Johann Sebastian Bach – A chronology

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1685 Johann Sebastian Bach was born in Eisenach on 21 March. He retained many memories of his childhood in Eisenach throughout his life, including the family home (which also contained rooms for trainee musicians), the traditional grammar school with its choir in the old Dominican monastery, St George’s Church and its organ, and the town hall, where brass musicians performed from the tower.

1693-95 Bach attended the local Latin grammar school.

1694 J.S. Bach’s mother Elisabeth died in May.

1695 Bach’s father, Johann Ambrosius Bach, died on 20 February. Now an orphan, Bach moved to Ohrdruf, where he lived with his brother Johann Christoph, fourteen years his senior and the organist at St Michael’s Church. Together with his brother Johann Jakob and also his cousin Johann Ernst, Bach attended the grammar school, at that time a very prestigious educational establishment in the Duchy of Saxe-Gotha. He sang in the school choir, whose responsibilities include performing at the local Ehrenstein Castle as well as at weddings and funerals. Under Johann Christoph’s guidance, Bach learned to play the organ. During this time, the organ at St Michael’s was completely overhauled, giving the young Johann Sebastian an opportunity to learn the basics of organ construction. In 1704, he wrote a keyboard composition, the Capriccio in E major, dedicating it to his elder brother. The house where the three Bach brothers lived was later burned down during a large fire in 1753.

1700-02 J.S. Bach was a chorister at St Michael’s School in Lüneburg and a pupil of Georg Böhm. He visited Johann Adam Reincken in Hamburg and studied the organ heritage of north Germany. The young Bach’s musical abilities were long a matter of speculation as there were far too few authoritative sources about his early years. In 2006, however, copies of north German organ works were discovered in the Anna Amalia Library in Weimar which turned out to be the earliest surviving manuscripts written in Bach’s own hand. Analysis of this spectacular find shed new light on some aspects of Bach’s biography. In contrast to previous assumptions, Bach must have possessed extraordinary musical and performance abilities when he was just thirteen, for the copies found in Weimar which he produced as a schoolboy in Lüneburg and Ohrdruf include two of the most difficult organ compositions of his day. In addition, the find provides important information about an always assumed but never proven link between Bach and Georg Böhm (1661-1733), a noteworthy Lüneburg organist and composer, for the paper used by Bach for his copies came from Böhm’s possession. During his training at St Michael’s, Bach was probably therefore also a pupil or even a journeyman of Georg Böhm.

1702 J.S. Bach successfully applied for the position of organist in Sangerhausen. However, the job was given to another candidate after all when the regional duke personally intervened.

1703 J.S. Bach joined Duke Johann Ernst III’s private orchestra in Weimar for about half a year as a violinist, and may have worked as an assistant to court organist Johann Effler. In July, Bach went to Arnstadt in order to examine the new organ built by Johann Friedrich Wender at the New Church (now the Bach Church). Later on, he was appointed organist at the New Church. Many members of the Bach family lived and worked in Arnstadt between 1620 and 1792. A total of seventeen family members were born there, while eight got married and twenty-five were buried in the town.

1705/06 Bach stayed with Dietrich Buxtehude in Lübeck for a few months. Because he was absent for far longer than agreed, he was severely reprimanded by his employer on his return. He completed his journey on foot.

1707 In June, Bach became the organist at St Blasius’s Church in Mühlhausen. On 17 October he married his second cousin Maria Barbara in the church in Dornheim (near Arnstadt).

1708 In February, the cantata Gott ist mein König (‘God is my King’, BWV 71) was first performed to mark the inauguration of the new town council. It was one of Bach’s few compositions to be printed during his lifetime. In the years to come, Bach was commissioned to write more music for the inauguration ceremonies of Mühlhausen town council, which can be taken as a sign of his good relations with this Free Imperial City in the Holy Roman Empire. Incidentally, the organ at St Blasius’s was reconstructed in the 1950s at the instigation of Albert Schweitzer based on Bach’s specification drawn up in 1708. In June, Bach was appointed a chamber musician and organist at the court of Dukes Wilhelm Ernst and Ernst August of Saxe-Weimar. He remained there until 1717, composing numerous works for the organ and harpsichord as well as more than thirty cantatas. He mainly worked at the palace church, which was later destroyed by a fire in 1774.

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1709 Bach was in contact with Georg Philipp Telemann and they exchanged compositions and sheet music. Evidence of a personal acquaintanceship between Bach and his colleague Telemann working in the nearby town of Eisenach is contained in correspondence between Bach’s son Carl Philipp Emanuel and Johann Nikolaus Forkel, a scholar from Göttingen, who became J.S. Bach’s first biographer. However, original documents proving that the two composers met during Bach’s Weimar period were long sought in vain. In the end, copies of a Telemann violin concerto were found in the 1980s which had clearly been written out by Bach. The closeness of their relationship is borne out by the fact that in 1714, Telemann (who by this time was working in Frankfurt) attended Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach’s christening and became his godfather.

