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Johann Sebastian Bach

1685 - 1750

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

(b. Eisenach, March 21, 1685; d. Leipzig, July 28, 1750)

GERMAN COMPOSER AND ORGANIST whose music, in every genre but opera, spectacularly crowned the Baroque era. The most intellectual of his remarkable family— the male descendants of Hans Bach, who had served as professional musicians in Thuringia for three generations prior to his birth—he was not only the greatest composer of the Baroque era but the leading organist of his generation and an accomplished violinist and violist as well. From youth onward he undertook a self-directed and systematic exploration of the major musical genres and styles of his day, focusing first on the keyboard, then on the broader realms of concerted vocal and instrumental music. Along the way he set himself a remarkable series of formal and aesthetic challenges and synthesized a unique personal style.

Bach received what was for the time a thorough humanistic education. After completing his studies in Luneburg he was employed as a "lackey" at the ducal court in Weimar (1703) and as an organist in Arnstadt (1703-07). In 1705 he made a pilgrimage to Liibeck to hear Buxtehude, the greatest organist of the day and a composer whose music was to have a profound effect on his own. Inspired by what he heard there, he composed some of his greatest pieces for organ (among them the monumental Passacaglia in С minor, BWV 582)  during his remaining years in Arnstadt.

His next post as organist was in Muhlhausen (1707-08); after that, he served as court organist and chamber musician (and from 1714 court con-certmaster as well) in Weimar (1708-17). Bach subsequently spent six productive years as Kapellmeister at the court of Cothen (1717-23), where his young patron, Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cothen, a fine musician himself, enthusiastically supported his efforts. One of the ongoing concerns of Bach scholarship has been the question of what Bach composed prior to, and during, his time at Cothen. In recent years compelling evidence has been marshaled in support of the claim that the original versions of all six of the works which in 1721 became the Brandenburg Concertos, Bach's matchless contribution to the genre of the concerto grosso, predate his Cothen appointment. That is certainly the case in the middle movement of Concerto No. 6, where the two solo violas answer each other in an imitative pattern and eventually intertwine. If it now appears that Bach was a better and more prolific composer earlier than had previously been thought, it also appears that more than 200 of his compositions from the Cothen years, mainly chamber and orchestral works, may be lost.

In 1722, the death of Johann Kuhnau left vacant the position of Kantor at Leipzig's Thomaskirche, an important church and musical center. Of the six applicants for the job, Bach was neither the most famous nor the town council's first choice. But Georg Philipp Telemann could not obtain a release from his post in Hamburg, and Christoph Graupner was lured away by the city of Darmstadt. Bach was eventually offered thejob, and in 1723 he moved to Leipzig.

In an average week during his first five years in Leipzig, he was expected to compose a 30-minute cantata, supervise the copying of its parts, rehearse it, and perform it on Sunday at either the Thomaskirche or the Nicolaikirche; to furnish music as required for feast days and special events such as weddings and funerals; to attend the musical training of 50-plus boarding students at the Thomasschule (he balked, however, at the demand that he teach them Latin as well); and to oversee musical activities at the two smaller churches for which he was also responsible. Somewhere in the midst of this he found time to eat and sleep, to take a hand in his sons' musical education (four of them went on to become professional musicians), and to smoke his pipe, whose pleasures he once extolled in a poem of six stanzas.

He remained Kantor at the Thomaskirche until his death in 1750, composing three complete annual cycles of church cantatas, other sacred works—including a Magnificat, the St. Matthew Passion, and the Mass in В Minor—numerous secular cantatas, and a large amount of keyboard and instrumental music. The cantata cycles and the other great sacred works of his Leipzig years may well have been, as scholar Christoph Wolff has suggested, the means by which Bach sought to forge "an argument for the existence of God." During his final decade he completed the score of the Mass in В Minor, wrote the Goldberg Variations, and undertook two remarkable series of contrapuntal studies that summarized his knowledge of the art and theory of music: A Musical Offering and The Art of Fugue. With these speculative, large-scale, elaborately contrapuntal works he fittingly capped his own career and sounded the last, exquisite cry of the Baroque.

