Bach's biography: birth and tragedy in Eisenach (1685 - 1695)
From almost the day of his birth on March 21st 1685, Bach's early years in the small town of Eisenach were tinged with family tragedy. But despite his difficulties, Bach's musical journey took shape when he was just a small child.
Johann Ambrosius and Maria Elisabeth, Bach's parents, lived in a reasonably spacious home above the town centre in Eisenach. He started life as part of an established family of musicians: his father (pictured) was director of the town musicians and court trumpeter for the Duke, and his uncles all held professional posts as trumpeters, organists, court musicians, and composers. The name 'Bach' opened all sorts of musical doors, and the family enjoyed a wide reputation for their talent.
Bach was Johann and Maria's eighth child - it's thought his older siblings taught him basic music theory as a young boy, after he was introduced to the organ by one of his uncles, Johann Christoph Bach, who was the organist at the Georgenkirche. His father helped him learn the violin and the harpsichord along with his siblings.
Unsurprisingly, the young Bach made quite the impression at the Latin Grammar School, where he was invited to sing in the Georgenkirche choir with the other pupils. Described as having an 'uncommonly fine treble voice', it's here the young composer encountered the Lutheran spirit first hand, cementing the religious faith which inspired so many of his later compositions.
Unfortunately, the image of the young family enjoying a charmed life in the small town is very far from the reality. Bach lost a brother and a sister in early childhood, and his mother died when he was only nine years old. Hit by poor sewage disposal and badly organised waste disposal, his father died nine months later in February 1695.
Now an orphan, Bach and one of his brothers, Johann Jakob, were adopted into the family of the eldest Bach brother - confusingly, also called Johann Christoph. He lived nearby in the town of Ohrdruf, working as the organist in the local church, St. Michaeliskirche, and had recently married.
Despite the difficulties in his personal life, the young Bach's musical development started in earnest in Eisenach. Thanks to the dedication of his musical relatives, he was exposed to a number of Baroque composers including Johann Pachelbel, Johann Jakob Froberger, Jean-Baptiste Lully, Louis Marchand, Marin Marais and Girolamo Frescobaldi.