1710 Wilhelm Friedemann, Bach’s eldest son, was born on 22 November.

1713 J.S. Bach travelled to Weissenfels, where his first secular cantata was performed. Entitled Was mir behagt, ist nur die muntre Jagd (‘The lively hunt is all my heart’s desire’, BWV 208), it was written to celebrate the birthday of Duke Christian of Saxe-Weissenfels. A few years later, Bach gave a number of recitals at the royal court in Weissenfels, which enjoyed an excellent reputation far and wide for the high quality of its musical performances. In 1729, Bach was appointed Royal Kapellmeister of Saxe-Weissenfels by the Elector of Weissenfels – a position he was entitled to exercise without having to relocate. In December, Bach passed an audition for the post of director of music in Halle (Saale) but decided not to take up the position after all.

1714 J.S. Bach was promoted to concertmaster – a position which entailed composing new music every month. On 8 March, Bach’s son Carl Philipp Emanuel was born. One of his godfathers was Georg Philipp Telemann.

1715 On 11 May, Bach’s son Johann Gottfried Bernhard Bach was born. He, too, was destined to become a musician, but whether he was also a composer is unknown.

1717 In August, Bach signed his contract as kapellmeister at the court of Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Köthen, albeit without asking permission to leave Weimar. His resignation was refused and he was imprisoned for a month for disobedience. In December, Bach was released from detention and unfavourably dismissed, allowing him to start work in Köthen. That same month, he travelled to Leipzig, his future home, in order to inspect the organ at St Paul’s Church.

1720 When Bach returned from a trip to Karlovy Vary accompanying the prince, he learned that his wife Maria Barbara had perished after a short illness and already been buried. The exact cause of her death is nowadays unknown. In autumn, Bach travelled to Hamburg for an audition.

1721 On 3 December, Bach married court singer Anna Magdalena Wilcke. Just a few days later, Prince Leopold married Princess Friederica Henrietta of Anhalt-Bernburg, which may have caused Leopold’s interest in music to wane. At any rate, in 1722 Bach began seeking employment elsewhere.

1723 In February, Bach was appointed cantor of St Thomas’s Church in Leipzig. The position had been vacant since the death of Johann Kuhnau the previous year. Initially, Georg Philipp Telemann was picked by the town council to be his successor, but he refused when offered a pay rise in Hamburg. Johann Christoph Graupner, at that time kapellmeister in Darmstadt, was chosen in the second round, but failed to be released by his employer. Accordingly, J.S. Bach became the new cantor and ‘director musices’ of Leipzig with effect from 1 June. Bach’s relationship with his former employer, Prince Leopold, remained intact. Despite having left Köthen, he was still allowed to use the title of Royal Kapellmeister and was commissioned to write a cantata every year in honour of the prince’s birthday. Bach’s duties as cantor of St Thomas’s included the weekly performance of cantatas at church services on Sundays and feast days. This amounted to about sixty cantatas for each ecclesiastical year. According to his son Carl Philipp Emanuel, Bach wrote five annual cantata cycles, although just under three have come down to us. Bach’s first Leipzig cantata cycle has survived almost in its entirety, but the identities of the librettists are largely unknown. With the exception of a few older compositions from Bach’s Weimar period, the cantatas from the first Leipzig cycle were all newly written compositions. Even though Bach received assistance from senior choirboys in connection with rehearsals and the time-consuming copying-out of parts by hand, his workload for the weekly cantatas must have been immense.

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1724 A dispute broke out between Bach and Johann Gottlieb Görner, the director of music at the University of Leipzig, over the division of responsibilities for music performed at St Paul’s Church. The St John Passion (BWV 245) was performed for the first time on 7 April. Bach began his collaboration with librettist Picander (the pseudonym of Christian Friedrich Henrici) which was destined to last twenty years. The Chorale Cantata Cycle (Bach’s second Leipzig cantata cycle) was written. For it, Bach used a technique already employed by Johann Schelle, one of his predecessors at St Thomas’s: each cantata was based on a well-known Protestant chorale, which was elaborately arranged in the opening chorale and performed unaltered in the closing chorale. In the middle sections, the original chorale underwent strong musical and textual variations and took the form of arias and recitatives, combining the traditional chorale cantata with the modern cantata form reflecting the Italian opera. By sticking to this principle, Bach did not have to resort to using older material, and so the cantatas in his second Leipzig cycle, too, were almost all new compositions.

1725-27 Bach’s third annual cantata cycle was written.

