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Johann Sebastian Bach

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This article is about the Baroque composer. For his grandson of the same name, see Johann Sebastian Bach (painter). For other uses of Bach, see Bach (disambiguation).
Portrait of Bach, aged 61, by E.G. Haussmann (1748).
signature written in ink in a flowing script

Johann Sebastian Bach[a] (31 March [O.S. 21 March] 1685 – 28 July 1750) was a German composer and musician of the Baroque period. He enriched established German styles through his skill in counterpoint, harmonic and motivic organisation, and the adaptation of rhythms, forms, and textures from abroad, particularly from Italy and France. Bach's compositions include the Brandenburg Concertos, the Goldberg Variations, the Mass in B minor, two Passions, and over three hundred cantatas of which around two hundred survive.[1] His music is revered for its technical command, artistic beauty, and intellectual depth.

Bach's abilities as an organist were highly respected 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 greatest composers of all time.[2]


Places where Bach lived
Johann Ambrosius Bach, Bach's father

Bach was born in Eisenach, in the duchy of Saxe-Eisenach, into a great musical family. His father, Johann Ambrosius Bach, was the director of the town musicians, and all of his uncles were professional musicians. His father probably taught him to play the violin and harpsichord, and his brother, Johann Christoph Bach, taught him the clavichord and exposed him to much contemporary music.[3] Apparently at his own initiative, Bach attended St. Michael's School in Lüneburg for two years. After graduating, he held several musical posts across Germany: he served as Kapellmeister (director of music) to Leopold, Prince of Anhalt-Köthen, and as Thomaskantor in Leipzig, a position of music director at the main Lutheran churches and educator at the Thomasschule. He received the title of "Royal Court Composer" from Augustus III in 1736.[4][5] Bach's health and vision declined in 1749, and he died on 28 July 1750.

Childhood (1685–1703)

St. George's Church in Eisenach, where Bach was baptised. Portal inscription: "Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott".
Organs Bach played in Arnstadt
See also: Bach family

Johann Sebastian Bach was born in Eisenach, the capital of the duchy of Saxe-Eisenach, in present-day Germany, on 21 March 1685 O.S. (31 March 1685 N.S.). He was the son of Johann Ambrosius Bach, the director of the town musicians, and Maria Elisabeth Lämmerhirt.[6] He was the eighth and youngest child of Johann Ambrosius,[7] who probably taught him violin and the basics of music theory.[8] His uncles were all professional musicians, whose posts included church organists, court chamber musicians, and composers. One uncle, Johann Christoph Bach (1645–93), introduced him to the organ, and an older second cousin, Johann Ludwig Bach (1677–1731), was a well-known composer and violinist.[9]

Bach's mother died in 1694, and his father died eight months later.[5] Bach, aged 10, moved in with his oldest brother, Johann Christoph Bach (1671–1721), the organist at St. Michael's Church in Ohrdruf, Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg.[10] There he studied, performed, and copied music, including his own brother's, despite being forbidden to do so because scores were so valuable and private and blank ledger paper of that type was costly.[11][12] He received valuable teaching from his brother, who instructed him on the clavichord. J.C. Bach exposed him to the works of great composers of the day, including South German composers such as Johann Pachelbel (under whom Johann Christoph had studied) and Johann Jakob Froberger; North German composers;[3] Frenchmen, such as Jean-Baptiste Lully, Louis Marchand, Marin Marais; and the Italian clavierist Girolamo Frescobaldi. Also during this time, he was taught theology, Latin, Greek, French, and Italian at the local gymnasium.[13]

At the age of 14, Bach, along with his older school friend Georg Erdmann, was awarded a choral scholarship to study at the prestigious St. Michael's School in Lüneburg in the Principality of Lüneburg.[14] Although it is not known for certain, the trip was likely taken mostly on foot.[13] His two years there were critical in exposing him to a wider facet of European culture. In addition to singing in the choir he played the School's three-manual organ and harpsichords.[13] He came into contact with sons of aristocrats from northern Germany sent to the highly selective school to prepare for careers in other disciplines.

While in Lüneburg, Bach had access to St. John's Church and possibly used the church's famous organ from 1553, since it was played by his organ teacher Georg Böhm.[15] Given his musical talent, Bach had significant contact with Böhm while a student in Lüneburg, and also took trips to nearby Hamburg where he observed "the great North German organist Johann Adam Reincken".[15][16] Stauffer reports the discovery in 2005 of the organ tablatures that Bach wrote out when still in his teens of works by Reincken and Dieterich Buxtehude, showing "a disciplined, methodical, well-trained teenager deeply committed to learning his craft".[15]

Weimar, Arnstadt, and Mühlhausen (1703–08)

St. Mary's Church of Lübeck
Portrait of the young Bach (disputed)[17]

In January 1703, shortly after graduating from St. Michael's and being turned down for the post of organist at Sangerhausen,[18] Bach was appointed court musician in the chapel of Duke Johann Ernst III in Weimar.[19] His role there is unclear, but likely included menial, non-musical duties. During his seven-month tenure at Weimar, his reputation as a keyboardist spread so much that he was invited to inspect the new organ, and give the inaugural recital, at St. Boniface's Church in Arnstadt, located about 30 kilometres (19 mi) southwest of Weimar.[20] In August 1703, he became the organist at St. Boniface's, 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.

