Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), German composer and one of the world’s greatest musical geniuses. His work marks the culmination of the baroque style. A man of inexhaustible energy and imagination, Bach composed in every form known in the baroque era, except the opera. His enormous output includes works for the organ, violin, clavichord and harpsichord (predecessors of the piano), chamber orchestra, and voice.
Johann Sebastian Bach was born on March 21, 1685, in Eisenach, a small city in the German region of Thüringen, into a family that over seven generations produced more than 50 prominent musicians. During his life Bach worked at a number of German courts, as organist or music director, and spent his last 27 years in Leipzig teaching and composing. Bach was married twice and had 20 children, 10 of whom survived into adulthood. A number of his children became prominent musicians.
Bach’s father, Johann Ambrosius Bach, was town music director and court trumpeter in Eisenach, and his father’s cousin, Johann Christoph, served as court organist. In all likelihood the young Bach received instruction in string playing from his father and sang in the choir of Saint George’s, the court church, under Johann Christoph Bach. At age seven he entered the Latin School, which German theologian Martin Luther had attended two centuries earlier. There Bach made good progress in his studies.
Life changed drastically for Bach with the death of his mother in 1694, followed one year later by the death of his father. The ten-year-old boy was taken in by his oldest brother, 23-year-old Johann Christoph, who worked as an organist in nearby Ohrdruf. There Bach continued his studies at the Lyceum, and was given thorough keyboard instruction by his brother. Together, the two Bachs often made manuscript copies of contemporary works. Under his brother’s guidance, young Bach became acquainted with a wide variety of German keyboard music.
As Johann Christoph’s family expanded, it became increasingly difficult to house his younger brother, and consequently at age 15 Bach sought and attained a scholarship to the Saint Michael’s School in Lüneburg in northern Germany. Here, in return for singing in the choir, he received room, board, tuition, and a small spending allowance. In Lüneburg he probably continued his organ studies with Georg Böhm, a master of hymn-tune variations and harpsichord dance suites. In addition, he made several trips to Hamburg to hear the virtuosic improvisations of organist Johann Adam Reincken.
In 1702 the 17-year-old Bach successfully competed for an organist position in the village of Sangerhausen but seems to have been disqualified at the last minute because of his youth. The following year he worked for a brief time as a “lackey and violinist” at the court in Weimar. Soon thereafter he was paid to test and inaugurate the recently installed organ in the New Church in Arnstadt. The church officials were so impressed with his playing that they immediately hired him to replace the existing organist, for whom they found other work.
It was in Arnstadt that Bach showed “the first fruits of his application to the art of organ playing,” as his obituary later put it. It was also here that he first demonstrated his willful personality, drawing his sword on a mediocre musician after calling him “a nanny-goat bassoonist” and getting into arguments with the church council over the length of hymn preludes. In November 1705 he traveled by foot to Lübeck in northern Germany to hear the special Advent concerts presented by the renowned organist and composer Dietrich Buxtehude. So enchanted was he by the elegant music-making that he stayed four months rather than the agreed-upon leave of four weeks. Bach once again incurred the disfavor of the church council and within a year began to search for another position.
In 1707 Bach accepted a call to serve as organist of the Saint Blasius Church in Mühlhausen. Mühlhausen was a prosperous city, governed by a council of wealthy businessmen who backed music activities with strong financial support. It was here that Bach composed his first cantatas, which were large, ambitious, multisectional works written in the style of Buxtehude. Two of the pieces were published in lavish editions by the town council. Bach also gave the council important advice on the repair and enlargement of the organ in Saint Blasius.
In the fall of 1707, Bach married his orphaned distant cousin Maria Barbara Bach. Over the next 12 years, Maria Barbara gave birth to seven children, three of whom became professional musicians: Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, and Johann Gottfried Bernhard Bach. Despite the favorable conditions in Mühlhausen, Bach resigned from his position after one year to accept a still better post at the ducal court in Weimar.
Bach served nine years at the Weimar court, first as organist and then, from 1714, as concertmaster as well. His employer, Wilhelm Ernst, duke of Weimar, was a great admirer of the organ, and spurred by the duke’s enthusiasm Bach proceeded to compose a vast number of unprecedented works for the instrument: the Orgelbüchlein (“Little Organ Book”), a collection of small chorale preludes for the church year; the so-called Great Eighteen Chorales of larger size; and a series of dramatic preludes and fugues.
