Johann Sebastian Bach
Johann Sebastian Bach (21 March 1685, O.S.31 March 1685, N.S. – 28 July 1750, N.S.) was a German composer, organist, harpsichordist, violist, and violinist whose sacred and secular works for choir, orchestra, and solo instruments drew together the strands of theBaroque period and brought it to its ultimate maturity. Although he did not introduce new forms, he enriched the prevailing German style with a robust contrapuntal technique, an unrivalled control of harmonic and motivic organisation, and the adaptation of rhythms, forms and textures from abroad, particularly from Italy and France.
Revered for their intellectual depth, technical command and artistic beauty, Bach’s works include the Brandenburg Concertos, the Goldberg Variations, the Partitas, The Well-Tempered Clavier, the Mass in B minor, the St Matthew Passion, the St John Passion, theMagnificat, the Musical Offering, The Art of Fugue, the English and French Suites, theSonatas and Partitas for solo violin, the Cello Suites, more than 200 surviving cantatas, and a similar number of organ works, including the famous Toccata and Fugue in D minor andPassacaglia and Fugue in C minor, and the Great Eighteen Chorale Preludes and Organ Mass.
Bach’s abilities as an organist were highly respected throughout Europe during his lifetime, although he was not widely recognised as a great composer until a revival of interest and performances of his music in the first half of the 19th century. He is now generally regarded as one of the main composers of the Baroque style, and as one of the greatest composers of all time.
Johann Ambrosius Bach,Bach’s father
Johann Sebastian Bach was born in Eisenach, Saxe-Eisenach, on 21 March 1685, O.S.31 March 1685,N.S. He was the youngest child of Johann Ambrosius Bach, the director of the town musicians, andMaria Elisabeth Lämmerhirt. His father taught him to play violin and harpsichord. His uncles were all professional musicians, whose posts ranged from church organists and court chamber musicians to composers. One uncle, Johann Christoph Bach (1645–93), introduced him to the art of organ playing. Bach was proud of his family’s musical achievements, and around 1735 he drafted a genealogy, “Origin of the musical Bach family”.
Bach’s mother died in 1694, and his father eight months later.The 10-year-old orphan moved in with his oldest brother, Johann Christoph Bach (1671–1721), the organist at the Michaeliskirche in Ohrdruf,Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg. There, he copied, studied and performed music, and received valuable teaching from his brother, who instructed him on the clavichord. J.C. Bach exposed him to the works of the great South German composers of the day, such as Johann Pachelbel (under whom Johann Christoph had studied) and Johann Jakob Froberger, to the music of North German composers;to Frenchmen, such as Jean-Baptiste Lully, Louis Marchand, Marin Marais, and to the Italian clavierist Girolamo Frescobaldi. The young Bach probably witnessed and assisted in the maintenance of the organ. Bach’s obituary indicates that he copied music out of Johann Christoph’s scores, but his brother had apparently forbidden him to do so, possibly because scores were valuable and private commodities at the time.
Bach (left) with three of his sons
At the age of 14, Bach, along with his older school friend George Erdmann, was awarded a choral scholarship to study at the prestigious St. Michael’s School in Lüneburg in the Principality of Lüneburg. This involved a long journey with his friend, probably undertaken partly on foot and partly by coach. His two years there appear to have been critical in exposing him to a wider facet of European culture. In addition to singing in the a cappella choir, it is likely that he played the School’s three-manual organ and its harpsichords. He probably learned French and Italian, and received a thorough grounding in theology, Latin, history, geography, and physics. He would have come into contact with sons of noblemen from northern Germany sent to the highly selective school to prepare for careers in diplomacy, government, and the military.
Although little supporting historical evidence exists at this time, it is almost certain that while in Lüneburg, young Bach would have visited the Johanniskirche (Church of St. John) and heard (and possibly played) the church’s famous organ (built in 1549 by Jasper Johannsen and nicknamed the “Böhm organ” after its most prominent master, Georg Böhm). Given his innate musical talent, Bach would have had significant contact with prominent organists of the day in Lüneburg, most notably Böhm (the organist at Johanniskirche) as well as organists in nearby Hamburg, such as Johann Adam Reincken.
A nineteenth century depiction of the Bach family at morning
music practice. Bach is at the keyboard and the other family
members are playing or singing.
