Johann Sebastian Bach was born on March 21st l685, the son of Johann Ambrosius, court trumpeter for the Duke of Eisenach and director of the musicians of the town of Eisenach in Thuringia. His famous uncle, Johann Christoph Bach, was organist at the Georgenkirche.
For many years, members of the Bach family throughout Thuringia had held positions such as organists, town instrumentalists, or Cantors, and the family name enjoyed a wide reputation for musical talent.
Following a period as organist at Arnstadt (during which his extended absence without leave in Lübeck occasioned the Council's displeasure), and a one-year period at Mühlhausen, the now 23-year-old Bach took up his first major post as Court Organist and member of the Chamber Orchestra with the Ducal Court at Weimar, a town of 5000 inhabitants. His employer, Duke Wilhelm-Ernst of Sachsen-Weimar, was one of the most distinguished and cultured nobles of his time. Bach's early cantatas would have been performed in the Castle Chapel (below right). During this period he also composed organ chorales and some early organ preludes.
A domestic dispute between the Duke and his younger cousin in the nearby Rote Schloss prevented Bach from making music there. He decided to move on, obtaining a position at Cöthen with Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen. There was no sacred music at this Calvinist court, but Bach wrote much harpsichord and chamber music here. The orchestra was of a high caliber, and the young prince abandoned protocol to join with his musicians on equal terms.
Bach had been very happy at Cöthen. As he wrote to his old school-friend, Erdmann, 'There I had a gracious Prince as master, who knew music as well as he loved it, and I hoped to remain in his service until the end of my life'. However this was not to be. Again it was a domestic matter within the Court which caused Bach to leave. The Prince married, and the new Princess was not in favor of her husband's musical activities. She managed, by exerting constant pressure (as Bach wrote in a letter), to 'Make the musical inclination of the said Prince somewhat luke-warm'.
The position of Cantor at Leipzig had been favorably described to Bach, and as the town offered the necessary educational facilities for his sons, he applied and was accepted for the post. He moved with his family and belongings to Leipzig on May 22, 1723, where for the remaining 27 years of his life he was to live and work as Cantor, or Directore Chori Musici Lipsiensis - Director of Choir and Music in Leipzig. Here he composed the majority of his cantatas as well as major choral works, the Masses, Passions and the Magnificat.
With a population of 30,000, Leipzig was the second city of Saxony, the center of the German printing and publishing industries, an important European trading center, and site of a progressive and famous university. It was also one of the foremost centers of German cultural life, with magnificent private dwellings, streets well paved and illuminated at night, a recently opened municipal library, a majestic town hall, and a vibrant social life. Outside its massive town walls were elegant tree-lined promenades and extensive formal gardens. The three-times-yearly Trade Fair transformed the city into a show-ground mixing business with pleasure, and members of the Royal Court would visit from Dresden. Many international trade and cultural connections were established, and the city kept abreast of the latest in European musical tastes and compositions. He was already known far and wide as a brilliant organist and technician; he was frequently invited to test new instruments, for which he composed further organ works.
During the 1730s Bach provided music, his own or that of other contemporary composers, for the weekly concerts and recitals given in Zimmermann's Coffee House and Gardens. His harpsichord concertos would have been very popular, performed on Zimmermann's celebrated instruments. This excerpt is from a concerto for four harpsichords. The Second Book of the 48 Preludes and Fugues was also composed at this time, together with other clavier works of a more educational nature. Moving into the 1740s, he began to retire from public life, though he did make the celebrated journey to the court of King Frederick the Great at Potsdam where, during one of the King's evening concerts, he played the King's Silbermann forte pianos and elaborated on the King's Theme to produce the Musical Offering.
During his latter years Bach turned almost wholly to academic works, perhaps in an attempt to summarize his contrapuntal arts. The Musical Offering, the Goldberg Variations, Canonic Variations and the Art of the Fugue were among his last compositions and represent the summit of baroque composition. He died on the 28th of July, 1750, 'in the evening, after a quarter to nine, in the sixty-fifth year of his life, yielding up his blessed soul to his savior'.