1727 The St Matthew Passion (BWV 244, 1st version) was performed for the first time on 11 April.

1729 In March, Bach took charge of Schott’sches Collegium Musicum. At the beginning of the eighteenth century, churches and the royal courts weren’t the only patrons of music, which also flourished among the middle classes in almost all of Europe’s musical strongholds. Among the foremost musical institutions were the Collegia Musica – societies at which mainly amateur musicians regularly gave private and public recitals. The Collegium Musicum, which Bach took charge of in 1729, had previously been headed by Georg Balthasar Schott, formerly the organist at Neukirche (‘New Church’) in Leipzig. It was based at Café Zimmermann, one of the largest and most popular coffeehouses in town. Rehearsals and weekly concerts were held there, including open-air performances in the summer. Alongside music by contemporary composers, Bach also performed plenty of his own compositions, including the Orchestral Suites (BWV 1066-68) as well as his violin and harpsichord concertos (BWV 1041-43, BWV 1052-58). On special occasions such as birthdays and name days, additional recitals were organized to which Bach contributed several secular cantatas. It was for one of these ‘extraordinary’ concerts that Bach composed his famous Kaffee-Kantate (‘Coffee Cantata’, BWV 211), an obvious allusion to the Collegium Musicum’s usual venue. Working with the Collegium Musicum proved to be especially important regarding Bach’s clavier compositions. After moving to Köthen in 1717, he had no longer officially been an organist, and so the recitals at Café Zimmermann gave him a welcome opportunity to demonstrate his proficiency not only as cantor and director of music but also at the keyboard. Moreover, this collaboration also benefited Bach’s position as cantor of St Thomas’s, for the Collegium Musicum proved to be a useful source of capable temporary musicians for performances requiring a larger ensemble than the choir could muster.

1730 Bach wrote a ten-page complaint to the town council (‘Short but Most Necessary Draft for a Well-Appointed Church Music’) in a bid to secure additional funding for the choir and orchestra.

1731 The St Mark Passion (BWV 247) was performed on 23 March for the very first time.

1732 Christoph Friedrich Bach was born on 21 June.

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1733 Bach submitted the Kyrie and Gloria of his Mass in B minor (BWV 232 I-II) to Frederick August II, the new Elector of Saxony, in Dresden, partly in the hope of being granted the prestigious title of a Saxon Court Composer or Kapellmeister.

1734-35 Betwwen 25 December and 6 January, the six parts making up the Christmas Oratorio (BWV 248) were first performed in public.

1735 Johann Christian Bach was born on 5 September.

1736 Disagreement emerged between Bach and Johann August Ernesti, the rector of St Thomas’s School, over who had the power to appoint choir prefects. In November, after repeated requests, Bach was appointed Composer to the Electoral Saxon and Royal Polish Court, strengthening his hand in the dispute over his powers with the authorities in Leipzig.

1741 Bach travelled to Berlin for the first time. His cantata O holder Tag, erwünschte Zeit (‘O lovely day, o hoped-for time’, BWV 210) was first performed at the wedding of physician Georg Ernst von Stahl. For a long time, hardly anything was known about the history of this congratulatory cantata; even the date was only roughly estimated at 1738-41. The recipient of this work was thought to have been one of Bach’s Leipzig patrons – but who exactly? A few years ago, the list of candidates was augmented by a previously overlooked figure: Georg Ernst von Stahl from Berlin, a personal physician and court counsellor, who had previously been regarded as a friend and supporter of Bach’s sons Wilhelm Friedemann and Carl Philipp Emanuel rather than a patron of Bach himself. An auction catalogue indexing Georg Ernst von Stahl’s estate mentioned not just numerous pieces of sheet music but also rather vaguely »a cantata by Johann Sebastian Bach«, designated as lot number 5. And when sheet music that seemed to fit the bill was examined in the year 2000, a figure 5 that had been subsequently added in Indian ink was indeed found on the original set of parts for the wedding cantata ‘O lovely day, o hoped-for time’. The hypothesis that the cantata had been written for Georg Ernst von Stahl is backed up by his biographical data. After Bach had stayed at von Stahl’s house during his first trip to Berlin in August 1741, Georg Ernst von Stahl got married just one month later and could well have commissioned Bach to compose a special cantata for the occasion. Further evidence is provided by a passage in the cantata itself: »In this way in many a place / Will your well-deserved praise resound. / Your fame will like a diamond stone, / Yes like a tough steel be durable, / Until it echoes throughout the whole world.« Previously this metaphor – a puzzling one, given that steel is by no means harder than diamond – had been disregarded. But given the findings outlined above, and bearing in mind that the German word for steel is ‘Stahl’, it can be interpreted as a veiled allusion to the cantata’s recipient.

1747 In May, J.S. Bach visited Frederick II in Potsdam and Berlin. It was the only time when Bach was still alive that he was mentioned on the front page of a newspaper when an unknown editor of Berlinische Nachrichten reported on Bach’s evening arrival, the welcome extended by the king, Bach’s performance »on the so-called forte and piano«, and finally the king challenging Bach to improvise a fugue off the cuff on a given theme – a great moment in the history of music which led to Bach’s famous anthology of canons and fugues known as The Musical Offering.

1748 Bach completed his Mass in B minor (BWV 232) – a Missa tota (complete mass).

1749 Bach’s health deteriorated. He suffered from a serious eye condition as well as motor problems in his right arm and his writing hand.

1750 J.S. Bach underwent eye surgery by the famous yet controversial ophthalmologist Sir John Taylor, who stayed in Leipzig from 4 to 7 April in 1750. Complications necessitated an additional operation. Although Bach was able to see again for a short time, he suffered a stroke and died shortly afterwards on 28 July in 1750.

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