Weimar, Arnstadt and Mühlhausen (1703–08)
St. Boniface’s Church in Arnstadt
In January 1703, shortly after graduating from St. Michael’s and after having being turned down for the post of organist at Sangerhausen, Bach gained an appointment as a court musician in the chapel of Duke Johann Ernst in Weimar. His role there is unclear, but appears to have included menial, non-musical duties. During his seven-month tenure at Weimar, his reputation as a keyboard player spread. He was invited to inspect and give the inaugural recital on the new organ at St. Boniface’s Church in Arnstadt. The Bach familyhad close connections with people in this ancient town located about 40 km to the southwest of Weimar. In August 1703, he accepted the post of organist at that church, with light duties, a relatively generous salary, and a fine new organ tuned in the modern tempered system that allowed a wide range of keys to be used.
Strong family connections and a musically enthusiastic employer failed to prevent tension between the young organist and the authorities after several years in the post. Bach was apparently dissatisfied with the standard of singers in the choir; more seriously, there was his unauthorised absence from Arnstadt for several months in 1705–06, when he visited the great organist and composer Dieterich Buxtehude and his Abendmusiken at the Marienkirche in the northern city of Lübeck. The visit to Buxtehude involved a journey on foot of about 400 kilometres (250 mi) each way. The trip reinforced Buxtehude’s style as a foundation for Bach’s earlier works, and that he overstayed his planned visit by several months suggests that his time with the older master was of great value him. Bach wanted to become amanuensis (assistant and successor) to Buxtehude, but did not want to marry his daughter, which apparently was a condition for his appointment.
Places Bach lived
According to a record of the proceedings of the Arnstadt consistory in August 1705, Bach was involved in a brawl:
|“||Johann Sebastian Bach, organist here at the New Church, appeared and stated that, as he walked home yesterday, fairly late at night … six students were sitting on the “Langenstein” (Long Stone), and as he passed the town hall, the student Geyersbach went after him with a stick, calling him to account: Why had he [Bach] made abusive remarks about him? He [Bach] answered that he had made no abusive remarks about him, and that no one could prove it, for he had gone his way very quietly. Geyersbach retorted that while he [Bach] might not have maligned him, he had maligned his bassoon at some time, and whoever insulted his belongings insulted him as well … [Geyersbach] had at once struck out at him. Since he had not been prepared for this, he had been about to draw his dagger, but Geyersbach had fallen into his arms, and the two of them tumbled about until the rest of the students … had rushed toward them and separated them.||”|
In 1706 Bach was offered a post as organist at St. Blasius’s in Mühlhausen, which he took up the following year. It included significantly higher remuneration and improved conditions, as well as a better choir. Four months after arriving at Mühlhausen, Bach married his second cousin, Maria Barbara Bach. Together they would have seven children, four of whom survived to adulthood, including Wilhelm Friedemann Bach and Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach who became important composers in their own right.
The church and city government at Mühlhausen agreed to Bach’s plan for an expensive renovation of the organ at St. Blasius’s. He, in turn, wrote an elaborate, festive cantata—Gott ist mein König, BWV 71—for the inauguration of the new council in 1708. The council was so delighted with the piece that they paid handsomely for its publication, and twice in later years had the composer return to conduct it.
Portrait of the young Bach (disputed)
After less than a year Bach left Mühlhausen, returning to Weimar this time as organist andconcertmaster at the ducal court. The larger salary given him by Duke Johann Ernst and the prospect of working with a large, well-funded contingent of professional musicians may have prompted the move. Bach moved his family into an apartment just five minutes’ walk from the ducal palace. In the following year, their first child was born and they were joined by Maria Barbara’s elder, unmarried sister, who remained with them to assist in the running of the household until her death in 1729.
Bach’s position in Weimar marked the start of a sustained period of composing keyboard and orchestral works, in which he had attained the technical proficiency and confidence to extend the prevailing large-scale structures and to synthesise influences from abroad. From the music of Italians such as Vivaldi, Corelli and Torelli, he learned how to write dramatic openings and adopted their sunny dispositions, dynamic motor-rhythms and decisive harmonic schemes. Bach absorbed these stylistic aspects in part by transcribing for harpsichord and organ the concertos of Vivaldi written for various combinations of strings and winds; a number of these transcribed works are still concert favourites. Bach was particularly attracted to the Italian style in which one or more solo instruments alternate section-by-section with the full orchestra throughout a movement.
In Weimar, Bach continued to play and compose for the organ, and to perform a varied repertoire of concert music with the duke’s ensemble. He also began to write the preludes and fugues which were later assembled into his monumental work Das Wohltemperierte Clavier (“The well-tempered keyboard”—Clavier meaning clavichord or harpischord). It consists of two collections compiled in 1722 and 1744, each containing a prelude and fugue in every major and minor key.
