11 Facts About Johann Sebastian Bach

Illustration by Mental Floss. Image: Rischgitz, Getty Images
Illustration by Mental Floss. Image: Rischgitz, Getty Images

Johann Sebastian Bach is everywhere. Weddings? Bach. Haunted houses? Bach. Church? Bach. Shredding electric guitar solos? Look, it’s Bach! The Baroque composer produced more than 1100 works, from liturgical organ pieces to secular cantatas for orchestra, and his ideas about musical form and harmony continue to influence generations of music-makers. Here are 11 things you might not know about the man behind the music.

1. There's some disagreement about when he was actually born.

Some people celebrate Bach’s birthday on March 21. Other people light the candles on March 31. The correct date depends on whom you ask. Bach was born in Thuringia in 1685, when the German state was still observing the Julian calendar. Today, we use the Gregorian calendar, which shifted the dates by 11 days. And while most biographies opt for the March 31 date, Bach scholar Christopher Wolff firmly roots for Team 21. “True, his life was actually 11 days longer because Protestant Germany adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1700,” he told Classical MPR, “but with the legal stipulation that all dates prior to Dec. 31, 1699, remain valid.”

2. He was at the center of a musical dynasty.

Bach’s great-grandfather was a piper. His grandfather was a court musician. His father was a violinist, organist, court trumpeter, and kettledrum player. At least two of his uncles were composers. He had five brothers—all named Johann—and the three who lived to adulthood became musicians. J.S. Bach also had 20 children, and, of those who lived past childhood, at least five became professional composers. According to the Nekrolog, an obituary written by Bach’s son Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, "[S]tarting with Veit Bach, the founding father of this family, all his descendants, down to the seventh generation, have dedicated themselves to the profession of music, with only a few exceptions."

3. He took a musical pilgrimage that puts every road trip to Woodstock to shame.

In 1705, 20-year-old Bach walked 280 miles—that's right, walked—from the city of Arnstadt to Lübeck in northern Germany to hear a concert by the influential organist and composer Dieterich Buxtehude. He stuck around for four months to study with the musician [PDF]. Bach hoped to succeed Buxtehude as the organist of Lübeck's St. Mary's Church, but marriage to one of Buxtehude's daughters was a prerequisite to taking over the job. Bach declined, and walked back home.

4. He brawled with his students.

One of Bach’s first jobs was as a church organist in Arnstadt. When he signed up for the role, nobody told him he also had to teach a student choir and orchestra, a responsibility Bach hated. Not one to mince words, Bach one day lost patience with a error-prone bassoonist, Johann Geyersbach, and called him a zippelfagottist—that is, a “nanny-goat bassoonist.” Those were fighting words. Days later, Geyersbach attacked Bach with a walking stick. Bach pulled a dagger. The rumble escalated into a full-blown scrum that required the two be pulled apart.

5. He spent 30 days in jail for quitting his job.

When Bach took a job in 1708 as a chamber musician in the court of the Duke of Saxe-Weimar, he once again assumed a slew of responsibilities that he never signed up for. This time, he took it in stride, believing his hard work would lead to his promotion to kapellmeister (music director). But after five years, the top job was handed to the former kapellmeister’s son. Furious, Bach resigned and joined a rival court. As retribution, the duke jailed him for four weeks. Bach spent his time in the slammer writing preludes for organ.

6. The Brandenburg Concertos were a failed job application.

Around 1721, Bach was the head of court music for Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Köthen. Unfortunately, the composer reportedly didn’t get along with the prince’s new wife, and he started looking for a new gig. (Notice a pattern?) Bach polished some manuscripts that had been sitting around and mailed them to a potential employer, Christian Ludwig, the Margrave of Brandenburg. That package, which included the Brandenburg Concertos—now considered some of the most important orchestral compositions of the Baroque era—failed to get Bach the job [PDF].

