Johann Sebastian Bach: An Elementary Discourse on His Life and Influence on Western Music
On 28 July, 1750, a sickly and exhausted old man was found dead while recuperating from eye-surgery. Viewed by his peers as outdated and irreverent, he would eventually be regarded as one of the greatest musical genius’s who ever lived, nearly 80 years later (Mellers). Today, we know this man as Johann Sebastian Bach, a virtuoso organist and prolific composer from the baroque era of classical music; whose works spanned over 1000 musical pieces and influenced entire generations of western music schools of thought (J.S. Bach). Bach’s importance to western music development wouldn’t have been noticed by his contemporaries, who mostly favored the preclassical styles of homophony which were harmonically simpler in tone and structure (Mellers). His sphere of influence had affected many important composers whose names include: Felix Mendelssohn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Ludwig van Beethoven; who themselves made major contributions to the preeminence and development of western music. In terms of originality and complexity, Bach’s compositions represent some of the most sophisticated and ambitious classical pieces to date, which through his rigorous use of counterpoint, tonal control and attention to single moods (called affects) had helped refine western music from a folk-based expressive form to a highly complex and evolved form of musical expression (Tonality). But in order to understand Bach and his well noted contributions, one must also understand his life in the context of the changing musical forms of the era and his personal musical influences which helped define his unique compositional platform.
Born on 21 March, 1685, in Eisenach, Thuringen (in modern day Germany), he was the eighth child in a family that produced at least 53 well respected city and court musicians in over seven generations of time. Johann Sebastian Bach was named by his two godfathers, Sebastian Nagel, and Johann Georg Koch; both of whom were professional musicians at the time. He received his first musical instruction from his father, Johann Ambrosius (1645-1695), who was a string player, court trumpeter and a town piper. Johann Sebastian Bach’s mother died in 1694, and a year later, lost his father in 1695. Having lost both parents when he was nine years old and being one of five surviving children, he and his brother Johann Jacob went to live and study with their older brother, Johann Christoph, an organist in Ohrdruf (J.S. Bach Homepage & Mellers).
The Early Years (1700-1723)
On 15 March, 1700, Johann Sebastian Bach began his professional career as a chorister at the Church of Saint Michael in Luneburg, and it was here that Bach began to be recognized as an organ prodigy of great ability. The Church of Saint Michael had a music school and Bach paid his tuition by singing in the choir, (which he was loved for his soprano range before his teen years). The school stressed the importance of French music to its students, and it is here where Bach became particularly influenced in the French musical traditions of the day (J.S. Bach Homepage & Mellers). In 1703 Bach found work in the chamber orchestra of Prince Johann Ernst of Weimar, as a violinist, but later moved to Arnstadt that same year to work as a church organist. Two years later in October 1705, Bach took a one-month leave from his church post to study with the influential Danish-born organist and composer Dietrich Buxtehude (Mellers). It was through his study with Buxtehude that Bach was introduced to and greatly influenced by the Baroque style of music that was popular in Germany and the Netherlands. Bach would have learned several musical techniques new to the time, including: counterpoint (the combining of two simultaneous melodies that compete against each other), consistent affects (abandoning frequent mood shifts in a piece of music and instead favoring music of one emotional quality), disciplined tonality (using a single tonic key or musical scale, as the basis of a musical composition), and elaborate musical structuring (Western Music, Tonality, & Oxford American Dictionary of Current English). Bach’s study with Dietrich was so fascinating to him that he embellished his leave of absence by overstaying an entire two months, which put him in direct conflict with church authorities. He was also criticized for his esoteric musical flourishes and exotic organ harmonies in his congregational accompaniments, but was much too respected by church goers to be dismissed from church services (Mellers).
In 1707 Bach found new employment as an organist and violinist at the Church of Saint Blasius, in Mulhausen, but a year later moved back to Weimar to work in the court of Duke Wilhelm Ernst as an organist and violinist, remaining there for the next nine years (Mellers & J.S. Bach Homepage). It was during these years that Bach was most prolific in his compositional abilities, taking in and applying the new musical developments popular in the baroque era while departing from the French tradition. For example, Bach expanded and improved upon the new conceptual musical form called the concerto, which was music that was distinguishable by its numerous contrasting elements: such as contrasting the different instruments, dynamics, tempo, moods, sound densities, and plotting soloists against a group of instruments (including Voice), around a centralized theme. In many instances, these numerous contrasting elements were played to compete with each other in an orderly way, called counterpoint. This treatment gave the music an exciting, unpredictable, and aggressive musical edge that was more sophisticated then the former preclassical styles which were coming out of favor then (Western Music). Bach’s primary innovation was to increase the complexity of the concerto form, while keeping the emotional pull of the music unaffected by the increased complexity of the parts. His “Brandenburg Concertos” are a famous example of his ability to combine contrasting and competing musical elements, while preserving the music’s emotional content (affect) consistent around a centralized theme (Mellers, Western Music, & Rasmussen). This was at the cutting edge of music at the time and signaled when western music evolved into a highly complex art form.