Despite strong family connections and a musically enthusiastic employer, tension built up between Bach and the authorities after several years in the post. Bach was dissatisfied with the standard of singers in the choir, while his employer was upset by his unauthorised absence from Arnstadt; Bach was gone for several months in 1705–06, to visit the great organist and composer Dieterich Buxtehude and his Abendmusiken at St. Mary's Church in the northern city of Lübeck. The visit to Buxtehude involved a 450-kilometre (280 mi) journey each way, reportedly on foot.[21]

In 1706, Bach was offered a post as organist at St. Blasius's Church in Mühlhausen, which he took up the following year. It included significantly higher remuneration, improved conditions, and a better choir. Four months after arriving at Mühlhausen, Bach married Maria Barbara Bach, his second cousin. They had seven children, four of whom survived to adulthood, including Wilhelm Friedemann Bach and Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach who both became composers as well. Bach was able to convince the church and town government at Mühlhausen to fund an expensive renovation of the organ at St. Blasius's Church. Bach, in turn, wrote an elaborate, festive cantataGott ist mein König (BWV 71)—for the inauguration of the new council in 1708. The council paid handsomely for its publication, and it was a major success.[13]

Return to Weimar (1708–17)

Bach's autograph of the first movement of the Sonata No. 1 in G minor for solo violin (BWV 1001)About this sound Audio

In 1708, Bach left Mühlhausen, returning to Weimar this time as organist and from 1714 Konzertmeister (director of music) at the ducal court, where he had an opportunity to work with a large, well-funded contingent of professional musicians.[13] Bach and his wife moved into a house close to the ducal palace.[22] Later the same year, their first child was born and Maria Barbara's elder, unmarried sister joined them. She remained to help run the household until her death in 1729.

Bach's time in Weimar was the start of a sustained period of composing keyboard and orchestral works. He attained the proficiency and confidence to extend the prevailing structures and to include influences from abroad. He learned to write dramatic openings and employ the dynamic motor rhythms and harmonic schemes found in the music of Italians such as Vivaldi, Corelli, and Torelli. Bach absorbed these stylistic aspects in part by transcribing Vivaldi's string and wind concertos for harpsichord and organ; many of these transcribed works are still regularly performed. 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.[23]

In Weimar, Bach continued to play and compose for the organ, and to perform concert music with the duke's ensemble.[13] He also began to write the preludes and fugues which were later assembled into his monumental work The Well-Tempered Clavier (Das Wohltemperierte Klavier"Klavier" meaning clavichord or harpsichord),[24] consisting of two books, compiled in 1722 and 1744,[25] each containing 24 preludes and fugues in every major and minor key.

Also in Weimar Bach started work on the Little Organ Book, containing traditional Lutheran chorales (hymn tunes) set in complex textures. In 1713, Bach was offered a post in Halle when he advised the authorities during a renovation by Christoph Cuntzius of the main organ in the west gallery of the Market Church of Our Dear Lady. Johann Kuhnau and Bach played again when it was inaugurated in 1716.[26][27]

In the spring of 1714, Bach was promoted to Konzertmeister, an honour that entailed performing a church cantata monthly in the castle church.[28] The first three cantatas Bach composed in Weimar were Himmelskönig, sei willkommen, BWV 182, for Palm Sunday, which coincided with the Annunciation that year, Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen, BWV 12, for Jubilate Sunday, and Erschallet, ihr Lieder, erklinget, ihr Saiten! BWV 172 for Pentecost.[29] Bach's first Christmas cantata Christen, ätzet diesen Tag, BWV 63 was premiered in 1714 or 1715.[30][31]

In 1717, Bach eventually fell out of favour in Weimar and was, according to a translation of the court secretary's report, jailed for almost a month before being unfavourably dismissed: "On November 6, [1717], 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."[32]

Köthen (1717–23)

Bach's seal, used throughout his Leipzig years. It contains the letters J S B superimposed over their mirror image topped with a crown.

Leopold, Prince of Anhalt-Köthen hired Bach to serve as his Kapellmeister (director of music) in 1717. 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; accordingly, most of Bach's work from this period was secular,[33] including the orchestral suites, the cello suites, the sonatas and partitas for solo violin, and the Brandenburg Concertos.[34] Bach also composed secular cantatas for the court such as Die Zeit, die Tag und Jahre macht, BWV 134a. A significant influence upon Bach's musical development during his years with the Prince is recorded by Stauffer as Bach's "complete embrace of dance music, perhaps the most important influence on his mature style other than his adoption of Vivaldi's music in Weimar".[15]

