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: Pavel Karmanov / via YouTube

  • He Was An Orphan By The Age Of Ten
    Photo: Attributed to Johann David Herlicius / via Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    He Was An Orphan By The Age Of Ten

    Johann Sebastian Bach was born in Eisenach, Germany on March 31, 1685. His father, also named Johann, was a seventh-generation musician who taught his son musical fundamentals. Bach's mother died in 1694, and Johann's father died eight months later, leaving the child an orphan before the age of ten. Bach, the youngest of eight children, was taken in by his eldest brother.

  • He Fathered 20 Children
    Photo: Public Domain / via Wikimedia Commons

    He Fathered 20 Children

    Bach had two wives. His first, Maria Barbara, was his second cousin, and she died in 1720. The couple had seven children together, though only four lived to adulthood. Maria features in an amusing anecdote in Bach's life: in 1706, he was reprimanded by authorities for bringing a "strange maiden" into a church organ loft to "make music." It was likely Maria.

    Bach's second wife, Anna Magdalena, gave birth to thirteen children; six survived. Anna transcribed many of Bach's pieces, and was a singer and musician herself. Bach dedicated a number of works to her, including "The Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach."

  • He And Handel Were Blinded By The Same Quack
    Photo: Public Domain / via Wikimedia Commons

    He And Handel Were Blinded By The Same Quack

    Late in life, Bach's eyesight was failing. He decided to consult with a supposed expert, an "oculist" named John Taylor. Taylor operated on Bach in the spring of 1750. Not only did the operation fail to restore Bach's eyesight, he went into a rapid decline and died of a stroke on July 28, 1750. His death was believed to be caused by a post-operative infection.

    The same doctor performed cataract surgery on composer George Friedrich Handel around the same time. This operation caused Handel to go totally blind by 1752.

  • The Brandenburg Concertos Were A Failed Audition
    Photo: Public Domain / via Wikimedia Commons

    The Brandenburg Concertos Were A Failed Audition

    One of Bach's most famous compositions is a series of six suites known collectively as the Brandenburg Concertos, but they were almost a side-note in his careerIn 1720, Bach sensed that his position at court at Köthen was in jeopardy - the new wife of his employer, Prince Leopold, was apparently not a fan of his music. But he had recently met Christian Ludwig, Margrave of Brandenburg, and thought he might be persuaded to give him a job.

    Bach collected together some previously composed material and sent it to Christian Ludwig, presumably to show him what he could do. Unfortunately, Ludwig never responded.

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

  • He Never Left Germany
    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.