Through the ages, Bach’s name has come to be associated with the fugue. That is a well-known fact. But did you know that Bach studied to be a singer? Did you know that he wrote music to soothe rich insomniacs so that they could sleep? Did you know his music wasn’t popular until after his death?
Johann Sebastian Bach was born into a family of musicians who lived in central Germany. The men in Bach’s family were adept at playing the violin, harpsichord, clavichord, and organ. They were also singers. Bach’s early musical training included lessons in all of these areas, but he especially wanted to find a career in singing. Orphaned at age nine, Bach lived with an older brother who became his first music teacher. Johann had a good voice even at this early age, so he tried out for the church choir. He was so talented that he was selected.
One of Johann’s favorite occupations as a young boy was to copy music. This was good training for the budding musician but was a necessity too, as there was very little printed music in the 1700’s. Most music was copied by hand. One day the young Bach was leafing through sheet music that belonged to his brother. He was intrigued by some music he found and begged to be allowed to study it. But music was hard to come by, and his brother was afraid the little boy would get the sheets dirty with his fingers. Bach’s brother locked the music up, but Johann noticed where he stashed the key! On moonlit evenings, after everyone else had gone to bed, he got up, found the key, and copied every note of the music. It took him six months, but he never forgot the knowledge and skill he gained by doing it.
As a teenager, Bach continued with his voice studies. Fortunately for Bach, he studied voice with Georg Bohn, a composer. This led to a broadening of Bach’s tutelage to include the elements of composition, which would be Bach’s strongest contribution to music.
Bach’s first career position was as a violinist in the court chapel of Prince Ernest of Weimer. He was promoted to church organist, a position that paid well enough to allow Bach the time to compose. Because most of his chapel assignments were for the organ, Bach’s Baroque counterpoint and fugue were fashioned for that instrument. Bach also wrote music for the choir and orchestra, clavier, and other solo instruments.
Bach often taught younger musicians and helped them secure positions where they could ply their craft. A pupil of Bach’s found employment with a rich count that had insomnia. The student’s job was to play the harpsichord until the patient fell sleep; but the student could not seem to find the “right” music, often playing hours before the count slept. His hands aching, the young musician begged Bach to compose a soothing sleep-inducing arrangement for the count. Bach did. The piece was named for the student, Goldberg, and is known to us as “The Goldberg Variations.”
From Weimer, Bach went on to work for Prince Leopold at Cothen. His duties there were not only to play the organ but also to direct the choir, a special treat for Bach, the singer. Prince Leopold particularly loved orchestral music, encouraging Bach to write original pieces for the Prince’s orchestra. In fact, many of Bach’s better-known orchestral works were composed during his tenure with the prince.
Bach lived at a time when the classical style of music was just beginning to be recognized. Even though he wrote an enormous amount of music in his lifetime, he saw none of his works published before he was 41 years old. He was esteemed as a musician and composer in his own country, but he was not really known outside of Germany until fifty years after his death. It was Mendelssohn who later recognized the greatness of the Baroch composer’s work and revived Bach’s music through his performance of Bach’s pieces.
Bach – a great man, remembered for his contribution to the orchestra, harpsichord, and organ. But anecdotal studies of his life show he was also a man of compassion, seeking to help his students and a singer whose direction was changed by destiny.