During his time at Weimar, Bach started work on the “Little Organ Book” for his eldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann; this contains traditional Lutheran chorales(hymn tunes), set in complex textures to assist the training of organists. The book illustrates two major themes in Bach’s life: his dedication to teaching and his love of the chorale as a musical form. Bach eventually fell out of favour in Weimar and was, according to a translation (see reference that follows) of the court secretary’s report, jailed for almost a month before being unfavourably dismissed:
|“||On November 6, , the quondam concertmaster and organist Bach was confined to the County Judge’s place of detention for too stubbornly forcing the issue of his dismissal and finally on December 2 was freed from arrest with notice of his unfavourable discharge.||”|
Leopold, Prince of Anhalt-Köthen hired Bach to serve as his Kapellmeister(director of music). Prince Leopold, himself a musician, appreciated Bach’s talents, paid him well, and gave him considerable latitude in composing and performing. The prince was Calvinist and did not use elaborate music in his worship; thus, most of Bach’s work from this period was secular, including the Orchestral Suites, the Six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello and theSonatas and partitas for solo violin. The well-known Brandenburg Concertosdate from this period. Bach composed secular cantatas for the court such as the Die Zeit, die Tag und Jahre macht, BWV 134a.
On 7 July 1720, while Bach was abroad with Prince Leopold, Bach’s wife Maria Barbara, the mother of his first seven children, suddenly died. The following year, the widower met Anna Magdalena Wilcke, a young, highly gifted soprano 17 years his junior, who performed at the court in Köthen; they married on 3 December 1721. Together they had 13 more children, six of whom survived into adulthood: Gottfried Heinrich, Johann Christoph Friedrich and Johann Christian, all of whom became significant musicians; Elisabeth Juliane Friederica (1726–81), who married Bach’s pupil Johann Christoph Altnikol; Johanna Carolina (1737–81); and Regina Susanna (1742–1809).
In 1723, Bach was appointed Cantor of the Thomasschule at St. Thomas Church(Thomaskirche) in Leipzig, as well as Director of Music in the principal churches in the town, namely the Nikolaikirche and the Paulinerkirche, the church of the University of Leipzig.This was a prestigious post in the mercantile city in the Electorate of Saxony, which he held for 27 years until his death. It brought him into contact with the political machinations of his employer, the Leipzig Council. The Council comprised two factions: the Absolutists, loyal to the Saxon monarch in Dresden, Augustus the Strong; and the City-Estate faction, representing the interests of the mercantile class, the guilds and minor aristocrats. Bach was the nominee of the monarchists, in particular of the Mayor at the time, Gottlieb Lange, a lawyer who had earlier served in the Dresden court. In return for agreeing to Bach’s appointment, the City-Estate faction was granted control of the School, and Bach was required to make a number of compromises with respect to his working conditions. Although it appears that no one on the Council doubted Bach’s musical genius, there was continual tension between the Cantor, who regarded himself as the leader of church music in the city, and the City-Estate faction, which saw him as a schoolmaster and wanted to reduce the emphasis on elaborate music in both the School and the Churches. The Council never honoured Lange’s promise at interview of a handsome salary of 1,000 Thaler a year, although it did provide Bach and his family with a smaller income and a good apartment at one end of the school building, which was renovated at great expense in 1732.
Bach’s post required him to instruct the students of the Thomasschule in singing and to provide church music at the main churches in Leipzig. Bach was required to teach Latin, but he was allowed to employ a deputy to do this instead. A cantata was required for the church service on Sundays and additional church holidays during the liturgical year, he performed mostly his own compositions. The bulk of these cantatas was composed in his first three years in Leipzig, beginning with Die Elenden sollen essen, BWV 75, first performed in the Nikolaikirche on 30 May 1723, the first Sunday after Trinity. He collected them in annual cycles, five are mentioned in obituaries, three are extant. Most of these concerted works expound on the Gospel readings prescribed for every Sunday and feast day in the Lutheran year. Bach started a second annual cycle on the first Sunday after Trinity of 1724, composing only chorale cantatas, each based on a single church hymn, first O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort, BWV 20, then works such as Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, BWV 140, Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, BWV 61, and Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern, BWV 1. For other than chorale cantatas, a stanza from a chorale typically forms the concluding movement of a work.
To rehearse and perform these works at Thomaskirche, Bach sat at the harpsichord or stood in front of the choir on the lower gallery at the west end, his back to the congregation and the altar at the east end. He would have looked upwards to the organ that rose from a loft about four metres above. To the right of the organ in a side gallery was the winds, brass and timpani; to the left were the strings. The Council provided only about eight permanent instrumentalists, a source of continual friction with the Cantor, who had to recruit the rest of the 20 or so players required for medium-to-large scores from the University, the School and the public. The organ or harpsichord was probably played by the composer (when not standing to conduct), the in-house organist, or one of Bach’s elder sons, Wilhelm Friedemann or Carl Philipp Emanuel.
