Johann Sebastian Bach (German pronunciation: [joˈhan] or [ˈjoːhan seˈbastjan ˈbax]) (31 March 1685 [O.S. 21 March] – 28 July 1750) was a German composer and organist whose sacred and secular works for choir, orchestra, and solo instruments drew together the strands of the Baroque period and brought it to its ultimate maturity.[1] Although he introduced no new forms, he enriched the prevailing German style with a robust contrapuntal technique, an unrivalled control of harmonic and motivic organisation in composition for diverse instrumentation, and the adaptation of rhythms and textures from abroad, particularly 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, the Magnificat, The Musical Offering, The Art of Fugue, the English Suites, the French Suites, the Sonatas and Partitas for violin solo, the Cello Suites, more than 200 surviving cantatas, and a similar number of organ works, including the celebrated Toccata and Fugue in D Minor.

Bach in a 1748 portrait by Haussmann

Johann Sebastian Bach (German pronunciation: [joˈhan] or [ˈjoːhan seˈbastjan ˈbax]) (31 March 1685 [O.S. 21 March] – 28 July 1750) was a German composer and organist whose sacred and secular works for choir, orchestra, and solo instruments drew together the strands of the Baroque period and brought it to its ultimate maturity.[1] Although he introduced no new forms, he enriched the prevailing German style with a robust contrapuntal technique, an unrivalled control of harmonic and motivic organisation in composition for diverse instrumentation, and the adaptation of rhythms and textures from abroad, particularly 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, the Magnificat, The Musical Offering, The Art of Fugue, the English Suites, the French Suites, the Sonatas and Partitas for violin solo, the Cello Suites, more than 200 surviving cantatas, and a similar number of organ works, including the celebrated Toccata and Fugue in D Minor.

While Bach’s abilities as an organist were recognized and highly respected throughout Europe during his lifetime, he was not particularly well-known as a composer. His adherence to Baroque forms and contrapuntal style was considered “old-fashioned” by his contemporaries, especially late in his career when the musical fashion tended towards Rococo and later Classical styles. A revival of interest and performances of his music began early in the 19th century, and he is now widely considered to be one of the greatest composers in the Western tradition.

Childhood (1685–1703)

Johann Sebastian Bach was born in Eisenach, Saxe-Eisenach. He was the youngest child of Johann Ambrosius Bach, the director of the Stadtpfeifer or town musicians,[1] and Maria 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), was especially famous and 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”.[2]

Johann Ambrosius Bach, Bach’s father

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 nearby Ohrdruf. There, he copied, studied and performed music, and apparently 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; possibly 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 music. 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.

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, not far from the northern seaport of Hamburg, one of the largest cities in the Holy Roman Empire.[3] 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 palette of European culture than he would have experienced in Thuringia. 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). Given his innate musical talent, Bach would have had significant contact with prominent organists of the day in Lüneburg, most notably Georg Böhm (the organist at Johanniskirche) as well as organists in nearby Hamburg, such as Johann Adam Reincken. Through contact with these musicians, Bach probably gained access to the largest and finest instruments he had played thus far. It is likely that during this stage he became acquainted with the music of the German organ schools, especially the work of Dieterich Buxtehude, and with music manuscripts and treatises on music theory that were in the possession of these musicians.

Arnstadt to Weimar (1703–08)

St. Boniface’s Church in Arnstadt

In January 1703, shortly after graduating and failing an audition for an organist’s post at Sangerhausen[4], Bach took up a post as a court musician in the chapel of Duke Johann Ernst in Weimar, a large town in Thuringia. 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 family had close connections with this oldest town in Thuringia, about 180 km to the southwest of Weimar at the edge of the great forest. 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 to a modern system that allowed a wide range of keys to be used. At this time, Bach was embarking on the serious composition of organ preludes; these works, in the North German tradition of virtuosic, improvisatory preludes, already showed tight motivic control (where a single, short music idea is explored cogently throughout a movement). However, in these works the composer had yet to fully develop his powers of large-scale organisation and his contrapuntal technique (where two or more melodies interact simultaneously).

