Bach portrait


Bach signature





JSB is born on March 21* in Eisenach** (Eisenack), a town of about six thousand inhabitants in the duchy of Thuringia, as the sixth son, the eighth and youngest child of Johann Ambrosius Bach, trumpeter at the court of the local duke and director of the town musicians, and his wife Elisabeth, née Lämmerhirt.

*Johann Sebastian Bach's birth date according to the Julian calendar then in use. Under the Gregorian calendar we employ since 1700, his birthday was the 31st of March, 1685.

**The towns marked in color are given on the map of contemporary Germany and/or on the map of Saxony and Thuringia in central Germany. In brackets is the name as it appears on the general map.

Born in the same year are Georg Friedrich Händel in Halle, about 120 km northeast of Eisenach, and Domenico Scarlatti in Naples, Italy.

The father starts teaching him to play the violin and the viola at a very young age.

Contemporary map of Germany
Germany at the time of Bach


Contemporary map of Saxony
Thuringia and Saxony at the time of Bach


JSB attends the local grammar school. The subjects taught are centered on the bible which is studied intensively in both German and Latin. He is not a particularly good student and is often absent from school. Like the other students, he earns pocket money as a chorister singing at private functions, at weddings and funerals.


In May, JSB’s mother dies at age 50. In November, the father marries Barbara Margaretha Keul, twice a widow.


The father, Johann Ambrosius, dies in February at age 50, only three months after his wedding. JSB and his brother Johann Jacob go to live in Ohrdruf with their oldest brother Johann Christoph who is newly married and earns a small income as the organist at St. Michael’s church. He has studied with the famous Johann Pachelbel in Erfurt and gives his little brother the first lessons on the organ. JS is an eager student and makes great progress. During the night, he copies the works of the great contemporary composers like Dietrich Buxtehude, Johann Pachelbel, Georg Böhm, and of others, from his brother’s precious collection of sheet music and he soon masters even the most difficult pieces.

Ohrdruf has a very good secondary school with a regimen of strict discipline. JS now excels at his studies which include Lutheran theology, mathematics and Greek. On the warm recommendation of one of his teachers, he wins a free place at an exclusive boarding school, St. Michael’s in Lüneburg (Lunenburg).


JS sings in the school’s Mettenchor, a choir of renown that performs at church services and all kinds of town functions and social events, earning the students a small income. Soon his voice breaks, but with his evident musical talents, he serves playing the violin or his favorite instrument, the viola.

The German term “Mettenchor” derives from the Latin “mittere”, to send, and refers to the dismissal of the faithful at the end of church service.



During the summer vacation, JS and a friend walk the 50 km to Hamburg to listen to the organist Johann Adam Reinken, a master of improvisation.

On several visits to Celle (Zell), at a distance of 75 km an arduous 2-day trip on foot, JS hears the orchestra at the court of Duke Georg Wilhelm play “in the French style” and he learns to appreciate the elegance of the French manières.

JS Bach’s first compositions are written in Lüneburg, or possibly even earlier, when he still lived with his brother in Ohrdruf. His love for, and his mastery of the fugue is already apparent (see, e.g. BWV 898, 909, 946, 950).

BWV refers to Schmieder's Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis, 2nd ed., 1990



JSB graduates from the school in Lüneburg shortly before his 18th birthday, with the right to attend university.  


Starting in March, he is employed in Weimar (Weimer) as a violinist at the court of Duke Johann Ernst of Saxe-Weimar. In July, he is invited to examine the new organ at the Neue Kirche in Arnstadt, and this request for his opinion attests to the fact that he is already widely recognized as an accomplished musician. He plays the new organ on Sunday, the 5th of August, with such style, expression and virtuosity that the church’s council appoints him right away, on the following Thursday, organist at the Neue Kirche.

JSB’s duties leave him time, at first, to indulge his passion for the organ; his compositions from that period are all written for the organ or the cembalo. A Capriccio in six movements (BWV 992) is to bid his brother Johann Jacob farewell when he leaves to serve as an oboist at the court of King Charles XII of Sweden.



In spite of some disputes with the members of the church council, JSB is granted a leave of absence of 4 weeks to go to Lübeck (Lubeck) and study with Dietrich Buxtehude, the most famous of contemporary organists; he leaves in October to walk the 400 km distance. He extends his absence to about four months, until the end of January, without seeking permission or even notifying his employers.  


In February, JSB is summoned to appear before church council to answer to charges concerning his long absence and concerning his organ playing, the unusual variations and improvisations which “confound” the parishioners since his return. He counters with a complaint about the work load, especially the fact that he has to rehearse with a choir composed of a bunch of unruly students. He is willing to fulfill his functions to the letter if only council were to hire a director musices to relieve him of this chore.

