Johann Sebastian Bach, 1685-1750, is renowned for being one of themost recognised and significant musicians and composers of the Baroque era.From 1703-1723, Bach spent much of his time travelling throughout centralGermany seeking to improve his status of his employment together with hismusicianship. 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. Thefrequent moves Bach made around Germany resulted in him carrying out a range ofmusically related positions and this variety of work certainly appears to haveinfluenced his compositional output. This is evident from the differing stylesof compositions he produced prior to moving to Leipzig.
Bach’s strong religious beliefs had a significant influence on hiscareer, and this is reflected in his work. Bach was a highly skilled organistand it was these specific musical talents that were his main focus in his earlyworking life when travelling across central Germany. Being an organist, it wasprobably natural that Bach’s early works were predominately for thisinstrument, although in later life he diversified into composing for a much widermusical range. Initially however, his early career was mainly based around hismusicianship rather than his compositions. Based on historical evidence, Bach’smost musically prolific, prominent and interesting period of his working life,was certainly during his time in Leipzig.With Bach’s Protestant background it was perhaps inevitable thatmany of his early employment positions were in German churches. He also workedat the Court of Anhalt-Cöthen, which he thoroughly enjoyed mainly due to hispositive personal relationship with Prince Leopold.
Furthermore, they bothshared a passion for a modern style of compositional writing and the Lutheranreligion. Traditional Church musicwas not however played at the Court of Anhalt- Cöthen and this was in directcontrast to his previous positions. Instead, Bach was encouraged to playcantatas as well as having the opportunity to focus on composing instrumentalworks. This period turned out to be a significant point in Bach’s musicalcareer as he was encouraged to compose music for individual instruments otherthan the organ and also for chamber orchestras. In addition, Prince Leopold andBach travelled on musical excursions around Germany.
His role at the Court ofAnhalt- Cöthen came to an end however for two principal reasons. Firstly, thePrince’s bride did not like his music and also because the Court’s emphasis onthe arts was significantly diminished. This resulted in Bach leaving hisposition and moving to Leipzig where he remained until his death 27 yearslater.Anotherhuge influence on Bach’s career and indeed his compositional output wasDietrich Buxtedude who was an outstanding organist. In 1705, while working forthe Church in Arnstadt, Bach was granted permission to attend Buxtehude’sconcert in the northern city of Lübeck. Bach was given leave to go to theconcert on condition he returned to Arnstadt shortly thereafter, but such wasthe impression that Buxtehude made on him musically that he remained in Lübeckfor several months.Onreturning to Arnstadt he was disciplined by his employers for not adhering totheir pre-arranged agreement.
More importantly however, he returned withintriguing and creative ideas for his compositions and he immediatelyincorporated these new concepts into his Church organ playing. The ChurchCouncil, congregation and choir were initially un-impressed with Bach’sexperimental work, but soon realised that he was displaying exceptional musicalprowess.It washowever his time in Leipzig that was the most musically productive period ofhis working life. This was where he created most of his pedagogical works. Hisprincipal role of employment was with the Council where he held the post ofDirector of Music at St Thomas’s school where his main duties were as a teacherand musician. This was also the period in his life when Bach produced most of hiscantatas. The sacred Cantata 137: Lobe den Herren, den mächtigen König derEhren which translates as ‘Praise the Lord, the mighty King of honour’, wasfeatured 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 bookof chorales when teaching private students at St Thomas’s and in particularorganists, on how to master pedal techniques as well as demonstrating to themthe different approaches on how to develop and perform a chorale.Research shows that his compositional output gives a clear visionof the pedagogical mind-set he had, and this is shown throughout his entirecollection of masterpieces. An example of this is shown in ‘Bach’sattachment to the German tradition of the 17th century.’ Geoffrey Hindley (1971, Page 200.) It is probably beyond any doubt, that Bach’s drive andenthusiasm emanated from his strong religious beliefs. This is establishedthrough his great desire to ensure that everything he did in terms of composingand performing was for the ‘…greater glory of god…’ Geoffrey Hindley: (1971, p199.)At that time in history, the social status of composers differeddepending on the individual patron’s views and the composer’s views carriedless importance.
For example,the composer Haydn, focussed solely on composition and so unlike Bach, he wasfavoured for his composing style. As previously stated Bach was primarily anorganist as well as a composer who used experimental styles and techniques.This included introducing counterpoint, which at that time was quite unique. Itcould be argued that Bach was more popular and indeed successful across Germanythan Haydn, as he moved from church to church and people were intrigued by histalents and warmed to his new ideas and concepts. Bach also had the advantage in that he was notrestricted to a specific patron and so therefore had the freedom to write andexplore extensively. The skills Bach possessed by being a brilliant organistgave him the opportunity to play a range of music of different genres andcomposers. In particular, he used the influence of French and Italian writingstyles and incorporated these into his work.
Again, these more complexcompositions often confused the Church congregations. Similarly, some peoplewere of the view that as a result of Bach’s unusual writing style, his musicwas ‘cluttered or forced’ and indeedsome people felt that it was even ‘oldfashioned’ according to Burkholder et al: (2009 p 439). Most commentators however recognisedthe immense skills Bach was displaying and his work appealed to many listeners.
Having a duel role as a musician and composer, with the emphasisbeing mainly on his music teaching, Bach was restricted in his ability topresent new, modern compositions. Haydn by comparison, was solely a composerand he was therefore able to solely focus on his compositional work.Furthermore, Haydn was answerable to only one patron whereas Bach had tocontend with the Church or Court which was at times musically problematic forhim. Haydn was also more financially stable in comparison to Bach whose incomewas derived mainly from his organ playing and much less from his compositions.This made it difficult for Bach to cope financially and support his growingfamily. Career prestige, also played a part in Bach’s career, but as he always wantedto increase his teaching related work remuneration, there was at least oneoccasion when he moved employment to earn more money, but it resulted in lessprestige.
Following Bach’s death on 28th July 1750, his music wasextensively revived, and it soon became hugely popular with a variety oflisteners. These ranged from the general public to famous performers andsubsequently in the following century with composers such as Mozart, Beethovenand Mendelsohn.His music wasalmost universally described as modern, intriguing and like nothing they hadever experienced before.
Throughout his life, Bach collected and collated musical ideasfrom the churches he played for and the concerts he attended and added them tohis repertoire. Hisenthusiasm for music is abundantly clear and his innovative approach inutilising French and Italian styles from composers such as Vivaldi and Corelliand then integrating them within his own compositions was quite unique. Bach’sdesire to break down these pre-existing musical barriersenabled him to diversify, expand and indulge in a new, modern approach to hiswriting. It placed him in an era which made him stand out from hiscontemporaries of the period.
Another approach Bach indulged in was toexperiment with harmony and this merely highlighted and enhanced his reputationfurther. Itis without question that the many employment roles that Bach fulfilledthroughout his working life enabled him to develop and hone his musical skillsand techniques, and this ultimately resulted in Bach eventually beingrecognised as a musical genius. Collins inarguablystates that “He combined extraordinarycontrapuntal skill with a mastery of picturesque and passionate expression.”William Collins et al: (1976: p49.) References Burkholderet al: 2009: A History of Western Music: 8th edition: New York: W.
W. Norton & Company: Page 439.CollinsEncyclopaedia of Music: William Collins, Sons and Co. Ltd: Glasgow: Printed inGreat Britain. GeoffreyHindley: 1971: The Larousse Encyclopaedia of Music: The United States ofAmerica: The Hamlyn Publishing Group Limited: Page 200.