Genius Ignored, Chapter 4:    Bach   [Life/Biography]

Prelude: Bach's Brandenburg Concertos are a hive of bees working diligently under a sunny,
incredibly blue, summer sky; a miracle of sound which says that life is beautiful
and orderly and good, every second chock-full of industry and purpose. . . .
     Background music: Brandenburg Concerto #3 - 1. Allegro

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[Portrait from Dave's J.S. Bach Home Page]

"Scheibe ranked Hasse, C. H. Graun, Telemann, and Handel as the most advanced of German composers. . . . The poet Gottsched, in his Ode zum Lobe Germaniens, hailed Telemann and Handel as the most distinguished of German composers although as a resident of Leipzig he must have been familiar with the music of J. S. Bach." [Grove, v. 18, p. 651].

The Town Council of Leipzig (where Bach had taught for the last 27 years of his life did not regret his departure: "The school needs a Cantor <teacher> not a Capellmeister <conductor>." [quoted in Terry, p. 265]

Bach was recognized as Germany's greatest organ and clavier player: "The loss of this uncommonly skillful man is profoundly mourned by all true connoisseurs of music." [Spenersche Zeitung (a newspaper), August 3, 1750].

Telemann wrote an obituary in rhyme, praising Bach's "splendid organ playing":

" . . . the candle of thy fame ne'er low will burn;

The pupils thou has trained, and those they train in turn

Prepare thy future crown of glory brightly glowing. . . ."

Only a few crochety reactionaries like Friedrich Wilhelm Marpurg (in his preface to the Art of the Fugue), published two years after Bach's death, hinted that Bach might have a future of his own (not just as an organ-playing legend with successful pupils): "It is to be hoped that the present work may inspire some emulation. . . . restore in some measure, in the face of the hoppity melodification of so many present day composers, the dignity of Harmony."

Of the more than 1,000 works of J. S. Bach which have come down to us, only eight were published in his lifetime. (The rest were preserved in manuscript form.) Hundreds of others were lost entirely.

The idea that Bach would not only be remembered hundreds of years later but would be considered the greatest of all Western composers was unthinkable. And yet: fully one-third of all the pages in my recorder book (Mario Duschene's Method for the Recorder, Part Two) with works attributed to particular composers contain the works of J. S. Bach; there are more entries for Bach than any other composer (except Mozart) in OCLC's comprehensive database of books and recordings; there are more recordings by Bach than any other composer for sale at our local Blockbuster Music store. . . .

"In his Lexicon J.G. Walther devoted four times as much space to Telemann as he did to his kinsman J. S. Bach . . ." [Grove, v. 18, p. 651] Two hundred years later The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians [Grove] has five times as many pages devoted to Bach as Telemann.

Johann Sebastian Bach was born in Eisenach, Germany, on March 21, 1685. He came from an extraordinarily musical family: members of all four of the preceding generations in the paternal line had been musicians -- as were 3 brothers, 2 uncles, 3 cousins, 7 nephews, and 14 second cousins (6 of his grandfather's brothers' sons and 8 of their sons). His mother and father both died when he was nine. He was taken in by his older brother, Johann Christoph, and at 15 went to study music at the Michaeliskirche Particularschule in Luneburg. In 1703 he was appointed organist for the Neukirche (Bonifaciuskirche) in Arnstadt. Three years later he was called before the Consistorium of the church and reprimanded by the Superintendant, Johann Christoph Olearius:

  "Complaints have been made to the Consistorium that you now accompany the hymns with surprising variations and irrelevant ornaments, which obliterate the melody and confuse the congregation. If you desire to introduce a theme against the melody, you must go on with it and not immediately fly off to another. And in no circumstances must you introduce a tonus contrarius." [quoted in Terry, p. 70]

In 1707 Bach left Arnstadt and served for a year as organist in Muhlhausen. There he married for the first time:

"Mr. Johann Sebastian Bach, duly appointed organist at the Church of St. Blasius in the Imperial Free City of Muhlhausen, still single, youngest surviving son and lawful issue of the late Mr. Johann Ambrosius Bach, Musician to the Prince of Saxe-Eisenach, and Mistress Maria Barbara, youngest daughter and lawful issue of the late Master Johann Michael Bach, organist in Gehren. Were united in marriage in Dornheim on October 17. The fees were remitted." [quoted in David, p. 56]

They would have seven children; four lived to maturity. In 1708 Bach went to Weimar where he spent the next nine years as Concertmeister and Court Organist to the Duke of Weimar.

