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.

10 Facts About the Beastie Boys's 'Sabotage' Video

Beastie Boys via YouTube
Beastie Boys via YouTube

With their raucous mix of rock and hip-hop, the Beastie Boys were a band everyone could love. They also made killer music videos, and their 1994 video for “Sabotage” is arguably one of the greatest in the history of the medium. Directed by Spike Jonze and inspired by ‘70s cop shows, “Sabotage” finds the Beasties in cheesy suits, wigs, and mustaches, cavorting around L.A. like a bunch of bootleg Starskys and Hutches. If you were alive in the ‘90s, you’ve seen “Sabotage” a million times, but there’s a lot you might not know about this iconic video.

1. It all began with a photo shoot.

Spike Jonze met the Beastie Boys when he photographed them for Dirt magazine in the early 1990s. The band showed up with its own concept. “For years, Beastie Boy Adam Horovitz had been talking about doing a photo session as undercover cops—wearing ties and fake mustaches and sitting in a car like we were on a stakeout,” Adam “MCA” Yauch told New York Magazine. Jonze loved the idea so much he tagged along when the Beasties went wig shopping. “Then, while he was taking the pictures, he was wearing this blond wig and mustache the whole time,” Yauch said. “For no apparent reason.” So was born a friendship that begat “Sabotage.”

2. Spike Jonze filmed “Sabotage” without permits.

The Beasties weren’t big fans of high-budget music videos with tons of people on the set. So they asked Jonze to hire a couple of assistants and run the whole production out of a van. “Then we just ran around L.A. without any permits and made everything up as we went along,” MCA told New York. They’re lucky the real cops never showed up.

3. The Beastie Boys did all their own stunt driving.

After binge-watching VHS tapes of The Streets of San Francisco and other ‘70s cop shows, the Beasties knew they needed some sweet chase scenes. “We bought a car that was about to die,” Mike D told Vanity Fair. “We just drove the car ourselves. We almost killed the car a couple of times, but we definitely didn’t come close to killing ourselves.”

4. “Sabotage” inspired the opening sequence of Trainspotting.

Danny Boyle's 1996 film Trainspotting famously opens with Ewan McGregor and his buddies running through the streets of Edinburgh to the tune of Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life.” In the DVD commentary, Boyle revealed that the scene was inspired by “Sabotage.”

5. Two cameras were harmed in the making of “Sabotage.”

“Sabotage” was supposed to be a low-budget affair—and it would’ve been, had Jonze been a little more careful with his rented cameras. He destroyed a Canon Scoopic when the Ziploc bag he used to protect the camera during an underwater shot proved less than airtight. He apparently told the rental agency the camera stopped working on its own, but he wasn’t as lucky when an Arriflex SR3 fell out of a van window. That cost $84,000, effectively tripling the cost of the video.

6. MCA crashed the stage of the MTV Video Music Awards to protest “Sabotage” being shut out.

At the 1994 MTV VMAs, “Sabotage” was nominated for five awards, including Video of the Year. In one of the great injustices of all time, it lost in all five categories. When R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts” won Best Direction, MCA invaded the stage dressed as Nathanial Hörnblowér, his Swiss uncle/filmmaker alter-ego. “Since I was a small boy, I had dreamed that Spike would win this,” MCA said as a confused Michael Stipe looked on. “Now this has happened, and I want to tell everyone this is a farce, and I had the ideas for Star Wars and everything.”

7. There’s a “Sabotage” comic book you can download for free.

After MCA’s death in 2012, artist Derek Langille created a seven-page “Sabotage” comic book in tribute to the fallen musician and filmmaker. You can download it for free here.

8. There’s also a “Sabotage” novel.

To celebrate the 25th anniversary of “Sabotage,” Oakland-based author and Beasties super-fan Jeff Gomez wrote a five-act novel inspired by the video. He spent months researching cop movies and real-life police lingo, and he watched “Sabotage” about 100 times, keeping a detailed spreadsheet of all the action unfolding onscreen. “They created a really great universe, and I just wanted to play around in it for a little bit,” Gomez told PBS.