Bach drew the soprano and alto choristers from the School, and the tenors and basses from the School and elsewhere in Leipzig. Performing at weddings and funerals provided extra income for these groups; it was probably for this purpose, and for in-school training, that he wrote at least six motets, mostly for double choir. As part of his regular church work, he performed motets of theVenetian School and Germans such as Heinrich Schütz, which would have served as formal models for his own motets.
Zimmermannsches Caffeehaus Leipzig, where the Collegium Musicum performed
Bach wanted to broaden his composing and performing beyond the liturgy. In March 1729, he took over the directorship of the Collegium Musicum, a secular performance ensemble that had been started in 1701 by his old friend, the composer Georg Philipp Telemann. This was one of the dozens of private societies in the major German-speaking cities that had been established by musically active university students; these societies had come to play an increasingly important role in public musical life and were typically led by the most prominent professionals in a city. In the words of Christoph Wolff, assuming the directorship was a shrewd move that ‘consolidated Bach’s firm grip on Leipzig’s principal musical institutions’. During much of the year, Leipzig’s Collegium Musicum performed twice weekly for two hours in the Zimmermannsches Caffeehaus, a Coffeehouseon Catherine Street off the main market square. Many of Bach’s works during the 1730s and 1740s were written for and performed by the Collegium Musicum; among these were almost certainly parts of the Clavier-Übung (Keyboard Practice) and many of the violin and harpsichord concertos..
In 1733, Bach composed the Kyrie and Gloria of the Mass in B minor. He presented the manuscript to the King of Poland, Grand Duke of Lithuania and Elector of Saxony, August III in an eventually successful bid to persuade the monarch to appoint him as Royal Court Composer. He later extended this work into a full Mass, by adding a Credo, Sanctus and Agnus Dei, the music for which was almost wholly taken from some of the best of his cantata movements. Bach’s appointment as court composer appears to have been part of his long-term struggle to achieve greater bargaining power with the Leipzig Council. Although the complete mass was probably never performed during the composer’s lifetime, it is considered to be among the greatest choral works of all time. Between 1737 and 1739, Bach’s former pupil Carl Gotthelf Gerlach took over the directorship of the Collegium Musicum.
In 1747, Bach visited the court of the King of Prussia in Potsdam. There the king played a theme for Bach and challenged him to improvise a fugue based on his theme. Bach improvised a three-part fugue on Frederick’s pianoforte, then a novelty, and later presented the king with a Musical Offering which consists of fugues, canons and a trio based on the “royal theme,” nominated by the monarch. Its six-part fugue includes a slightly altered subject more suitable for extensive elaboration.
The Art of Fugue was written shortly before Bach’s death and was finished but for the final fugue. It consists of 18 complex fugues and canons based on a simple theme.It was only published posthumously.
The final work Bach completed was a chorale prelude for organ, dictated to his son-in-law, Johann Altnikol, from his deathbed. EntitledVor deinen Thron tret ich hiermit (Before thy throne I now appear, BWV 668a); when the notes on the three staves of the final cadence are counted and mapped onto the Roman alphabet, the initials “JSB” are found.
Bach’s health declined in 1749; on 2 June, Heinrich von Brühl wrote to one of the Leipzigburgomasters to request that his music director, Gottlob Harrer, fill the post of Thomascantor andDirector musices posts “upon the eventual … decease of Mr. Bach.” Bach became increasingly blind, and the British eye surgeon John Taylor operated on Bach while visiting Leipzig in 1750.
On 28 July 1750 Bach died at the age of 65. A contemporary newspaper reported the cause of death as “from the unhappy consequences of the very unsuccessful eye operation”. Some modern historians speculate that the cause of death was a stroke complicated by pneumonia. An obituary was written by his son Emanuel and his pupil Johann Friedrich Agricola at the time.Bach’s estate was valued at 1159 Thaler and included five Clavecins, two lute-harpsichords, three violins, three violas, two cellos, a viola da gamba, a lute and a spinet, and 52 “sacred books”, including books by Martin Luther and Josephus. He was originally buried at Old St. John’s Cemetery in Leipzig. His grave went unmarked for nearly 150 years. In 1894 his coffin was finally discovered and reburied in a vault within St. John’s Church. This building was destroyed by Allied bombing during World War II, and in 1950 Bach’s remains were taken to their present resting place at Leipzig’s Church of St. Thomas
Bach statue, Leipzig
A comprehensive obituary of Bach was published (without attribution) four years later in 1754 by Lorenz Christoph Mizler (another former student) in Musikalische Bibliothek a musical periodical. The obituary remains probably “the richest and most trustworthy” early source document about Bach. However, after his death, Bach’s reputation as a composer at first declined; his work was regarded as old-fashioned compared to the emerging classical style. Initially he was remembered more as a player, teacher and as the father of his children, most notably Johann Christian and Carl Philipp Emanuel.
