Johann Sebastian Bach’s music lives on today thanks to his amazing catalogue of concertos, choral, organ and keyboard works – but what happened during his lifetime? Take a look at our top facts about the composer.
Bach’s birthday: March 21st 1685
Born in the same year as his baroque counterpart Handel, Johann Sebastian Bach came into the world on March 21st 1685. He was born in the town of Eisenach, Germany, to Johann Ambrosius Bach and Maria Elisabeth Lammerhirt.
The image of Bach as a virile family-man is no myth – he managed to sire an astonishing 20 children in his lifetime.
Bach’s musical family
As with many things in Bach’s life, family was everything. Musicians in Bach’s extended family included court musicians, teachers, composers and church organists, something that young Johann would himself grow into.
Musical numbers in Bach’s works
Bach was fond of incorporating the numbers 14 and 41 into his musical works, because they were derived from the mystical numerology values of the letters in his own name. We’re not quite sure how that ended up as ‘Air on a G-string’, but his works are littered with references to those numbers.
Bach’s keyboard duel with Louis Marchand
Every inch the thrusting young man, JS Bach once challenged fellow harpsichord wizard Louis Marchand to a keyboard duel in 1717. However, lily-livered Marchand proved unworthy of the challenge and fled on the day of the duel. It was said that Bach was too modest to speak of the event in his later life, and was perhaps a little ashamed to have embarrassed young Marchand.
Bach in prison
Career-wise, it wasn’t always plain sailing for JS Bach. In fact, one of his employers was so intent on hanging on to him that he had Bach imprisoned for daring to hand in his resignation. Still, Bach made good use of the time and composed some studies for organ while he was inside.
The Coffee Cantata
Though he was more famous for writing sacred pieces, the occasional secular gem showed Bach to be a humorous and inventive chap. Described as a mini comic opera, ‘Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht’ (‘Be still, stop chattering’) it concerns the characters’ addiction to coffee and was most likely first performed in a Leipzig coffee house.
Bach’s music in films
Cinematic portrayals of the Bach family are few and far between, but perhaps the most interesting one comes from 1941. ‘Friedemann Bach’ tells the story of one of Johann Sebastian’s sons’ struggle to escape the creative shadow of his father. However, it takes a few factual liberties – in the film it was Friedemann who had the duel with Louis Marchand, not his father.
Perhaps unsurprisingly given the amount of family he had around him, Bach married his second cousin Maria in 1707. She was the mother of seven of Bach’s 20 children – but only four of them made it to adulthood.
Everyone knows that Beethoven suffered with his hearing, but not so many people are aware that Bach struggled terribly with his eyesight. In fact, botched surgery on his eyes by the English ocular specialist John Taylor reportedly caused Bach’s death in 1750.
Bach popular thanks to Mendelssohn
It seems almost bizarre to suggest that Bach was not especially popular using his lifetime, but particularly towards the end of his life he was seen as a bit of a dinosaur. It took later composers like Mendelssohn to re-popularise and re-ignite interest in Bach – Mendelssohn in particular organised an incredibly popular concert of Bach’s St Matthew Passion that was credited with kick-starting Bach’s posthumous career.
Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos: a musical job application
Normally, job applications tend to involve a lot of CV-massaging and begging letters. Not for Bach, though – he wrote his Brandenburg Concertos to try and get work with Christian Ludwig, Margrave of Brandenburg. Perhaps not realising that he was dealing with one of the great musical geniuses of the time, the Margrave didn’t even bother to get back in touch with Bach.
Bach’s famous children
Four of Bach’s children went on to have careers as composers – Carl Philip Emmanuel (pictured), Wilhelm Friedemann, Johann Christoph Friedrich and Johann Christian. However, none of them managed to eclipse their father in terms of popularity.