7. He wrote an amazing coffee jingle.

Bach apparently loved coffee enough to write a song about it: "Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht" ("Be still, stop chattering"). Performed in 1735 at Zimmerman’s coffee house in Leipzig, the song is about a coffee-obsessed woman whose father wants her to stop drinking the caffeinated stuff. She rebels and sings this stanza:

Ah! How sweet coffee tastes
More delicious than a thousand kisses
Milder than muscatel wine.
Coffee, I have to have coffee,
And, if someone wants to pamper me,
Ah, then bring me coffee as a gift!

8. If Bach challenged you to a keyboard duel, you were guaranteed to be embarrassed.

In 1717, Louis Marchand, a harpsichordist from France, was invited to play for Augustus, Elector of Saxony, and performed so well that he was offered a position playing for the court. This annoyed the court’s concertmaster, who found Marchand arrogant and insufferable. To scare the French harpsichordist away, the concertmaster hatched a plan with his friend, J.S. Bach: a keyboard duel. Bach and Marchand would improvise over a number of different styles, and the winner would take home 500 talers. But when Marchand learned just how talented Bach was, he hightailed it out of town.

9. Some of his music may have been composed to help with insomnia.

Some people are ashamed to admit that classical music, especially the Baroque style, makes them sleepy. Be ashamed no more! According to Bach’s earliest biographer, the Goldberg Variations were composed to help Count Hermann Karl von Keyserling overcome insomnia. (This story, to be fair, is disputed.) Whatever the truth, it hasn’t stopped the Andersson Dance troupe from presenting a fantastic Goldberg-based tour of performances called “Ternary Patterns for Insomnia.” Sleep researchers have also suggested studying the tunes’ effects on sleeplessness [PDF].

10. A botched eye surgery blinded him.

When Bach was 65, he had eye surgery. The “couching” procedure, which was performed by a traveling surgeon named John Taylor, involved shoving the cataract deep into the eye with a blunt instrument. Post-op, Taylor gave the composer eye drops that contained pigeon blood, mercury, and pulverized sugar. It didn’t work. Bach went blind and died shortly after. Meanwhile, Taylor moved on to botch more musical surgeries. He would perform the same procedure on the composer George Frideric Handel, who also went blind.

11. Nobody is 100 percent confident that Bach is buried in his grave.

In 1894, the pastor of St. John’s Church in Leipzig wanted to move the composer’s body out of the church graveyard to a more dignified setting. There was one small problem: Bach had been buried in an unmarked grave, as was common for regular folks at the time. According to craniologist Wilhelm His, a dig crew tried its best to find the composer but instead found “heaps of bones, some in many layers lying on top of each other, some mixed in with the remains of coffins, others already smashed by the hacking of the diggers.” The team later claimed to find Bach’s box, but there’s doubt they found the right (de)composer. Today, Bach supposedly resides in Leipzig’s St. Thomas Church.

16 Soothing Facts About Muzak

Keith Brofsky/iStock via Getty Images
Keith Brofsky/iStock via Getty Images

Whether you know it as background music, elevator music, or, as Ted Nugent once called it, an “evil force causing people to collapse into uncontrollable fits of blandness,” Muzak has ruled speakers for the better part of a century. Press play on your favorite easy-listening album and scroll on for some unforgettable facts about the most forgettable genre of music.

1. Muzak is a brand name.

Much like Chapstick, Popsicle, and a certain type of vacuum-sealing plastic food container, Muzak is a registered trademark. It began as the name of the company that first produced the easy-listening instrumental tunes that played in factories, elevators, and department stores. As its popularity grew, people started to use Muzak as a generic term for all background music.

2. Muzak was invented by a U.S. army general.

Major General George Owen Squier
Library of Congress // Public Domain

During World War I, Major General George Owen Squier used electrical power lines to transmit phonograph music over long distances without interference. He patented this invention in 1922 and founded Wired Radio, Inc. to profit from the technology. The company first devised a subscription service that included three channels of music and news and marketed it to Cleveland residents for $1.50 per month. When Squier and his associates realized their product was a little too close to regular (free) radio, they started pitching it to hotel and restaurant owners, who were more willing to pay for a steady broadcast of background music without interruptions from radio hosts or advertisements.