During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, Bach was widely recognised for his keyboard work. Mozart, Beethoven, and Chopin were among his most prominent admirers. Beethoven described him as the “Urvater der Harmonie“, “original father of harmony”.Composers such as Mozart, Beethoven, Robert Schumann, and Felix Mendelssohn began writing in a more contrapuntal style after being exposed to Bach’s music.
The composer’s reputation among the wider public was prompted in part by Johann Nikolaus Forkel‘s 1802 biography. Felix Mendelssohn significantly contributed to the revival of Bach’s reputation with his 1829 Berlin performance of the St Matthew Passion. In in 1850, the Bach Gesellschaft (Bach Society) was founded to promote the works; by 1899, the Society had published a comprehensive edition of the composer’s works, with a conservative approach to editorial intervention. At the time Bach’s music was mostly performed on the newly prominentHammerklavier.
During the 20th century, the process of recognising the musical as well as the pedagogic value of some of the works has continued, perhaps most notably in the promotion of the Cello Suites by Pablo Casals. Another development has been the growth of the “authentic” or period performance movement, which, as far as possible, attempts to present the music as the composer intended it. Examples include the playing of keyboard works on the harpsichord rather than a moderngrand piano and the use of small choirs or single voices instead of the larger forces favoured by 19th- and early 20th-century performers. The Bach Crater on Mercury is named for him.
Bach’s contributions to music—or, to borrow a term popularised by his student Lorenz Christoph Mizler, his “musical science”—are frequently bracketed with those by William Shakespeare in English literature and Isaac Newton in physics. In Germany, many streets were named and statues were erected in honour of Bach during the twentieth century. Three pieces of Bach’s work were included onboard the Voyager spacecrafts in the form of golden records that were meant to “represent our hope and our determination and our goodwill”.
In 1950, a catalogue called Bach Werke Verzeichnis (Bach Works Catalogue) was compiled by Wolfgang Schmieder, who organised the work of Bach thematically. In compiling the catalogue, Schmieder largely followed the Bach Gesellschaft Ausgabe, a comprehensive edition of the composer’s works that was produced between 1850 and 1905. BWV 1–224 are cantatas; BWV 225–249, the large-scale choral works including his Passions; BWV 250–524, chorales and sacred songs; BWV 525–748, organworks; BWV 772–994, other keyboard works; BWV 995–1000, lute music; BWV 1001–40, chamber music; BWV 1041–71, orchestral music; and BWV 1072–1126, canons and fugues.
Bach was best known during his lifetime as an organist, organ consultant, and composer of organ works in both the traditional German free genres—such as preludes, fantasias, and toccatas—and stricter forms, such as chorale preludes and fugues. He established a reputation at a young age for his great creativity and ability to integrate foreign styles into his organ works. A decidedly North German influence was exerted by Georg Böhm, with whom Bach came into contact in Lüneburg, and Dieterich Buxtehude in Lübeck, whom the young organist visited in 1704 on an extended leave of absence from his job in Arnstadt. Around this time, Bach copied the works of numerous French and Italian composers to gain insights into their compositional languages, and later arranged violin concertos byVivaldi and others for organ and harpsichord. His most productive period (1708–14) saw the composition of several pairs of preludes andfugues and toccatas and fugues, and of the Orgelbüchlein (“Little organ book”), an unfinished collection of 45 short chorale preludes that demonstrate compositional techniques in the setting of chorale tunes. After he left Weimar, Bach’s output for organ fell off, although his best-known works (the six trio sonatas, the “German Organ Mass” in Clavier-Übung III from 1739, and the “Great Eighteen” chorales, revised late in his life) were all composed after this time. Bach was extensively engaged later in his life in consulting on organ projects, testing newly built organs, and dedicating organs in afternoon recitals. One of the high points may be the third part of the Clavier-Übung, a setting of 21 chorale preludes uniting the traditional Catholic Missa with the Lutheran catechism liturgy, the whole set interpolated between the mighty “St. Anne” Prelude and Fugue on the theme of the Trinity.