Another Bach innovation at this period was his precise control over tonality. This development came about when composers mastered the understanding of the relationships between musical notes of the scale and keeping a consistent tonic key for the basis of a composition (Western Music, & Oxford American Dictionary of Current English). Bach had an intimate understanding of tonality and exploited its effects to create an almost endless variety of emotion. A good example is his “Overture NO. 3 in D major,” commonly known as “Air.” Here Bach takes a simple repetitious melody and by adjusting its tonal nuances and volume (dynamics), gives the listener a sense of mixed emotions, making the piece seem like its elements are rapidly changing when in fact they‘re not.
Although Bach didn’t invent any of these new developments in western music, he did take them to there limits and increased their scope of complexity and sophistication. This in turn, gave western music an infinite variety of richness never before realized by previous composers (J.S. Bach Homepage, Mellers, & Rasmussen).
The later Years (1723-1750)
In 1723 Bach relocated to Leipzig and spent the remainder of his years there, where he worked at the Saint Thomas’s Church as the acting musical director and choirmaster. These years he spent unappreciated by the town’s populace, and argued endlessly with the town council about a multitude of disagreements (J.S. Bach Homepage & Mellers). His contemporaries had no value for him, his music, his contributions, and his genius; he was regarded as an impotent figure who couldn’t let go of archaic forms of music (Mellers). Musical tastes where rapidly changing, and many young players felt too constricted and frustrated with the precision of the baroque style. This new generation of musicians and listeners preferred music that was more expressive, inconsistent, and abstract (Western Music). Nevertheless, Bach continued composing new material and eventually composed 295 pieces during this period, of which 202 pieces are still played today. These pieces consist mainly of spiritual works and epics that’s known for its expressiveness and spiritual intensity (Mellers). Some well known works from this period include, “The St. John Passion,” “Art of the Fugue,” “The Well-Tempered Clavier,” and “Mass in B Minor.” Bach’s eyesight began to fail him in the final year of his life, and on 28 July, 1750, Bach passed on at the age of 65. It would be another eighty years before the world would began to rediscover the genius of Johann Sebastian Bach. (J.S. Bach Homepage & Mellers).
A handful of composers were greatly influenced by Bach and rigorously studied his works. Among them are Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Ludwig van Beethoven (Mellers). Both composers respected Bach immensely for his musical genius and contributions to the music world. Both heavily studied his music in order to learn from his highly evolved musical form, which both composers in turn, influenced entire generations of music fans in their own right. They learned the techniques of counterpoint and complex tonality from studying the works of Bach, and incorporated their new skills into their compositions (Rasmussen, Mellers, & the J.S. Bach Homepage). Mozart’s “Requiem in D minor” and Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 5”, are well known examples of how these composers were using Bach’s innovations in their own works. But Bach’s reputation took a turn for the better when in 1829 German composer, Felix Mendelssohn, orchestrated a performance of the “St. Matthew Passion,” which reinvigorated popular sentiment in Bach. Although these performances were inspired, they were nevertheless flawed due to the fact that many had forgot how the music of the Baroque era had differed from the popular music of the day. It took the expertise of Twentieth century studies to decode the mysteries of Baroque performances, which rediscovered the principles of Bach’s music. Today, modern performances of his works are closer to the true connotations of the original form. (Mellers).
Johann Sebastian Bach’s influence on western music becomes evident when one considers the music before Bach’s time, since music from the late Renaissance period reflects simple use of harmony, structure, and tonality. Back then music was primarily written to worship in the church with, and the idea of music as having complex and sophisticated harmonies, modulation, and tonalities was looked at as being a vain novelty, much less than to enjoy it (Western Music). But it took the early Italian innovators of the Baroque tradition to permanently change the very idea of what music was and how it was to be played, forever altering the course of western music development. Bach didn’t invent these new developments in music, his contribution was in his inventiveness to use and exploit all the various musical techniques of the day and take them to their absolute limits. Bach had the ability to take the music of an entire ensemble and translate it into a convincing single instrument work or he could combine the rhythms of French dances, Italian melodies, and the precision of German fugues into a single piece of music that seemed to resonate emotionally without becoming forced or sterile (Mellers). What Bach proved to the world was that music can be just as refined and grand as other fine art, such as meticulous sculpture or detailed painting. He brought together dissimilar musical elements and amalgamated them into a single, consistent, and exciting whole. For a man who rose to fame and died in obscurity, his reputation for greatness seems fitting to the contributions he made.
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