3. The name is a portmanteau of music and Kodak.

In 1934, Squier changed the name of his business from Wired Radio to Muzak, combining the first syllable of music with the last syllable of Kodak, which had already proven to be an extremely catchy, successful name for a company.

4. Muzak has been releasing instrumental covers of pop songs since its inception.

The first-ever original Muzak recording was an instrumental medley of three songs performed by the Sam Lanin Orchestra: “Whispering,” by John and Malvin Shonberger, “Do You Ever Think of Me?” which was covered by Bing Crosby, and “Here in My Arms,” by Lorenz Hart and Richard Rodgers from the 1925 Broadway musical Dearest Enemy.

5. Muzak was briefly owned by Warner Bros.

The sound of Muzak was wafting across the country by the end of the 1930s, which caught the ears of Warner Bros. The company bought Muzak in 1938, fostered it for about a year, and then sold it to three businessmen: Waddill Catchings, Allen Miller, and William Benton (Benton would later publish the Encyclopaedia Britannica and serve as a U.S. senator for Connecticut).

6. Muzak was designed to make factory workers more productive.

Muzak manufactured soundtracks, based on a theory called “stimulus progression,” that consisted of 15-minute segments of background music that gradually ascended in peppiness. The method was meant to tacitly encourage workers to increase their pace, especially during the productivity lulls that often occurred during the late morning and mid-afternoon.

7. Muzak helped calm anxious elevator passengers.

Since more advanced electric elevators diminished the need for elevator operators in the mid-20th century, passengers were often left alone with an unsettling silence that made them all too aware that they were hurtling upward or downward in a steel box. Soft, calming Muzak played through speakers offered the perfect distraction.

8. There’s a reason Muzak's tempo is slower in supermarkets.

Just like factory workers might move faster while listening to fast-paced tracks, you might slow down while shopping to slower-tempo Muzak—which is exactly what supermarket owners want you to do. The more time you spend in a store, the more likely you are to toss a few extra snacks in your cart. (It's unclear whether the slower music might inhibit the productivity of supermarket workers.)

9. More than one U.S. president endorsed Muzak.

Muzak was installed in the White House during Dwight D. Eisenhower’s administration, but he was arguably only the second biggest presidential fan of the genre. Lyndon B. Johnson actually owned Muzak franchises in Austin while serving as a U.S. Senator from Texas.

10. Andy Warhol was also a fan of Muzak.

Andy Warhol
Graham Wood/Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Pop culture aficionado Andy Warhol supposedly said, “I like anything on Muzak—it’s so listenable. They should have it on MTV.”

11. Ted Nugent offered to buy Muzak for $10 million to “shelve it for good.”

In 1986, the Whackmaster put in a bid to purchase Muzak from parent company Westinghouse just to shut it down. According to the Ottawa Citizen, he called it an “evil force” that was “responsible for ruining some of the best minds of our generation.” Westinghouse rejected the bid.

12. Muzak didn’t formally introduce vocals until 1987.

As part of a rebranding campaign to modernize Muzak, the company started adding voice-accompanied tunes in 1987. Before that, Muzak broadcasts had only featured voices twice. The first was an announcement that Iran had freed American hostages in 1981, and the second was as part of a worldwide radio broadcast of “We Are the World” in 1985.

13. 7-Elevens blared Muzak in parking lots to chase off loiterers.

7-Eleven storefront at night
Mike841125, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In 1991, 7-Eleven parking lots in Southern California became well-trafficked watering holes for youth who evidently had no place else to go. To deter them from loitering with skateboards, beer, and lots of teen angst, the stores blared Muzak—and it worked. “It will keep us away,” one young loafer told the Los Angeles Times. “But they’re torturing themselves more than us because they have to sit inside and listen to it.”

14. Seattle is the capital of Muzak.

Though it's well known as the birthplace of grunge, Seattle also had a thriving elevator music scene. Muzak based its corporate headquarters there in the 1980s, and three other leading background (and foreground) music corporations opened in the city over the years: Yesco Foreground Music, Audio Environments Inc., and Environmental Music Service Inc.

