SOON after the end of the Middle Ages, and at least as early as 1550, we may find mention of a Thuringian family of musicians named Bach. Hans Bach, of Wechmar, the first prominent musician in a long line, lived in the sixteenth century. His son Veit died in 1619. Of Veit's two sons, Hans, called "The Player," died in 1626. Hans had three sons, of whom Christoph was the second. Christoph's second son, Johann Ambrosius, who lived at Eisenach, had three sons in his turn; and the youngest of these was the great Johann Sebastian Bach. There were many other Bachs, the descendants of the original Hans numbering about four hundred in three centuries. But among them all, Johann Sebastian stands preëminent as a world-genius, far above even his most gifted sons.
Johann (or John) Sebastian Bach was born at Eisenach in 1685. His parents died soon after his birth, and he was brought up by his brother Johann Christoph, an organist in a little village near Weimar. The youngster soon displayed musical ability. The elder brother, somewhat of a martinet, forbade his protégé's using certain manuscripts; whereupon the young enthusiast copied them secretly by moonlight, thereby laying at least a partial foundation for the blindness with which he was afflicted in later life. A choir position in Lüneburg enabled him to have access to a large musical library. His violin-playing won him a post at Weimar, but in 1704 he began his real career by becoming town organist at Arnstadt.
In earlier years he had heard Reinken play, and from Arnstadt he went to Lübeck to listen to Buxtehude. Bach was much influenced by them, and became a devotee of all that was best in the old contrapuntal style. This, as already described, is a system of writing in parts that flow along side by side, instead of using a melody supported by chords. Sometimes these parts are comparatively free; in certain cases, however (described in the section on musical form), they must obey very strict and intricate rules. Bach not only made his music conform to the rules, but did it with a freedom and skill