Ambrosius Bach and his twin, Johann Christoph, went their separate ways in 1671, the latter to Arnstadt and the former to become town musician in Eisenach. Here, 14 years later, would be born the youngest son of Ambrosius and Maria Elisabetha Lämmerhirt. A gifted child, Johann Sebastian would influence the art of music as no one before nor since. Awaiting Ambrosius, in Eisenach, was another Johann Christoph (first cousin of the twins), organist for the Duke of Eisenach, and one whom the family would later call "that great and expressive composer." Cousin Christoph had exercised no small influence to see Ambrosius in Eisenach; it is likely that in time he extended that influence to the musical education of Sebastian.
Johann Sebastian attended Eisenach's Lateinschule, the same institute where Martin Luther had studied two centuries earlier. In accord with Luther's wish that even the commoner might learn to read and write, so that every Christian might study Scripture for himself, the main subjects taught in the Lateinschule were religion and grammar with secondary emphases in history and arithmetic.
The core of the Protestant curriculum throughout eighteenth-century Germany was the 1610 Hutter Compendium, 203 pages of fine print outlining Lutheran belief and practice. Students were required to memorize the Compendium in order to graduate. When Sebastian was examined by Leipzig officials in 1723 he would prove that he knew the Compendium well. It was, furthermore, the practice of the upper grades to engage in monthly debate patterned after the plan of the Compendium itself. One party would state a theological proposition to which the party of the second would object. It was incumbent then upon the first party to refute the objection and to demonstrate the veracity of the proposition by appealing to Scripture.
To the upper grades were added the study of logic, philosophy, and rhetoric, plus the classical languages including Greek and Hebrew. We know, for example, that by the age of 10 Johann Sebastian was reading the Gospels in Latin. Promotion was contingent upon mastery of content, not age. Sebastian's exemplary performance is attested by his 1694 ranking ahead of his brother, Johann Jacob, who was three years his superior.
Early Musical Training
Because the Bachs seldom consigned to others the musical training of their children, it is likely that Sebastian's first music lessons were taken from his father, Ambrosius. It is also possible, at this time, that young Sebastian may have studied keyboard with his second cousin, Johann Christoph, although Forkel states that Sebastian did not begin keyboard until after he had moved to Lüneburg.
Saxony, at the close of the 17th century,was a place where death visited often. Sebastian was born four decades after the Thirty Years' War, a tumultous period during which the population of the Holy Roman Empire had declined from sixteen million to fewer than six million, that is, a decline of 62 percent! When Sebastian was six he lost his elder brother, Johann Balthasar. In 1693-94 Ambrosius endured first the death of his twin, Johann Christoph, then his wife, Elisabetha. Utterly despondent, Ambrosius himself expired within ten months and Sebastian was left an orphan.