Despite being born in the same year and only about 130 kilometres (81 mi) apart, Bach and Handel never met. In 1719, Bach made the 35-kilometre (22 mi) journey from Köthen to Halle with the intention of meeting Handel, however Handel had left the town.[35] In 1730, Bach's oldest son Wilhelm Friedemann travelled to Halle to invite Handel to visit the Bach family in Leipzig, but the visit did not come to pass.[36]

On 7 July 1720, while Bach was on travel to Carlsbad with Prince Leopold, Bach's wife suddenly died.[37] The following year, he met Anna Magdalena Wilcke, a young, highly gifted soprano sixteen years his junior, who performed at the court in Köthen; they married on 3 December 1721.[38] Together they had thirteen more children, six of whom survived into adulthood: Gottfried Heinrich; Elisabeth Juliane Friederica (1726–81), who married Bach's pupil Johann Christoph Altnickol; Johann Christoph Friedrich and Johann Christian, who both became significant musicians; Johanna Carolina (1737–81); and Regina Susanna (1742–1809).[39]

Leipzig (1723–50)

Café Zimmermann, Leipzig, where the Collegium Musicum performed
Bach's grave and altar in the St. Thomas Church, Leipzig

In 1723, Bach was appointed Thomaskantor, Cantor of the Thomasschule at the Thomaskirche (St. Thomas Church) in Leipzig which served four churches in the city, the Thomaskirche, the Nikolaikirche (St. Nicholas Church), the Neue Kirche and the Peterskirche,[40] and musical director of public functions such as city council elections and homages. This was a prestigious post in the mercantile city in the Electorate of Saxony, which he held for twenty-seven years until his death. It brought him into contact with the political machinations of his employer, Leipzig's city council.

Bach was required to instruct the students of the Thomasschule in singing and to provide church music for 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 services on Sundays and additional church holidays during the liturgical year. He usually performed his own cantatas, most of which were composed during his first three years in Leipzig. The first of these was Die Elenden sollen essen, BWV 75, first performed in the Nikolaikirche on 30 May 1723, the first Sunday after Trinity. Bach collected his cantatas in annual cycles. Five are mentioned in obituaries, three are extant.[29] Of the more than three hundred cantatas which Bach composed in Leipzig, over one hundred have been lost to posterity.[1] 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 the first Sunday after Trinity of 1724, and composed only chorale cantatas, each based on a single church hymn. These include O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort, BWV 20, Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, BWV 140, Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, BWV 62, and Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern, BWV 1.

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.[41] As part of his regular church work, he performed other composers' motets, which served as formal models for his own.[42]

Bach's predecessor as Cantor, Johann Kuhnau, had also been music director for the Paulinerkirche, the church of Leipzig University. But when Bach was installed as Cantor in 1723, he was put in charge only of music for "festal" (church holiday) services at the Paulinerkirche; his petition to provide music also for regular Sunday services there (for corresponding salary increase) went all the way up to King Augustus II but was denied. After this, in 1725, Bach "lost interest" in working even for festal services at the Paulinerkirche and appeared there only on "special occasions".[43] The Paulinerkirche had a much better and newer (1716) organ than did the Thomaskirche or the Nikolaikirche. Bach had been consulted officially about the 1716 organ after its completion, came from Köthen, and submitted a report.[44] Bach was not required to play any organ in his official duties, but it is believed he liked to play on the Paulinerkirche organ "for his own pleasure".[45]

Bach broadened his composing and performing beyond the liturgy by taking over, in March 1729, the directorship of the Collegium Musicum, a secular performance ensemble started by the composer Georg Philipp Telemann. This was one of the dozens of private societies in the major German-speaking cities that was established by musically active university students; these societies had become increasingly important 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".[46] Year round, the Leipzig's Collegium Musicum performed regularly in venues such as the Café Zimmermann, a coffeehouse on 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 parts of his Clavier-Übung (Keyboard Practice) and many of his violin and keyboard concertos.[13]

In 1733, Bach composed a mass for the Dresden court (Kyrie and Gloria) which he later incorporated in his Mass in B minor. He presented the manuscript to the King of Poland, Grand Duke of Lithuania and Elector of Saxony, Augustus III in an eventually successful bid to persuade the monarch to give him the title of Royal Court Composer.[4] He later extended this work into a full mass, by adding a Credo, Sanctus and Agnus Dei, the music for which was partly based on his own cantatas, partly new composed. Bach's appointment as court composer was part of his long-term struggle to achieve greater bargaining power with the Leipzig council. 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 King Frederick II at Potsdam. 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 one of Frederick's fortepianos, then a novelty, and later presented the king with a Musical Offering which consists of fugues, canons and a trio based on this theme. Its six-part fugue includes a slightly altered subject more suitable for extensive elaboration.

