Personalities | Johann Sebastian Bach | Late Baroque | Classical

(Yo’-han Sa-bäs’tyan Bakh) 1685–1750
German composer

Johann Sebastian Bach was born into a closely knit musical family of which he was rightly proud. His father Johann Ambrosius Bach (1645–95) had an identical twin brother, Johann Christoph (1645–93), who was like a second father to the young Sebastian. Johann was such a common name that almost all boys called Johann were known by their second name.

In 1671, when Christoph moved to Arnstadt, Ambrosius and Maria Elisabetha set up home in Eisenach, where Ambrosius took up a post as town musician. The couple were to have eight children, and it was in Eisenach that their youngest son, Johann Sebastian, was born on 21 March 1685. Young Sebastian’s musical talents were evident from his boyhood. He was able to sponsor the last stages of his schooling through his vocal abilities, and later to get his first paid job as a violinist. But it was his ability as an organist and keyboard player that was to earn him the greatest respect throughout his career. His employment in both Arnstadt and Mülhausen centred on his organ playing. He moved to Weimar as a chamber musician and court organist and only later added to this the position of Konzertmeister, which carried with it the obligation to compose church cantatas. After some years devoted to chamber music in Cöthen, Bach took the position of Kantor in Leipzig, where he was to remain for the rest of his life.

Sebastian’s Schooling

The musical Bach family had lived for generations in Thuringia, the cradle of Lutheranism. What better educational beginning could Johann Ambrosius and Maria Elisabetha have wished for their sons than the Latin school at Eisenach, where Martin Luther had been a pupil 200 years earlier?

Children began school when they were seven years old. They sat in large classes and were moved up according to achievement rather than age, normally spending two years at each level. Bach began at the Latin school in 1692 and was in the first class (‘Quinta’) for two years. He was 47th of 81 at the end of his first year and 14th of 74 in his second, whereupon he was promoted to the next class (‘Quarta’). Sickness and bereavement disrupted his education, causing him to be absent in his first year for 96 half-days, in his second for 59 and in his third for 103.


In 1693 Bach’s ‘second father’ – his uncle Johann Christoph Bach – died, followed in May 1694 by his mother. Six months later his father Johann Ambrosius remarried, which facilitated the day-to-day care of his two youngest children, Johann Jakob (1682–1722) and Johann Sebastian. However, within three months Johann Ambrosius also died. Unable to finance the upbringing of the two boys, Bach’s stepmother Barbara Margaretha was obliged to send them to live with their closest relative, their eldest brother Johann Christoph.


Johann Christoph Bach had been organist at St Michael’s Church in Ohrdruf since 1690 and had married in October 1694. Thirteen-year-old Johann...

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