Johann Sebastian Bach

Johann Sebastian Bach

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.


Early Life
Arnstadt: 1703-1707
Mühlhausen: 1707-1708
Weimar: 1708-1717
Köthen: 1717-1723
Leipzig: 1723-1750


Oratorios and Passions
Magnificat and B-Minor Mass
Organ Works
Clavier Works
Works for Solo Instruments

Works for Instrumental Ensembls
Musical Offering, Canonic Variations, Art of Fugue
Method of Composing


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 Bachs 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.

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