In Weimar, Bach also became acquainted with a wide range of French and Italian music. Around 1712 he encountered the instrumental concertos of Antonio Vivaldi, in particular, and the experience had a far-reaching impact on his style. Bach made keyboard arrangements of works by Vivaldi and other great Italian composers, and from this labor he gained a feel for expressive melodies, forceful harmonies, driving rhythms, and well-defined forms. Bach now climbed to the peak of mastery as an organ virtuoso and composer, and the demand for his services as an organ expert and teacher grew significantly.
In 1713 Bach was offered a new and higher-paying position as cathedral organist in Halle. Duke Wilhelm Ernst, anxious to keep Bach in Weimar, awarded him the additional position of concertmaster, which carried with it the opportunity to compose church cantatas. Bach proceeded to write a cantata each month, and the pieces reflect his new orientation toward the Italian style. The individual movements are lengthier and clearly separated from each other, and the music now includes operatic recitative.
While still in Weimar, Bach’s growing reputation was enhanced further by his victory in a playing contest held in Dresden with the famous French organist Louis Marchand. On the morning of the contest Marchand secretly departed from town, leaving Bach to perform alone, in triumph, in front of an audience of esteemed listeners. In the fall of 1717 Bach was invited to become chapel master to the court of Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Köthen. Wilhelm Ernst at first refused to release Bach from his duties, and even tossed him into jail for “too obstinately requesting his dismissal.” But after several weeks the duke saw it was of no use and let him go.
Bach’s new employer, Leopold, loved and understood music and could play the violin, viola da gamba, and harpsichord as well as sing bass. The prince held Bach in high regard and stood as godfather for his seventh child. Bach, in turn, named the child Leopold August in his employer’s honor. Bach later said that the years in Köthen were among the happiest of his life. Since the court was Calvinist, rather than Lutheran, Bach was not required to compose church cantatas. He concentrated instead on writing secular cantatas and instrumental music for Leopold’s talented chamber ensemble, producing masterpieces such as the Brandenburg Concertos (named for their dedication to the Margrave of Brandenburg), the works for unaccompanied violin and for unaccompanied cello, and a host of solo concertos and orchestral suites. Bach also began to assemble keyboard collections for the instruction of his young sons and his growing coterie of private students. The collections included the Inventions and Sinfonias, the French and English Suites, and the first volume of The Well-Tempered Clavier.
In the summer of 1720, Bach’s wife died while he was away on a trip with the prince, and the following year the 36-year-old composer married the 20-year-old Anna Magdalena Wilcken, a court singer descended like himself from a long line of musicians. The marriage proved to be a perfect musical match: Magdalena assisted her husband by painstakingly copying a great deal of his music; he, in turn, assembled two volumes of house music in her honor (the Notebooks for Anna Magdalena Bach of 1722 and 1725). Magdalena Bach gave birth to 13 children, six of whom survived infancy. Of these, two became famous musicians: Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach and Johann Christian Bach.
In 1722 the important post of cantor (music teacher) at the Saint Thomas School in Leipzig fell vacant. Bach applied for the position, but his candidacy was not viewed with great enthusiasm by the town council. Only after Georg Philipp Telemann and Christoph Graupner (a then well-known chapel master in Darmstadt) declined the post did the council settle on Bach, with one member complaining, “Since the best men can’t be obtained, mediocre ones will have to be taken.” Bach nevertheless accepted the offer and left Köthen with his family in the spring of 1723.
In Leipzig Bach stepped into one of the oldest and most prestigious music positions in Germany. He held the position of cantor for more than 25 years, until the end of his life. He was answerable to a stable, self-perpetuating town council, he had the opportunity to compose both sacred and secular music, and his sons could attend the university—an educational opportunity he himself had not been able to enjoy. As cantor and director of town music, Bach was responsible first and foremost for overseeing the music in the town’s five largest Lutheran churches, including Saint Thomas and Saint Nicholas, which offered the most elaborate programs. He also served as a teacher at the respected Saint Thomas School (founded in 1212), where he was required to teach Latin and give singing and instrumental lessons to the boys.
Although Bach was less than enthusiastic about his teaching duties, he approached his obligations as a church composer with great industry. During the first six years in Leipzig he appears to have assembled five annual cycles of cantatas. Each cycle contained approximately 60 works—one for each Sunday and festival day of the church year—as well as a passion for Good Friday. For most of this period Bach composed cantatas at a rate of better than one per week.
