• Weird History

Surprising Facts About Johann Sebastian Bach

The Brandenburg Concertos. The Goldberg Variations. "Toccata and Fugue in D Minor." When you consider his body of work, there's no denying that composer Johann Sebastian Bach was one of the towering musicians of the Baroque period. But he was also more than a little eccentric. Delve into his biography, and odd facts about Bach pop up. His now-beloved Brandenburg Concertos, for instance, were written to try to win over a potential patron - and they failed. Bach's personal life was quite colorful, too; he fathered 20 children (several of whom were notable composers in their own right), and was blinded by a quack doctor.

Bach's legacy continues to reverberate throughout the classical music world. So it's surprising to note that his music was not well known during his lifetime, and that it virtually disappeared after his death. It would take almost 80 years for Bach's work to be resurrected beyond a small circle of admirers, ensuring his status as one of the greatest composers of all time. In his case, an unconventional life and greatness went hand in hand.

  • Photo: Public Domain / via Wikimedia Commons

    He Spent A Month In Prison For Attempting To Quit A Job

    Musicians like Bach were usually employed by the nobility, and frequently weren't treated with much respect. Beginning in 1708, Bach worked for the Duke of Sachsen-Weimar, William Ernst, as an organist and then orchestra leader.

    When the court's Kapellmeister (head music-maker) died in 1716, Bach requested and expected to be promoted into this position. Unfortunately, the Duke appointed the deceased Kapellmeister's son instead. In disgust, Bach requested that he be dismissed, a demand that infuriated William Ernst. He had Bach tossed into jail for a month before his resignation was accepted.

    True to his creative nature, Bach didn't waste his time behind bars. He used that stretch to compose a cycle of organ chorale preludes.

  • Photo: Eric Pancer / via Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 3.0

    He Never Left Germany

    After Bach's death, his music slipped into initial obscurity. One major factor in this decline in interest was Bach's residence in a relatively remote and unsophisticated part of Germany. Bach spent the last 27 years of his life in Leipzig, and he had previously lived and worked in other, smaller cities and towns in the Saxony region. Bach also never traveled to the cultural hotspots of Prague, Vienna, London, or Paris. In fact, he lived and died in a 150 square mile area and never left Germany.

  • Photo: Elias Gottlob Haussmann / via Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    He Was Underpaid

    Bach was relatively poor throughout his life; with the death of his parents at a young age, it was only his musical talent that allowed for a scholarship at a German monastery in 1700. Later, Bach and his family lived on the modest salary that he earned in various obscure German courts, where musicians were paid even less than they were in more populated areas. Unlike Mozart, Beethoven or Handel, he didn't earn money performing before large audiences.

    By 1730, Bach held several positions within schools or churches, but still frequently complained about his small income.

  • Photo: James Warren Childe / via Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    His Music Was Revived By Felix Mendelssohn

    For years after his death, none of Bach's music was published and it was rarely performed. He was considered a dated composer and fell into obscurity.

    In 1823, composer Felix Mendelssohn's grandmother gave him an original manuscript of Bach's St. Matthew Passion. He decided to perform it, and presented it in concert on March 11, 1829 in Berlin. It was the first public presentation of the work in close to one hundred years. The response set off a revival that catapulted Bach back into international prominence as one of classical music's most respected composers.