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. He 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 master Dieterich Buxtehude and his Abendmusik in the northern city of Lübeck. This well-known incident in Bach’s life involved his walking some 400 kilometres (250 mi) each way to spend time with the man he probably regarded as the father figure of German organists. 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 old man was of great value to his art. According to legend, both Bach and George Frederic Handel wanted to become amanuenses of Buxtehude, but neither wanted to marry his daughter, as that was a condition for the position.[5]

According to minutes from the proceedings of the Arnstadt consistory in August 1705, Bach was involved in a brawl in Arnstadt:

Johann Sebastian Bach, organist here at the New Church, appeared and stated that, as he walked home yesterday, fairly late 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.[6]

Places in which Bach lived throughout his life

Despite his comfortable position in Arnstadt, by 1706 Bach appeared to have realised that he needed to escape from the family milieu and move on to further his career. He was offered a more lucrative post as organist at St. Blasius’s in Mühlhausen, a large and important city to the north. The following year, he took up this senior post with significantly improved pay and conditions, including a good choir. Four months after arriving at Mühlhausen, he married his second cousin from Arnstadt, Maria Barbara Bach. They had seven children, four of whom survived to adulthood. Two of them—Wilhelm Friedemann Bach and Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach—became important composers in the ornate Rococo style that followed the Baroque.

The church and city government at Mühlhausen agreed to his plan for an expensive renovation of the organ at St. Blasius’s. Bach, in turn, wrote an elaborate, festive cantataGod is my king 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. However, that same year, Bach was offered a better position in Weimar.

Weimar (1708–17)

A portrait of a young man, supposedly of Bach, but disputed[7]

After barely a year at Mühlhausen, Bach left, to become the court organist and concertmaster at the ducal court in Weimar, a far cry from his earlier position there as ‘lackey’. The munificent salary on offer at the court and the prospect of working entirely with a large, well-funded contingent of professional musicians may have prompted the move. The family moved 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. It was in Weimar that the two musically significant sons were born—Wilhelm Friedemann and Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach.

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 learnt how to write dramatic openings and adopted their sunny dispositions, dynamic motor-rhythms and decisive harmonic schemes. Bach inducted himself into these stylistic aspects largely by transcribing for harpsichord and organ the ensemble concertos of Vivaldi; these works are still concert favourites. He may have picked up the idea of transcribing the latest fashionable Italian music from Prince Johann Ernst, one of his employers, who was a musician of professional calibre. In 1713, the Duke returned from a tour of the Low Countries with a large collection of scores, some of them possibly transcriptions of the latest fashionable Italian music by the blind organist Jan Jacob de Graaf. Bach was particularly attracted to the Italian solo-tutti structure, in which one or more solo instruments alternate section-by-section with the full orchestra throughout a movement.

Violin Sonata No. 1 in G minor (BWV 1001) in Bach’s handwriting

In Weimar, he had the opportunity to play and compose for the organ, and to perform a varied repertoire of concert music with the duke’s ensemble. A master of contrapuntal technique, Bach’s steady output of fugues began in Weimar. The largest single body of his fugal writing is Das wohltemperierte Clavier (“The well-tempered keyboard”—Clavier meaning keyboard instrument). It consists of two collections compiled in 1722 and 1744, each containing a prelude and fugue in every major and minor key. This is a monumental work for its masterful use of counterpoint and its exploration, for the first time, of the full range of keys–and the means of expression made possible by their slight differences from each other—available to keyboardists when their instruments are tuned according to systems such as that of Andreas Werckmeister.

During his tenure 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 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.[8]

Cöthen (1717–23)

The palace and gardens at Cöthen in an engraving from Matthäus Merian’s Topographia (1650)

Bach began once again to search out a more stable job that was conducive to his musical interests. Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen 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. However, 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 solo cello and the Sonatas and partitas for solo violin. The well-known Brandenburg concertos date from this period.