As time went on, however, Bach became disillusioned with the mediocre quality of the performers at his disposal, and he increasingly entered into disagreements with the town council over his rights as cantor. “The authorities are odd and very little interested in music, and I must live amid almost continual vexation, envy, and persecution,” he wrote to a friend. Perhaps for this reason, Bach stopped composing church cantatas almost altogether in 1729 and took over the directorship of the collegium musicum, a group of university students that gathered weekly to present public concerts in Zimmermann’s Coffee House. For the collegium he composed or arranged a host of instrumental pieces: viola da gamba and flute sonatas, trio sonatas, orchestral suites, and concertos for one, two, three, and even four harpsichords, written for himself and his talented sons and students. The second volume of The Well-Tempered Clavier may have been assembled for the purpose of collegium performances as well. It was for Zimmermann’s customers that Bach wrote the humorous Coffee Cantata, an early “singing commercial” that satirizes the coffee craze of the time.
Bach stepped down from the collegium directorship in 1737, and from that time until the end of his life he increasingly withdrew from his official duties and turned instead to private projects, such as the publication of the Goldberg Variations, Schübler Chorales, and other keyboard works; the study of Catholic church music in Latin; and the composition of large composite pieces such as the Art of Fugue and, in his final years, the B-Minor Mass. During his last decade, Bach also traveled frequently to Dresden and Berlin, where his sons worked as professional musicians.
In 1747 Bach enjoyed his most significant personal triumph when he visited the Berlin court of Frederick II (Frederick the Great), where his son Carl Philipp Emanuel served as harpsichordist. Bach tried out Frederick’s fine harpsichords and fortepianos (an early type of piano), displaying his incredible mastery of improvisation. Without preparation he improvised a fugue on a subject provided by the king, and on his return to Leipzig he used the royal theme for a set of polyphonic compositions dedicated to the monarch and published with the title Musical Offering.
Two years later Bach’s eyesight, which had been poor for many years, began to fail seriously. In June 1749 the town council auditioned a potential successor for his job, and by October, Bach was so disabled that his 14-year-old son Johann Christian had to sign pay receipts on his behalf. In the spring of 1750, Bach entrusted himself to the care of a visiting eye surgeon who boasted of having performed successful operations elsewhere. In Bach’s case the two subsequent operations proved to be failures, and the drugs that were administered broke his health, which had been robust up to this point. On July 18 he suddenly recovered his sight, but a few hours later he suffered a stroke, and on July 28, 1750, he died.
As a creative artist, Bach cultivated all the major forms of the late Baroque era except for opera (and even here a number of cantatas written for the Leipzig collegium musicum approach the progressive comic operas of Italian composer Giovanni Battista Pergolesi and others). Bach composed over 1,000 works. His output includes pieces for voices and instruments, organ, clavier (harpsichord or clavichord), solo instruments, and instrumental ensemble. His inexhaustible imagination and inventiveness resulted in an immense variety of forms. No two of his fugues follow precisely the same procedure; no two of his cantatas show exactly the same structure. Yet all his works share certain characteristics: convincing formal design, polyphonic texture in which each voice is given its due (see Polyphony), forceful harmonies, appealing melodies, compelling rhythms, and a high level of refinement.
Today Bach’s works are normally identified by numbers beginning with BWV or S, which stand for their listing in the German catalogue of Bach’s music first assembled in 1950 by Wolfgang Schmieder, the Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis (“Catalogue of Bach’s Works”).
The church cantatas represent the bulk of Bach’s vocal music. The five annual sets that he assembled in Leipzig contained a total of about 300 works; of these, approximately 200 survive. The cantatas written in Mühlhausen follow the 17th-century pattern championed by Buxtehude and others. The text is drawn from the Bible or from chorales (Lutheran hymns); the music consists of numerous short sections that usually contrast with one another in melody, key, tempo, and forces (the instruments and singers involved). In addition, the meaning of significant words is often highlighted by musical means: the phrase “Christ’s pain,” for instance, might be accompanied by jarring dissonances. Excellent examples of this early style are offered by the funeral cantata Gottes Zeit ist die allerbest Zeit (“God’s time is the very best time”), BWV 106, or the Easter cantata Christ lag in Todesbanden (“Christ lay in the bonds of death”), BWV 4. In the second work the seven stanzas of Martin Luther’s hymn are presented as a series of variations.
In Weimar Bach adopted the new type of cantata introduced by the Lutheran pastor Erdmann Neumeister. In the Neumeister cantata the text consists entirely of poetry in the form of madrigals, paraphrasing stories told in the Bible and hymns, and the music consists of recitative (free, speech-like sections for solo voice) and aria. The result was “a piece out of the opera,” as Neumeister himself expressed it. Bach generally modified this plan by blending recitative and aria with choruses and chorales based on the quotations from the Bible and hymn texts in the traditional manner. With the Weimar cantatas Bach’s compositional style shifts from North German to Italian, though he retained for some time the French practice of using a five-part string band (two violins, two violas, and bass). Himmelskönig, sei willkommen (“King of heaven, welcome”), BWV 182, is an outstanding example of Bach’s Weimar writing.
