Johann Sebastian Bach
Johann Sebastian Bach
Johann Sebastian Bach is generally thought of as one of the greatest composers of all time. He was born in Eisenach, Germany in 1685, and he learned to play many instruments throughout his life. He was especially well-known as a composer and as an organist. He is probably the most famous musician from the "Baroque" era. (This term applies to music written in the 1600s and the first half of the 1700s.)
Listen to this Toccata (the first section from "Toccata and Fugue in D minor.") Have you heard this piece before? (It's often heard at Halloween!) Pay attention to the organ; notice how the sound changes whenever the performer activates a "stop" (one of the big switches). Also notice how many different keyboards the performer has to use (including one for his feet)!
Bach composed over 1,100 pieces in his lifetime. He composed for keyboard instruments, for voices, for orchestra, and for solo instruments of all kinds! One of Bach's most famous pieces for a solo instrument is the first movement to his Cello Suite No. 1. A suite is a group of shorter pieces that are usually played back to back to form a longer musical composition. This movement is called "Prelude" and serves as an introduction to the rest of the suite.
Have you ever played a string instrument before? (The most common ones we see today are violins, viola, cellos, and basses.)
Bach worked for many years as the music director at Lutheran churches in Germany. In addition to teaching students how to sing or play instruments, Bach was responsible for composing music for the musicians at the church to perform each Sunday. Some of Bach's most beautiful music is written for small orchestras (such that a church in that time might have had) and soloists or choirs. Here's a famous moment from a Cantata that he wrote for one of these church services.
Have you ever been inside a cathedral? Imagine this music filling the cathedral where Bach worked! (See the picture below of St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, Germany.)
Bach's music is often made up of many shorter movements. This piece, a "Badinerie" (that means "joke"), is one of seven movements that are performed together as a suite.
Notice the size of the orchestra in this video. Have you been to a Seattle Symphony concert before? Do you notice that this group is much smaller, doesn't have a conductor, and has some uncommon instruments in it? Can you name all the instruments that you see?
You might have noticed that many of the instruments in the videos you watched are not instruments you see very often nowadays! (Most importantly, you haven't heard any pianos in these videos!). Remember: the piano hadn't even been invented yet when Bach was born!
Bach wrote a lot of music for the harpsichord, and many people play that music on the modern piano now. But the piano sounds very different and changes the way the music sounds. Listen to these two versions of the same piece; first listen to how it might have sounded when Bach played in on the harpsichord. Then compare that to the sound when you listen to it performed on a modern piano!
The Minuet in G Major is a piece that most piano students learn; for many students it's the first thing they play by Bach! But did you know that Bach didn't actually write this music?! For over 200 years, people thought that Bach was the composer of this song, but it has now been discovered that it was actually composed by a man named Christian Petzold.
This song was included in the famous "Anna Magdalena Bach Notebook." This notebook was a large collection of hand-written music that Bach presented to his wife, Anna Magdalena. because Bach had written down this music by hand in the notebook, many people assumed he had been the original composer! Have you ever tried to write down music by hand before?
Musicians often love performing Bach's music because it is beautiful and complex. This piece is another famous one; his Concerto for 2 Violins in D minor. This composition, like most concertos, is in 3 movements. (Remember, a concerto is a piece for a soloist accompanied by orchestra. In this case, there are two soloists!) Notice how complicated all the different instrumental parts are but how they all come together to create beautiful music.
One other thing to notice is the importance of the harpsichord in this style of music. The harpsichord is almost like the "engine" for the orchestra; it keeps the music moving forward!
Bach was not only busy composing and performing music during his life; did you know that Bach had 20 children?!?
Several of Bach's children became famous composers, too. For this last entry in the "Composer of the Month Club" for April, let's listen to a few pieces by 2 of Bach's most famous children!
Johann Christian Bach: This son of Bach eventually moved to England, where he became known as "John Bach" or "The London Bach!"
Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach: During the 1700s, CPE Bach was even more famous than his father! Some of his music is still very famous to this day, including this "Solfeggietto" in C minor!
You've learned about Johann Sebastian Bach! His music is so beautiful that I wish I had more than a month to share it with you!