Johann Sebastian Bach

Born 1685 in Eisenach, Germany. Died 1750
Baroque school(s).

Essential Listening

Biography

Johann Sebastian Bach In the early part of the sixteenth century, the Bach family were quite well known throughout Northern Germany as accomplished musicians and they achieved widespread fame when young Johann Sebastian's talents came to light.

As a boy he apparently had a fantastic soprano singing voice and always took the lead roles in the church and school choirs.

He started composing fairly early on in his life and his first main works, including the Preludes and Variations for organ, were composed between the ages of seventeen and twenty.

The organ was an instrument for which Bach wrote superlatively – he was a great lover of church music in general and was regarded as one of the finest organists of the day.

Brought up with a strong association with the church, he was always involved in church music, both as a singer and an organist.

He wrote many of his marvellous series of cantatas for the Sunday services at the Church of St Thomas in Leipzig, and these works are probably the finest of their type.

Bach was always in demand and held a succession of excellent jobs throughout his lifetime.

These included much celebrated posts at the courts of Duke Wilhelm Ernst of Weimar and Prince Leopold of Cöthen.

His last employment was as the Cantor of the Thomasschule in Leipzig.

Life, however, was not always a bed of roses.

In the early years Bach was heavily influenced by the composer Buxtehude (another great writer for the organ) and he left his first job as organist at Arnstadt to go and have lessons with the maestro.

This turned into a four-month sabbatical, causing trouble with Bach's employers when he returned: not only had his presence been missed for four consecutive months, but he had come back writing in quite an advanced and unusual style that wasn't exactly what was required.

It was actually great music that was just a little ahead of its time.

So Bach moved on to the job in Weimar, which afforded him greater artistic freedom.

His main duties were as court organist and chamber musician to the reigning Duke Wilhelm Ernst, and he subsequently secured the job of Konzertmeister (conductor) to the court orchestra in his last three years of service.

It was at the beginning of this period of work that he wrote some of his most famous organ pieces, including the marvellous Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor.

The top job at these various courts was invariably that of Kappelmeister, and this position became vacant in 1716 at Weimar.

Much to Bach's annoyance he did not get offered the job, and so he immediately started looking for another position, ending up at the court of Prince Leopold of Cöthen.

Bach spent many happy years in Cöthen and created some of his finest music in this period: the Brandenburg Concertos, the violin concertos, the suites for orchestra and much of the chamber music.

Today Bach is revered all over the world as one of the greatest composers ever to have lived, producing what has been described as 'pure' music.

His skill at writing for keyboard instruments and for choirs also had a significant effect on all composers who followed him, even to the present day.

Fugue in G Minor

Fugue in G Minor, BWV 578

Keyboard Works

Bach wrote more than forty works for solo organ to be used before or after a church service, the most famous being his Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. This Fugue in G Minor is in a similar vein and shows that Bach was without doubt a fine organist as well as composer.

Italian Concerto

Italian Concerto in F, BWV 971: Moderato

Keyboard Works

Instantly recognisable, the Italian Concerto represents Bach at his Baroque best.

Note how the piano could easily be replaced by a harpsichord inasmuch as the distinction between soft and loud is stressed more by the amount of notes used than the strength at which they are played.

In Bach's time the piano was a fairly new instrument that allowed the performer to vary the volume of the music by the speed at which he played a note (the word 'piano' comes from the Italian 'piano-forte', which literally means 'soft-loud').

It is evident that the late Baroque composers did not fully utilise this when one compares their piano works with those of the Romantics such as Chopin or Liszt.

Partita No. 1

Partita No. 1 in B Flat Major, BWV 825

Keyboard Works

The six movements of Bach's Partita are typically Baroque and popular pieces for piano students.

Toccata and Fugue in D Minor

Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, BWV 565

Keyboard Works

This must be one of the most famous works ever written for a church organ and is instantly recognisable from numerous films such as '20,000 Leagues under the Sea' and Disney's 'Fantasia'. It is an exciting and exhilarating work that tests not only the performer, but also the audience.

Brandenburg Concerto No. 1

Brandenburg Concerto No. 1, BWV 1046: Adagio

1718, Concerti, Orchestral

The world has long marvelled that Bach's set of six 'Brandenburg' concertos should have been wasted on the pompous and arrogant Prussian nobleman the Margrave of Brandenburg, to whom Bach had to write grovelling letters for patronage. Sadder still is the fact that these six pieces stayed unused in the Margrave's library for thirteen years; they were discovered after his death and recognised as works of genius.

It is agreed that Concerto No. 1 in F Major is certainly the most exciting and attractive of all the Brandenburgs, yet the least performed today. This is because its most prominent solo part is written for an instrument that is now obsolete – a violino piccolo: a small-sized violin tuned a major third higher than a normal violin.