In Leipzig Bach continued to use the modified Neumeister scheme. The works sometimes fall into two sections, one presented before the minister’s sermon, the other after; they commonly feature a large opening chorus followed by a series of recitative-aria pairs and a closing chorale. For the first annual cycle (1723 and 1724), Bach drew heavily on preexisting works from Weimar. For the second annual cycle (1724 and 1725), he composed a series of “chorale cantatas,” pieces whose texts and music are based on hymns from the Sunday worship service. For the third cycle (1725 to 1727), he experimented with cantatas for solo voice. These works often begin with a lengthy instrumental movement featuring organ solo. The nature of the fourth and fifth cycles is unclear, since most of the pieces are lost.
Particularly well-known of the surviving Leipzig cantatas are Sie werden aus Saba alle kommen ('From Sheba shall they all come'), BWV 65; the Reformation cantata Ein' feste Burg ist unser Gott (“A mighty fortress is our God”), BWV 80; and Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme (“Sleepers awake, a voice is calling”), BWV 140. Excellent illustrations of his solo writing are the exquisitely beautiful Ich habe genug (“I have now enough”), BWV 82, for bass voice, and the virtuosic Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen (“Praise God in every land”), BWV 51, possibly written for a Dresden opera castrato (a castrated male singing in the soprano range).
Bach’s secular cantatas were written for weddings, birthdays, and name days of important persons, for building inaugurations, and for other festive occasions. Less than two dozen examples have survived, most probably because Bach often rearranged the music for another use once the event for which the piece was written had passed. Tönet, ihr Pauken! Erschallet, Trompeten! (“Sound, you drums! Ring out, you trumpets!”), BWV 214, composed for the birthday of Saxon Electress Maria Josepha, was recycled with a new text in the Christmas Oratorio. The “Peasant Cantata,” Mer hahn en neue Oberkeet, (“I've got me a new overlord”), BWV 212, written for a local housewarming party, approaches the style of the contemporary comic opera.
Seven of Bach’s German motets survive. Five were composed for two choirs, in the polychoral tradition, and two were written for a single choir of four or five parts. Based on biblical and chorale texts, the motets contain chorus movements only. They are commonly performed a cappella—that is, by voices alone without instrumental accompaniment. In Bach’s day, however, instruments often doubled the singers. The motets were composed for general use (that is, they were not oriented toward a specific Sunday), and as a consequence they remained popular after Bach’s death. For a long time they were virtually the only vocal works of his to be heard. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was much moved by the two-choir Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied (“Sing unto the Lord a new song”), BWV 225, when he heard it performed in the Saint Thomas Church during a visit to Leipzig in 1789. Also popular is the beautiful Jesu, meine Freude (“Jesus, my joy”), BWV 227.
|C||Oratorios and Passions|
Bach composed narrative oratorios—large-scale works for voices and instruments—for Easter, Ascension Day, and Christmas. The Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248, written during the winter of 1734-1735, is a series of six cantatas intended for the first three days of Christmas, New Year’s Day, the Sunday after New Year’s, and Epiphany. The text, taken mostly from the Bible and Lutheran hymns, relates the Christmas story. The story itself is told by a tenor, the evangelist, while other soloists and the chorus add commentary. The strategically placed chorales served to enlighten the congregation.
Bach is reported to have composed five passions—oratorios in which the story of the suffering and crucifixion of Jesus Christ is sung. However, only two have survived: the St. John Passion, BWV 245, dating from 1724, and the St. Matthew Passion, BWV 244, dating from 1727. Both works were performed several times over the years and show numerous revisions. (Of the St. Mark Passion, written in 1731, only the text remains; the St. Luke Passion, once credited to Bach, is now believed to be the work of another composer.)
The two authentic surviving passions each consist of two sections, one to be performed before and one after the sermon. An evangelist (tenor) narrates the story of Christ’s arrest, trial, and crucifixion. Individual characters, including Christ, are sung by soloists, while the crowd is represented by the chorus. The congregation’s reaction to the unfolding drama is expressed in various recitatives, arias, and chorales.
The two works are very different in character. The St. John Passion contains impassioned crowd scenes; Christ, on the other hand, is portrayed as a sublimely calm, almost remote figure. The St. Matthew Passion radiates tenderness and love. Christ approaches mankind in his suffering, and mankind, in turn, suffers with him. In the recitative passages, Christ’s words are supported by a “halo” of accompanying strings.