Other keyboard works
The title page of the third part of theClavier-Übung, one of the few works by Bach that was published during his lifetime
Bach wrote many works for the harpsichord, some of which may have been played on theclavichord. Many of his keyboard works are anthologies that show an eagerness to encompass whole theoretical systems in an encyclopaedic fashion.
- The Well-Tempered Clavier, Books 1 and 2 (BWV 846–893). Each book comprises a prelude and fugue in each of the 24 major and minor keys in chromatic order from C major to B minor (thus, the whole collection is often referred to as ‘the 48’). “Well-tempered” in the title refers to the temperament (system of tuning); many temperaments before Bach’s time were not flexible enough to allow compositions to move through more than just a few keys.
- The 15 Inventions and 15 Sinfonias (BWV 772–801). These short two- and three-part contrapuntal works are arranged in the same chromatic order as the Well-Tempered Clavier, omitting some of the less used keys. The pieces were intended by Bach for instructional purposes.
- Three collections of dance suites: the English Suites (BWV 806–811), the French Suites (BWV 812–817) and the Partitas for keyboard (BWV 825–830). Each collection contains six suites built on the standard model (Allemande–Courante–Sarabande–(optional movement)–Gigue). The English Suites closely follow the traditional model, adding a prelude before the allemande and including a single movement between the sarabande and the gigue. The French Suites omit preludes, but have multiple movements between the sarabande and the gigue. The partitas expand the model further with elaborate introductory movements and miscellaneous movements between the basic elements of the model.
- The Goldberg Variations (BWV 988), an aria with thirty variations. The collection has a complex and unconventional structure: the variations build on the bass line of the aria, rather than its melody, and musical canons are interpolated according to a grand plan. There are nine canons within the 30 variations, one placed every three variations between variations 3 and 27. These variations move in order from canon at the unison to canon at the ninth. The first eight are in pairs (unison and octave, second and seventh, third and sixth, fourth and fifth). The ninth canon stands on its own due to compositional dissimilarities.
- Miscellaneous pieces such as the Overture in the French Style (French Overture, BWV 831), Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue (BWV 903), and the Italian Concerto (BWV 971).
Among Bach’s lesser known keyboard works are seven toccatas (BWV 910–916), four duets (BWV 802–805), sonatas for keyboard (BWV 963–967), the Six Little Preludes (BWV 933–938), and the Aria variata alla maniera italiana (BWV 989).
Orchestral and chamber music
Bach wrote music for single instruments, duets and small ensembles. Bach’s works for solo instruments—the six sonatas and partitas for violin (BWV 1001–1006), the six cello suites (BWV 1007–1012) and the Partita for solo flute (BWV 1013)—may be listed among the most profound works in the repertoire. Bach composed a suite and several other works for solo lute. He wrote trio sonatas; solo sonatas(accompanied by continuo) for the flute and for the viola da gamba; and a large number of canons and ricercare, mostly for unspecified instrumentation. The most significant examples of the latter are contained in The Art of Fugue and The Musical Offering.
Bach’s best-known orchestral works are the Brandenburg concertos, so named because he submitted them in the hope of gaining employment from Margrave Christian Ludwig of Brandenburg-Schwedt in 1721; his application was unsuccessful. These works are examples of the concerto grosso genre. Other surviving works in the concerto form include two violin concertos (BWV 1041 and BWV 1042); a Concerto for Two Violins in D Minor (BWV 1043), often referred to as Bach’s “double” concerto; and concertos for one, two, three and even four harpsichords. It is widely accepted that many of the harpsichord concertos were not original works, but arrangements of his concertos for other instruments now lost. A number of violin, oboe and flute concertos have been reconstructed from these. In addition to concertos, Bach wrote four orchestral suites, a series of stylised dances for orchestra, each preceded by a French overture. The work now known as the Air on the G String is an arrangement for the violin made in the nineteenth century from the second movement of the Orchestral Suite No. 3. An arrangement of the Air for cello and piano was the very first piece of Bach’s music to be recorded, in 1902 in Saint Petersburg, by the Russian cellist Aleksandr Verzhbilovich.
Vocal and choral works
Bach performed a cantata on Sunday at the Thomaskirche, on a theme corresponding to the lectionary readings of the week, as determined by the Lutheran Church Year calendar. He did not perform cantatas during the seasons of Lent and Advent. Although he performed cantatas by other composers, he composed at least three entire sets of cantatas, one for each Sunday and holiday of the church year, at Leipzig, in addition to those composed at Mühlhausen and Weimar. In total he wrote more than 300 sacred cantatas, of which approximately 195 survive.