In the same year, Bach joined the Corresponding Society of the Musical Sciences (Correspondierende Societät der musikalischen Wissenschafften) of Lorenz Christoph Mizler. On the occasion of his entry into the Society, Bach composed the Canonic Variations on "Vom Himmel hoch da komm' ich her" (BWV 769).[47] A portrait had to be submitted by each member of the Society, so in 1746, during the preparation of Bach's entry, the famous Bach-portrait was painted by Elias Gottlob Haussmann.[48] The Canon triplex á 6 Voc (BWV 1076) on this portrait was dedicated to the Society.[49] Other late works by Bach may also have a connection with the music theory based Society.[50] One of those works was The Art of Fugue, which consists of 18 complex fugues and canons based on a simple theme.[51] The Art of Fugue was only published posthumously in 1751.[52]

Bach's last large work was the Mass in B minor (1748–49) which Stauffer describes as "Bach's most universal church work. Consisting mainly of recycled movements from cantatas written over a thirty-five year period, it allowed Bach to survey his vocal pieces one last time and pick select movements for further revision and refinement."[15] Although the complete mass was never performed during the composer's lifetime, it is considered to be among the greatest choral works of all time.[53]

Death (1750)

Bach's health declined in 1749; on 2 June, Heinrich von Brühl wrote to one of the Leipzig burgomasters to request that his music director, Johann Gottlob Harrer, fill the Thomaskantor and Director musices posts "upon the eventual ... decease of Mr. Bach".[54] Bach was becoming blind, so the British eye surgeon John Taylor twice operated on Bach while visiting Leipzig in March and April 1750.[55]

On 28 July 1750, Bach died at the age of 65.[56] A contemporary newspaper reported "the unhappy consequences of the very unsuccessful eye operation" as the cause of death.[57] Spitta[58] gives some details. He says that Bach died of "apoplexy", a stroke. He, along with the newspaper, says that "Medical treatment associated with the [failed eye] operation had such bad effects that his health ... was severely shaken" and Bach was left totally blind. His son Carl Philipp Emanuel and his pupil Johann Friedrich Agricola co-authored Bach's obituary, which was published in 1754 in Mizler's Musikalische Bibliothek.[59]

Bach's estate included five harpsichords, two lute-harpsichords, three violins, three violas, two cellos, a viola da gamba, a lute and a spinet, and fifty-two "sacred books", including books by Martin Luther and Josephus.[60] He was originally buried at Old St. John's Cemetery in Leipzig. His grave went unmarked for nearly 150 years. In 1894, his remains were located and moved to a vault in St. John's Church. This building was destroyed by Allied bombing during World War II, so in 1950 Bach's remains were taken to their present grave in St. Thomas Church.[13] Later research has called into question whether the remains in the grave are actually those of Bach.[61]

Musical style

A handwritten note by Bach in his copy of the Calov Bible. The note next to 2 Chronicles 5:13 reads: "NB Bey einer andächtigen Musiq ist allezeit Gott mit seiner Gnaden Gegenwart" (N(ota) B(ene) In conscientious music God is always present with his grace)

Bach's musical style arose from his skill in contrapuntal invention and motivic control, his flair for improvisation, his exposure to North and South German, Italian and French music, and his devotion to the Lutheran liturgy. His access to musicians, scores and instruments as a child and a young man and his emerging talent for writing tightly woven music of powerful sonority, allowed him to develop an eclectic, energetic musical style in which foreign influences were combined with an intensified version of the pre-existing German musical language. From the period 1713–14 onward he learned much from the style of the Italians.[62]

During the Baroque period, many composers only wrote the framework, and performers embellished this framework with ornaments and other elaboration.[63] This practice varied considerably between the schools of European music; Bach notated most or all of the details of his melodic lines, leaving little for performers to interpolate. This accounted for his control over the dense contrapuntal textures that he favoured, and decreased leeway for spontaneous variation of musical lines. At the same time, Bach left the instrumentation of major works including The Art of Fugue open.[64]

Bach's devout relationship with the Christian God in the Lutheran tradition[65] and the high demand for religious music of his times placed sacred music at the centre of his repertory.[66] He taught Luther's Small Catechism as the Thomaskantor in Leipzig, and some of his pieces represent it;[67] the Lutheran chorale hymn tune was the basis of much of his work. He wrote more cogent, tightly integrated chorale preludes than most. The large-scale structure of some of Bach's sacred works is evidence of subtle, elaborate planning. For example, the St Matthew Passion illustrates the Passion with Bible text reflected in recitatives, arias, choruses, and chorales.[68]

Bach's drive to display musical achievements was evident in his composition. He wrote much for the keyboard and led its elevation from continuo to solo instrument with harpsichord concertos and keyboard obbligato.[69] Bach produced collections of movements that explored the range of artistic and technical possibilities inherent in various genres. The most famous example is The Well-Tempered Clavier, in which each book presents a prelude and fugue in every major and minor key. Each fugue displays a variety of contrapuntal and fugal techniques.[70]


opening chorale from cantata BWV 140, performed by the MIT Concert Choir

from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1, performed on harpsichord by Robert Schröter

opening aria from the Goldberg Variations, performed on piano by Kimiko Ishizaka

prelude from Cello Suite No. 1, performed by John Michel

Problems playing these files? See media help.