The St. Matthew Passion was Bach’s most ambitious work for the Lutheran Church. It contains 68 musical numbers (or 78, depending how one counts) and calls for two choruses, a host of soloists, two large orchestras, and a special group of boy singers for the hymn tune appearing in the immense opening chorus. It lasts approximately two-and-one-half hours in performance, and its deeply emotional music is a supreme testament to Bach’s interpretive skills. In the mid-1730s the composer lovingly wrote out a clean copy of the full score, notating the biblical text as well as the hymn tune in the first movement in red ink.
|D||Magnificat and B-Minor Mass|
Bach wrote a number of pieces with Latin texts. The Magnificat (written in 1723 and revised around 1733), an imposing Sanctus (“Holy, holy, holy”) in six parts, four short Masses, and several other pieces were composed for performance in the Lutheran worship service in Leipzig. There the Latin language of the Roman Catholic Church was retained for certain portions of the liturgy. The four Masses contain only the sections beginning with the words Kyrie eleison (“Lord have mercy”) and Gloria in excelsis Deo (“Glory to God in the highest”).
The radiant Magnificat, BWV 243, for five-part chorus, soloists, and orchestra, is taken from Mary’s hymn of praise to her cousin Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist (Luke 1:46-55). Its compact movements, consisting of choruses and arias only, are highly refined; each has its own clearly defined emotional character. (see Mass, Musical Settings of.)
The B-Minor Mass, BWV 232, is a composite work, assembled by Bach during the final years of his life. It consists of a Kyrie and Gloria, written in 1733 for the Saxon Elector in Dresden, a Credo (“I believe”) composed in 1748 and 1749, a Sanctus from 1724 (with additional movements from 1748 and 1749), and an Agnus Dei (“Lamb of God”) composed in 1748 and 1749. The B-Minor Mass is a creation of lofty grandeur, abounding in settings of intricate technical mastery and widely diverse styles, such as the “Gloria in excelsis Deo,” a lively, dancelike, concerto-derived movement; the “Credo in unum Deum,” an eight-part fugue on a Gregorian chant subject; and the poignant “Crucifixus,” a set of 13 variations on a passacaglia bass theme.
Although the work was known as The Great Catholic Mass within the Bach family, its purpose remains unclear. Bach had close ties with the Catholic court in Dresden, yet the colossal dimensions of the B-Minor Mass would have rendered it impractical for the worship service there or elsewhere. The piece may have been a private project on Bach’s part, written for personal pleasure and, possibly, for posterity as well.
Bach wrote organ music throughout his life. During his years as a church or court organist in Arnstadt, Mühlhausen, and Weimar, he created a dazzling array of free works (pieces not based on a chorale tune) and chorale preludes. The free pieces include the famous Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, BWV 565, probably written in Arnstadt when Bach was no older than 19; the grandiose Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor, BWV 582, a set of 20 variations on a bass melody borrowed from French composer André Raison; and the dramatic Fantasy and Fugue in G Minor, BWV 542, containing “the very best pedal fugue by this composer” according to an old manuscript copy. The earliest chorale settings include several chorale partitas (see suites), or variations, for organ, probably written under the influence of Böhm, and the Neumeister Chorales. Both may date from Bach’s student years in Lüneburg.
The 46 settings of the Orgelbüchlein, assembled in Weimar, show Bach putting forth the idea of a concise chorale prelude with four fully self-sufficient parts, including one for the feet played on the pedalboard. The clear part-writing in these pieces paved the way for Bach’s mature compositional style, in which every voice plays an important melodic role. In the Orgelbüchlein chorales we also see Bach as a master of expressive interpretation, since in many pieces the music directly reflects the meaning of the text. In Durch Adams Fall (“Through Adam’s Fall”), BWV 637, for instance, the fall of Adam in the Garden of Eden is portrayed through a falling dissonant motive that recurs in the pedal.
In Leipzig, Bach wrote the Six Trio Sonatas (BWV 525-530) for the instruction of his son Wilhelm Friedemann (see Sonata). Here he takes the Italian instrumental trio for two violins and bass and transfers it to the organ, giving one treble part to the right hand, the other treble part to the left hand, and the bass part to the feet. Hands and feet function as equal parts in the Trio Sonatas, so much so that at times the player is required to perform trills and other ornaments with the feet.
