for music is abundantly clear and his innovative approach in
utilising French and Italian styles from composers such as Vivaldi and Corelli
and then integrating them within his own compositions was quite unique. Bach’s
desire to break down these pre-existing musical barriers
enabled him to diversify, expand and indulge in a new, modern approach to his
writing. It placed him in an era which made him stand out from his
contemporaries of the period. Another approach Bach indulged in was to
experiment with harmony and this merely highlighted and enhanced his reputation
further.

It
is without question that the many employment roles that Bach fulfilled
throughout his working life enabled him to develop and hone his musical skills
and techniques, and this ultimately resulted in Bach eventually being
recognised as a musical genius. 

 Collins inarguably
states that “He combined extraordinary
contrapuntal skill with a mastery of picturesque and passionate expression.”
William Collins et al: (1976: p49.)

 

References

Burkholder
et al: 2009: A History of Western Music: 8th edition: New York: W. W. Norton & Company: Page 439.

Collins
Encyclopaedia of Music: William Collins, Sons and Co. Ltd: Glasgow: Printed in
Great Britain. 

Geoffrey
Hindley: 1971: The Larousse Encyclopaedia of Music: The United States of
America: The Hamlyn Publishing Group Limited: Page 200.