On 7 July 1720, while Bach was abroad with Prince Leopold, tragedy struck: his wife, Maria Barbara, the mother of his first 7 children, died suddenly. The following year, the widower met Anna Magdalena Wilcke, a young, highly gifted soprano 17 years his junior, who performed at the court in Cöthen; 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).[9]

Commemorative statue of J.S. Bach in Leipzig

Leipzig (1723–50)

In 1723, Bach was appointed Cantor of Thomasschule, adjacent to the Thomaskirche (St. Thomas’ Lutheran Church) in Leipzig, as well as Director of Music in the principal churches in the town. This was a prestigious post in the leading mercantile city in Saxony, a neighbouring electorate to Thuringia. Apart from his brief tenures in Arnstadt and Mühlhausen, this was Bach’s first government position in a career that had mainly involved service to the aristocracy. This final post, which he held for 27 years until his death, 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.[10] 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 talers 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.

St Thomas’s Church, Leipzig, in the 21st century

Bach’s job required him to instruct the students of the Thomasschule in singing and to provide weekly music at the two main churches in Leipzig, St. Thomas’ and St Nicholas’s. His post also obliged him to teach Latin, but he was allowed to employ a deputy to do this instead. In an astonishing burst of creativity, he wrote up to five annual cantata cycles during his first six years in Leipzig (two of which have apparently been lost). Most of these concerted works expound on the Gospel readings for every Sunday and feast day in the Lutheran year; many were written using traditional church hymns, such as Wachet auf! Ruft uns die Stimme and Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, as inspiration.

To rehearse and perform these works at St Thomas’s Church, Bach probably 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 would have been 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 the Venetian school and Germans such as Heinrich Schütz, which would have served as formal models for his own motets.

Having spent much of the 1720s composing cantatas, Bach had assembled a huge repertoire of church music for Leipzig’s two main churches. He now wished 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’.[11] During much of the year, Leipzig’s Collegium Musicum gave twice-weekly, two-hour performances in Zimmerman’s Coffeehouse on Catherine Street, just off the main market square. For this purpose, the proprietor provided a large hall and acquired several musical instruments. Many of Bach’s works during the 1730s and 1740s were probably 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.

Zimmerman’s Coffeehouse in Leipzig, where Bach’s Collegium Musicum gave regular concerts

During this period, he composed the Kyrie and Gloria of the Mass in B Minor, and in 1733, he presented the manuscript to the Elector of Saxony in an ultimately 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 went to the court of Frederick II of Prussia in Potsdam, where 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, published posthumously but probably written years before Bach’s death, is unfinished. It consists of 18 complex fugues and canons based on a simple theme. A magnum opus of thematic transformation and contrapuntal devices, this work is often cited as the summation of polyphonic techniques.

The final work Bach completed was a chorale prelude for organ, dictated to his son-in-law, Johann Altnikol, from his deathbed. Entitled Vor 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. The chorale is often played after the unfinished 14th fugue to conclude performances of The Art of Fugue.

Death (1750)

The 1750 “Volbach Portrait” may show Bach in the last months of his life[12]

Bach’s health may have been in decline in 1749; on 2 June, Heinrich von Brühl wrote to one of the Leipzig burgomasters to request that his music director, Gottlob Harrer, immediately begin to audition someone to succeed to the Thomascantor and Director musices posts “upon the eventual … decease of Mr. Bach.”[13] Bach became increasingly blind, and the celebrated British eye surgeon John Taylor (who had operated unsuccessfully on Handel) operated on Bach while visiting Leipzig in 1750. Bach died on 28 July 1750 at the age of 65. A contemporary newspaper reported the cause of death as “from the unhappy consequences of the very unsuccessful eye operation”.[14] Some modern historians speculate the cause of death was a stroke complicated by pneumonia.[15][16][17] His estate was valued at 1159 thalers 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” (many by Martin Luther, Muller and Pfeiffer, including JosephusHistory of the Jews and nine volumes of Paul Wagner’s Leipzig Song Book).[18]

Musical style

Bach’s final resting place, St. Thomas’ Church, Leipzig

Bach’s musical style arose from his extraordinary fluency in contrapuntal invention and motivic control, his flair for improvisation at the keyboard, his exposure to South German, North German, Italian and French music, and his apparent devotion to the Lutheran liturgy. His access to musicians, scores and instruments as a child and a young man, combined with his emerging talent for writing tightly woven music of powerful sonority, appear to have set him on course to develop an eclectic, energetic musical style in which foreign influences were injected into an intensified version of the pre-existing German musical language. Throughout his teens and 20s, his output showed increasing skill in the large-scale organisation of musical ideas, and the enhancement of the Buxtehudian model of improvisatory preludes and counterpoint of limited complexity. The period 1713–14, when a large repertoire of Italian music became available to the Weimar court orchestra, was a turning point. From this time onwards, he appears to have absorbed into his style the Italians’ dramatic openings, clear melodic contours, the sharp outlines of their bass lines, greater motoric and rhythmic conciseness, more unified motivic treatment, and more clearly articulated schemes for modulation.[19]

