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John Sebastian Bach



Long ago, in a little German town, lived a jolly old miller. From

morning till night he sang about his work, for he loved music dearly. He

had learned to play upon the lute, which is an instrument with strings.

The miller used to take his lute with him to his work. He was fond of

playing while the merry clacking of the mill be
t time for him.

This miller was the great-great-grandfather of John Sebastian Bach, who

said of the miller, "The grinding of the corn and the music of the lute

must have sounded merrily together."

John Sebastian Bach was born in Germany, as were most of our great

composers. His father was a musician. All his uncles and cousins were

musicians. His grandfather, too, was a musician. So it is not strange

that the child wished to become one also, for he grew up among people

who cared for little else besides music.

In his native village little John worked and played, went to school, and

studied music much as other German children did. Here, too, he marched

through the streets with his playmates, singing hymns. For centuries it

had been the custom for the school children to sing in the streets.

John was left an orphan at the age of ten, and went to live with his

eldest brother in a neighboring town. In his new home he continued his

studies. Besides his school work, his brother gave him lessons on the

piano. The brother, an organist, had a book in which he had copied many

fine compositions. He kept it on a high shelf in a bookcase.

Little John had learned so rapidly under his brother's instruction that

soon he could play almost as well as the organist himself. However, he

was eager to know more about music. He thought, "If only I could use my

brother's book, I could learn faster." But he was not allowed even to

touch it. He used to look at it and long for it as it lay upon the high


One night, when the house was dark and still, John arose from his bed

and crept softly downstairs. Standing tiptoe on a chair, he succeeded

in obtaining the treasure. How happy this made him!

He could scarcely keep from laughing aloud at his good fortune. Hugging

the book close in his arms, he scampered back to his room. He wished to

copy every note of the music, but he had neither lamp nor candle. He

could work only by the light of the moon, so it was six months before

his task was completed.

At school John studied arithmetic, grammar, Latin, and Greek. There,

too, several hours each week were spent in the study of music. The boy

had a sweet soprano voice and was always happy when the time for music

came. The school choir often sang at church services and weddings.

Clearer and sweeter than any other could be heard the voice of little


The lad learned something about organ playing during the next few years.

These were years filled with hard work; but they were happy years,

nevertheless. He no longer sang in the white-robed choir, but devoted

his time to the piano, violin, and organ.

In the olden days there stood in Hamburg a church, named for the good

St. Katherine. The organist of this church was a man of great skill,

whose fame had spread throughout the land. Even little John Sebastian

Bach had heard of him, and longed to hear him play the great organ at

St. Katherine's.

One fine morning he started to make the long journey on foot. The lad

little knew how tired he would become before he reached Hamburg. Once

inside St. Katherine's, however, he forgot his weariness and his bruises

and the long miles of dusty road over which he had traveled. He thought

of nothing but the wonderful music.

John was not satisfied with hearing the great organist once. Several

times he went to Hamburg, walking all the way. Once, when returning from

a visit, he was walking along the highroad, and came to an inn. Being

very hungry, he put his hand into his pocket and drew forth one small

coin. That was not enough to buy him a dinner.

He seated himself outside the door to rest. The odors of the dinner

coming from the kitchen made him hungrier than ever. Some men at dinner

in the inn saw the forlorn little figure outside the door. They guessed

how tired and hungry the boy must be. "Poor little lad," they said to

one another, "let us give him a surprise."

Meanwhile, John Sebastian had made up his mind that he must go on. He

was just rising to his feet, when a window was thrown open and two

herrings' heads were tossed out. He ran to pick them up. Imagine his

surprise to find in each a shining piece of money.


At an early age, John Sebastian Bach began to earn his own living. He

had no thought of earning it by any other means than music. When he was

eighteen, he obtained a position where he played the violin in the

duke's band. He was greatly pleased with court life. His grandfather, a

musician, too, as you will remember, had once lived at the same court.

Young Bach did not remain a year in the service of the duke. At the end

of summer he accepted a position as organist in a small town. From 1703

until 1723 Bach went from place to place as organist and teacher.

Sometimes he was church organist; sometimes he was court musician for

some noble prince. At all times he was poorly paid. Bach often received

no more for a year's work than many men receive for a month's work.