At the end of the year, the church’s council summons him again with a list of complaints about the way he exercises his duties, more or less the same charges that were raised earlier in the year. JSB’s indifference seems to express the fact that he wants to leave Arnstadt and in particular the restrictions on his interpretations of sacred music.

The Prelude and Fugue in C (BWV 531) and the beautiful Prelude in E minor (BWV 533) date probably from the time in Arnstadt, although it is hard to believe that these mighty works were written by a man barely in his twenties.



On Easter Sunday, JSB impresses the elders of the church Divi Blasii in the sovereign city of Mühlhausen (Muhlhausen), 60 km northwest of Arnstadt, with his virtuosity on the organ; he is hired in June and is to begin work in October, on termination of his contract in Arnstadt.

JS marries his cousin Maria Barbara Bach, an accomplished singer, in the village of Dornheim near Arnstadt, on October 17.



JSB writes the Ratswechselkantate (BWV 71) for the opening of the spring session of the newly elected city council (or Rat) in Mühlhausen. The composition is so well received that the city has it printed.

He tenders his resignation in June on the grounds that he finds the conditions at Divi Blasii (especially the state of the organ) not conducive to his declared objective which is to write sacred music, and he also mentions that he finds his salary too low. In the last paragraph of his letter of resignation, he divulges that he has already been appointed organist at the court of Duke Wilhelm Ernst of Saxe-Weimar, in the city of Weimar.

The family moves to Weimar in July.

Weimar society is cultivated and knowledgeable about music, less engaged in religious quarrels than that of Mühlhausen. Duke Wilhelm Ernst is a stern and pious ruler who enjoys the somewhat undeserved reputation as a sponsor of the arts. Nevertheless, he expresses his appreciation of JSB’s work by raising his salary several times.

The time JSB does not have to spend on teaching, performing in church or with the court orchestra, he is able to devote to the writing of sacred music: in the nine years he stays in Weimar, he composes more than a dozen – perhaps even twenty – church cantatas and starts a volume of hymns for the organ (the Orgelbüchlein, BWV 599-644, probably completed in Köthen, at his next job), apart from a score of secular works.

In December, Maria Barbara and JS have their first child, Catharina Dorothea.



JS is invited to play and evaluate the newly restored organ at Divi Blasii in Mühlhausen; its sorry state had been one of the reasons for his resignation the year earlier.  


MB’s and JS’s first son, Wilhelm Friedemann, is born in November.  


JSB applies for the position of organist at the Liebfrauenkirche in Halle but then does not accept the appointment.  


Possibly as a consequence of JSB’s efforts to leave Weimar, the Duke promotes him concertmaster with a hefty raise in salary.

The composer Georg Philipp Telemann, then Kapellmeister (head of the orchestra and conductor) at the court of the Prince of Bayreuth, is godfather to MB’s and JS’s second son, Carl Philipp Emanuel.



Birth of the third son, the 4th child, Johann Gottfried Bernhard. Bach portrait, 1715


In August, JSB is appointed Kapellmeister in Köthen (approx. 100 km northeast of Weimar) at the court of Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Köthen. When he requests permission to leave from Duke Wilhelm Ernst, he is arrested for his “stubborn insistence to be dismissed” and spends the entire month of November in jail.

The years in Köthen, from December 1717 until 1723, are most productive. JS enjoys the respect of his employer and directs all musical activity at court. He leads an orchestra of 17 experienced musicians and commands the second-highest salary of all of the Prince’s employees. During this time, Bach writes predominantly secular music, some of his best-known compositions. His Inventionen (BWV 772-801) are meant to train pianists to hear the interwoven musical lines in a composition and to “sing” them (cantabile) with their instrument. The first part of the Wohltemperierte Clavir (BWV 846-869) is a series of 24 preludes and fugues, a guide through all major and minor keys on a well-tuned piano.

The six Brandenburg Concertos (BWV 1046-1051) are dedicated to the Margrave of Brandenburg who unfortunately does not dispose of the means to have them performed. The three beautiful Violin Concertos (BWV 1041, 1042, 1043) give an impression of the wealth of ideas and the amount of work JSB is able to realize in the propitious atmosphere at the Köthen court.


The first of three Klavierbüchlein (i.e., little books for the piano; in part BWV 924-932) is a collection of JSB’s own short pieces for use in lessons with his son Wilhelm Friedemann but it contains also works of other composers, for instance by Georg Philipp Telemann.

JS’s beloved wife Maria Barbara dies in July, at age 36.



In December, JS marries Anna Magdalena Wilcken, 20 years of age, a professional singer.  


