A Brief Biography

Finding good, readable biographies of Bach is trickier than I think it ought to be! I like a biography to explore a life in depth but also not lose sight of the ‘markers’ that spell out the high-level trajectory of a life and provide a mental framework to which you, the reader, can then ‘pin the life’.

For Benjamin Britten, for example, knowing Peter Grimes happened in 1945, War Requiem in 1962 and Death in Venice in 1973 helps the reader fit all the other details of his life into a pattern that is already ‘felt’ and understood.

Unfortunately for Bach biography, I find that we tend to get swamped in detail without any real sense of trajectory. So this is my attempt to right that: in a nutshell, here are the outlines of Bach’s life:

1685: Born in Eisenach, Thuringia. Parents die in 1694/5. He’s only 10, so he moves to Ohrdruf to be cared for by his brother, Johann Christoph. Moved to Lüneberg in 1700 when his brother could no longer cope, and then to Weimar for a short-lived job as violinist.

1703 – 1707: Gets a job as church organist in Arnstadt (he’s still only 17 or 18 at this point). It was during this time that he walked 200 miles to hear Buxtehude play the organ, got busted for drinking during sermons and letting a woman up into the choir loft, and received complaints about his organ accompaniment being too confusing and elaborate. At one point, too, he got into a sword fight with a bassoonist he’d called out for playing like a goat. A typical teenager, basically. Not many of his compositions survive from this period, though the 31 Neumeister chorales” (also called the “Arnstädter Chorales”) discovered in 1985 all appear to date from his Arnstadt years.

1707 – 1708: Moves to Mülhausen as church organist and marries his second cousin, Maria Barbara Bach (who was probably the woman in the Arnstadt choir loft). Writes his first church cantatas. Gets BWV 71 printed (the only cantata to be printed in his lifetime –and given he’s only 23 at this point, that’s pretty remarkable). Writes the famous toccata and fugue (BWV 565) without which the horror film industry would have been the poorer.

1708 – 1717: Appointed to the ducal court of Weimar as organist and orchestral member, before becoming Konzertmeister in 1714. Wrote one cantata a month from then on, in the new Italianate style. Wanted to be Capellmeister, but didn’t get the job (for political reasons). Was eventually imprisoned (for a month) and then sacked for having pushed the matter of his release too earnestly. The Weimar period is when Bach wrote most of his best organ music.

1717 – 1723: Appointed Capellmeister at Köthen. No significant church music written, but lots of chamber music. Also the Brandenburg Concerti, Cello Suites, The Well-Tempered Clavier (part 1), and the French and English suites. So this was a very productive time in his life for writing great orchestral and instrumental (secular) work. In 1720, his wife died and he swiftly married a young soprano called Anna Magdalena Wilcke (seventeen years his junior, incidentally).

1723 – 1750: Appointed Cantor of Leipzig, in charge of church music at St. Thomas, St. Nicholas, St. Peter and the Neue Kirche. It is at this point that Bach writes 5 cantata ‘cycles’ (one cantata per Sunday, excluding Lent and Advent, plus additional cantatas for specific holidays), meaning that for about five years he was writing a new, major vocal work every week. The mind boggles. (As a former chorister, too, I can only imagine the work involved in learning that amount of music on such a tight schedule!) We know when cycles 1, 2 and 3 were written, but there’s less evidence about the other 2. For cycle 1, Bach borrowed a lot of his work from the Weimar period. Cycle 2 is where the fresh compositions really started. The St. John (1724) and St. Matthew (1729) passions date from this period. From the end of the Leipzig period come the Mass in B Minor (1749), the Goldberg Variations (1741) and the Art of Fugue (1750).

1750: Died.

Overall, Bach’s life can be plotted on quite a small part of the modern-day map of Germany:

In my mind, Bach’s life has always been played out “practically next to Austria, and probably behind the Iron Curtain”. Geography was never my strong point! As you can see, however, Bach was a mid-Northern German, on the same sort of latitude as Rotterdam and Antwerp. However, my schoolboy geography was right in one respect: all those red lines would have been behind the Iron Curtain (except the Lüneberg ones: that was about 25 kilometres to the west of the old East German border).

If you ignore Lüneberg as a bit of a youthful aberration, his entire life fits within a square about 100kms wide and 40 kms tall. He didn’t get around much.

Incidentally, Handel was born in Halle, which is only about 30 kms west-north-west of Leipzig. Also in 1685. These guys were not only exact contempories, but also geographical bed-fellows. And yet they never met.