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 the Lutheran tradition and the high demand for religious music of his times inevitably placed sacred music at the centre of his repertory; more 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 also 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 B superimposed 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 Cantata 106 (Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit) 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 Passion illustrates 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 Cantata 11 (Lobet Gott in seinen Reichen) 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 keyboard obbligato, 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 Cöthen 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.

Family members

Bach married his second cousin Maria Barbara Bach in 1707. They had seven children, four of whom survived to adulthood:

Maria died in 1720, and Bach married Anna Magdalena Wilcke in 1721. They had a further 13 children, six of whom survived to adulthood:


J.S. Bach’s works are indexed with BWV numbers, an initialism for Bach Werke Verzeichnis (Bach Works Catalogue). The catalogue, published in 1950, was compiled by Wolfgang Schmieder. The catalogue is organised thematically, rather than chronologically: BWV 1–224 are cantatas; BWV 225–249, the large-scale choral works; 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. 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. For a list of works catalogued by BWV number, see List of compositions by Johann Sebastian Bach.

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. 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 by Vivaldi and others for organ and harpsichord. His most productive period (1708–14) saw the composition of several pairs of preludes & fugues and toccatas & 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.[20][21] 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 the Clavier-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 also have been played on the clavichord. 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 (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. 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 also 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 also 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.

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 also 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 very common format, however, includes 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 BWV 4 (“Christ lag in Todesbanden”), BWV 21 (“Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis”), BWV 80 (“Ein’ feste Burg”), BWV 106 (“Actus Tragicus”), BWV 140 (“Wachet auf”) and BWV 147 (“Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben”).

In addition, Bach wrote a number of secular cantatas, usually for civic events such as council inaugurations. These also 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 famous 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) and the Easter Oratorio compare to large, elaborate cantatas, of a lesser extent than the Passions and the Christmas Oratorio.

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 cantata BWV 191 and 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!; and Lobet den Herrn alle Heiden), have substantial solo parts as well as choruses.

Bach’s copy of a two volume Bible commentary by the orthodox Lutheran theologian, Abraham Calov, was discovered in the 1950s in a barn in Minnesota, purchased apparently in Germany as part of a “job lot” of old books and brought to America by an immigrant. Its provenance was verified and it was subsequently deposited in the rare book holdings of Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri. It contains his 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).


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 its use in advertising also 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‘ 1968 ground-breaking recording Switched-On Bach, using the then recently-invented Moog electronic synthesiser. Jazz musicians have also adopted Bach’s music, with Jacques Loussier, Ian Anderson, Uri Caine and the Modern Jazz Quartet among those creating jazz versions of Bach works.


Since being moved in 1938, the Donndorf statue of Bach now stands in the Frauenplan in Eisenach. The pedestal has been shortened and the relief is now at the wall in the background.

After his death, Bach’s reputation as a composer declined; his work was regarded as old-fashioned in favour of the emerging classical style.[22] Initially he was remembered more as a player, teacher and as the father of his children, most notably Johann Christian and Carl Philipp Emanuel. (Two other children, Wilhelm Friedmann and Johann Christoph Friedrich, were also composers.)