Today, we can't be sure exactly how this instrument is supposed to sound, though there is no doubt that this was not a feeble instrument but a powerful treble tool.

Brandenburg Concerto No. 2

Brandenburg Concerto No. 2, BWV 1047: Allegro

1718, Concerti, Orchestral

The world has long marvelled that Bach's set of six 'Brandenburg' concertos should have been wasted on the pompous and arrogant Prussian nobleman the Margrave of Brandenburg, to whom Bach had to write grovelling letters for patronage. Sadder still is the fact that these six pieces stayed unused in the Margrave's library for thirteen years; they were discovered after his death and recognised as works of genius.

Concerto No. 2 in F Major proved to be far too demanding for the musical staff of the Margrave, as it was written with a virtuoso trumpet player in mind. The particular trumpet used, however, was known as a 'clarino' and had no valves like the modern trumpet.

Brandenburg Concerto No. 3

Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, BWV 1048

1718, Concerti, Orchestral

The world has long marvelled that Bach's set of six 'Brandenburg' concertos should have been wasted on the pompous and arrogant Prussian nobleman the Margrave of Brandenburg, to whom Bach had to write grovelling letters for patronage. Sadder still is the fact that these six pieces stayed unused in the Margrave's library for thirteen years; they were discovered after his death and recognised as works of genius.

The third concerto, in G major, was composed around 1718 and is written in the true style of the ensemble concerto with no one instrument, or group of instruments, standing out above the others. Scored for 3 violins, 3 violas, 3 cellos and continuo, it is almost certain that, as Bach's favourite instrument was the viola, he himself played the viola part in early performances. In Bach's day, the most modern concerto form was in three movements: fast, slow, fast.

But as the fast movements were always the more exciting and brilliant, this third Brandenburg has no slow middle movement but, rather, two slow chords, where he probably expected one or more of the players to improvise.

The first movement (Allegro) opens with a strong rhythmic theme that reappears with regularity in differing forms. The movement is varied in arrangement, with sometimes the whole ensemble playing together contrasted with sections where the instrumental groups are matched against one other. One bar of an Adagio takes us without a pause into the finale, which takes the form of a jig, or 'gigue', as it was known at the time. It opens with a violin theme that is quickly picked up by the rest of the group and, with clever, swirling harmonies, sweeps the listener along in a torrent.

Brandenburg Concerto No. 6

Brandenburg Concerto No. 6, BWV 1051

1718, Concerti, Orchestral

The world has long marvelled that Bach's set of six 'Brandenburg' concertos should have been wasted on the pompous and arrogant Prussian nobleman the Margrave of Brandenburg, to whom Bach had to write grovelling letters for patronage. Sadder still is the fact that these six pieces stayed unused in the Margrave's library for thirteen years; they were discovered after his death and recognised as works of genius.

Music historians seem to be in agreement that the sixth Brandenburg concerto, in B Flat Major, was written with two specific performers in mind: Bach himself and Prince Leopold of Cöthen. The Prince was an accomplished harpsichord and violin player, but excelled at the viola da gamba – this being a like cello with guitar frets.

Originally scored for a mere seven instruments, it is now more commonly performed by a full orchestra.

Double Violin Concerto

Double Violin Concerto, BWV 1043

1718, Concerti, Orchestral

Unlike a normal solo concerto, Bach's 'double violin' concerto was written with the idea of two violins accompanied by a harpsichord, cello and double bass, the ensemble then being supported by an entire orchestra. This small-group arrangement was known as a concertino, and the work as a whole was usually referred to as a concerto grosso. It was written, along with many other works, for Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen, where Bach was stationed during the period 1717–23. The prince himself is known to have been a fine cellist.

Written in the traditional Baroque fast, slow, fast structure, the concerto opens with a vivace full of dynamic rhythm and pace, with a theme that is started off by the second violin. After some twenty bars of full orchestral introduction, the entire orchestra falls quiet to allow the soloists and concertino group to be heard. The movement continues in a similar vein, alternating between the small group and the orchestra. The slow second section is seen by many as being the crown of this work, with displays essentially from the two soloists, while the lively finale (Allegro) is dominated by a freer style with little contrast between the two groups.

Brandenburg Concerto No. 4

Brandenburg Concerto No. 4, BWV 1049

1719, Concerti, Orchestral

The world has long marvelled that Bach's set of six 'Brandenburg' concertos should have been wasted on the pompous and arrogant Prussian nobleman the Margrave of Brandenburg, to whom Bach had to write grovelling letters for patronage. Sadder still is the fact that these six pieces stayed unused in the Margrave's library for thirteen years; they were discovered after his death and recognised as works of genius.

Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 in G Major is the lightest of the set, both in spirit and in physical sound. To the twentieth-century ear, this masterpiece seems to conjure up all the grace and sparkle of eighteenth-century architecture, painting and manners which is embraced by the term Rococo.

Brandenburg Concerto No. 5

Brandenburg Concerto No. 5, BWV 1050: Allegro

1720, Concerti, Orchestral

The world has long marvelled that Bach's set of six 'Brandenburg' concertos should have been wasted on the pompous and arrogant Prussian nobleman the Margrave of Brandenburg, to whom Bach had to write grovelling letters for patronage. Sadder still is the fact that these six pieces stayed unused in the Margrave's library for thirteen years; they were discovered after his death and recognised as works of genius.

This Fifth Brandenburg Concerto is in D major and is often seen as the first ever harpsichord concerto. Scored for solo harpsichord, flute and violin, the keyboard is so prominent that it is hardly surprising musicologists have taken this view.

Suite for Orchestra No. 2

Suite for Orchestra No. 2, BWV 1067

1721, Orchestral

Made up of seven movements, this is Bach's only surviving work written for solo flute and orchestra, and could effectively be called a flute concerto.

I. Overture.

Though with a slow introduction, this opening movement is full of trills and jagged rhythms.

II. Rondeau.

A simple theme is cleverly repeated four times and sounds better on each return.

III. Sarabande.

Essentially a stately dance.

IV. Bourrée.

The only movement to use a three-part form with the actual bourrée in the middle.

V. Polonaise.

Strangely enough this movement doesn't sound remotely Polish, though the definition of Polonaise is 'Polish dance'. However, its theme is both graceful and enigmatic.

VI. Menuet.

A leisurely variation on the preceding Polonaise.

VII. Badinerie.

A light-hearted chuckling ending to this masterful suite.

Air on the G String

Suite for Orchestra No. 3, BWV 1068: Air on the G String

1722, Orchestral

This is practically without doubt the most well known of all Bach's works, having been immortalised in TV advertisements for cigars. Technically speaking the second movement of a five-part suite, this slow piece with a delightful walking bass line has been used as the source for many interpretations and variations, most notably by the French jazz pianist Jacques Loussier.

Gavotte from Suite No. 3

Suite for Orchestra No. 3, BWV 1068: Gavotte 1

1722, Orchestral

A gavotte was originally a French folk dance, which made its way, via ballrooms, to the dance passages of instrumental Baroque works.

Taken from Bach's Suite for Orchestra No. 3 (whose second movement is the famous 'Air on the G String'), this gavotte is a sturdy rhythmic piece with a contrasting middle section.

Suite for Orchestra No. 3

Suite for Orchestra No. 3, BWV 1068: Overture

1722, Orchestral

This is probably Bach's most famous suite, as the second movement is the popular 'Air on the G String'. The opening overture was once described by the poet Goethe as an image of ' . . . important people descending a grand flight of steps'.

The Air has been popularised by film and television to the extent that many are familiar with the individual movement, but not the suite as a whole.

Suite for Orchestra No. 4

Suite for Orchestra No. 4, BWV 1069

1725, Orchestral

The C Major Suite is certainly Bach's most 'modern' and the only one which it is believed was composed in Leipzig. Some years after its composition, Bach rewrote this work adding three trumpets and drums to give it a more festive feel, presumably for some special event for which it had been commissioned.

St Matthew Passion

St Matthew Passion, BWV 244

1729, Choral

This Passion is the account by St Matthew of Christ's crucifixion and resurrection, set for soloists, chorus and orchestra. The actual biblical text is treated as a drama, similar in style to that of an oratorio, with additional sections reflecting on the meaning of the biblical events interspersed in cantata style. The congregation is brought into the performance by means of chorales.

It is a solemn and majestic work, best heard live to appreciate fully its full and devotional sound.

Sleepers Awake

Sleepers Awake (Cantata 140)

1731, Choral

Like most of Bach's work, this is a cantata written as part of a church service. About twenty minutes long, it contrasts solo arias with full choral sections and is an inspiration even to non-Christians.

Mass in B Minor – 'Gloria'

Mass in B Minor, BWV 232: 'Gloria'

1733, Choral

Some say that this Mass is Bach's supreme achievement in church music, the pinnacle of his art, and it is indeed a fine and powerful choral work. Written in 1733, it is an enormous setting of the Latin Mass treated in the manner of a Passion, with solos, ensembles and choruses.

Goldberg Variations

Goldberg Variations, BWV 988

1742, Keyboard Works

The Goldberg Variations is the usual name given to a set of thirty variations on an original theme which Bach wrote for the double-keyboard harpsichord in 1742.

Interestingly, they were commissioned from Bach by one of his pupils, one J. G. Goldberg, whose noble patron needed music as a cure for insomnia.