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Johann Sebastian Bach

Just who was the man that's inspired so many composers and musicians? What do we actually know about him?


Johann Sebastian Bach, known in conversation as The Bach, was born in 1685. Incidentally, the same year as Handel, and the two composers lived only 80 miles apart without ever meeting. But our concert isn’t called ‘Handel to Handel’, so let’s get ‘Bach to Bach‘, shall we?

He’s referred to as The Bach to distinguish him from the rest of his hugely musical family. In fact there were more than 70 ‘Bachs’ who became musicians or composers, but JSB is the most well-known.

His great-grandfather, Johannes ‘Hans’ Bach, was the first professional musician in the family. He was initially a baker and carpet maker (what a combination) before becoming a fiddle player. Then JS Bach’s grandfather, Christoph Bach, was a court musician, and his brothers (JSB’s uncles) and three sons (JSB’s cousins) were also musicians.

Are you still following? Good. More simply, Papa Bach – Johann Ambrosius Bach – was a professional violinist and trumpeter.

JS Bach himself had 20 children: seven with his first wife and thirteen with his second, but sadly only nine of them lived to adulthood. Of his nine sons, only one of them didn’t follow the family path and become a professional musician. Awkward.

His eldest daughter Catharina wasn’t allowed to be a composer, but she was a fantastic singer who sometimes helped her father write his music. The youngest, Regina, knew Beethoven well and was familiar with music circles at the time.

Here are some of our other favourite facts about JS Bach:

  • His name means ‘stream’ in German, which led Beethoven to say: “He was so great, it should be more like sea.” High praise indeed.
  • He once walked over two hundred miles to hear a performance by famed organist Buxtehude. He stayed and studied with him for four months (without giving his job any notice, oops) and hoped to eventually take over Buxtehude’s job. This didn’t work out because he wouldn’t marry one of the organist’s daughters…
  • He got into a fight with a student, who he called a ‘nanny-goat bassoonist’, which resulted in a full brawl – with a dagger!
  • When he tried to leave his job in 1717 his employer put him in jail.
  • A deeply religious man, he would put the phrase ‘In Nomine Jesu’ (In the Name of Jesus) at the beginning of his manuscripts, even in his non-religious music.
  • You think you love coffee? Well, JSB really loved coffee. So much so that he wrote a cantata about it and a girl addicted to it. Some of the lyrics go like this: “Ah! How sweet coffee tastes, more delicious than a thousand kisses, milder than muscatel wine. Coffee, I have to have coffee, And, if someone wants to pamper me, ah, then bring me coffee as a gift!”

By the time Bach died, aged 65, in 1750 (Handel outlived him by 9 years, in case you’re wondering) he had written 1128 pieces of music, and we think there are more than 20 others that were lost or unfinished. Apart from opera, JS Bach made significant contributions to every musical genre in the Baroque period, including cantatas, suites, and concertos as we’ll hear in our concert, as well as sonatas, choral works, and pieces for keyboard/organ.

Academics aren’t entirely sure if he died of a stroke brought on by pneumonia, or whether failed (botched…) eye surgery contributed to his death. Bach had long suffered with his eyesight and tried to rectify the issue with surgery, performed by now-notorious eye surgeon John Taylor, but this seems to have done him more harm than good.

Though hard to believe now, Bach’s popularity was in decline after his death. That was, until 1829 when a young Mendelssohn performed the St Matthew Passion and sparked a love for JSB amongst audiences once again. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Hear music by JS Bach in Royal Northern Sinfonia’s Bach to Bach concert on Friday 11 June, 7.30pm.