In 1950, a thematic catalogue called Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis (Bach Works Catalogue) was compiled by Wolfgang Schmieder.[71] Schmieder largely followed the Bach-Gesellschaft-Ausgabe, a comprehensive edition of the composer's works that was produced between 1850 and 1900: BWV 1–224 are cantatas; BWV 225–249, large-scale choral works including his Passions; BWV 250–524, chorales and sacred songs; BWV 525–748, organ works; 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.[72]

Passions and oratoria

"O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden": the chorale setting as included in the St. Matthew Passion
Main article: Passions (Bach)

Bach's large choral-orchestral works include the grand scale St Matthew Passion and St John Passion, both written for Good Friday vesper services at the Thomaskirche and the Nikolaikirche in alternate years. The Christmas Oratorio consists of a set of six cantatas for use in the liturgical season of Christmas.[73][74][75] Shorter oratoria are the Easter Oratorio, the Ascension Oratorio.

St Matthew Passion

With its double choir and orchestra the St Matthew Passion is one of Bach's most extended works.

St John Passion

The St John Passion was the first Passion Bach composed during his tenure as Thomaskantor in Leipzig.


Autograph score of the cantata BWV 132

As the Thomaskantor, beginning mid of 1723, Bach performed a cantata each Sunday and feast day that corresponded to the lectionary readings of the week.[13] Although Bach performed cantatas by other composers, he composed at least three entire annual cycles of cantatas at Leipzig, in addition to those composed at Mühlhausen and Weimar.[13]

Church cantatas

In total he wrote more than three hundred sacred cantatas, of which nearly two hundred survive.[1][76]

His cantatas vary greatly in form and instrumentation, including those for solo singers, single choruses, small instrumental groups, and grand orchestras. Many consist 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 his best known cantatas are:

Secular cantatas

Report on the performance of the secular cantata BWV 215 (1734)

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.[77]

A cappella music

Bach's a cappella music includes motets and chorale harmonizations.


Main article: Motets (Bach)

Bach's motets (BWV 225–231) are pieces on sacred themes for choir and basso continuo, with instruments playing colla parte. Several of them were composed for funerals.[78] The six motets certainly composed by Bach are Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied, Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit auf, Jesu, meine Freude, Fürchte dich nicht, Komm, Jesu, komm, and Lobet den Herrn, alle Heiden. The motet Sei Lob und Preis mit Ehren (BWV 231) is part of the composite motet Jauchzet dem Herrn, alle Welt (BWV Anh. 160), other parts of which may be based on work by Telemann.[79]

Chorale harmonizations

Bach wrote hundreds of four-part harmonizations of Lutheran chorals.

Church music in Latin

Start of the credo of the Mass in B minor

Bach church music in Latin includes his Magnificat, four Kyrie–Gloria Masses, and his Mass in B minor.


Bach composed his Latin Magnificat in 1723, reworking it to the D major version best known today in 1733.

Mass in B minor

Bach assembled his last large work, the Mass in B minor, near the end of his life, between 1748 and 1749. The mass was never performed in full during Bach's lifetime.[80][81] He incorporated the Sanctus of 1724 and the Missa in B minor, composed in 1733. He derived many movements from his cantatas, such as Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen, BWV 12, written in 1714, and composed some new movements. All of these movements have substantial solo parts as well as choruses. It is not known what direction of development Bach had intended for his last Mass to take. As Stauffer states, "If Bach had lived longer, it is likely that he would have created a definitive fair copy of the Mass, similar to those of the St. John and St. Matthew Passions... As Otto Bettmann once remarked, Bach's 'music sets in order what life cannot.'"[15]

Keyboard music

Title page of the third part of the Clavier-Übung
Autograph title page of the Well-Tempered Clavier (1722)

Bach wrote for the organ, and for the other keyboard instruments of his day, mainly the harpsichord, but also the clavichord, and his personal favourite: the lute-harpsichord (the compositions listed as works for the lute, BWV 995-1000 and 1006a were probably written for this instrument).

Organ works

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.[13] At a young age, he established a reputation 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, whom the young organist visited in Lübeck 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 by Vivaldi and others for organ and harpsichord. During his most productive period (1708–14) he composed about a dozen pairs of preludes and fugues, five toccatas and fugues, and the Little Organ Book, an unfinished collection of forty-six short chorale preludes that demonstrates compositional techniques in the setting of chorale tunes. After leaving Weimar, Bach wrote less for organ, although some of 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 composed after his leaving Weimar. Bach was extensively engaged later in his life in consulting on organ projects, testing newly built organs, and dedicating organs in afternoon recitals.[82][83] The Canonic Variations on "Vom Himmel hoch da komm' ich her" and the Schübler Chorales are organ works Bach published in the last years of his life.

Harpsichord and clavichord

Title page of the Goldberg Variations
Title page of Anna Magdalena Bach's copy of the cello suites

Bach wrote many works for harpsichord, some of which may have been played on the clavichord. The larger works are usually intended for a harpsichord with two manuals, while performing them on a keyboard instrument with a single manual (like a piano) may provide techical difficulties for the crossing of hands. Many of his keyboard works are anthologies that encompass whole theoretical systems in an encyclopaedic fashion.