His cantatas vary greatly in form and instrumentation. Some of them are only for a solo singer; some are single choruses; some are for grand orchestras; some only a few instruments. A common format consists of a large opening chorus followed by one or more recitative-aria pairs for soloists (or duets) and a concluding chorale. The recitative is part of the corresponding Bible reading for the week and the aria is a contemporary reflection on it. The melody of the concluding chorale often appears as a cantus firmus in the opening movement. Among the best known cantatas are Christ lag in Todes Banden, BWV 4, Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis, BWV 21, Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott, BWV 80, Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit, BWV 106 (Actus Tragicus), Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, BWV 140 andHerz und Mund und Tat und Leben, BWV 147.
In addition, Bach wrote a number of secular cantatas, usually for civic events such as council inaugurations. These include wedding cantatas, the Wedding Quodlibet, the Peasant Cantata and the Coffee Cantata, which concerns a girl whose father will not let her marry until she gives up her addiction to that extremely popular drink.
Bach’s large choral-orchestral works include the grand scale St Matthew Passion and St John Passion, both written for Good Friday vespers services at St. Thomas and St. Nicholas Churches in alternate years, and the Christmas Oratorio (a set of six cantatas for use in the Liturgical season of Christmas). The Magnificat in two versions (one in E-flat major, with four interpolated Christmas-related movements, and the later and better-known version in D major), the Easter Oratorio, and the Ascension Oratorio compare to large, elaborate cantatas, of a lesser extent than the Passions and the Christmas Oratorio.
Title page of the Calov Bible, with Bach’s signature in the bottom right hand corner.
Bach’s other large work, the Mass in B minor, was assembled by Bach near the end of his life, mostly from pieces composed earlier (such as the cantatas Gloria in excelsis Deo, BWV 191 and Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen, BWV 12). It was never performed in Bach’s lifetime, or even after his death, until the 19th century.
All of these works, unlike the six motets (Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied; Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit auf; Jesu, meine Freude; Fürchte dich nicht; Komm, Jesu, komm!; andLobet den Herrn alle Heiden), have substantial solo parts as well as choruses.
Bach’s signature in a copy of a three volume Bible commentary by the orthodox Lutheran theologian, Abraham Calov, was discovered in 1934 in a house in Frankenmuth, Michigan in the US. It is not known how the Bible came to America, but it was purchased in a used book store in Philadelphia in the 1830s or 1840s by an immigrant and taken to Michigan. Its provenance was verified and it was subsequently deposited in the rare book holdings ofConcordia Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri. It contains Bach’s markings of texts for his cantatas and notes. It is only rarely displayed to the public. A study of the so-called Bach Bible was prepared by Robin Leaver, titled J.S. Bach and Scripture: Glosses from the Calov Bible Commentary (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1985).
There are several more specific features of Bach’s style. The notation of Baroque melodic lines tended to assume that composers would write out only the basic framework, and that performers would embellish this framework by inserting ornamental notes and otherwise elaborating on it. Although this practice varied considerably between the schools of European music, Bach was regarded at the time as being on one extreme end of the spectrum, notating most or all of the details of his melodic lines—particularly in his fast movements—thus leaving little for performers to interpolate. This may have assisted his control over the dense contrapuntal textures that he favoured, which allow less leeway for the spontaneous variation of musical lines. Bach’s contrapuntal textures tend to be more cumulative than those of Händel and most other composers of the day, who would typically allow a line to drop out after it had been joined by two or three others. Bach’s harmony is marked by a tendency to employ brief tonicisation—subtle references to another key that lasts for only a few beats at the longest—particularly of the supertonic, to add colour to his textures.
The opening of the six-part fugue from The Musical Offering, in Bach’s hand
At the same time, Bach, unlike later composers, left the instrumentation of major works including The Art of Fugue and The Musical Offering open. It is likely that his detailed notation was less an absolute demand on the performer and more a response to a 17th-century culture in which the boundary between what the performer could embellish and what the composer demanded to be authentic was being negotiated.
Bach’s apparently devout, personal relationship with the Christian God in theLutheran tradition and the high demand for religious music of his times inevitably placed sacred music at the centre of his repertory. He taught Luther’s Small Catechism as the Thomascantor in Leipzig, and some of his pieces represent it. Specifically, the Lutheran chorale hymn tune, the principal musical aspect of the Lutheran service, was the basis of much of his output. He invested the chorale prelude, already a standard set of Lutheran forms, with a more cogent, tightly integrated architecture, in which the intervallic patterns and melodic contours of the tune were typically treated in a dense, contrapuntal lattice against relatively slow-moving, overarching statements of the tune.