During this time, his most widely known works were those for keyboard. Mozart, Beethoven, and Chopin were among his most prominent admirers. On a visit to the Thomasschule, for example, Mozart heard a performance of one of the motets (BWV 225) and exclaimed “Now, here is something one can learn from!”; on being given the motets’ parts, “Mozart sat down, the parts all around him, held in both hands, on his knees, on the nearest chairs. Forgetting everything else, he did not stand up again until he had looked through all the music of Sebastian Bach”.[citation needed] Beethoven was a devotee, learning the Well-Tempered Clavier as a child and later calling Bach the “Urvater der Harmonie” (“Original father of harmony”) and, in a pun on the literal meaning of Bach’s name, “nicht Bach, sondern Meer” (“not a brook, but a sea”).[citation needed] Before performing a concert, Chopin used to lock himself away and play Bach’s music. Several notable composers, including Mozart, Beethoven, Robert Schumann, and Felix Mendelssohn began writing in a more contrapuntal style after being introduced to Bach’s music.[citation needed]

Today the “Bach style” continues to influence musical composition, from hymns and religious works to pop and rock. Many of Bach’s themes—particularly the theme from Toccata and Fugue in D minor—have been used in rock songs and have achieved popularity. Bach has even been referred to as “the father of all music.”[23]

The revival of the composer’s reputation among the wider public was prompted in part by Johann Nikolaus Forkel’s 1802 biography, which was read by Beethoven.{fact} Goethe became acquainted with Bach’s works relatively late in life through a series of performances of keyboard and choral works at Bad Berka in 1814 and 1815; in a letter of 1827 he compared the experience of listening to Bach’s music to “eternal harmony in dialogue with itself”.[24] But it was Felix Mendelssohn who did the most to revive Bach’s reputation with his 1829 Berlin performance of the St. Matthew Passion. Hegel, who attended the performance, later called Bach a “grand, truly Protestant, robust and, so to speak, erudite genius which we have only recently learned again to appreciate at its full value”.[25] Mendelssohn’s promotion of Bach, and the growth of the composer’s stature, continued in subsequent years. The Bach Gesellschaft (Bach Society) was founded in 1850 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.

The Bach monument constructed in 1884 by Adolf von Donndorf and erected in front of the Georgenkirche at the Marktplatz in Eisenach

Thereafter, Bach’s reputation has remained consistently high. 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 modern grand piano and the use of small choirs or single voices instead of the larger forces favoured by 19th- and early 20th-century performers.

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.[citation needed] Scientist and author Lewis Thomas once suggested how the people of Earth should communicate with the universe: “I would vote for Bach, all of Bach, streamed out into space, over and over again. We would be bragging, of course, but it is surely excusable to put the best possible face on at the beginning of such an acquaintance. We can tell the harder truths later.”[citation needed]

Some composers have paid tribute to Bach by setting his name in musical notes (B-flat, A, C, B-natural; B-natural is notated as “H” in German musical texts, while B-flat is just “B”) or using contrapuntal derivatives. Liszt, for example, wrote a prelude and fugue on this BACH motif in versions for organ and piano). Bach himself set the precedent for this musical acronym, most notably in Contrapunctus XIV from the Art of Fugue. Whereas Bach also conceived this cruciform melody (among other similar ones) as a sign of devotion to Christ and his cross[citation needed], later composers have employed the BACH motif in homage to the composer himself. Some of the greatest composers since Bach have written works that explicitly pay homage to him. Examples include Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, Shostakovich’s Preludes and Fugues, and Brahms’s Cello Sonata in E, whose finale is based on themes from the Art of Fugue. A 20th-century work very strongly influenced by Bach is Villa-LobosBachianas Brasileiras. Stephen Sondheim once claimed he listened to the music of no other composer but Bach.[citation needed]

Johann Sebastian Bach Straße in Wittenberg, Germany

Bach is the most represented artist on the Voyager Golden Record, a phonograph record included in two Voyager missions; his compositions comprise three of the 27 recordings chosen. Many early examples of synthesised music played on the Commodore 64 home computer’s SID chip were realisations of Bach’s contrapuntal works.[citation needed]

Although Bach fathered 20 children, only 10 survived infancy. He has no known descendants living today. His great-granddaughter—Frau Carolina Augusta Wilhelmine Ritter, who died 13 May 1871—was his last known descendant.[26] A modern reconstruction of Bach’s head using computer modelling techniques, unveiled 3 March 2008 in Berlin, showed the composer as a strong-jawed man with a slight underbite, his large head topped with short, silver hair.[27]