  • The Well-Tempered Clavier, Books 1 and 2 (BWV 846–893). Each book consists of 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 utilise more than just a few keys.[84][85]
  • The Inventions and 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 rarer keys. These pieces were intended by Bach for instructional purposes.[86]
  • Three collections of dance suites: the English Suites (BWV 806–811), the French Suites (BWV 812–817), and the Partitas for keyboard (Clavier-Übung I, BWV 825–830). Each collection contains six suites built on the standard model (AllemandeCouranteSarabande–(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.[87] The French Suites omit preludes, but have multiple movements between the sarabande and the gigue.[88] The partitas expand the model further with elaborate introductory movements and miscellaneous movements between the basic elements of the model.[89]
  • 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 thirty variations, every third variation is a canon.[90] 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. The final variation, instead of being the expected canon at the tenth, is a quodlibet.
  • Miscellaneous pieces such as the Overture in the French Style (French Overture, BWV 831) and the Italian Concerto (BWV 971) (published together as Clavier-Übung II), and the Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue (BWV 903).

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

title page of The Art of Fugue

Bach wrote for single instruments, duets, and small ensembles. Many of his solo works, such as his six sonatas and partitas for violin (BWV 1001–1006) and his six cello suites (BWV 1007–1012) are widely considered among the most profound works in the repertoire.[91] He wrote sonatas for a solo instrument such as the viola de gamba accompanied by harpsichord or continuo, as well as trio sonatas (two instruments and continuo).

The Musical Offering and The Art of Fugue are late contrapuntal works containing pieces for unspecified (combinations of) instruments.

Violin concertos

Surviving works in the concerto form include two violin concertos (BWV 1041 in A minor and BWV 1042 in E major) and a concerto for two violins in D minor, BWV 1043, often referred to as Bach's "double" concerto.

Brandenburg Concertos

For more details on this topic, see Brandenburg Concertos.

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.[13] These works are examples of the concerto grosso genre.

Keyboard concertos

For more details on this topic, see Keyboard concertos by Johann Sebastian Bach.

Bach composed and transcribed concertos for one to four harpsichords. Many of the harpsichord concertos were not original works, but arrangements of his concertos for other instruments now lost.[92] A number of violin, oboe, and flute concertos have been reconstructed from these.

Orchestral suites

In addition to concertos, Bach wrote four orchestral suites, each suite being a series of stylised dances for orchestra, preceded by a French overture.[93]


First page of Bach's Nekrolog by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach and Johann Friedrich Agricola, as published in Mizler's Musikalische Bibliothek, Volume IV Part 1 (1754). Despite the errors contained in it, this obituary of less than 20 pages is arguably "the richest and most trustworthy" source on Bach produced before the 19th century.[94]

Throughout the 18th century the appreciation of Bach's music was mostly limited to distinguished connoisseurs. The 19th century started with the first biography of the composer being published and ended with the completion of the publication of all of Bach's known works by the Bach Gesellschaft. A Bach Revival had started from Mendelssohn's performance of the St. Matthew Passion in 1829. Soon Bach became regarded as one of the greatest composers of all times, if not the greatest, a reputation he kept ever since. A new extensive Bach biography was published in the second half of the 19th century. In the 20th century Bach's music was widely performed and recorded, while, among others, the Neue Bachgesellschaft published its research on the composer. Modern adaptations of Bach's music contributed greatly to Bach's popularisation in the second half of the 20th century. Among these were the Swingle Singers' versions of Bach pieces (for instance, the "Air" from Orchestral Suite No. 3, or the Wachet Auf... chorale prelude) and Wendy Carlos' 1968 Switched-On Bach, which used the Moog electronic synthesiser. By the end of the 20th century more classical performers were gradually moving away from the performance style and intrumentation that were established in the romantic era: they started to perform Bach's music on period instruments of the baroque era, studied and practiced playing techniques and tempi as established in Bach's time, and reduced the size of instrumental ensembles and choirs to what Bach would have used. The BACH motif, used by the composer in his own compositions, was used in dozens of tributes to the composer from the 19th century to the 21st. In the 21st century the complete extant output of the composer became available on-line with several websites exclusively dedicated to him.

18th century

Image of the Bach memorial (de) Felix Mendelssohn had erected in Leipzig in 1843
1908 Statue of Bach in front of the Thomaskirche in Leipzig

During his life Bach received public recognition such as the title of court composer by Augustus III of Poland, and the appreciation he was shown by Frederick the Great and Herman Karl von Keyserling. Such high placed appreciation contrasted with the humiliations he had to cope with for instance in his hometown Leipzig.[95] Also in the contemporary press Bach had his detractors such as Johann Adolf Scheibe, suggesting he write less complex music, and his supporters such as Johann Mattheson and Lorenz Christoph Mizler.[96][97][98]

After his death, Bach's reputation as a composer at first declined: his work was regarded as old-fashioned compared to the emerging galant style.[99] Initially he was remembered more as a virtuoso player of the organ and as a teacher. The bulk of the music that had been printed during the composer's lifetime, at least the part that was remembered, was music for organ and harpsichord. Thus his reputation as a composer was initially mostly limited to his keyboard music, and that even fairly limited to its value in music education.