In 1739, Bach published the Third Part of the Clavierübung, which contains a large assortment of chorale preludes on the Lutheran Catechism and Kyrie and Gloria, as well as four duets and the famous St. Anne Prelude and Fugue. The collection includes straightforward manual pieces for “music lovers” as well as extremely challenging manual and pedal works for “connoisseurs.” In the late 1740s, Bach also published the Schübler Chorales, a collection of six cantata arias transcribed for organ. The melodic beauty of these arrangements, in which popular hymn tunes of the day sound out above a rich tapestry of counterpoint, make them favorites of listeners and players alike.
Bach’s clavier works—that is, pieces for keyboard without pedal—were written mainly for the harpsichord. They were also played on the clavichord, which in Bach’s day was used chiefly as a practice instrument because of its tiny sound. Bach wrote a number of clavier pieces in his youth, including the charming Capriccio on the Departure of a Dearly Beloved Brother, BWV 992, intended as a farewell tribute to his brother Jacob as he joined the Swedish Army. Bach began to assemble clavier works in earnest in Köthen, where both the purchase of a large harpsichord by Prince Leopold and the need for instructional material seem to have spurred his interest. The well-known Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue in D Minor, BWV 903, undoubtedly designed for his own use, stems from this time.
For his sons and students Bach assembled the Two-Part Inventions and Three-Part Sinfonias, miniature gems of counterpoint technique in various manners and moods; the French and English Suites, two sets of dance music; and the first volume of Das Wohltemperirte Clavier (The Well-Tempered Clavier), completed in 1722. The last consists of 24 preludes and fugues, one prelude and fugue in the major and one in the minor key on each degree of the scale. The expression “well-tempered” refers to a method of tuning, new at the time, that allowed players to use all major and minor keys rather than just those with up to two or three accidentals (sharps or flats noted within the body of the work).
In Leipzig Bach composed another set of dance suites—the six partitas published in 1731 under the title Clavierübung, or “Keyboard Exercise.” The Italian Concerto and French Overture, brilliant keyboard examples of popular national forms, followed as Clavierübung II. As the fourth and final part of the series, Bach published the superb Goldberg Variations, an aria with 30 variations composed for his admirer Count Hermann von Keyserlingk, the Russian ambassador in Dresden. The story is told that the count suffered from an illness that often kept him sleepless, and to soothe his nerves at night he had his harpsichordist, the Bach student Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, play the variations in an adjoining room. Around 1742, Bach also compiled a second set of 24 preludes and fugues to produce volume two of The Well-Tempered Clavier.
|G||Works for Solo Instruments|
During his years in Köthen and his years as collegium musicum director in Leipzig, Bach composed a large number of works for solo instruments. These include sonatas for flute, for violin, and for viola da gamba, most of which include, for the first time in Western music, a written-out line for the right hand of the harpsichord accompaniment. These pieces point to the chamber sonatas of the classical and romantic eras.
In the sonatas and partitas for unaccompanied violin, completed in 1720, Bach achieved the seemingly impossible task of writing imitative textures—including four-part fugues—for a solo stringed instrument. He reached a peak of sublime inspiration in the Chaconne from the D-Minor Partita, an immense set of variations that later captured the imagination of romantic-era composers such as Felix Mendelssohn, Robert Schumann, and Johannes Brahms. Over ten minutes long, the Chaconne is the supreme test of a violinist’s skill. The six suites for unaccompanied violoncello, also written in Köthen, are no less extraordinary.
|H||Works for Instrumental Ensemble|
Bach’s works for instrumental ensemble include the famous six Brandenburg Concertos of 1721 (BWV 1046-1051), which summarize the art of the Italian and German concerto. They are perhaps the most famous group of chamber pieces ever written. Concertos 1, 3, and 6 are ensemble concertos of the type much favored in Germany at the time: contrasting, but evenly balanced, choirs of instruments play together and alternately, spinning forth the melodic material in marvelously varied combinations. Concertos 2, 4, and 5 are solo concertos, in which three or four solo instruments alternate with the tutti, or full band. Of these more progressive, Vivaldi-oriented works, No. 5 deserves special mention since Bach uses the harpsichord as one of the solo instruments, giving it a fiendishly difficult part that includes a long solo cadenza toward the end of the first movement. This work constitutes the first keyboard concerto ever written.
Although the Brandenburg Concertos are rich in polyphonic devices, they are enjoyed by listeners unaware of the intricacy of Bach’s counterpoint. The concertos exude a spirit of exuberance and optimism that delights as much today as it must have in Bach’s time. In these masterpieces melodic inspiration, coloristic subtlety, and technical craftsmanship match each other in a way that is rare even in Bach’s output.
