Johann Sebastian Bach was a virtuoso organist and composer.
He was born in Eisenach in 1685 and died in Leipzig in 1750.
JS Bach is firmly established as one of the all time great composers of the Western classical tradition, described by Wagner as “the most stupendous miracle in all music.”
Bach’s Early Years
Johann Sebastian was from a hugely musical family.
53 Bachs were cantors (choir leaders), town musicians or organists over a period of time spanning 300 years!
However, it was Johann Sebastian who was to rise to be one of the truly all time greats and giants of the Baroque period.
He was the son of Johann Ambrosius Bach, but JS Bach became an orphan at the age of 10.
He went to live with his elder brother Johann Christoph in Ohrdruf where he had organ and Klavier lessons.
In 1700 (at the age of 15 years old) Bach became a chorister at St. Michael’s Church, Luneburg.
Bach The Organist
JS Bach was mainly known in his lifetime as a virtuosic organist.
In 1703 he was appointed organist at St Boniface’s Church, Arnstadt.
The link between faith and music was a strong one in Bach’s opinion. As Bach himself commented, “The aim and final end of all music should be none other than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul.”
At around this time Bach composed one of his most famous and enduring organ pieces, the Toccata and Fugue in D minor BWV 565. The dramatic, almost haunting opening to the piece still captures listeners to this day.
Have a look at this performance of the Toccata and Fugue in D minor played by Gert van Hoef:
1707 – Bach married his cousin Maria Barbara Bach
1708 – he was appointed organist in the Kapelle of the Duke of Saxe-Weimer. During this time Bach composed a large body of organ works and cantatas.
1717 – Bach was appointed Kapellmeister at the court of Anhalt-Cothen. The prince was more interested in secular music, particularly instrumental compositions. As a result, Bach’s focus of composition turned to instrumental music and he produced sonatas, suites and violin concertos. His Brandenburg concertos were composed during this period.
1720 – Maria Barbara died and in 1721 Bach married Anna Magdalena Wilcken.
1723 – JS Bach was appointed cantor at St. Thomas Leipzig where he was to remain until his death in 1750.
JS Bach music
Incredibly, during his lifetime, Bach’s music was only known to a fairly restricted group of people.
Only about 10 of his compositions were printed during his lifetime!!. This is extraordinary considering the fact that he composed over 1,000 pieces of music!!
His music was accused by some of his contemporaries as being old fashioned and outdated as the new Italian style gained popularity.
It was only in 1801 (51 years after his death!!) that the Well Tempered Klavier (Bach’s famous collection of 2 preludes and fugues in every key signature for keyboard) was released. It is now almost a “rite of passage” for any aspiring piano player. Subsequently, it was only really in the 19th century, largely thanks to Mendelssohn that interest in Bach’s music was reawakened.
Bach Instrumental Music
Bach wrote a vast amount of instrumental works.
His main focus was the organ/keyboard, but we also wrote works for other instruments, such as the violin and cello.
Bach Keyboard Music
Bach wrote a large body of work for keyboard.
His most famous work was the Well Tempered Klavier, published in 2 volumes.
Each volume has a series of preludes and fugues in every major and minor key (24 keys). This gives a total of 48 preludes and fugues (2 in each key) across the 2 books!!
Here is the opening prelude in C major from Book 1.
Here is the corresponding fugue:
Here is a very challenging one in C sharp major performed by Natalie Schwamova at the Aarhus International Piano Competition:
Bach keyboard pieces have been performed by numerous pianists over the years.
In some cases, this has led to distinctive and even controversial interpretations.
The pianist, Glenn Gould cause considerable controversy with his often unusual interpretations of Bach.
Have a listen to Glenn Gould playing the Goldberg Variations (a piece of keyboard music by JS Bach consisting of an aria and 30 variations):
Bach’s genius was most notable in his use of polyphony and he was a master of the art of composing fugues.
Bach’s polyphonic composing culminated in his work “The Art of Fugue”.
The work consists of 14 fugues and 4 canons. Incredibly, all of the pieces are based on variations of just one subject (theme).
Have a listen to Fugue 1 from Bach’s The Art of Fugue:
Other Famous Bach Instrumental Works
The 6 cello suites that Bach wrote are some of his most famous and most recognisable works.
The pieces are written for unaccompanied cello.
Here is Yo Yo Ma playing the Bach Cello Suite No 1 in G major:
The Brandenburg Concertos
Bach wrote six concertos for the Margave of Brandenburg in 1721.
Bach used the concerto grosso form. However, he developed the form to a new level not previously heard with the addition of unusual instrument combinations and solos. Each concerto has its own unique style/mood.
Have a listen to the 5th Concerto performed by The Netherlands Bach Society:
Bach Vocal Music
Bach worked primarily as a church organist and cantor (choir leader) and so choral writing was an inherent part of his life.
Bach wrote numerous cantatas (vocal pieces for singer(s) and accompaniment).
Have a look/listen to the following chorale from Cantata 140:
Bach’s chorales are widely used in musical training today to work on harmonisation technique.
JS Bach also wrote various large scale choral works, including passions, masses and oratorios for various church occasions.
The “passion” is the account from the Bible of Jesus’ death on the cross.
Bach’s Passions tell this story through some of the greatest masterpieces of sacred vocal music ever written.
The St. John Passion and the St. Matthew Passion are arguably his two most famous passions.
Both passions were designed to be used as part of the church services at Easter and so include hymns/chorales which the congregation could join in with.
Have a look/listen to the St. John Passion performed by The Netherlands Bach Society:
Bach Mass in B minor
JS Bach’s mass in B minor was the last large scale work he composed, completing it around 1749 (one year before his death).
It is an epic work based on the entire Catholic mass and is made up of a series of pieces, some of which were composed 25 years previously. In fact, the mass in B minor was only performed in its entirety for the first time over 100 years after Bach’s death.
Have a listen to the Mass in B minor performed by The Netherlands Bach Society:
JS Bach wrote 3 main oratorios – the Ascension Oratorio, the Easter Oratorio and the Christmas Oratorio.
These were written to be used as part of the church services during the specific times in the church calendar (Ascension Day, Easter and Christmas).
The Christmas Oratorio is his largest, lasting for almost 3 hours!!
Have a listen to this performance of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio by the Monteverdi Singers and the English Baroque Soloists, conducted by Sir John Eliot Gardiner:
The Legacy of JS Bach
JS Bach clearly stands as one of the greats in the Western classical musical tradition.
His body of work as a composer is vast and his technical brilliance meant that his music remains a key source of study for any aspiring composer or performer.
Hi work as a church organist and cantor had a crucial impact on his approach. It caused him to pursue perfection believing that “the more perfectly a composition is realised, both conceptually and through performance, the more God is immanent in the music” (John Eliot Gardiner, 2013 “Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven.”).