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Johann Sebastian Bach was a composer and musician, who was born in Germany in the year 1685. He came from a family of musicians and created numerous compositions during his illustrious career. He lived during the Baroque era, and his compositions were characterized by stylistic innovations that made him one of the greatest and most versatile composers of his time.
Today, he is remembered for some of his compositions that include “Toccata and Fugue in D-minor”, “Mass in B Minor”, “The Well-Tempered Clavier”, and “The Brandenburg Concertos.” His mastery of composition established and enhanced German styles primarily due to his mastery of harmonic and counterpoint organization and adoption of different rhythms, forms, and textures of foreign music. His numerous cantatas created his legacy as one of the greatest composers in the Western world.
Musical Family Lineage
Bach’s childhood was critical in the development of his musical genius. As mentioned earlier, he was born in a family with a long music lineage. For instance, his father, Johann Ambrosius Bach was a music director and instructor in their town (Geck 45). He gave him a strong music foundation that included music theory and guidance on how to play the violin. His uncles have also established artists as they composed music and performed in churches and courts. Bach was introduced to the organ by his uncle, Johann Christoph Bach, who offered lessons that ignited his interest in music (Geck 45). He was greatly influenced by his cousin, Johann Ludwig Bach, who was a versatile composer and violinist.
Bach went to school at the age of 7, and like other children during his time, he received religious instruction and studied Latin that later shaped his music career. His Lutheran faith played a key role in influencing his compositions (Leaver 72). He was orphaned before he turned 10 owing to the sudden death of both parents, after which his older brother Christoph became his guardian (Geck 45).
In addition to taking care of him, Christoph offered Bach music lessons that supplemented the knowledge that he had received from their father. Bach’s strong soprano voice played an important role in securing his admission to St. Michael’s School in Luneburg (Jones 64). Bach gained interest in the violin and the harpsichord, and his stay at the school introduced him to several aspects of the European culture. Bach was a member of the choir and he played the organ during performances (Geck 45). His voice also changed and was the main factor that determined the genre of music that he chose to pursue.
During his formative years, Bach was influenced by the works of George Bohm. Bohm was his organ teacher and played an influential role as his mentor (Geck 45). Their interactions offered Bach access to great music resources. For example, he used St. John’s Church organ for practice and had the opportunity to see Johann Adam Reincken perform. He was a musical genius and he landed his first job at the age of 18.
Bach’s talent was evident from his mastery of the organ and the violin, as well as the great pieces that he composed. He was a great performer, and his talent landed him a job as a court musician in the chapel of Duke Johann Ernst (Jones 68). He worked there for seven months, and his reputation as a great musician spread. He was invited to give his opinion on a new organ that the New Church had purchased, which secured him the position of organist at the church in Arnstadt. His responsibility was to provide music for religious services, offer instruction to choir members, and create music for special church events (Jones 71).
Bach was on numerous occasions criticized by church leaders for failing to prepare his students properly before singing during church services. Bach was dissatisfied with the low-quality singers that comprised the church choir. His strong family connections did little to remedy the situation and tension between him and his employer built up over time. The criticism angered Bach, and as a result, he abdicated his job for several months and traveled to Lubeck to visit Dietrich Buxtehude (Geck 45).
After spending time there, he decided to move away from Arnstadt and secured a job at the Blasius Church in Muehlhausen. A part of his application involved the performance of a cantata. His new job was more satisfying than his former ones because he was paid more and the choir had better singers. His complex music style was poorly received by the church’s pastor who believed that church music was supposed to be simple. His famous composition “Actus Tragicus” was created during this period (Leaver 76).
He returned to Weimar in 1708 and served as an organist and music director at the ducal court where his music career flourished and his most productive composing years officially commenced. During his stay in Weimar, Bach composed many keyboards and orchestral works (Geck 45). He learned how to incorporate dynamic motor rhythms and harmonic schemes from foreign music into his works (Marschall 46). He performed widely and used the organ for his compositions. He also created several preludes and fugues and wrote a book about mastering the organ.
Bach’s music style was highly influenced and dictated by the conventions of the Baroque period, which was characterized by the creation of music on specific keys (Swain 76). During the baroque period, composers were required to possess the skills to create solo melodic lines and accompaniment parts. He followed in the footsteps of his contemporaries by writing concertos, suites, and four-part choral music (Marschall 52).
His music was unique because of his mastery of motivic control and contrapuntal invention (Jones 83). Moreover, he was great at improvising at the keyboard and combining several aspects of different music genres into his compositions (Swain 79). He notated the details of his melodic lines and his harmony was achieved by varying the music key for a few beats and returning to the original key (Marschall 54). His music was eclectic and energetic and highly influenced by European composers. He incorporated several aspects of French, Italian, and German music into his works (Jones 88). Most of his compositions were religious, owing to his involvement in the Lutheran faith during his childhood.
Influence on Contemporary Music
Bach died nearly 300 years ago. However, his talent and musical genius are revered around the world and his style is the gold standard in classical music. He is considered as the ultimate composer, whose influence exceeds that of other great composers such as Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms, Mahler, Monteverdi, and Mendelssohn (Marschall 35). Bach’s influence on contemporary music genres such as jazz, hip-hop, and soul are immense. Several artists have sampled Bach’s works in their music. For example, the song “Everything’s Gonna Be Fine” by Sweetbox contains a sample of Bach’s Orchestral Suite No 3.
Popular artists that have been influenced by Bach include Apollo 100, The Toys, The Beatles, The Beah Boys, Procol Harum, Xzibit, Jethro Tull, Winston George, and Paul Simon (Marschall 65). The aforementioned artists have sampled Bach’s works in their music. For example, Jethro Tull’s (rock) Bouree was composed based on Suite in E major while Xzibit’s (hip hop) Symphony in X major was based on Brandenburg #3 (Marschall 67). In that regard, Bach has influenced musicians in all contemporary genres.
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The influence that Bach had on classical and contemporary music periods is immense. His ability to turn grief into musical masterpieces endears him to contemporary musicians who have sampled his compositions in their songs. I believe that the losses he suffered during his childhood played a significant role in enhancing his creativity and musical genius. It is amazing how his music is widely appreciated around the world among contemporary and classical music enthusiasts 300 years after his death. His success can be attributed to his talent, passion, early introduction to music, family connections, and the training that he received from his family members.
Bach is revered today as one of the greatest composers of all time. His music genius can be attributed to his long family lineage of musicians, early instruction by his father, brother, and uncles, an introduction to the Lutheran faith. His music had many influences, including his faith, loss of parents at an early age, and the conventions of the Baroque period. He influenced many classical music artists through his ability to incorporate several aspects of foreign music into his compositions. His influence on contemporary music genres including jazz, hip hop, and soul is proof of his great legacy and music mastery. The complexity of his music continues to inspire and amaze artists.
Geck, Martin. Johan Sebastian Bach: Life and Work. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2006.
Jones, Richard DP. The Creative Development of Johann Sebastian Bach, Volume II: 1717-1750. Oxford University Press, 2013.
Leaver, Robin A. The Routledge Research Companion to Johann Sebastian Bach. Taylor & Francis, 2016.
Marschall, Rick. Johann Sebastian Bach. Thomas Nelson, 2011.
Swain, Joseph P. Historical Dictionary of Barosque Music. The Scarecrow Press, Inc, 2013.