Bach’s theology informed his compositional structures: Sei Gegrüsset is perhaps the finest example where there is a theme with 11 variations (making 12 movements) that, while still one work, becomes two sets of six—to match Lutheran preaching principles of repetition. At the same time the theological interpretation of ‘master’ and 11 disciples would not be lost on his contemporary audience. Further, the practical relationship of each variation to the next (in preparing registration and the expected textural changes) seems to show an incredible capacity to preach through the music using the musical forms available at the time.
Bach’s seal, used throughout his Leipzig years. It contains the letters J S Bsuperimposed over their mirror image topped with a crown.
Bach’s deep knowledge of and interest in the liturgy led to his developing intricate relationships between music and linguistic text. This was evident from the smallest to the largest levels of his compositional technique. On the smallest level, many of his sacred works contain short motifs that, by recurrent association, can be regarded as pictorial symbolism and articulations of liturgical concepts. For example, the octave leap, usually in a bass line, represents the relationship between heaven and earth; the slow, repeated notes of the bass line in the opening movement of the cantata Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit, BWV 106) depict the laboured trudging of Jesus as he was forced to drag the cross from the city to the crucifixion site.
On the largest level, the large-scale structure of some of his sacred vocal works is evidence of subtle, elaborate planning: for example, the overall form of the St Matthew Passionillustrates the liturgical and dramatic flow of the Easter story on a number of levels simultaneously; the text, keys and variations of instrumental and vocal forces used in the movements of the Ascension Oratorio Lobet Gott in seinen Reichen, BWV 11) may form a structure that resembles the cross.
Beyond these specific musical features arising from Bach’s religious affiliation is the fact that he was able to produce music for an audience that was committed to serious, regular worship, for which a concentrated density and complexity was accepted. His natural inclination may have been to reinvigorate existing forms, rather than to discard them and pursue more dramatic musical innovations. Thus, Bach’s inventive genius was almost entirely directed towards working within the structures he inherited, according to most critics and historians.
Frontispiece of Bach’s Clavier-Büchlein vor Anna Magdalena Bach, composed in 1722 for his second wife
Bach’s inner personal drive to display his musical achievements was evident in a number of ways. The most obvious was his successful striving to become the leading virtuoso and improviser of the day on the organ. Keyboard music occupied a central position in his output throughout his life, and he pioneered the elevation of the keyboard from continuo to solo instrument in his numerous harpsichord concertos and chamber movements with keyboardobbligato, in which he himself probably played the solo part. Many of his keyboard preludes are vehicles for a free improvisatory virtuosity in the German tradition, although their internal organisation became increasingly more cogent as he matured. Virtuosity is a key element in other forms, such as the fugal movement from Brandenburg Concerto No. 4, in which Bach himself may have been the first to play the rapid solo violin passages. Another example is in the organ fugue from BWV 548, a late work from Leipzig, in which virtuosic passages are mapped onto Italian solo-tutti alternation within the fugal development.
Related to his cherished role as teacher was his drive to encompass whole genres by producing collections of movements that thoroughly explore the range of artistic and technical possibilities inherent in those genres. The most famous examples are the two books of the Well Tempered Clavier, each of which presents a prelude and fugue in every major and minor key, in which a variety of contrapuntal and fugal techniques are displayed. The English and French Suites, and the Partitas, all keyboard works from the Köthen period, systematically explore a range of metres and of sharp and flat keys. This urge to manifest structures is evident throughout his life: the Goldberg Variations (1746?), include a sequence of canons at increasing intervals (unison, seconds, thirds, etc.), and The Art of Fugue (1749) can be seen as a compendium of fugal techniques.
Present-day Bach performers usually pursue either of two traditions: so-called “authentic performance practice”, utilising historical techniques, or alternatively the use of modern instruments and playing techniques, with a tendency towards larger ensembles. In Bach’s time orchestras and choirs were usually smaller than those known to, for example, Brahms, and even Bach’s most ambitious choral works, such as his Mass in B minor and Passions, are composed for relatively modest forces. Some of Bach’s important chamber music does not indicate instrumentation, which gives greater latitude for variety of ensemble.
Easy listening realisations of Bach’s music and their use in advertising contributed greatly to Bach’s popularisation in the second half of the twentieth century. Among these were the Swingle Singers‘ versions of Bach pieces that are now well-known (for instance, the Air on the G string, or the Wachet Auf chorale prelude) and Wendy Carlos‘s 1968 groundbreaking recording Switched-On Bach, using the then recently invented Moog electronic synthesiser. Jazz musicians have adopted Bach’s music, with Jacques Loussier, Ian Anderson, Uri Caine and the Modern Jazz Quartet among those creating jazz versions of Bach works.