by Rita Juhl, Becketwood Member
A mid-November Becketwood Vespers service featured the sublime music of J. S. Bach, with organist Rita Juhl. Rita's Meditation informed us about Bach’s life journeys and challenges.
An enormous number of people would evaluate J. S. Bach as being one of the most influential musicians of all time. His music has lasted throughout the years, and it is a huge gift to all people who have the good fortune to perform and/or to hear his vocal and instrumental music.
He was born in Eisenacht, Germany in 1685, to a family of musicians. His mother died when he was nine and his father died the following year. He went to live with an older brother, Johan Christoff, who was an excellent musician. This brother was very protective of his extensive music library, which he kept under lock and key, and he refused to share his music with his little brother, Johan Sebastian. However, the youngster found a way to open the lock, and for six months he crept into the library in the middle of the night and copied the valuable manuscripts by moonlight.
At the age of fifteen, Bach and a friend were awarded scholarships to a prestigious school in Luneburg. The walk there was a distance of 200 miles. Fortunately, they were both hired as choirboys at St. Michael’s Church, and Bach began his illustrious musical career. In 1703, at the age of eighteen, Bach secured a position as organist at Arnstadt, where his salary was $50.00 per year. Here, on a new organ, he was free to expand his love of music through writing and performing his compositions. Later that year, King Ferdinand arranged a contest between the young Bach and an older, famous organist named Louis Marchand, who was the organist to Louis XV of France. On Marchand’s arrival, he heard Bach practicing, and when it was time for the contest, Marchand was not to be found. He had left the town and gone home!
Bach married Maria Barbara when he was 22, and they had seven children, but three of them died in infancy. When he was returning from a tour with Prince Leopold, he learned that his dear wife had died after a short illness, and had been buried before he could be informed of her death. In 1721 he married Anna Magdalena, an accomplished soprano, who was a source of great inspiration to him for the next 31 years. They had thirteen children, six of whom reached adulthood. Two of the sons, Wilhelm Friedemann and Carl Philipp Emmanuel, became quite famous musicians in their own time. Bach put together a collection of beginning keyboard compositions for Anna Magdalena, for her to use in her study of music. I think it quite remarkable that she could find time to learn to play the harpsichord, when she had thirteen children to care for!
Bach wrote an enormous amount of music—over 1000 works, some of which were very large in scope. It is said that a copyist would need 70 years, working five days a week, to copy all of the music that Bach wrote in his lifetime. What is so remarkable is that all the music is breathtakingly complex, beautiful, and perfect. His organ works, his choral music, keyboard music, and orchestra arrangements stand at the top of music literature. Sadly, during his lifetime he was most famous as an organist—his compositions were performed, but not truly appreciated. In fact, his two sons felt that their father's music was hopelessly old-fashioned! We can thank Felix Mendelssohn for rediscovering the treasure of Bach’s music in the early 1800s. While living in Leipzig, Bach would write a cantata for each Sunday of the church year. Imagine being in his choir and having to learn a new cantata each week! He would also write a new organ piece to play each Sunday.
His eyesight failed in later years, and an unsuccessful eye operation to try to restore his sight led to his death on July 23, 1750. He was 65 years old. We are the lucky recipients of an immense wealth of music written by this remarkable genius.