He had written a few pieces at Arnstadt and Muhlhausen. At Weimar he started composing in earnest: the Orgelbuchlein, all but the last of the "Great" Chorale preludes, and the majority of the wonderful organ preludes and fugues.

In 1717 Bach moved to Cothen to serve as the Capellmeister in the court of Prince Leopold who (as Bach says in his letter to Erdmann quoted later) "both knew and loved music". "When Bach went to Cothen secular instrumental music was only on the threshold of an independent existence. Most German princes had their private orchestra, or Capelle, but instrumental music had for long been under the ban of the Church, . . ." [Terry, p. 122]

It was at Cothen that Bach composed "Six Concertos with Several Instruments, Dedicated to His Royal Highness, Monseigneur Christian Ludwig, Margrave of Brandenburg &. &. &. by His very humble and obediant servant, Johann Sebastian Bach, Capellmeister of His Most Serene Highness the Reigning Prince of Anhalt-Cothen." There is no evidence the concertos were ever performed by their recipient. "In the catalogue of his library, which contained many things of value, Bach's score was not deemed worthy of mention, and after Markgraf's death in 1734, was assembled with other manuscripts for sale in a job lot. . . Bach, however, retained a copy of the score and performed the music at Cothen." [Terry, p. 135]

In 1720 his first wife (Maria) died and 18 months later he married again: Anna Magdalena, 20 years old, youngest daughter of Johann Casper Wulken, Court Trumpeter to the Duke of Weissenfels. They would have 13 children; six of them lived to maturity. If you have -- as I did -- the uneasy feeling that a man who fathers 20 children must be some kind of sex maniac, the youth of his second wife should be noted. Whereas most men (having just a single wife) have only 15 to 20 productive years, Bach had 30. Such fertility is impressive but not superhuman. Bach's production of music was superhuman; his production of children was merely remarkable.

Besides the Brandenburg Concertos, Bach composed many other instrumental pieces at Cothen: the violin concertos, the unaccompanied partitas and sonatas for viola and cello, sonatas for flute and violin, and the sonatas for clavier and violin/viola da gamba.

He also continued with his keyboard music: The Clavierbuchlein for Wilhelm Friedemann Bach <his son>, the first book of the Well-Tempered Clavier, and some of the French Suites.

In 1723 Bach left Cothen to become Cantor and Director Musices at St. Thomas's in Leipzig. He would remain there for the rest of his life.

Bach produced the St. John's Passion in 1723 and the St. Matthew's Passion in 1729. Though certainly of high quality and grand in scope, with marvelous individual arias and choruses, taken in their entireties, they lack the magic of Bach's other work. Giving life to long sections of the Gospels was a dramatic challenge Bach did not seem up to. He produced most of his cantatas during this period, the Sanctus of the Mass in B Minor and most of the outstanding clavier concertos.

As can be seen from this letter in 1732 to Georg Erdmann (one of his few surviving personal letters to anyone) Bach was not entirely happy with the situation:

 "Your honor will have the goodness to excuse an old and faithful servant for taking the liberty of disturbing you with the present letter. It must be nearly four years since Your Honor favored me with a kind answer to the letter I sent you; I remember that at that time you graciously asked me to give you some news of what had happened to me, and I humbly take this opportunity of providing you with the same. You know the course of my life from my youth up until the change in my fortunes that took me to Cothen as Capellmeister. There I had a gracious Prince, who both loved and knew music, and in his service I intended to spend the rest of my life. It must happen, however, that the said Serenissimus should marry a Princess of Berenburg, and that then the impression should arise that the musical interests of the said Prince had become somewhat lukewarm, especially as the new Princess seemed to be unmusical; and it pleased God that I should be called hither to be Director Musices and Cantor at the Thomas-Schule. Though at first, indeed, it did not seem at all proper to me to change my position of Capellmeister for that of Cantor. Wherefore, then, I postponed my decision for a quarter of a year; but this post was described to me in such favorable terms that finally (particularly since my sons seemed inclined to [university] studies) I cast my lot, in the name of the Lord, and made the journey to Leipzig, took my examination, and then made the change of position. Here, by God's will, I am still in service. But since (1) I find that the post is by no means so lucrative as it had been described to me; (2) I have failed to obtain many of the fees pertaining to the office; (3) the place is very expensive; and (4) the authorities are odd and little interested in music, so that I must live amid almost continual vexation, envy, and persecution; accordingly I shall be forced, with God's help, to seek my fortune elsewhere. Should Your Honor know or find a suitable post in our city for an old and faithful servant, I beg you most humbly to put in a most gracious word of recommendation for me--I shall not fail to do my best to give satisfaction and justify your most gracious intercession in my behalf. My present post amounts to about 700 thaler, and when there are rather more funerals than usual, the fees rise in proportion; but when a healthy wind blows, they fall accordingly, as for example last year, when I lost fees that would ordinarily come in from funerals to an amount of more than 100 thaler. In Thuringia I could get along better on 400 thaler than here with twice that many, because of the excessively high cost of living.