15. Kurt Cobain wanted Muzak to cover Nirvana songs.

When an interviewer told the Seattle-based rock star that Muzak didn’t recreate Nirvana tracks because it found them too aggressive for its purposes, an amused Cobain said, “Oh, well, we have some pretty songs, too. God, that’s really a bummer. That upsets me.”

16. It’s no longer called Muzak.

In 2013, an Ontario-based sensory marketing company called Mood Media acquired Muzak. The company, which provides music, smells, signs, lights, and interactive displays to businesses to achieve a certain mood, consolidated all of its services under the Mood brand, effectively killing the Muzak name (at least officially).

15 Fascinating Facts About Bob Fosse

John Downing/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
John Downing/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Whether or not you’re a musical theater aficionado, you’ve very likely seen evidence of Bob Fosse’s revolutionary influence on dance. From Bring It On’s “spirit fingers” scene to Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies” video, Fosse-inspired choreography continues to razzle-dazzle audiences more than 30 years after his death.

Fosse's life, work, and relationship with legendary performer Gwen Verdon have recently been immortalized in FX’s Emmy-nominated television series Fosse/Verdon, but there’s always more to see behind the scenes. Read on to get to know the man who blessed us with Sweet Charity (1969), Cabaret (1972), and so many other musical must-sees.

1. Bob Fosse was named after a classic novelist.

Robert Louis Fosse’s parents named him after their favorite writer, Treasure Island author Robert Louis Stevenson. Whether or not they hoped Bob would follow in Stevenson’s footsteps is a mystery, but Fosse certainly created plenty of footsteps of his own.

2. Bob Fosse's parents dabbled in show business.

Fosse’s father Cyril and uncle Richard performed in a vaudeville act, where Cyril played the spoons, Richard played the piano, and they both sang. It fell apart after Richard was diagnosed with cancer, and Cyril became a Hershey chocolate salesman. Fosse’s mother Sadie’s career was less involved but equally interesting: She performed as a spear-wielding extra in the opera.

3. Bob Fosse was briefly in the Navy.

Fosse was still in boot camp when World War II ended, so he spent the next year performing all over the South Pacific in the Navy’s entertainment troupe. After he was discharged, Fosse moved to New York City to pursue a career in theater, and the GI Bill made it possible for him to take a year’s worth of free courses at the American Theatre Wing. "The G.I. bill paid for all of it, acting, diction, singing, ballet, modern dance, choreography," Fosse told The New York Times in 1973.

4. Bob Fosse's second wife encouraged him to become a choreographer.

Joan McCracken in 1947's Good News
Joan McCracken in 1947’s Good News.
MGM Studios

Fosse credits his second wife, dancer Joan McCracken, with steering him toward choreography. “She kept saying, ‘You’re too good for nightclubs,’” Fosse said. “She was the one who changed [my life] and gave it direction.”

5. Bob Fosse (sort of) lied his way into a choreography career.

Fosse had choreographed only one 45-second dance number in the 1953 film version of Kiss Me Kate when New York City Ballet choreographer Jerome Robbins recommended him to director George Abbott to choreograph the 1954 musical The Pajama Game.

“I lied about having done a lot of choreography,” Fosse told Rolling Stone. “In fact, I lied myself into the job. But that’s what I thought you did in show business. I thought that’s how you showed you had confidence.”

6. Bob Fosse had serious audition anxiety.

The “Fake it ‘til you make it” strategy didn’t stop at job interviews, and Fosse had to dance through nausea-inducing anxiety at many an audition before he broke into the choreography business. “If I had to audition on Wednesday, I’d start throwing up on Saturday night,” he told The New York Times.

7. Bob Fosse brought jazz hands into the limelight.

Though "jazz hands" or "spirit fingers" likely date back much further than Fosse, they have been strongly associated with him since he directed and choreographed the 1972 musical Pippin. The opening number is rife with hand motions, some of them very jazzy. Pippin was also the first Broadway musical with its own television commercial, which helped increase mainstream visibility for Fosse’s very precise, expressive choreographic style—jazz hands included.