Bach's successors in Leipzig were rather counterproductive in preserving his legacy. His surviving family members, who inherited a large part of his manuscripts, were not all equally concerned with preserving them, leading to considerable losses.[100] Carl Philipp Emanuel, his second eldest son, was most active in safeguarding his father's legacy: he co-authored his father's obituary, contributed to the publication of his four-part chorales,[101] staged some of his works, and the bulk of previously unpublished works of his father were preserved through his hands.[102] Also several students of the old master, such as his son-in-law Johann Christoph Altnickol, Johann Friedrich Agricola, Johann Kirnberger and Johann Ludwig Krebs, contributed to the dissemination of his legacy. The early devotees weren't all musicians, for example Daniel Itzig, a high official of Frederick the Great's court, venerated Bach.[103]

A new generation of Bach afficionados emerged: they studiously collected and copied his music, including some of his large-scale works such as the Mass in B minor, and performed it privately. One of such connoisseurs was Gottfried van Swieten, a high-ranked Austrian official who was instrumental in passing Bach's legacy to the composers of the Viennese school. Haydn owned manuscript copies of the Well-Tempered Clavier and the Mass in B minor, and was influenced by Bach's music. Mozart transcribed work by Bach, and wrote contrapuntal music influenced by his style. Beethoven played the entire Well-Tempered Clavier by the time he was eleven, and described Bach as "Urvater der Harmonie" (progenitor of harmony).[104][105][106][107][108]

19th century

The church in Arnstadt where Bach had been the organist from 1703 to 1707. In 1935 the church was renamed to "Bachkirche".
28 July 1950: memorial service for Bach in Leipzig's Thomaskirche, on the 200th anniversary of the composer's death

In 1802 Johann Nikolaus Forkel published Ueber Johann Sebastian Bachs Leben, Kunst und Kunstwerke, the first biography of the composer, which contributed to the composer becoming known to a wider public.[109] In 1805 Abraham Mendelssohn, who had married one of Itzig's granddaughters, bought a substantial collection of Bach manuscripts that had come down from C. P. E. Bach, and donated these to the Berlin Sing-Akademie.[103] The Sing-Akademie occasionally performed Bach's works in public concerts, for instance his first keyboard concerto, with one of Itzig's daughters at the piano.[103]

More of Bach's vocal compositions appeared in print: Motets, the E major version of the Magnificat, the Kyrie-Gloria Mass in A major, and the cantate Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott (BWV 80).[110] In 1818 Hans Georg Nägeli called the Mass in B Minor the greatest composition ever.[104] Bach's influence was felt in the next generation of early Romantic composers.[105] When Felix Mendelssohn, Abraham's son, aged 13, produced his first Magnificat setting in 1822 it was clear that he was inspired by the then unpublished D major version of Bach's Magnificat.[111]

Felix Mendelssohn significantly contributed to the renewed interest in Bach's work with his 1829 Berlin performance of the St Matthew Passion, instrumental in setting off what has been called the Bach Revival. The St John Passion saw its 19th century premiere in 1833, and the first performance of the Mass in B minor followed in 1844. Besides these and other public performances and an increased coverage on the composer and his compositions in printed media, the 1830s and 40s also saw the first publication of more vocal works by Bach: six cantatas, the St Matthew Passion and the Mass in B minor. A series of organ compositions saw their first publication in 1833.[112] Chopin started composing his 24 Preludes, Op. 28, inspired by the Well-Tempered Clavier, in 1835 and Schumann published his Sechs Fugen über den Namen B-A-C-H in 1845. Bach's music was transcribed and arranged to suit contemporary taste and performance practice by composers such as Carl Friedrich Zelter, Robert Franz and Franz Liszt, or combined with new music such as the melody line of Charles Gounod's Ave Maria.[113][104] Brahms, Bruckner and Wagner were among the composers that promoted Bach's music or wrote glowingly about it.

In 1850, the Bach-Gesellschaft (Bach Society) was founded to promote Bach's music. In the second half of the 19th century the Society published a comprehensive edition of the composer's works. Also in the second half of the 19th century, Philipp Spitta published Johann Sebastian Bach, the standard work on Bach's life and music. By that time Bach was known as the first of the three Bs in music. Throughout the 19th century 200 books were published on Bach. By the end of the century local Bach societies were initiated in several cities, and Bach's music had been performed in all major musical centers.[104]

In Germany all throughout the century Bach had been coupled to nationalist feelings, and the composer was inscribed in a religious revival. In England Bach was coupled to an already existing revival of religious and baroque music. By the end of the century Bach was firmly established as one of the greatest composers, recognized for both his instrumental and his vocal music.[104]

20th century

Bosehaus in Leipzig where the Bach Archive is housed from 1985

During the 20th century, the process of recognising the musical as well as the pedagogic value of some of the works continued, perhaps most notably in the promotion of the cello suites by Pablo Casals, the first major performer to record these suites.[114] Leading performers of classical music, such as Herbert von Karajan, Arthur Grumiaux, Helmut Walcha, Wanda Landowska, Karl Richter, I Musici, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Glenn Gould and many others invariably recorded music of Bach.