Now I must add a little about my domestic situation. I am married for the second time, my late wife having died in Cothen. From the first marriage I have three sons and one daughter living, whom Your Honor will graciously remember having seen in Weimar. From the second marriage I have one son and two daughters living. My eldest son is a Studiosus Juris, and of the other two [from the first marriage], one is in the prima class [the last class of school] and the other in the secunda, and the eldest daughter is also still unmarried. The children of my second marriage are still small, the eldest, a boy, being six years old. But they are all born musicians, and I can assure you that I can already form an ensemble both vocaliter and intrumentaliter within my family, particularly since my present wife sings a good clear soprano, and my eldest daughter, too, joins in not badly. I shall almost transgress the bounds of courtesy if I burden Your Honor any further, and I therefore hasten to close, remaining with most devoted respect my whole life long

Your Honor's most obediant and devoted servant

JOH. SEBAST. BACH" [quoted in David, pp. 125-6]

In 1733 Bach petitioned his king, the Elector of Poland and Saxony, at the (Catholic) court in Dresden to grant him the title/position of "Compositeur to His Polish Majesty's Cappelle". Bach's primary purpose seems to have been to increase his power in relation to the Leipzig Council. He describes his situation as " . . . <one> in which I have been constantly exposed to undeserved affronts, . . . annoyances not likely to recur should your Majesty be pleased to admit me to your Cappelle and direct a Praedicat to be issued to that effect by the proper authority. . . ." [quoted in Terry, p. 216] His petition was accompanied by the Kyrie and Gloria of the Mass in B Minor. They were never performed. Bach received the title anyway in 1736.

The following "Letter from an Able Musikant Abroad", dated May 14, 1737, written by the eminent theoretician Johann Adolph Scheibe and included in his Critischer Musikus, is an example of how some contemporaries felt about Bach:

"He <Bach> is an extraordinary artist on the clavier and on the organ, . . . I have heard this great man play on various occasions. One is amazed at his ability and one can hardly conceive how it is possible for him to achieve such agility, with his fingers and with his feet, in the crossings, extensions, and extreme jumps that he manages, without mixing in a single wrong tone, or displacing his body by any violent movement.

This great man would be the admiration of whole nations if he had more amenity, if he did not take away the natural element in his pieces by giving them a turgid and confused style, and if he did not darken their beauty by an excess of art. . . . All the voices must work with each other and be of equal difficulty, and none of them can be recognized as the principal voice. . . . one admires the onerous labor and uncommon effort -- which, however, are vainly employed, since they conflict with Nature." [quoted in David, p. 238]

Bach was ably defended by various collegues, but the whole thing shows the difficulties with which he was faced.

Though the Mass would seem to be a form equally as prescribed as the Passion, it actually offered Bach much more freedom. Bach was able to take the relatively few words central to each section and elaborate on them musically as he wished. Witness the magnificent Mass in B Minor. The Sanctus was written in the 1720's, the Symbolum Nicenum in 1732, the Kyrie and Gloria, (as noted above) in 1733. In the late 1740's Bach added the final sections and reworked the earlier ones.    Click   here   to listen to the powerful Sanctus [Dunedin Consort & Players].   Another good Sanctus   (Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Concentus musicus Wien, bigger chorus).   The entire Harnencourt Mass in B Minor .

