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by Natasha Regehr

We all know J. S. Bach as a sober-minded, religious fellow who spent his days rapturously composing magnificent church music to the glory of his decidedly Lutheran God. And for some of us, that’s all we know. Actually, the guy had a pretty colourful life, if you believe what’s on the Internet these days. Here’s a little safari into the behind-the-scenes life of the Bach you thought you knew (or didn’t). It all started in 1685. . .

1. Bach the Babe
Have you ever felt obligated to follow in your family’s footsteps? Poor Johann Sebastian was born into a family of super-musical Bachs. His brothers, father, uncles, grandfathers, great-grandfathers, and great-great-grandfathers had been in the music business since Martin Luther started causing trouble two hundred years earlier. No pressure. . . To make matters worse, the poor little guy was orphaned at age nine and sent to live with his big bro, Johann Christoph (Johann being a severely overused name in the Bach family, for undetermined reasons). Naturally, J. C. took over J. S.’s musical training. But unlike you and me, little Sebastian never needed to be reminded to go and practice his scales. In fact, he was bored with the kids’ stuff that his brother made him play and spent six months secretly copying a forbidden adult organ manuscript by moonlight, only to have both copies quickly confiscated when Big Brother found out. Shucks.

2. Bach Hits Puberty
Yes, it happens to the best of us. Bach became a teenager. At 15, he and his buddy traveled 180 miles on foot to join a choir, only to find his “uncommonly fine treble voice” morph into something truly uncommon: a double voice. That’s right: his high voice and his low voice sounded in octaves whenever he tried to speak. It took eight days for his kid-voice and his man-voice to fight it out, but finally the low voice won, and he lost his choir gig. Fortunately, he had a bit of a flair for the harpsichord and violin, so they kept him around anyway.

3. Bach the Bachelor
Now, how old were you when you finally finished your formal education and were ready to enter your profession? Well, young J. S. did some fast-tracking. By the time he was 18, he had traveled throughout Germany, studying everything from Latin to organ-building, and was ready for his first job. He worked as a violinist for a duke (sounds posh, doesn’t it?) and then ditched the duke at 20 to become a church organist. Who knew he would become such a rebel? He refused to work with the rowdy boys’ choir, made scandalous music with an unnamed damsel in the choir loft, and returned three months late from a visit to yet another famous organist, only to subject his bewildered parishioners to all sorts of newfangled ideas with “surprising variations and irrelevant ornaments which obliterate the melody and confuse the congregation.” Oh, Bach. You rogue.

4. Bach Ties the Knot…
with his cousin, Maria Barbara. Time to settle down, stud. You’re 22. Get a real job, and start paying the bills. Become an organ guru. Start siring children. Seven will do, to start. Find a new duke to work for and astound audiences everywhere with your crazy organ fingers flying all over the keyboard. Who’s intimidated now? Louis Marchand, that’s who: the leading French organist, who entered an organ competition and then hoofed it back to France as soon as he found out that J. S. Bach was his contender. Wuss.

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