8. Bob Fosse is the only person to win Emmy, Tony, and Academy Awards for direction in the same year.

In 1973, Fosse brought home the Tony Award for Best Direction of a Musical for Pippin, the Academy Award for Best Director for Cabaret (beating out Francis Ford Coppola, who was nominated for The Godfather), and the Emmy for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Comedy, Variety or Music for Liza With a Z. With those three awards, Fosse clinched the elusive directorial triple crown, but they weren’t the only awards he won that year: he also took home Emmys in Best Choreography and overall Outstanding Variety, Music, or Comedy for Liza With a Z, plus the Best Choreography Tony for Pippin. (Unfortunately, Fosse was a Grammy shy of an EGOT.)

9. Bob Fosse was terrified of failure.

In an interview with newscaster David Sheehan (who also filmed Fosse’s stage production of Pippin—the first Broadway musical ever performed on camera), Fosse opened up about his fear that he wouldn’t be able to properly execute his ideas. Even after remarkable successes like Cabaret and Sweet Charity, Fosse worried that he didn’t possess the talent or intelligence to pull off new projects. “Every time I start on something new, it’s like day one,” he said. “How do I do this?”

10. Bob Fosse was inspired by Federico Fellini.

Italian film director Federico Fellini’s 1957 drama Nights of Cabiria served as the basis for Fosse’s 1966 musical Sweet Charity, starring then-wife Gwen Verdon. (In 1969, Fosse would adapt the musical into his feature directorial debut, replacing Verdon with Shirley MacLaine.)

Fosse looked to Fellini for inspiration again for his semi-autobiographical 1979 film All That Jazz, which follows the flashy career of a director-choreographer played by Roy Scheider. Fellini’s 1963 film 8 ½, on the other (jazz) hand, chronicles the career of a fictional Italian film director.

For his part, Fosse was happy to admit the similarities. “When I steal, I steal from the best,” he told Rolling Stone.

11. Bob Fosse was a perfectionist.

The precision and attention to detail with which Fosse approached dance and choreography also characterized his directorial style. His last film was 1983’s Star 80, a dark drama about the murder of Playboy model Dorothy Stratten at the hands of her husband, Paul Snider. On set, Fosse insisted that they use Snider’s exact brown carpet for the crime scene, even though the blood wouldn’t show up well on screen. Fosse also instructed his crew to ensure that every book in every bookcase on their Playboy Mansion set matched Hugh Hefner’s personality—regardless of whether or not the books would even make it into the shot.

12. Bob Fosse turned down an offer to direct Michael Jackson's “Thriller” music video.

In June 1983, Michael Jackson invited Fosse to lunch, gushed about how much Fosse’s choreography had inspired him, and asked him to direct the music video for “Thriller.” Fosse declined.

13. Bob Fosse predicted that he’d die young.

Heart attacks had wiped out plenty of Fosse’s kin, and he suffered his first (of several) in the fall of 1974 while he was simultaneously editing Lenny and rehearsing Chicago for Broadway. In 1983, Fosse told Rolling Stone that given his family history, he figured he only had time for two or three more projects. In hindsight, the statement seems eerily clairvoyant. He choreographed and directed the musical Big Deal in 1986, and staged a Sweet Charity revival in 1987. En route to the opening of Sweet Charity, Fosse suffered another heart attack, and passed away at age 60.

14. Bob Fosse basically threw his own funeral party.

After Fosse’s first heart attack, he had added a codicil to his will mandating that $25,000 be split evenly among 66 of his friends and then donated back to a funeral party budget. That way, at least those 66 people would feel a sense of responsibility to get together and celebrate Fosse's life. It worked: the group threw a smashing event in Tavern on the Green’s Crystal Ballroom with approximately 200 of Fosse’s friends, flames, and creative collaborators in attendance.

15. Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon never formally divorced.

While Fosse’s extramarital affairs led to his 1971 split with Verdon, they never divorced; the couple was still technically married when Fosse died 16 years later. Though not always credited, Verdon continued to work with Fosse on many productions, including Cabaret, Chicago, and All That Jazz. She was even with him when he died.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER