21 Interesting Facts About Bach

Johann Sebastian Bach’s talent as a composer and storied musical duels cemented his place as one of the great classical musicians, but his personal life delivered several stories worth telling as well, including a brief prison stay. Follow along as we uncover all the interesting facts about Bach.  

1. The Bach Family Was a Musical Dynasty

The Bach family line produced several musicians before and after Johann Bach. His great-grandfather and the patriarch of the Bach family name, Vitus “Veit” Bach, was said to be a Baker by trade who nevertheless played music. Bach’s father, uncles, brothers, and cousins were also skilled musicians. The Bach name became synonymous with music through generations of highly skilled musicians working as court musicians, organists, and composers. In fact, four of Bach’s sons would go on to become great musicians as well.

2. He Was an Orphan

Bach lost his parents, Johann Ambrosius Bach and Elisabeth Lämmerhirt, when he was ten years old. His older brother, Johann Christoph Bach, took over the role of caretaker for the remainder of Bach’s childhood. Johann Christoph was an organist at Ohrdruf and a former student of renowned keyboard composer Johann Pachelbel

3. He Was an Exceptional Organist at 13 Years Old

By the age of 13, Bach’s musical talents were apparent to all. His skill as an organist was so impressive that he secured his first professional position as a court musician at the Michaeliskirche in Lüneburg in 1703

4. He Sang in the School Choir 

At 14 years old, Bach earned a choral scholarship to the prestigious St. Michael’s School in Lüneburg. For the next two years, he studied, sang in the choir, and played the school’s organs and harpsichords. It was his time at this school that introduced him to the aristocracy of Germany. 

In 1723, Bach was begrudgingly granted the role of director of the St. Thomas Boys Choir when the Leipzig city officials were unable to fill the role with their top choices. Bach’s appointment was accompanied by caveats. He was required to prove his grasp of Orthodox Protestant theology and promote “good order in the churches” by keeping his musical compositions short. 

5. He Wrote Over 1100 Compositions 

Bach has more than 1100 compositions to his name. Some of his famous works include The Brandenburg Concertos, The Goldberg Variations, Concerto for Two Violins in D minor, Toccata and Fugue in D minor, and The Well-Tempered Clavier.  

6. He Stayed in Germany

Johann Sebastian Bach spent most of his life in Germany. His career took him to several cities across Germany. He worked as a concertmaster in Weimar, an orchestra director in Köthen, and the Cantor of St. Thomas’ Church in Leipzig. 

While Bach did not tour like other musicians of his time, he did occasionally travel within Germany when necessary. At 20 years old, he traveled over 250 miles on foot from Arnstadt to Lübeck to study with the famous organist Dietrich Buxtehud. 

7. He Married His Second Cousin

In 1707, Bach married Maria Barbara Bach, his second cousin. They remained married until her sudden death in 1720. 

8. He Married Twice

In 1721, one year after the death of Maria Barbara, Bach married his second wife, Anna Magdalena Wilcke

9. He Had 20 Children

Bach fathered a total of 20 children between his two marriages. Bach and his first wife, Maria, had seven children, but only four survived to adulthood. He had 13 children with his second wife, Anna, with six of the children surviving to adulthood. 

10. His Sons Became Famous Musicians

Four of Bach’s sons (Wilhelm Friedemann, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, Johann Christoph Friedrich, and Johann Christian) went on to become significant composers in their own right, continuing the Bach family’s musical legacy. Wilhelm Friedemann Bach and Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach are two of the most prominent, contributing significantly to the musical world during their time.

11. He Failed a Job Application

In 1721, Bach dedicated six concertos to the Margrave of Brandenburg, Christian Ludwig. These works, now known as The Brandenburg Concertos, are masterpieces of Baroque music. However, there is no record of the Margrave acknowledging the gift. It is also unknown if Bach was ever financially compensated. 

12. He Worked for Prince Leopold 

The period during which Bach worked for Prince Leopold marks a particularly productive phase. While under the prince’s patronage, Bach composed some of his most important works, which include poignant secular cantatas and instrumental music.

13. He Was a Dietrich Buxtehude Fan

When he was 20 years old, he trekked more than 250 miles just to hear Buxtehude play. Buxtehude had a massive impact on Bach’s musical style that you can spot Buxtehudes’s influence on Bach’s organ compositions.  

14. He Wrote About His Love of Coffee

Bach loved coffee. In fact, he was so fond of the hot beverage that he even wrote Coffee Cantata, a satirical comedy and mini-opera about a girl who is addicted to coffee, reflecting 18th-century Europe’s fascination and unease with the then-exotic beverage.

15. He Spent Weeks in Jail 

In 1717, Bach found himself locked up behind bars for four weeks due to his persistent demands to be released from his role at the Weimar court. Bach used his forced vacation to write The Well-Tempered Clavier.

16. He Had A Duel with Louis Marchand 

Bach was scheduled to go head to head with famous French keyboard genius Louis Marchand in a live musical duel. Unfortunately, Marchand failed to show up on the scheduled day of the challenge. So, Bach went on with the show as a solo act, delighting the audience with his improvisation abilities and raw talent. 

17. He Had A Botched Eye Surgery 

In his final years, Bach’s eyesight deteriorated severely. In a bid to restore his fading vision, Bach sought the services of British eye surgeon John Taylor. The surgery was unsuccessful, with some people suspecting the botched surgery may have played some part in Bach’s death in 1750

It is worth noting that Bach was not John Taylor’s first botched surgery; he was infamous for having performed several failed surgical procedures on other prominent citizens, including Bach’s fellow Baroque composer, George Frideric Handel.  

18. His Compositions Appeared in Modern Music

Bach’s influence has stood the test of time, with many of his compositions appearing in modern music. Here are a few examples:

  • Switched-On Bach (1968) Wendy Carlos: Wendy Carlos’s album “Switched-On Bach” features Bach’s works played on a Moog synthesizer. 
  • Bach to the Blues (1994) – Oystein Sevag and Lakki Patey: This album blends Bach’s compositions with blues elements.
  • Bach with Pluck (2003) – Christopher Parkening: Renowned classical guitarist Christopher Parkening released an album titled “Bach with Pluck,” where he transcribed Bach’s works for the guitar. 
  • Bach: The Well-Tempered Clavier Book I (2016) – Brad Mehldau: Jazz pianist Brad Mehldau released an album where he interprets Bach’s “The Well-Tempered Clavier Book I.” 
  • Bach in Havana (2003) – Tiempo Libre: “Bach in Havana” by the Cuban group Tiempo Libre combines Bach’s music with Afro-Cuban rhythms. 
  • Bach on Wood (2014) – Evelyn Glennie: Percussionist Evelyn Glennie released an album titled “Bach on Wood,” where she translates Bach’s works into percussion arrangements. 
  • Awake (2006) – Josh Groban: Josh Groban’s album “Awake” features the song “You Are Loved (Don’t Give Up),” which includes a melody from Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.” 

19. His Compositions Appeared in TV and Movies

You will also hear Bach’s compositions in many television shows and movies. Here are some of them: 

  • The Shawshank Redemption: Bach’s “Sinfonia” from the Cantata No. 29 is featured during a pivotal scene in this iconic film. 
  • The West Wing (TV Series, 1999–2006): Bach’s music has been used in multiple episodes of “The West Wing.” Look for one of the most notable scenes in Season 2, Episode 10 (“Noël”) and listen for the “Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major.” 
  • The Dark Knight (2008): “The Dark Knight” incorporates Bach’s “Prelude” from the “Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major” during one of the Joker’s scenes.
  • The Royal Tenenbaums (2001): “The Royal Tenenbaums” features several Bach compositions, including “Fugue in C Minor” and “Suite for Solo Cello No. 1 in G Major.”
  • Master of None (TV Series, 2015–2017): In this TV show, you can hear Prelude” from the “Unaccompanied Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major” and other compositions from Bach. 
  • Solaris (2002): Steven Soderbergh’s science fiction epic “Solaris” incorporates Bach’s “Chorale Prelude’ Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ'” into the artistic film’s haunting score.
  • Se7en (1995): Bach’s “Suite No. 3 in D Major” adds to the dark, intensely moody vibe of this cult classic.

20. He Was Buried in an Unmarked Grave for 150 Years

Despite the respect and recognition that Johann Sebastian Bach enjoyed in his life, he was buried and lay unforgotten in an unmarked grave for 150 years following his death in 1750. 

In 1894, Bach’s remains were moved to a marked vault at the cemetery. The vault was destroyed by Allied Force bombing during WW2, prompting his remains to be moved a third time. Bach now rests at St. Thomas Church.

21. Felix Mendelssohn Boosted His Reputation

Felix Mendelssohn played a crucial role in reviving Bach’s reputation during the 19th century. 

In 1823, Mendelssohn’s grandmother, Bella Salomon, gifted him a copyist’s manuscript score of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. This discovery allowed Mendelssohn to put on a historically informed performance, delivering an authentic and faithful rendition of the work in Berlin in 1829 when he was just 20 years old. 

The St. Matthew Passion had not been performed since Bach had passed. Mendelssohn’s rendition was so moving that it brought Bach’s work back to life for a whole new audience. Mendelssohn would also go on to conduct a variety of Bach’s works, including the Brandenburg Concertos. 

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