A similar affirmative sparkle emanates from the four orchestral suites (BWV 1066-1069), each consisting of an overture in the French style (made up of a majestic slow introduction followed by a spirited fugue) and a series of enchanting dance movements. The Suite in C Major and the two Suites in D Major are products of Bach’s Köthen years. The stylish Suite in B Minor, BWV 1067, for flute and strings, seems to be a Leipzig collegium piece, written perhaps for a visiting virtuoso flute player from Dresden.
The concertos for one, two, three, and even four harpsichords are among the most forward-looking pieces Bach wrote. Composed for himself (the first harpsichord part in the multiple concertos is always more difficult than the others) and his gifted sons and students, the works are mostly derived from earlier concertos for violin or oboe or both. Nevertheless, Bach’s inventive handling of the harpsichord and orchestra parts points to the drama and fanciful play of the later piano concertos of Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven.
|I||Musical Offering, Canonic Variations, Art of Fugue|
In the last decade of his life Bach demonstrated his consummate achievements as a master of counterpoint in three works devoted to the craft of strict fugue and canon. The Musical Offering, BWV 1079, based on a theme proposed by Frederick the Great during Bach’s 1747 visit to Berlin, contains two large ricercares (old-fashioned fugues in Renaissance vocal style), a trio sonata, and a sequence of puzzle canons (canons that need to be solved). In 1747 Bach also composed the Canonic Variations on Vom Himmel Hoch, BWV 769, to mark his entry into the Society of Musical Sciences, whose select membership of 20 composers and theorists included George Frideric Handel and Georg Philipp Telemann. Based on the Christmas chorale “From heaven above to earth I come,” the variations present a sequence of five elaborate canons for an organ with two manuals and pedal.
Die Kunst der Fuge (“The Art of Fugue”), BWV 1080, once thought to date from Bach’s final year, is now known to have been compiled over a period of a decade or more. Around 1740 Bach assembled the core of the collection: a series of fugues and canons of increasing complexity, all based on the same principal theme. In the first version of the collection, the fugues include pieces for one, two, and three subjects. At the very end of his life Bach picked up the collection once again, this time with an eye to publishing it, perhaps as yet another part of the Clavierübung series. He revised and expanded the music, and added a climactic concluding fugue for four subjects, the last of which spelled in music his own name: B A C H (with B as B-flat and H as B-natural in the German scale). Bach died before bringing the gigantic quadruple fugue to an end, however, and the music breaks off, unfinished, in the 239th measure. The incomplete collection was printed after his death by members the family. Although The Art of Fugue is commonly performed on various combinations of instruments—strings, brass, woodwinds, full orchestra, or even saxophone quartet—it is clear that Bach intended the piece for keyboard (harpsichord or possibly organ).
|J||Method of Composing|
As a composer living in an age when new music was required on a weekly—if not daily—basis, Bach was accustomed to writing works with great speed. On good days he appears to have been able to compose highly refined masterpieces without the aid of sketches or drafts—almost as one would write a letter. Because Bach was under pressure to produce vast quantities of music, he often pulled a previously written piece off the shelf and revised it for a new occasion. Thus violin concertos from Köthen reappear in Leipzig as harpsichord concertos, or secular birthday cantatas resurface, with new words, as Sunday church music. The B-Minor Mass, for instance, appears to consist almost wholly of revised cantata movements from earlier periods. This procedure, which might be viewed as plagiarism in modern times, was accepted as a practical recycling process in the Baroque era, and Bach frequently used it to update early works and bring the music they contained to an even higher state of beauty.
|IV||THE REVIVAL OF BACH’S MUSIC|
As astonishing as it might seem today, Bach’s music quickly fell out of favor after his death and remained largely unknown for the next 50 years. Only a small group of admirers, consisting mostly of his sons and pupils, performed any of the works, and then only the virtuoso clavier and organ pieces. Bach’s feats of counterpoint were occasionally mentioned in textbooks, but apart from his four-part chorales, which were guided into print in the 1780s by his son Carl Philipp Emanuel and his student Johann Philipp Kirnberger, none of his works were published.