9. There’s a “Sabotage”/Sesame Street mashup on YouTube.

In 2017, YouTuber Is This How You Go Viral, a.k.a. Adam Schleichkorn, created the video “Sesametage,” a reimagining of “Sabotage” made with edited bits of Sesame Street. It stars Big Bird as himself, The Count as Cochese, and Oscar the Grouch as Bobby, “The Rookie.” Super Grover, Telly, Cookie Monster, and Bert and Ernie also turn up in this hilarious spoof of a spoof.

10. “Sabotage” nearly became a movie—kind of.

Jonze and the Beasties had such a blast making “Sabotage” that they wrote a script for a feature film called We Can Do This. The movie, which they later abandoned, was set to feature MCA in two roles: Sir Stuart Wallace, one of his “Sabotage” characters, and Nathaniel Hörnblowér (whom he portrayed during that 1994 VMAs protest). Jonze told IndieWire the film would’ve been “ridiculous and fun,” which sounds like the understatement of the century. “There were no 1970s cops in it, but it was definitely in the same spirit,” he said.

15 Slick Facts About Grease

Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta in Grease (1978).
Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta in Grease (1978).
Paramount Home Entertainment

The movie Grease (1978), based on the musical of the same name, is about to be reimagined for a new generation. HBO Max just announced that it will be premiering Grease: Rydell High, a musical series inspired by the film. In the 1978 big-screen adaptation, John Travolta played tough guy Danny Zuko and Olivia Newton-John starred as sweet Sandy Olsson, two teenagers whose summer romance suddenly blossoms into a full-fledged high school love affair.

Shot on a budget of $6 million budget, Grease made nearly $400 million at the box office—making it one of the highest-grossing musical movies of all time.

1. Henry Winkler turned down the role of Danny Zuko.

As far as Henry Winkler was concerned, Danny Zuko was too similar to Fonzie, the tough guy with a heart of gold he was already playing on Happy Days.

2. Marie Osmond and Susan Dey said no to playing Sandy.

Marie Osmond told Larry King that she turned the part down because she “didn’t want my teenagers some day to say, you know, ‘You have to go bad to get the boy.’ It was just a personal choice as a some day mother.” Dey (Laurie on The Partridge Family) didn’t want to play another teenager. Director Randal Kleiser went to the Star Wars mixing stage to visit his college roommate, George Lucas, and to see Carrie Fisher in one of the battle scenes. But Kleiser couldn’t tell from the scene whether Fisher was right for the part, so he kept looking. In 1998, Travolta revealed he heard singer Linda Ronstadt was also in consideration.

3. Olivia Newton-John insisted on having a screen test with john travolta.

Producer/co-writer Allan Carr met Olivia Newton-John at a party thrown by fellow Australian singer Helen Reddy and was “completely smitten” and begged her to sign on for the part. Travolta told The Morning Call that he rallied for Newton-John to get the part, too. Not trusting her good fortune or her acting (her previous film, Toomorrow, had been released back in 1970), Newton-John requested a screen test with Travolta to make sure they had chemistry.

4. Andy Warhol and an adult film star would have been cast if Paramount hadn’t stepped in.

Carr wanted Warhol to play the art teacher. One unnamed studio executive said he would not have “that man” in the movie, which Carr interpreted as the executive having a personal vendetta against the legendary artist. Carr also wanted porn star Harry Reems to play Coach Calhoun and offered him the part after a screening of Casablanca at Hugh Hefner’s mansion. The studio wouldn’t have it. “They bounced me out of the cast,” Reems said. “They thought they might lose some play dates in the South.” Carr felt so badly about it that he wrote Reems a personal check for $5000.

5. Lorenzo Lamas landed a role when a president’s son backed out.

Gerald Ford’s son, Steven, was too nervous to play Tom Chisum, Sandy’s jock boyfriend, who had a grand total of zero lines. Lamas (later Lance Cumson on Falcon Crest and Hector Ramírez on The Bold and the Beautiful) jumped at the chance, agreeing to lighten his dark hair because he looked too much like a T-Bird. "I would have dyed it green, fuchsia, anything," Lamas told People.