Towards the end of the year, JSB applies for the position of Cantor and director musices at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig (Leypzig), a large commercial city of about 30,000 inhabitants with a flourishing university and considered a center of modern literature and music. The position has become vacant after the death of the celebrated cantor Johann Kuhnau. The city’s preferred candidate is Georg Philipp Telemann, then musical director in the Free (sovereign) City of Hamburg who declines the offer after his salary there is raised. Bach portrait, 1722


One of four illustrious candidates in the final round of the selection process and the only one without an academic background, Johann Sebastian Bach is elected Thomaskantor in April. His duties and responsibilities include teaching music (but also Latin) at the renowned Thomas-Schule; directing the choir and the city orchestra which is composed of professional musicians, students of his own school and of the university; performing at mass in both principal Lutheran churches in Leipzig in alternation, i.e. the Thomaskirche and the Nicolaikirche. He is expected to compose church music not too “operatic” but inspiring devotion. In his acceptance letter, JSB promises to fulfill all conditions and expectations of council and magistrate.

JSB parts on friendly terms with the authorities in Köthen and keeps the title of Kapellmeister at the court.


The first version of the Passion according to St. John or Johannes-Passion, commissioned by the Leipzig City Council, is performed on Easter Sunday, April 7.

Between 1714 and 1717, his time in Weimar (Weimer), JSB wrote 20 cantatas, i.e. music for one or more voices and/or choir with instrumental accompaniment, comprising arias, duets, recitatives and chorales. They are modeled on the Neapolitan opera, often written for festive secular occasions and celebrations, but then also for church services with words of the bible as a libretto. In Leipzig, Bach composes at least three (possibly five) series of 59 cantatas, each for one full liturgical year, which are then performed by the students of St. Thomas in Sunday mass. His principal choir, the chorus primus, counts fifty-five singers with whom he rehearses each following Sunday’s cantata, and this gives an idea of the overwhelming load of work he has to shoulder.

In the years from 1723 to 1731, Anna Magdalena and JS have six children of whom only Gottfried Heinrich (born 1724, mentally retarded) and Elisabeth Juliane (born 1726) will survive into adulthood.



Bach composes an ode (BWV 198) mourning the death of Christiane Eberhardine, wife of August the Strong, Prince-Elector of Saxony and King of Poland; at the behest of the university’s students, the ode is performed with JSB at the organ in the Universitätskirche whose musical director is one Johann Gottlieb Görner. A priority quarrel ensues which is finally decided in Bach’s favor by the Prince-Elector himself.  


The consistory, or council, of the Nicolai-Kirche insists that it is the pastor’s prerogative, and not that of the musical director, to select the hymns for mass.

Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Köthen, Bach’s former employer, sponsor and friend, dies in November.



At the transfer of Prince Leopold’s remains into the family crypt in March, JSB and his choir perform parts of the Passion according to St. Matthew (the Matthäuspassion, BWV 244) before its official first performance on Good Friday, April 15.  


The magistrate of the City of Leipzig accuses Bach of exercising his duties inadequately and threatens to cut his salary because of frequent absences and disregard for discipline at the Thomas-Schule. For his part, JSB complains about the admission of musically unqualified students against his advice. The situation is defused when a friend, Johann Matthias Gesner, is named the school’s new rector.  


The Passion according to St. Marc (the Markus-Passion, BWV 247) is performed for the first time on Good Friday, the 23rd of March, in the Thomas-Kirche. Unfortunately, Bach’s musical score is lost.

The first of four collections of “Preludes, Allemandes, Courantes, Sarabandes, Gigues, Minuets and other fancy pieces” called Clavir-Übung, i.e. exercise for the piano (BWV 825-830), is published and proves an immense success.



Birth of Johann Christoph Bach on June 21, AM’s and JS’s ninth child.

In September, JSB gives a recital of his own works for the organ in the Sophienkirche in Dresden.



Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, JS’s oldest son (born in 1710), is appointed organist at the Sophienkirche in Dresden.

JS applies humbly for the title of Kapellmeister at the court of Prince-Elector August III, the son of August the Strong, in Dresden. He receives no answer.

During the summer months, JSB writes the Mass in B minor (BWV 232), or, more precisely, the first movement, Kyrie, and the second movement, Gloria, of a shorter version called missa brevis intended for both protestant and catholic services. He shall complete the composition only in 1748/49, shortly before his death, with Credo and Sanctus.



The Christmas Oratorio (BWV 248) is sung and played for the first time. It consists of six cantatas that are performed in their liturgic sequence, i.e., separately on the holidays around Christmas.  


The Clavir-Übung, 2nd part, is published in April; it contains the Italian Concerto (BWV 971) and the French Overture (BWV 831).

Johann Christian Bach is born on September 5.



