Johann Sebastian Bach was born on March 21st, 1685 in Eisenach and was the youngest son of Johann Ambrosius Bach, a town musician, from whom he most probably learnt the violin and the rudiments of musical theory. At the age of ten he became an orphan and moved in with his elder brother Johann Christoph who was the organist at St. Michael's Church, Ohrdruf and the latter taught him how to play the organ. In 1700, thanks to his beautiful soprano voice, Bach was accepted into the wealthy Michaelis monastery in Lüneburg, north Germany, which was well known for providing scholarships for poor boys with musical talents. He sang in the church choir but soon lost his soprano voice and subsequently began to serve as a violinist in the orchestra, and as an accompanist at the harpsichord during choir rehearsals.
Bach spent the spring and summer of 1703 as 'lackey' and violinist at the court of Weimar and then took up the post of organist at the Neukirche in Arnstadt. In 1707 he moved to Mühlhausen to become an organist and in the same year he married his cousin Maria Barbara Bach in Dornheim. They went on to have a total of seven children. He was then offered the post of organist and chamber musician to the Duke of Saxe-Weimar in 1708, and over the next number of years he became renowned throughout the country for being one of the greatest German organists. In this period he also wrote many of his most famous and most superb work.
In 1717, after having first been refused by the Duke of Saxe-Weimar, he went to Cöthen to take on the position of Kapellmeister which had been appointed to him. His new employer was Prince Leopold who was a musician and very much in favour of promoting art and music. In this period Bach dedicated himself to instrumental composition. His violin concertos, the six Brandenburg Concertos, numerous sonatas, suites and keyboard works were written around this time as well as his Italian concerto.
The composer's wife died in 1720 and the following year he married the daughter of a court trumpeter at Weissenfels, Anna Magdalena Wilcke. This marriage was even more fruitful, bearing another thirteen children. Bach's employer, Prince Leopold also got married around this time but his wife was not at all interested in the arts and therefore music was less and less encouraged at the Cöthen court. This led to Bach applying for the post of Director musices for the Saint Thomas' choir school in Leipzig which he was offered and which he accepted in 1723. This move was also made with his children in mind as Leipzig was a better choice for their education. Here he remained for the rest of his life, a happy man and a proud and caring parent and at the beginning of his period here, he composed numerous pieces of church music. The composer's Lutheran faith pervades all of his works, be they instrumental or vocal. He wrote over two hundred sacred cantatas for Sunday services, such as, Christ Lag in Todesbanden, Mer hahn en neue Oberkeet, Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring from "Herz Und Mund Und Tat Und Leben", or the great masses and passions, such as the Mass in b, excerpts include Kyrie eleison, Cum sancto spiritu, Dona nobis pacem and the St. Matthew Passion (excerpts include Herzliebster Jesu, Erbarm' dich Mein Gott, and O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden, written for Easter and other holy days. He also wrote the Magnificat and the St. John Passion and completed the Well-Tempered Clavier, a collection of 48 preludes and fugues. He became well-known as a skilful organist and was constantly in demand as a teacher due to his expertise in organ construction and design.
Slowly Bach became more and more appreciated as a composer as he brought out published editions of a selection of his organ and keyboard music. His compositions for church became fewer and fewer after 1729. His Mass in B Minor and the Christmas Oratorio are examples of pieces written after this date but they were more or less variations of earlier works. He organized harpsichord concertos and composed several large-scale cantatas and serenatas when he took over the direction of the collegium musicum in Leipzig, an amateur society which regularly held concerts for the public. Bach was granted the courtesy title of Hofcompositeur in 1736 by the Elector of Saxony, after the composer had written many pieces of work in an attempt to impress him.
In 1747 Bach went to visit one of his son's in Postdam who was working for Frederick the Great as harpsichordist, and the composer wrote the Musical Offering, a compendium of fugue, canon and sonata, based on a theme given to him by the king.
During the last ten years of his life, when he was a member of Lorenz Mizler's learned Society of Musical Sciences which influenced his composition, counterpoint was predominant in his works and his Canonic Variations for organ were presented to the society. He also wrote his Mass in B minor, and the Goldberg Variations. His last great work was the complete summary of all his skills in counterpoint and fugue methods which he perfected, and beyond which no composer has ever been able to pass. This work is known as The Art of Fugue.
The composer's eyesight began to deteriorate during his last year and he had to undergo some surgery in March and in April of 1750 which was carried out by the English oculist John Taylor. It is possible that the operations and the subsequent treatment put great stress on Bach's health and he died on July 28th of the same year. He was buried four days later in St. John's cemetery. Anna Magdalena lived until 1760, finally dying in poverty.
Bach is considered by many to have been the greatest composer in the history of western music. His large output of organ music is considered to be the greatest legacy of compositions for the instrument, and is the measure by which all later efforts are judged. His other solo keyboard music is held in equally high esteem, especially for its exploration of the strictly contrapuntal fugue.