6. Most of the main actors were far too old to be in high school.

Stockard Channing (Rizzo) was 34 when the film was released. Newton-John was 29. Jeff Conaway (Kenickie) was 27. Travolta was 24. Jamie Donnelly (Jan) was 30 during filming, and had to dye her hair from her premature grey to black. Her hair grew back so quickly that her roots had to be colored in with a black crayon every day.

7. The title song was written by Barry Gibb, and Peter Frampton played guitar.

Kleiser didn’t like this song because he thought the lyrics were too dark and not fitting of the 1950s. Kleiser asked Gibb to make the lyrics more upbeat; Gibb told Kleiser he should shoot a serious scene to match the song. It became a number one single in the United States.

8. Rizzo’s hickeys were real.

Conaway gave Channing a real hickey because he wanted it to be authentic. Conaway was also so infatuated with Newton-John that he was tongue-tied whenever she was around. He later married Olivia’s sister, Rona.

9. "Greased Lightnin'" was supposed to be sung by Jeff Conaway, not John Travolta.

Travolta’s two conditions for agreeing to play Danny were that he could sing “Greased Lightnin',” even though Kenickie sang it in the stage production; and that he had to have “blue black hair like Elvis Presley and Rock Hudson in the movies” because “it’s surreal and it’s very 1950s.” The star also argued with Kleiser over the end of the song “Sandy”; he wanted a close-up of himself instead of the cartoon shot of a hot dog diving into a bun. Kleiser got his way.

10. Coca-Cola signs were (mostly) blacked out.

Carr made a promotional deal with Pepsi; the set decorator didn't know that. When the producer saw footage from the movie featuring Coke products he went “ballistic,” according to Kleiser. The Coca-Cola logos were blocked out with an optical printer. They couldn’t alter the Coke cooler, because it was impossible to cover with the technology available at the time. Pepsi never complained. They would have unblocked the Coke signs when the Pepsi deal expired before the 20th anniversary re-release if the original print hadn’t been lost.

11. Travolta kept flubbing a word so much it was kept in the movie.

Travolta kept lip-syncing "heap lap trials" instead of "heat lap trials," and Kleiser claims you could see this in the finished product. Kleiser believed Travolta was distracted after reading a magazine article that morning about his recently deceased girlfriend, Diana Hyland, who had passed away from cancer.

12. Travolta got more of the stage script into the movie.

Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey, who wrote the original musical’s book, weren’t invited on set during production of the movie. Travolta had played Danny more than 100 times on the road doing the musical, and gradually got more lines from Jacobs and Casey’s version into the film, which was written by Carr and Bronté Woodard. When Travolta didn’t think a line of dialogue was working, he would quote a line from the original, and Kleiser would tend to agree and use that line instead.

13. That Elvis Presley lyric is creepy.

In “Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee,” Rizzo sings “Elvis, Elvis, let me be, keep that pelvis far from me,” while looking at a picture of The King. That scene was shot on August 16, 1977—the day Presley died. “It was very eerie,” Kleiser told The New York Post. “It was all over the news, so everyone knew. We did this number, and everybody kind of looked at each other like, ‘Yeah, this is creepy.’” When Carr first bought the film rights to Grease, he envisioned Elvis as Danny and Ann-Margret as Sandy. According to Broadway.com, Presley was offered the role of Teen Angel but turned it down.

14. Olivia Newton-John was sewn into those spandex pants.

"They sewed me into those pants every morning for a week," Newton-John said. "Believe me, I had to be very careful about what I ate and drank. It was excruciating." It was 106 degrees on the set for the carnival finale.

15. George Lucas helped get the movie re-released.

In 1997, Kleiser called Sherry Lansing, then head of Paramount, and insisted that Grease had to come back again for its 20th anniversary. Lansing informed Kleiser that George Lucas had called her a few days earlier and said that out of all of the movies in the Paramount vault, Grease is the one that should come back. The Star Wars creator explained that every nine-year-old he knew watched a VHS copy of Grease every day.

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