Posthumous Fame Composer Johann Sebastian Bach

About the famous composer Johann Sebastian Bach, biography and history of the man who achieved fame after only death.

POSTHUMOUS FAME

JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH (1685-1750), German composer

Bach achieved a fairly wide musical reputation in Germany while he lived, but it centered mainly on his virtuoso ability as an organist. During his career as church musician in several German cities and as court musician to German princes and the Elector of Saxony, his more than 1,000 compositions for instruments and voice--written against Sunday deadlines for provincial choirs, as keyboard exercises for his students, or for the ears of a princeling he thought important to flatter--attracted only condescending notice. This was because he wrote outmoded music; the polyphonic forms of fugue, cantata, and motet had become anachronisms. He realized this--yet his attitude was that of a craftsman rather than the later Romantic view of the artist as a heroic "creator." He wrote most of his music in order to fulfill the practical demands of his job. "Whoever is equally industrious will succeed just equally as well," he said. "You have only to hit the right notes at the right time, and the instrument plays itself." Even his gifted sons regarded "the old Wig" as a quaint practitioner of dead music, and they lost many of his scores after his death. For 80 years Bach was quite forgotten except by a few opinionated musicians (who included Mozart and Beethoven). Then, in 1829, Felix Mendelssohn conducted a butchered version of the St. Matthew Passion, which awoke a new musical public to Bach's transcendent sounds. Though rarely performed well for 80 more years, his works achieved increasing stature. The definitive 60-volume edition of his scores was published in 1900, only six years after his lost grave was discovered in Leipzig. Albert Schweitzer's J. S. Bach (1905) was the first modern study of the musician, and interpreters Wanda Landowska, Pablo Casals, and Andres Segovia gave his music wide public performance. Today Bach appeals to fans of both classical and popular music, and the Baroque instruments of his own time vie with modern choirs, orchestrations, and electronic synthesizers to explore the seemingly limitless riches of his music.

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