Although Bach played well on the violin and piano, he was most skillful

as an organist. Indeed, his fame was spreading throughout all Germany.

He often went on journeys to try new organs. On those trips he sometimes

played for kings and nobles.

Once he played an organ solo for the crown prince. The crown prince was

greatly pleased with Bach's pedal solo. Would it not seem strange to

hear music and to see the hands of the musician at rest? That was what

the prince heard and saw. When the beautiful music had died away, he

drew from his finger a ring set with precious stones. He gave it to the

musician, saying, "Never before have I listened to such a wonderful


In 1717 a noted French organist came to Germany. In his own land, people

thought there was no better organist than he. The Frenchman traveled

through Italy, and found no one there to equal him. When he arrived in

Germany, he played for the king and was highly praised. The proud

Frenchman then thought that no one else in the world could play so well

as he.

Now it happened that Bach had a friend at court, who had heard the

French organist play. He said to himself: "Bah! our own German organist

can do much better than that. I will invite him to come to Dresden and

we will have a contest."

So he wrote to Bach, who at once set out for Dresden. Soon after his

arrival, a royal contest was held. The musician from France played

first, and, to speak truly, he played well. Then Bach came forward. When

he had finished, the applause was great, and all his friends felt sure

that he would win.

It was decided to continue the contest the next day; so the king named

the time and place. Promptly at the appointed hour, Bach appeared. The

large audience waited impatiently for the Frenchman. At last they sent a

messenger for him; but he could not be found. He had left Dresden early

that morning.

The people said to one another, "Surely, the Frenchman is afraid to meet

our great Bach." "France has no musicians to equal those of our own

land." Bach played so wonderfully that morning that the king afterward

sent him a hundred pieces of gold.

Before Bach's time, pianists and organists used only the three middle

fingers in playing. Bach taught all his pupils to use the thumb and

little finger as well. Some of the music books that he wrote for his

pupils are still in use.

It was the custom, long ago, for organists to write the music which was

sung in their churches. For this reason, many of Bach's compositions are

sacred music.

When Bach was thirty-eight years old, he and his family moved to

Leipzig. Here he had a position as choir master of the Thomas School.

The salary was very small, and the work was hard. It was Bach's duty to

teach music to all the boys who attended the school.

Part of his work in that city was to direct the music in four churches.

He trained the boys of the Thomas School to sing sacred music. Every

Sunday they were divided into four choirs, one choir singing in each


Once upon a time Bach paid a visit to King Frederick the Great. It

happened in this way. Bach's son had for seven years been in the service

of the king as a musician. The king was very fond of music and played

well upon the flute. He had often said to young Bach, "How much I should

like to know your good father!"

The son always repeated the king's words to his father, saying, "Father,

will you not come to the palace and pay me a visit?" "Some day I will

go," was the reply. And one day the great organist kept his promise.

Every evening before supper the king had music in his rooms. At these

concerts the king himself played the flute. One evening the musicians

were all in place, ready to begin. An officer came in. He handed the

king a list of the strangers who had arrived that day. Holding the flute

in his hand, Frederick the Great glanced hastily over the names. Halfway

down the list he stopped, for he saw the name Bach. Without reading

further, he turned quickly to his orchestra, saying, "Gentlemen, old

Bach has come."

Bach, who had gone to his son's rooms, was summoned to the castle. He

had not time even to change his traveling clothes for a court dress.

What a strange appearance he made as he came among the gentlemen of the


Frederick the Great received the master musician with much kindness, and

led him through all the rooms of the castle. The king asked him to play

the piano. The court musicians followed them from room to room. Whenever

Bach played, the king stood behind his chair, exclaiming, "Only one

Bach! Only one Bach!"

When the great musician returned to Leipzig, he composed some music in

honor of his royal friend.

On the 30th of July, 1750, at the age of sixty-five, the "Father of

Music" passed away. Very little notice was taken of his death. No choir

sang hymns at his funeral; no cross ever marked the spot where he was


Almost a hundred years after Bach's death, Felix Mendelssohn began to

play his music. Then people began to appreciate and love the old master.

They were sorry that so little had been done for him. Through the

efforts of Mendelssohn, a monument was erected in Leipzig to Bach's


Even if no monument had been erected, we should honor his name. His

works are his best monument and will last as long as people love music.