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He’ll be Bach

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Johann Sebastian Bach was born on March 21st 1685 in Eisenach, Germany. It’s an interesting coincidence that in the same year, his baroque counterpart Handel was also born.His family was full of musicians and as with many things in his life – family was everything. His extended family included court musicians, music teachers, composers and church organists – something that young Johann would grow to be himself.

His early life is not much of an importance to any classical musician, because he or she probably already knows all of it, but most people don’t know of the actual size of Bach’s family. He had the image of a virile family-man and it was no myth – he managed to father the astonishing number of 20 children in his life, most notably with two wives – Maria Barbara Bach and Anna Magdalena Bach. We should mention here that Maria was actually one of his second cousins. He married her in 1707 and she birthed 7 of his 20 children, even though only 4 of them lived to adulthood. They went on to have careers as composers – Carl Philip Emmanuel, Wilhelm Friedemann, Johann Christoph Friedrich and Johann Christian. However, none of them managed to eclipse their father in terms of popularity. They had to struggle in order just to escape his father’s creative shadow and succeed on their own.

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In one famous event in 1717, young Bach challenged his fellow harpsichord wizard Louis Marchand to a keyboard duel. However, Marchand proved unworthy of the challenge and fled on the day of the duel. It was said that Bach was too modest to speak of the event in his later life, and was perhaps a little ashamed to have embarrassed young Marchand.

Nowadays we write CVs and motivational letters in order to get a job, but back in the day, especially for Bach, his job application was to create a whole musical piece. He wrote his Brandenburg Concertos to try and get work with Christian Ludwig, Margrave of Brandenburg. Funnily enough, perhaps not realizing that he was dealing with one of the great musical geniuses of the time, the Margrave didn’t even bother to get back in touch with Bach.

People nowadays say “Coffee helps me get through the day, until it’s acceptable to drink wine” but rarely someone turns their adoration for the hot drink into a music piece. Bach was not of the kind. He was famous for being a coffee-lover and even though he was more famous for writing sacred pieces, the occasional secular gem showed Bach to be a humorous and inventive chap. Described as a mini comic opera, ‘Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht’ (‘Be still, stop chattering’) it concerns the characters’ addiction to coffee and was most likely first performed in a Leipzig coffee house.

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When talking about his musical works we can’t skip a curious little perk that he had – the numbers. Bach was fond of incorporating the numbers 14 and 41 into his musical works, because they were derived from the mystical numerology values of the letters in his own name. We’re not quite sure how that ended up as ‘Air on a G-string’, but his works are littered with references to those numbers.

But it wasn’t always rainbows and unicorns for Mr. Bach. In fact, one of his employers was so intent on hanging on to him that he had Bach imprisoned for daring to hand in his resignation. Still, Bach made good use of the time and composed some studies for organ while he was inside. Talk about time management.

It seems incredulous to suggest that Bach has ever been unpopular, but during his lifetime and particularly towards the end of his life, he was seen as a bit of a fossil. Later on it was Mendelssohn, who brought back the popularity of Bach’s concert St. Matthew Passion and thus re-ignited the interest in Bach and his creations, giving his post-mortem career a kick-start.

Everyone knows that Beethoven suffered with his hearing, but not so many people are aware that Bach struggled terribly with his eyesight. In fact, botched surgery on his eyes by the English ocular specialist John Taylor reportedly caused Bach’s death in 1750.

Sebastian Bach of Skid Row Credit: www.mjwilsonphotography.com

Long after his death, Bach continues to be an inspiration even to modern day musicians. A surprising part of Bach’s legacy comes in the shape of American metal band Skid Row. Their lead singer, Sebastian Bierk, is better-known by the stage-name Sebastian Bach. While his name is an obvious influence, it’s undecided whether Skid Row’s ‘Rattlesnake Shake’ and ‘Youth Gone Wild’ are musically indebted to Bach’s pioneering polyphony. Another one of Bach’s most enduring works, his Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, has been tackled by a huge range of pop musicians in recent years. From John Williams’ fusion rock band Sky covering the piece to indie rock band Muse subtly turning the main melody into a guitar riff on their song ‘Plug In Baby’, it seems Bach’s influence stretches far and wide.