A significant development in the later part of the 20th century was the momentum gained by the historically informed performance practice, with forerunners such as Nikolaus Harnoncourt acquiring prominence by their performances of Bach's music. Bach's keyboard music was again rather performed on the instruments Bach knew instead of on modern pianos and 19th century romantic organs. Ensembles playing and singing Bach's music not only kept to the instruments and the performance style of Bach's day, they were also reduced to the size of the groups Bach used for his performances.[115] But that was far from the only way Bach's music came to the forefront in the 20th century: his music was heard in versions ranging from Ferruccio Busoni's late romantic piano transcriptions, over jazzy interpretations such as those by the Swingle Singers and orchestrations such as the one opening Walt Disney's Fantasia movie, to synthesiser performances such as Wendy Carlos' Switched-On Bach recordings.

Bach's music ended up in other genres, for instance 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.[116] Several 20th century composers referred to Bach or his music, for instance Eugène Ysaÿe in his Six Sonatas for solo violin, Dmitri Shostakovich in his 24 Preludes and Fugues and Heitor Villa-Lobos in his Bachianas Brasileiras. All kinds of publications involved Bach: not only were there the Bach Jahrbuch publications of the the Neue Bachgesellschaft, various other studies and biographies, by among others Albert Schweitzer, Charles Sanford Terry, John Butt, Christoph Wolff, and the 1950 first edition of the Bach Werke Verzeichnis, but also books such as Gödel, Escher, Bach put the composer's art in a wider perspective. Bach's music was extensively listened to, performed, broadcast, arranged, adapted, and commented upon in the 1990s.[117] Around 2000, the 250th anniversary of Bach's death, three record companies issued box sets with complete recordings of Bach's music.[118][119][120]

Bach's music features three times—more than that of any other composer—on the Voyager Golden Record, a gramophone record containing a broad sample of the images, common sounds, languages, and music of Earth, sent into outer space with the two Voyager probes.[121] Tributes to Bach in the 20th century include statues erected in his honour, and a variety of things, such as streets and space objects, being named after him.[122][123] Also a multitude of musical ensembles such as the Bach Aria Group, the Deutsche Bachsolisten, the Bachchor Stuttgart and the Bach Collegium Japan adopted the composer's name. Bach festivals were held in several continents, and competitions and prizes such as the International Johann Sebastian Bach Competition and the Royal Academy of Music Bach Prize were named after the composer. Where by the end of the 19th century Bach had been inscribed in nationalism and religious revival, the late 20th century saw Bach as the subject of a secularized Art-as-religion (Kunstreligion).[104][117]

21st century

Mark Rutte, prime minister of the Netherlands, along with the rest of the public awaiting the start of a 2011 performance of the St Matthew Passion

In the 21st century Bach's compositions became available on-line, for instance at the International Music Score Library Project.[124] High resolution facsimiles of Bach's autographs became available at the Bach digital website.[125] Websites dedicated exclusively to the composer or parts of his music include,[126] BachOnBach,[127] and the Bach Cantatas Website.[128]

21st-century biographers include Peter Williams and the conductor John Eliot Gardiner.[129][130][131] Also in this century overviews of what is best in classical music typically include a lot of Bach, for example in The Telegraph's list of the 168 best classical music recordings Bach's music is featured in more recordings than that of any other composer.[132]

Recognition in protestant churches

The liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church remembers Bach annually with a feast day on 28 July, together with George Frideric Handel and Henry Purcell; the Calendar of Saints of the Lutheran Church, on the same day remembers Bach and Handel with Heinrich Schütz.


  1. ^ German pronunciation: [joˈhan] or [ˈjoːhan zeˈbastjan ˈbaχ]; English pronunciation: /ˈbɑːx/


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  119. ^ Teldec's 1999 Bach 2000 Box set, Limited Edition at
  120. ^ Bach-Edition: The Complete Works (172 CDs & CDR) at the Hänssler Classic website
  121. ^ "Golden Record: Music from Earth". NASA. Retrieved 26 July 2012. 
  122. ^ Bach, USGS Gazetteer of Planetary Nomenclature
  123. ^ 1814 Bach, 1482 Sebastiana, JPL Small-Body Database
  124. ^ List of works by Johann Sebastian Bach and Category:Bach, Johann Sebastian at IMSLP website
  125. ^
  126. ^
  127. ^
  128. ^
  129. ^ Williams 2003
  130. ^ Williams 2007
  131. ^ Gardiner 2013
  132. ^ "The 168 best classical music recordings" in The Telegraph. 2009, revised by Ivan Hewett in 2014.




External links