Behind the Scenes of Music History – JS Bach

bachJust about everyone in the Bach family was a great musician but nobody was better the Johann Sebastian. Johann’s mom died when he was nine and his dad a year later. So Johann was shipped off to the little town of Ohrdruf to live with his brother Johann Christoph, who was an organist and a pupil of Johann Pachelbel. Because money was scarce, Johann was sent to the choir school St Michael in Luneberg. The rules stated that the singers had to be the “offspring of poor people, with nothing to live on, but possessing good voices”. He seemed to fit the criteria.

The school paid for his tuition, room and board and gave him candles and firewood. When his voice broke, rumour has it he sang and spoke in octaves for a week. That would have been an interesting effect. Anyway, he was kept busy playing violin, viola and organ.

After Bach had learned all that he could, he asked permission to travel to Lubeck. He wanted to hear the Danish Organist Dietrich Buxtehude. They weren’t terribly keen on the idea but they gave him four weeks off his job as the choir teacher. He walked 200 miles to Lubeck and had a wonderful time. It turns out that Buxtehude was looking at retiring so he offered the gig to Bach, on one condition, he had to marry Buxtehude’s daughter Anna Margreta who was nearly 30. Bach was only 20, however, it seemed reasonably acceptable, considering that’s how Buxtehude got the job in the first place. But alas, Bach had other plans and said, thanks but no thanks. So did Matheson and Handel by the way. It wasn’t the sort of fringe benefit they had in mind.

When Bach returned, the congregation was not very happy with him. He came back with all these fancy ideas about playing hymn tunes with lots of extra notes and ornamentation. They couldn’t find the melody. He was told to cut it out and keep things simply, so he did. Too simple.

It turns out Bach wasn’t interested in Buxtehude’s daughter because he had his eye one someone closer to home – Maria Barbara Bach, his second cousin on this father’s side. She was an orphan living with her aunt and uncle. She was a cute as a button and a lovely soprano. Pretty soon the church authorities noticed that the two of them were spending a lot of time together in the organ loft, alone! So all things considered, they married and moved to Muhlhausen. 14 years later, Maria had died. During this time, Bach and Maria moved around and lot and Bach composed a lot.

After Maria died, Bach married again, this time to Anna Magdalena Wulcken. She was 16 years younger than he, a good singer and copyist. After a while, her handwriting began to look like his. Very handy I say considering he spent a month in prison after angering his boss, Duke Wilhelm Ernst of Saxe-Weimar.  So in 1723, Bach and his new wife packed up all their possessions and the kiddies (there were seven by this time) and moved to Leipzig. Bach was very busy at Leipzig but he still managed to compose nearly 300 cantatas, his B Minor Mass and the St Matthew Passion.

In his later years, Bach was nearly blind and his health was declining. An English occulist, John Taylor, attempted surgery on Bach’s eyes bit it did no good. The operation left him completely blind. Suddenly on July 18, 1750, Bach’s eyesight was miraculously restored, but he suffered a stroke and died ten days later. Anna never remarried and tried to struggle along on a measly pension. She died a bag lady in the streets of Leipzig.

In mystical numerology B equals 2, A equals 1, C equals 3 and H equals 8: the sum, as you might guess, is 14. Both 14 and its mirror 41 —the number obtained by adding the numerical value J and S to the computation— were among Bach’s favourite and  they are hidden countless times within the notes and musical structure of Bach’s music. Need an example? There are 14 Canons in the Goldberg Variations and 14 Contrapuncti in the Art of Fugue.

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