Beethoven made his mark as a young virtuoso by performing preludes and fugues from The Well-Tempered Clavier; he played from a handwritten copy of the music, however, since no printed edition was available. Joseph Haydn and Mozart, too, learned of Bach’s works largely through manuscript copies circulated in Vienna by the Bach and Handel champion Baron Gottfried van Swieten. The vocal music, in particular, owned by family members and the Saint Thomas School, fell from view almost completely—hence Mozart’s enormous surprise when he heard Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied (“Sing to God a new song”). According to an eyewitness:
Scarcely had the choir sung a few bars when Mozart sat up, startled. A few measures more and he cried out: “What is this?!” ... When the singing was finished he called out, full of joy: “Now, there is something from which we can learn!” He was told that the school ... possessed the complete collection of Bach’s motets. As there were no scores of these works, he got them to bring him the separate parts; and then it was a joy for the silent observer to see how eagerly Mozart distributed the parts all around him—in both hands, on his knees, on the nearest chairs—and forgetting everything else, did not rise again until he had looked through everything of Sebastian Bach’s that was there. He requested a copy for himself, which he valued very highly.
The situation began to change around 1800 when, under the impact of romanticism, people began to delve into the musical monuments of the past. In 1802 Johann Nikolaus Forkel published the first Bach biography, which he assembled from information provided by Bach’s sons. Forkel’s portrait of Bach as a virtuoso keyboard player, teacher, and composer gave music lovers an idea of the significance and extent of the neglected master’s genius. In Germany and Switzerland musicians began to study Bach’s works. A similar revival started in England under the leadership of the organist Samuel Wesley, a nephew of the religious leader John Wesley.
At first Bach’s keyboard works were considered most important. Between 1801 and 1810 complete editions of The Well-Tempered Clavier appeared in Bonn, Leipzig, Zürich, and London. Schumann advised students to “industriously practice the fugues of good masters, above all, those of J. S. Bach. Let The Well-Tempered Clavier be your daily bread.” Germany’s greatest poet, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, hearing Bach’s keyboard music for the first time, expressed the deep admiration felt by many romantic artists: “It is as if the eternal harmony were conversing within itself, as it may have done in the bosom of God just before the creation of the world.” Soon Bach was hailed as the “father of harmony.”
Appreciation of the vocal works was slower to come. Two epoch-making performances in Berlin—Gasparo Spontini’s of the Credo portion of the B-Minor Mass in 1828 and Mendelssohn’s of the St. Matthew Passion in 1829—attracted widespread attention and led to the exploration of the cantatas, oratorios, and other vocal pieces. These works were gradually taken up by middle-class chorale societies, at first with apprehension (because of the music’s difficulty) but then with unbridled enthusiasm.
In 1850 the Bach Society was established in Leipzig with the goal of publishing the composer’s entire surviving output. This was achieved within 50 years, whereupon the New Bach Society was founded with the purpose of making the works accessible to the general public through practical editions and first-rate performances in annual festivals.
The promotion of Bach’s music was not confined to his native land. In England William Sterndale Bennett founded a Bach Society as early as 1849. In the United States Frederick Wolle established in 1900 an annual Bach Festival in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, that has thrived to the present day. Similar festivals were set up in Carmel, California; Eugene, Oregon; and other locations. The American Bach Society was established in 1972.
At the same time, Bach research made great strides through the publication of Philipp Spitta’s monumental three-volume biography, Johann Sebastian Bach, issued in Germany in 1873-1879 and available today in an English-language reprint (Dover, 1992). Although Spitta was incorrect about the chronology of many works (especially the cantatas), his broad survey of musical culture in Germany and his insights into Bach’s creative genius remain unsurpassed. Spitta’s study was followed in 1905 by Albert Schweitzer’s J.S. Bach, The Musician-Poet (Peter Smith, 1992), which emphasized the role of pictorialism and symbolism in Bach’s music, and by Charles Sanford Terry’s Bach: A Biography (1928; Reprint Services, 1988) and Bach’s Orchestra (1932; Reprint Services, 1988), which presented a great deal of new information on Bach’s life and instruments. Hans T. David and Arthur Mendel assembled Bach’s writings and other documents and translated them into English in The Bach Reader (Norton, 1966). It was published in a revised edition edited by Christoph Wolff as The New Bach Reader (Norton, 1999). Malcolm Boyd’s Bach (Oxford University Press, 1994) gives a succinct overview that is quite useful. Christoph Wolff’s scholarly biography, Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician (Norton, 2000), was published to coincide with the 250th anniversary of the composer’s death.
The venerable Bach-Gesamtausgabe, or complete edition of Bach’s works, was assembled in the 19th century by the Bach Society. Commonly known as the BG, it remains available today in the form of reprints, in full-size and miniature formats. In 1950 the New Bach Society launched a revised complete edition, the Neue Bach-Ausgabe, to correct the errors and spurious entries found in the old edition. It appeared in more than 100 volumes, scheduled for completion in 2006.