JSB finally receives a sign of appreciation from the hand of the Prince-Elector of Saxony and King of Poland, August III, in the form of the title of Hof-Compositeur, i.e., composer by appointment to the court of Dresden.

In December, JS gives an organ recital in the Frauenkirche in Dresden, on the newest of the famous Silbermann instruments.

Bach portrait, 1736


The Clavir-Übung, 3rd part (BWV 552, 669-689), is a collection of 26 pieces on “catechism- and other hymns” and will be published in the year following its creation.


MB’s and JS’s son Carl Philipp Emanuel (*1714) is appointed organist at the court of Prince Frederick of Prussia (later Frederick II, the Great) in Berlin. Bach portrait, 1740


The Clavir-Übung, 4th part, contains the Goldberg-Variations (BWV 988) that were commissioned by a Count von Keyserlingk who suffered from insomnia and wished for “...some soothing and merry pieces for the piano...”, to be played by his pianist Johann Theophil Goldberg at night.  


Voyage to Dresden to examine a new organ.

The second part of the Wohltemperierte Clavir (BWV 870-893) is completed, like part I a series of preludes and fugues.



JSB travels to Naumburg to examine, for the last time, a new organ Bach portrait, 1746



Bach portrait, 1748?


Voyage to Potsdam near Berlin in May, to see his son Carl Philipp Emanuel and his new wife, and to perform for Frederick II, King of Prussia, who plays the flute and is an admirer of JSB. As part of his recital, Bach improvises (!) a fugue in six voices. On his return to Leipzig, he composes the Musikalische Opfer (A Musical Offering, BWV 1079) on a theme given him by the king. It consists of several ricercars (a type of precursor of the fugue), a sonata for the flute and eleven canons.

JSB lays down the principles of the art of composing a fugue in Die Kunst der Fuge (The Art of Fugue, BWV 1080), without a doubt inspired by his visit to Potsdam and the honored reception he was given. The principal theme resembles, in fact, that proposed by the King. This, Bach’s last great work, will be published posthumously by his son Carl Philipp Emanuel.


The wedding of JS’s daughter Elisabeth Juliana (*1726) to the organist Johann Christoph Altnickol is celebrated on January 20 in her parents’ house.

JS’ eyesight is diminished by cataracts (a condition in which the eyes’ lenses are clouded) and is deteriorating steadily.


The well-known British “oculist” Sir John Taylor attempts to extract the clouded lenses. Bachs condition does not improve in any way. He can hardly see any longer but revises, helped by his son-in-law Altnickol, a collection of 18 chorales he had started to write, in part, in Weimar (BWV 651-668).

On July 18, Johann Sebastian Bach suffers a stroke. He dies on July 28, at about 8:45 p.m.


Organ played  by Bach in Arnstadt

The original console of the organ on which Johann Sebastian Bach played, built by Johann Friedrich Wender of Mühlhausen in 1703, from the Neue Kirche in Arnstadt/Germany.

From the Städtische Museum in Arnstadt/Thuringia, Germany. With the friendly permission of Director Gottfried Preller.



Recommended reading

David, Hans Theodore: J. S. Bach’s Musical Offering. Dover Publications, New York: 1972

David, Hans Theodore, and Mendel, Arthur: The Bach Reader. W. W. Norton, New York: 1966

Eidam, Klaus: Das wahre Leben des Johann Sebastian Bach. Piper Verlag, München: 2000 (in German)

Geck, Martin: Johann Sebastian Bach. Rowohlt Verlag, Reinbek: 1993 (in German)

Kolneder, Walter, und Jürgens, Karl-Heinz: J. S. Bach, Lebensbilder. Lübbe Verlag, Bergisch Gladbach: 1984 (in German)

Terry, Charles Sanford: J. S. Bach. Insel Verlag, Frankfurt: 1950 (in German)

Wolff, Christoph: Johann Sebastian Bach. S. Fischer Verlag, Frankfurt/Main: 2000 (in German)


Portraits of J.S. Bach. Figure Captions


Joachim Ernst Rentsch d. Ä., Oil
From the time in Weimar, about 30 years old
Städtisches Museum Erfurt


Johann Jakob Ihle, Oil
Kapellmeister at the Court of Köthen, about 40
Bach-Haus Eisenach/Germany


Gottlob Friedrich Bach (?), Pastel
Composer at the Royal Court of Dresden
Private owner

1730 to 1740

(anonymous), silver point sketch; lost


Elias Gottlieb Haussmann, Oil
Portrayed as member of the Corresponding Society of the Musical Sciences Leipzig
Museum für Geschichte der Stadt Leipzig


(anonymous), Oil
Portrait at old age
Bildarchiv, Preußischer Kulturbesitz, Berlin