See also


  1. ^ a b Grout, Donald (1980). A History of Western Music. W. W. Norton & Company. pp. 435. ISBN 0-393-95136-7.
  2. ^ Printed in translation in The Bach Reader (ISBN 0393002594)
  3. ^ Wolff, Christoph (2000). Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician. W. W. Norton & Company. pp. 41–43. ISBN 0-393-04825-X.
  4. ^ Rich, Alan (1995). Johann Sebastiam Bach: Play by Play. Harper Collins. pp. 27. ISBN 0-06-263547-6.
  5. ^ Classical Net – Basic Repertoire List – Buxtehude“. Retrieved on 2008-09-20.
  6. ^ Mendel 1999, p. 43
  7. ^ The Face Of Bach“. Nathan P. Johansen. Retrieved on 2008-05-19.
  8. ^ Mendel 1999, p. 80
  9. ^ Wolff 1983, p. 98, 111
  10. ^ Butt, John (1997-06-28). The Cambridge Companion to Bach. Cambridge University Press. pp. 17–34. ISBN 0521587808.
  11. ^ Wolff, Christoph (2000). Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician. W. W. Norton & Company. p. 341. ISBN 0-393-04825-X.
  12. ^ Towe, Teri Noel (2000-08-28). “The Inscrutable Volbach Portrait“. The Face of Bach. Retrieved on 2008-05-20.
  13. ^ Wolff, Christoph (2000). Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician. W. W. Norton & Company. p. 442. ISBN 0-393-04825-X. , from David HT and Mendel A (eds), The new Bach reader: a life of Johann Sebastian Bach in letters and documents, revised and expanded by Wolff C, New York, 1998
  14. ^ Mendel 1999, p. 188
  15. ^ Breitenfeld, Tomislav; Solter, Vesna Vargek; Breitenfeld, Darko; Zavoreo, Iris; Demarin, Vida (2006-01-03). “Johann Sebastian Bach’s Strokes” (PDF). Acta Clinica Croatica (Sisters of Charity Hospital) 45 (1). Retrieved on 2008-05-20.
  16. ^ Baer, Ka. (1956). “Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750) in medical history”. Bulletin of the Medical Library Association (Medical Library Association) 39 (206).
  17. ^ Breitenfeld, D.; Thaller V, Breitenfeld T, Golik-Gruber V, Pogorevc T, Zoričić Z, Grubišić F (2000). “The pathography of Bach’s family”. Alcoholism 36: 161–64.
  18. ^ Mendel 1999, pp. 191–97
  19. ^ Wolff, Christoph (2000). Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician. W. W. Norton & Company. pp. 401. ISBN 0-393-04825-X.
  20. ^ Bach, Johann Sebastian“. ClassicalPlus. Retrieved on 2008-05-19.
  21. ^ Arnstadt (1703–1707)“. Northern Arizona University. Retrieved on 2008-05-19.
  22. ^ Beethoven: the universal composer. Edmund Morris, 2005, p. 2 – “[Bach was] mocked as passe even in his own lifetime.”
  23. ^ Why was Bach considered the father of all music???“. Able2Know. Retrieved on 2008-05-19.
  24. ^ Wittheits-Vortrag über „Goethe und Johann Sebastian Bach“” (in German). Bremen. Retrieved on 2008-05-19.
  25. ^ Matthäus-Passion BWV 244“. Bach Cantatas. Retrieved on 2008-05-19.
  26. ^ Terry, C. Sanford (1930-06-01). “Has Bach Surviving Descendants?“. The Musical Times (JSTOR) 71 (1048): 511–513. doi:10.2307/917359. Retrieved on 2007-10-08.
  27. ^ Terry, C. Sanford (2008-03-03). “What did Bach look like?” ([dead link]Scholar search). The Musical Times (CNN) 71: 511. doi:10.2307/917359. Retrieved on 2008-03-03.
  28. ^ Maxwell, D.R.Theological Symbolism in the Organ Works of J.S. Bach
  29. ^ Analyzing Bach Cantatas By Chafe, E.T.Analyzing Bach Cantatas. New York: Oxford University Press US, 2000.
  30. ^ Herl, J. Worship Wars in Early Lutheranism: Choir, Congregation, and Three Centuries of Conflict. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
  31. ^ Leaver, R.A.Luther’s Liturgical Music. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing, 2007.
  32. ^ For example, see Grove, G. The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Vol. 4. New York: Macmillian, 1980. p. 335.


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