This Rough Guide was compiled working closely with the renowned British classical label, Hyperion Records. The selection avoids a staid ‘Greatest Hits’ approach and showcases Bach’s inimitable genius in all its forms. The bonus album entitled, ‘Angela Hewitt Plays Bach’ spotlights the famous performer playing a range of Bach’s keyboard works, and allows the listener a deeper insight in to the music of the great composer.
J.S. Bach came from an established family of musicians in the German state of Thuringia. He went to school, lived and worked all over middle and north Germany – from his home town Eisenach to Berlin, Hamburg and Lübeck. The most important places he lived were Weimar, Köthen and Leipzig. In the former two cities, he worked for the local aristocracy; the city council of the latter hired him as head of music at the prominent St Thomas Church.
There is only one portrait of Bach that can be guaranteed as authentic. Painted in the 1740s by E.G. Haussmann, it shows a man in his fifties holding a sheet of paper (you can read the music on it – a six-part canon), with a nice, simple jacket, a round face, very alert eyes, a small, but confident smile and a very stiff white wig. Haussmann’s portrayal of Bach is as an elegant man, whom we can picture sitting at the organ in majestic churches or in nicely decorated rooms at a table with delicious food. The portrait suggests self-awareness, stability and wealth, and it fuelled the many clichés of Bach, his life and his music that still live on in the twenty-first century.
However, his life was not always in line with these clichés, as stability and wealth did not feature continuously in Bach’s life. When he was only 10, both his parents died and he had to move in with his older brother. As a man, he had seven children with his first wife, Maria Barbara, and his second wife gave birth to thirteen, but few of them survived infancy. Wealth also was not forthcoming for Bach and he had to work very hard to make a living.
But self-confidence was one of the clichés that was true. Bach could be a very inconvenient employee, especially when he felt that his art was being undermined. He was not shy of acting rough, either – he once got arrested and spent several weeks in jail. On the other hand, Bach was very well educated: he not only spoke Latin, but could teach it, as well.
So, looking beyond the portrait, there is more to the man with a stern face framed by a stiff wig. Bach could blow people’s wigs away with his temper, and with his music. He could improvise like no one else, which he was always eager to demonstrate. He was a master at the organ, harpsichord and every other keyboard instrument of his time, as well as being a very good violin and viola player.
As a composer, Bach was incredibly busy and diligent and, with the exception of opera, he composed in every other Baroque genre. He wrote for occasions such as birthday parties for dukes and princesses as well as funeral services. He created joyful concertos as background music for Friday-afternoon café guests, as well as totally secluded solo sonatas for violin or cello without any accompaniment. There is a cantata for every Sunday of the year. And there are huge cycles of piano music that are not only ingeniously wonderful and timeless compositions, but also marvellously crafted works, full of symmetry, symbolism and mysticism of numbers.
During his life, Bach also did a lot of travelling: even if his most important jobs were relatively close to home, he made visits to towns as far away as Hamburg or even Lübeck, all the journeys made on foot. At the end of his life blindness struck him, something that was not at all uncommon at the time, but for a man who wrote, read and made music it was a severe blow.
Although he was recognized as a very famous improviser, Bach was not recognized as a composer while he was alive. Soon after his death, he was more or less forgotten to a greater public. However, the composers that followed – such as Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin or Mendelssohn – knew of his genius, and paid tribute to him in many ways. His impact on the history of music can be summarized as follows – since Bach’s death, no one writes a fugue without thinking of him, and he is maybe the greatest master of polyphony that has ever lived.