Also during this final decade Bach wrote the marvelous, hypnotic "Goldberg" Variations (to help an insomniac prince get to sleep), "Schubler's Book" of choral preludes (for the organ), the "Musical Offering", and the Art of the Fugue.

Johann Nicolaus Forkel was Bach's earliest biographer. In On Johann Sebastian Bach's Life, Genius, and Works (1802) he summarized Bach's career:

"Bach did not make what is called a brilliant success in the world. He had, on the one hand, a lucrative office, but he had, on the other, a great number of children to maintain and to educate from the income of it. He neither had nor sought other resources. He was too much occupied with his business and his art to think of pursuing those ways which, perhaps, for a man like him, especially in his times, would have led to a gold mine. If he had thought fit to travel, he would (as even one of his enemies said) have drawn upon himself the admiration of the whole world. But he loved a quiet domestic life, constant and uninterrupted occupation with his art, and he was, as we have said of his ancestors, a man of few wants." [quoted in David, pp. 335-6]

Music was central to the orthodox Lutheran religion in which Bach believed. The following quotation from Martin Luther's "Table Talk" is representative:

"God has created man for the express purpose of praising and extolling Him. However, when man's natural ability is whetted and polished to the extent that it becomes art, then do we note with great surprise the great and perfect wisdom of God in music, which is after all his product and gift. . . ." [Luther]

The following is an imaginary dialog between the author ("LF") and Bach ("JSB").

 <Leipzig, 1749>

LF: Herr Kantor. My name is Lucius Furius. I was wondering if I might speak with you briefly.

JSB: I am very busy. . . . But, yes, . . . Who are you? Where do you come from?

LF: Let's just say I'm a lover of music.

JSB: Why so mysterious? . . . . Oh, well, a lover of music is always welcome in this house. . . .

LF: Are you well? I hear that your eyesight has been failing.

JSB: Yes, it's true. I can barely see any more.

LF: Herr Kantor, are you happy with what you have achieved?

JSB: Yes. My sons and my other pupils like Krebs and Altnikol are making a go of it and carrying on our music and my daughter is happily married now -- it's all very gratifying.

LF: But your own music? What of that?

JSB: Oh, yes. A man works each day putting what God has given him to the best use possible. For the Bachs the highest calling has always been to glorify God through music.

LF: I heard you once said that if other men worked as just hard as you, they could be just as good at music as yourself. . . . Do you really think this is true?

JSB: Yes. I think that the harder one works, the more one wants to achieve, the more God will give one the tools, the inspiration, necessary to that achievement.

LF: I understand from your complaints to the Town Council that there was a lack of decent musicians and instruments here at St. Thomas's. Do you still feel that way?

JSB: Yes, even more so; it's scandalous how far they've let things fall. . . .

LF: You wrote a letter to Georg Erdmann a while back trying to find something better. I guess that didn't work out?

JSB: No. . . --how do you know anything about this letter to Erdmann?

LF: Don't you think you deserved something better?

JSB: Yes, I do. But I don't think this lack of interest in traditional music is unique to Leipzig. I'm not sure there's anywhere I would have fared any better. . . .

LF: How would you say that your concertos (such as those you dedicated to the Margrave of Brandenburg or your violin concertos) differ from those of Vivaldi which are so popular these days?

JSB: How do you know anything of these concertos? . . . . That was a long time ago. . . . My concertos are more developed in their harmony and counterpoint; to my taste they are deeper and more pleasing, but, of course, other men may have other tastes.

LF: Why haven't you engraved more of your work?

JSB: I have printed the music which I feel will be of use to future students. I'm very close to finishing a work on the fugue which I will be publishing soon.

LF: How about the concertos? How about the passion music and the cantatas?

JSB: I don't believe they have the educational value these other works do -- and who would buy them? This is not the kind of music people want these days.

LF: Don't you think your music deserves to be more widely known?

JSB: Yes, I suppose. But I don't believe I should spend time publicizing it. My music is here. Men have heard it. They are welcome to it. I have been somewhat surprised that more people haven't wanted to copy it or print it. But my job is creating music. My days are filled completely with the creating of music.

LF: What about this Mass in B Minor? Why did you make something that would never be heard?

