Johann Sebastian Bach - His early life

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J. S. Bach

This is the first of many articles about the life of Johann Sebastian Bach. After which there will be more to follow chronicling the lives of his many gifted family members. The legacy of this remarkably talented family ranges for more than two centuries from the sixteenth-century miller Veit to Wilhelm Friedrich Ernst (1759 - 1845), Johann Sebastian's grandson. All totaled seven generations of musical genius. But for now we will start with the early adventures in Sebastian's life...

Inside the Georgenkirche church in Eisenach, Germany there stands a baptismal font erected in the year 1503. This relic, which still stands today after much repair following World War II arial bombardment, has been the site of many significant events through the centuries. It was on March 23, 1685 that the town musician Johann Ambrosius Bach had a son baptized under then name of Johann Sebastian. Pastors of this church still to this day refer to this event whenever a baby is christened here. Of the two godfathers, one, the town musician Sebastian Nagel, came all the way from the city of Gotha. The other, Johann Georg Koch, was a forester in Eisenach.

It seems deeply symbolical that Sebastian Bach was made a member of the Christian community in a church so richly steeped in German tradition and legend. Martin Luther was a choir boy at Georgenkirche while he lived in Eisenach (1498-1501). From St. George's pulpit Luther, on May 3, 1521, gave a much inspired sermon of defiance after returning from the fateful Reichstag at Worms. But even apart from such a meaningful historical consideration, the church meant much to the Eisenach Bachs as the center of their musical activities. Now, in the building in which the greatest of the older Bach generation had been serving for the past twenty years, the member of the family who wast to excel him was being baptized.

No definitive facts are known about Sebastian's childhood. But it seems safe to assume that he was taught to play stringed instruments my his father, while his uncle, Johann Christoph, started him on the organ. When he was 8 years old he entered the Eisenach Latin school, attending at the same time as two of his brothers and two of his cousins. Sebastien excelled quickly, soon surpassing and holding a position higher than his brother Jakob, who was three years his elder. He achieved this excellent progress in spite of his frequent absences. His love for music and its activities not the least of which were the cause of these absences.

Fortunate was the congregation of St. George's church to be able to enjoy the Sunday music provided by the Bachs, with Johann Christoph releasing magnificent sounds on the organ, Ambrosius performing masterly on stringed instruments, and little Sebastian singing in a lovely, pure soprano voice. All the while joined by their relatives who were equally talented musicians. And even more fortunate were the Bach children who grew up in this atmosphere of deeply rooted and natural musicianship!

Adversity Strikes

It was only for a brief time that Sebastian enjoyed the happiness and shelter from so many in his loving and gifted family. For at the age of 9 he lost his mother, and his father less than a year later. Now his family had to help. Both Sebastian and his brother Jakob began to live with their oldest brother, Johann Christoph (22 at the time). Christoph was an organist in the little town of Ohrdruf, not far from Eisenach. In accepting them Christoph also accepted the tradition of musical assistance. We can imagine, however, that this hospitality was not easy for him. Their relationships required some building at first, as Christoph has left home to study with Pachelbel shortly after Sebastian was born. He was also recently married, with a baby on the way. To add to the adversity of the situation thrust upon him, Christoph was awarded only a meager stipend by the Ohrduf counsel.

Sebastian did what he could to contribute to the household expenses during the five years he spent there. And his wages earned as a singer were not inconsiderable. But once again this work did not prevent young Sebastian from excelling at Ohrdruf's highly renowned Latin school. He became a senior at the age of 14, the average age of his classmates being 17.7 years. In this school he received thorough training in Latin and, in what was important for his subsequent religious attitudes, Lutheran orthodoxy. His keen mind permitted him to enjoy the intellectual gymnastics of theological dialects. This was to develop later into a hobby probably unique among composers, that of collecting theological books and pamphlets and reading them by way of relaxation from creative work.

These studies only touched the very tip of his wide awake mind. What really mattered to Sebastian was the thrilling voyage of exploration into the immense domain of music. At his brother's church, he acquired a great deal of practical knowledge when he witnessed the construction of a new organ.

There is a touching story of how Sebastian stole a volume of music by leading composers that his brother had denied him as being too advanced. Lacking candles, he painstakingly copied the book by moonlight, thus seriously injuring his eyes. Then after months of hard work late at night, he was discovered by his brother and his copy was taken from him.

