Extracted from Michael Steen’s book The Lives and Times of the Great Composers, these concise guides, selected by The Independent’s editorial team, explore the lives of composers as diverse as Mozart and Puccini, reaching from Bach to Brahms, set against the social, historical and political forces which affected them, to give a rounded portrait of what it was like to be alive and working as a musician at that time.
Indisputably the greatest composer before Mozart, and for many, the greatest composer ever, Johann Sebastian Bach lived out his life in relative obscurity. It may seem incredible to us now, but during his own lifetime he was recognised primarily as an organ virtuoso, rather than a composer of genius. Fewer than a dozen of his compositions were published while he lived and, had not Mendelssohn started the revival of his music in the 19th century, his transcendently beautiful music might easily have been lost to us for ever.
At the end of each of his cantata scores, Bach appended the initials SDG: Soli Deo Gloria, to the Glory of God alone. For him ‘the aim and final end of all music should be none other than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul’. Michael Steen follows the profoundly religious Bach through his tough upbringing, to his years of growing fame, replaced by gradual neglect as different fashions overtook his music. Bach's progress as a jobbing musician through the world of small 18th-century German territories was frequently hard and he often found himself out of step with the authorities. Steen explains the background of petty squabbles and the crushing workload against which Bach was to compose polyphony which fused absolute mathematics and absolute poetry; in Wagner's words, ‘the most stupendous miracle in all music’.