JSB: How do you know anything about this Mass in B Minor? -- I did offer it to the Dresden Court you know. . . . I wanted to create a balanced work, a complete work. I did it for the glory of God and my own satisfaction. I don't believe He requires that music be played; He can hear it anyway....

LF: How would you like to be remembered?

JSB: As a man who glorified God through music.


Bach died on July 28, 1750. What people said about him can be found in the quotations at the beginning of this chapter. What his townsmen and countrymen thought of him can be seen in their treatment of his widow:

[Anna Magdalena's] resources were pitifully augmented by the payment to her of 21 th. 21 gr., due to Bach for salary at the time of his death, and an equal amount for the surrender of her claim to occupy the Cantor's quarters in the Thomasschule for six months thereafter. Her own children as yet were unable to maintain her, while her stepsons do not appear to have admitted an obligation to do so. Yet, her indigence was notorious: on 19 May 1752 the civic Council paid her 40 th. "in view of her poverty", and as the sum also covered the purchase of "certain pieces of music", was seemingly reduced to selling her husband's manuscripts. [Terry, pp. 276-7]

She died in 1760 and was placed in the burial-ground where her husband "lay in a grave whose locality already was fading from the memory of the community he served." [Terry, p. 277]

But we mustn't be too harsh on these townspeople: though Bach was brilliant at teaching and inspiring individual students, he probably really didn't do that well with the masses he was supposed to instruct not just in music but in a number of other subjects as well. . . . And it was not just his fellow Leipzigers but many, many other Germans and visitors from other countries who heard him perform his work in Leipzig and in Weimar, Cothen, Hamburg, Dresden, and Berlin. They recognized the genius of his playing, but failed to recognize the genius of what he played and wrote. He was too provincial, too "old-fashioned". This was the age of Voltaire, the Age of Reason! Mankind was advancing!

If the stories of many other artists teach us the danger of failing to be open to new forms, radical innovations, the response of Bach's contemporaries teaches us the corollary: the failure to be open to the past; the too-quick assumption that old forms are bankrupt. And the failure to recognize genius in religious people -- people reluctant to accept such a title for themselves or their work. Religious belief can be deadly to science, but is in no way incompatible with great art. With an inward peace and spiritual equilibrium foreign to modern people (and many of his contemporaries as well), Bach took life's joys, love, enmities, tragedy and -- never straining, never prettifying, always in tune -- let them flow through him into music. Music as clear, and compelling in its motion, as water flowing in a mountain brook. . . .

Bach did not consider himself a genius. The sad truth is that many times we can not recognize someone as a genius unless he first applies for the position --or has some champion who does so for him. . . . The poignancy of the situation is not in Bach's suffering (of which there is little evidence) but in the strange, inscrutable, amazing fact that, in his lifetime, he and his music had no such champion.


David, Hans T. and Arthur Mendel. The Bach Reader: A Life of J. S. Bach in Letters and Documents. New York: W. W. Norton, 1945.

 <Grove> The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. London: Macmillan, 1980. ISBN: 0-333-23111-2.

 Luther, Martin. "Table Talk" in Martin Luther, Selections from His Writings (ed. John Dillenberger). Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1961.

 Terry, Charles Sanford. Bach; a Biography. London: Oxford University Press, 1933.

Bach on the Web

J.S. Bach Home Page The key Bach site; by Jan Koster and Jan Hanford. Note: The preceding is a link to an archived version of the website. The original (at is no longer available and is no longer being updated.

Bach Central Station The most links.

Bach Cantatas A comprehensive site covering all aspects of Bach's cantatas and other vocal works. Contains discussions and detailed discographies of each cantata and other vocal works, performers and general topics. The site also includes texts and translations, scores, articles and interviews, and short biographies of more than 1200 performers of Bach vocal works (singers, conductors, vocal and instrumental groups).

Sebastian A fascinating youtube cartoon series [in progress] about the life of J.S. Bach, by Peter Fielding A good Dutch page.

Do you know of art --especially contemporary art available through the Web-- which expresses genuine feeling? Email me: Lucius @

Copyright © Lucius Furius 1997; updated:
2001 (link corrected)
July, 2012 (change to "")
June, 2017 (reformat page; add background audio)
March, 2018 (Added link to Dunedin "Sanctus")
Jan, 2019 (Added link to "Sebastian" cartoon series)
Jan, 2019 (Added Harnoncourt B-Minor links)

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