A young man strikes out on his own

It grew increasingly clear that Sebastian must not remain in the town of Ohrdruf for much longer. His brother's home was becoming more and more crowded as his family continued to expand. And unlike other institutions of its kind, Sebastian's school would place needy children into the homes of well off citizens. Nor did he have the option to seek recourse from other family members, as the number of Bach musicians had sadly been reduced during the previous decades. So by necessity, he had to break away from his family ties. He probably did not mind this too much. A love of travel had broken out among many of the young Bachs, whose fathers had so steadfastly worked within the narrow confines of Thuringia. Around the turn of the century, J. Nicolaus (27) went to Italy, J. Christoph (28) and J. Ernst (25) to Northern Germany, and Sebastian's own brother, J. Jakob (23), was before long, to travel as far away as Turkey. It is not surprising that young Sebastian himself began to seek eagerly for opportunities for study in distant parts of Germany.

Luck, or fate, would have it that a new Cantor named Elias Herda had recently joined the Ohrdruf faculity. He held a scholarship at St. Michael's in the city of Lüneburg in Northern Germany and informed Sebastian that the church was seeking talented singers. Along with one of his friends, he traveled 200 miles to the town of Lüneburg. Lack of funds apparently did not discourage the two from attempting the journey. In early March 1700 the two eager young men, Bach not quite 15, and his friend Erdmann age 18, set out on their adventure to Lüneburg. They left Ohrdruf just in time, for the church registers tell of a terrible epidemic that struck the town soon after they left.

In April of 1700 the list of the Lüneburg Mettenchor mentions Bach among the sopranos. He received a monthly payment of 12 groschen. This is very little, but fortunately did not constitute his entire income. For he was entitled to a share in all income earned from singing in the streets, performing at weddings, tuners, etc. Furthermore, he received housing and a stipend of firewood and candles as compensation.

Performing at Lüneburg was in many ways very different from what it had been at Ohrdruf. The church of St. Michael was enormous. The educational opportunities were ideal for a youth with such a ravenous appetite for music. Ever since the first protestant Cantor had established a music collection at St. Michael's in 1555, the tradition had been faithfully continued. The Thuringian Cantor, Friedrich Emanuel Praetorius (1623 - 1695) in particular had done a great deal to expand this music collection. The printed music included 1100 manuscript compositions by 175 composers, among them even two members of Sebastian's family. Thus the church had huge resources on which to draw.

Not long after his arrival did Sebastian loose his soprano voice. This did not mean dismissal, as in Lüneburg it was the custom to let the scholarship boys continue as long as they could. It is significant that in the year 1700 the church only employed three instrumentalists. Fifteen year old Sebastian was chosen as a violinist in the orchestra and as an organist.

Added to a very heavy schedule of musical duties was the school curriculum. Here Sebastian studied religion, rhetoric, logic, Latin, and Greek. Since his teachers were orthodox Lutherans, the religious foundations initiated at Ohrdruf were greatly strengthened, and were to remain vitally important to Sebastian throughout his life.

o_God_thou_holly_God_excerpt_bach An excerpt from J. S. Bach's 'O God, Thou Holly God'; P.V/68, BWV 767. Written sometime before 1708.

In 1701 the excellent organ builder Johann Balthasar Held stayed at St. Michael's in order to undertake repairs to the church organ. Young Sebastian must have watched him with great interest, and listened to stories of other great organs on which Held had worked. The young Bach was thus able to add further to his store of knowledge regarding the construction of organs. A field in which he would later become the greatest authority.

Thus a variety of circumstances combine to give the young musical genius an abundance of different musical experiences. With passionate eagerness he absorbed them all until they all became a part of his own personality. At the same time nobody could have displayed a more fierce determination to absorb, and to exhaust to the uttermost limit, all the golden opportunities that were within his grasp.

eisenach_germany Eisenach, Germany. Where Johann Sebastian Bach was born and where members of his family served from 1665 to 1797. In the background on top of the hill is the Wartburg Castle. Engraving by Merian, 1650. Photo credit: The Bach Family by Karl Geiringer

Other Classic History articles on the life of J. S. Bach include:
  J. S. Bach - Years of Growth (1702-1706)
  Bach Family Tree


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J. S. Bach – His early life

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