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Johann Sebastian Bach is undoubtedly among the most celebrated of Baroque composers, and to many the great composer in all history. The era of the late 17th and early 18th centuries in which he lived, however, means that his life was not as well documented as (say) Beethoven's was.

In particular, I am interested in the following points relating to his musical career and pursuits:

  • Bach came from a family of notable amateur and professional musicians. Was he exposed greatly to instruments/musical theory/composition at a young age?

  • What sort of formal training and musical education did Bach undergo?

  • Was he self-taught in one or more areas of theory/composition/performance?

  • Bach's style is often said to blend North & South German with Italian (and even French) styles to varying degrees. Did any in particular dominate him? How did he acquaint himself with such a wide range of music at the time?

  • Which contemporary/past composers did Bach most admire, and which influenced his own music most? (I am aware he transcribed many of Antonio Vivaldi's pieces, and was also familiar with Buxtehude's work.)

How much do we know about these things? Or if little, does anyone perhaps have any educated opinions in these respects?

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@Noldorin A lot of questions, each needing a detailled answer. I suggest that you try to split your compound question into several more narrow expert ones, that will be easier to address that way. For instance, the last one is almost independent of the others and contain at least 2 subquestions. – ogerard May 4 '11 at 6:46
@Noldorin: the "performance" tag is really not relevant here. Please edit it. – ogerard May 4 '11 at 6:47
@ogerard: Possibly, but I'm looking for more of a summary here. Perhaps including pointers to further information. What is the "performance" tag meant to refer to? I understood it in a very generic way, referring to the aspect of playing an instrument. – Noldorin May 4 '11 at 14:56
@Noldorin: for performance, with your understanding, the tag is not appropriate. – ogerard May 4 '11 at 15:12
@Noldorin: thanks for your edit and your new question. – ogerard May 6 '11 at 12:47
up vote 5 down vote accepted

About his development as a composer and the links with his 2 older brothers Johann-Christof and Johann-Jacob.

Yes JS was exposed very early to music, music practice and various instruments. He and his brothers were expected to master various instruments and to play ex tempore and generally become proficient in the family's trade, go to other members of the family who could help them secure jobs and teach them new things, but they also were schooled in education institutions of their time and place. Johann-Jacob was centered on wind instruments (flute, oboe) like their father. Johann-Christof was essentially an organist. Johann-Sebastian is known to have been a good singer when young and good at all keyboard instruments but also at the violin and viola.

The three brothers lived together with their uncle for some time when their father died but could not stay close together as they began their professional career and their uncle died as well. We know about a visit of JS to Ohrdruf where JC was installed and married, and the Capricio was probably written on the occasion of Jacob's departure for Sweden.

Johann Sebastian composed a piece for keyboard which is not often recorded. Capricio "On the departure of his beloved brother" BWV 992 (original title in Italian). This is a remarkable piece, in 6 very contrasted movements, showing the very extended composition skills of the young Bach, in different moods and styles, external imitation, counterpoint, themes transformation.

Everyone interested in Bach's development should hear it and look at the score. The composition date is accepted as before 1705 (when JS was 20) and probably 1704, recycling in parts some older ideas. It shows a young adult Bach ready to explore or illustrate many paths he would not later pursue.

The kind of works Bach composed were closely linked, over all his life, to the job position he had and the fancy of his masters.

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Thanks for the great in info. I will certainly have to check out the capricio! (Also, hope you don't mind the minor language corrections.) – Noldorin May 6 '11 at 12:14
@Noldorin: I do not mind the corrections, I welcome them. When I write too quickly, gallicisms may appear. – ogerard May 6 '11 at 12:23
Yes, quite understandable. (Just noticed you were French.) I listened to the Capricio you mentioned; a very intriguing piece. I detect a hint of the "cleaner" classical style in the piece, if I'm not mistaken. He certainly experimented a lot in his youth. (This is in part what leads me to believe the famous Toccata and Fugue in D minor is genuinely his work.) – Noldorin May 6 '11 at 12:31
I'm accepting this answer, since it presents quite a nice summary about what I'm asking. Thanks also to @James Tauber for a useful response. – Noldorin May 10 '11 at 0:06

Bach received instruction form his older brother, who was a student of Pachelbel.

Bach copied a lot of music of other composers: Buxtehude (famously), Couperin, Frescobaldi, Kerl, Froberger, Pachelbel and many others.

Regarding the wide range of influences from German (both North and South), Italian and French music, I don't know that it was that unusual. His brother probably introduced him to that range.

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Interesting; I did not know that his brother taught him in part. His brother seems to have disappears into the annals of history! When you say copied, do you mean transcribed? The sheer amount of music he copied from Vivaldi and Buxtehude suggests these were the two composers he most respected, but perhaps I am wrong... – Noldorin May 5 '11 at 21:41
@Noldorin I think he actually copied from scores – James Tauber May 6 '11 at 6:50
@Noldorin: for more on his brothers, see my separate answer. – ogerard May 6 '11 at 7:30
@Noldorin: Buxtehude was a famous organist and titular organist in a large city (such as Hamburg) was one of the most lucrative and stable position a musician could have at the time. It was also usually associated with being a Kappelmeister for one or several churches, another very prominent position for a professional musician. – ogerard May 6 '11 at 7:33

There are many books on J.S. Bach, and an excellent course available from The Great Courses by Robert Greenberg named "Bach and the high Baroque".

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A good course, I agree, though I'm looking for more specific answers here thanks. :) – Noldorin May 4 '11 at 14:57
@Noldorin, I agree with the general suggestion that you should read a book about Bach .. preferably a modern one like one of Christopher Wolff's books. As a boy, Bach went on a singing scholarship to Lüneburg where he met/studied with/listened to some great Northern German composers. As a young man,he went to Lübeck to hear and presumably interacted with the great organist and composer Buxtehude. – Apprentice Queue Apr 18 '15 at 1:16

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