Bach was the consummate student and practitioner of musical science in the 18th century, much as Sir Isaac Newton, a generation and a half older than he, had been the consummate investigator of physical science. Both, by virtue of their innate genius and systematic approach to the phenomena that interested them, brought about revolutions in their fields of study. Newton's work became the foundation of modern science and Bach's the prototype for the organically conceived, highly structured "pure music" of the 19th and 20th centuries.The full panoply of musical style known to the late Baroque, from the rigorous imitative polyphony of the Renaissance to the breezy directness of Italian opera buffa, is recapped in Bach's works. His cantatas and large-scale sacred works make use of text-setting techniques absorbed from the Franco-Flemish composers of the 16th century, from 17th-century Italian sacred music, and from opera. His organ works respond to Italian and north-German influences, while hismusic for harpsichord is a brilliant amalgam of French and German elements. Bach's concertos have the grace and fluency of the finest Italian essays, with more contrapuntal density and melodic interest. His orchestral suites pay homage to the grandeur of the French style while surpassing the efforts of others (save Handel perhaps) in vitality; in the Suite No. 2 in В minor, BWV 1067, he even tips his hat in the concluding "Badinerie" to the emerging  galant

Bach cultivated virtuosity on a consistent basis, which has given his instrumental works an exceptional influence on works written subsequently, along with an enduring place in the repertoire. The sonatas and partitas for unaccompanied violin, the suites for unaccompanied cello, the sonatas for flute and harpsichord, the solo organ works, and the solo keyboard works including Das Wohltemperirte Clavier {The Well-Tempered Clavier) and Goldberg Variations are the foundation of the solo repertoire for these instruments. While the revival of interest in early music has brought the compositions of many of his predecessors back into circulation, the standard repertoire—instrumental, orchestral, and sacred—truly begins with Bach.

Nevertheless, for many years after his death the immensity of Bach's achievement as a composer remained hidden from posterity, even from the most knowledgeable and astute of his successors. Surprisingly little of his music was published during his lifetime, and the great works for which he is revered today existed only in manuscript or fair copies at the time of his death. Insiders like Mozart and Beethoven, who encountered Bach's music via these sources (or through contact with his students and sons), may have had an inkling of his greatness, but the public at large would begin to "discover" Bach only after a revival of interest in his music got under way early in the 19th century.


Bach passed on a technical mastery of keyboard playing and musical form to his sons, but was seen as out of fashion by the end of his life. Later revivals of his music, most notably by Mendelssohn, brought new interest in his compositional style and in Baroque counterpoint in general.

"The aim and final end of all music should be none other than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul."
                                                                                    Johann Sebastian Bach


Key Works

The Well Tempered Clavier, BWV 846-893, Book 1

Also known as the 48 Preludes and Fugues, the Well-Tempered Clavier represents a lifetime of work by Bach. The first collection of 24 preludes and fugues dates from 1722, while the second set of 24 was finished some twenty years later. Each prelude is a freely-composed work, exploring a particular musical idea without specified form. Conversely, fugues follow a stricter set of rules; the juxtaposition of the two adds both affective colour to the performance and a broader challenge to the performer. These may have been intended as technical exercises but if so they remain complex, elegant pieces, exploring
all areas of the harpsichord keyboard.

The Well Tempered Clavier, BWV 846-893, Book 2

Concerto for two violins in D minor, BWV1043

The Brandenburg Concertos, BWV 1046-1051

This set of six varied concertos was dedicated to Margrave Christoph Ludwig of Brandenburg in 1721. The works were shelved in the Margrave’s library and lay there unplayed. CONCERTO N0. 1 (20:00) In the first concerto Bach borrowed from his earlier “Hunt” Cantata, hence the prominent horn part. The last movement comprises a series of dances.
CONCERTO N0. 2 (11:15) The opening movement offers in quick succession the same solo phrase played by violin, oboe, recorder, and trumpet.
CONCERTO NO. 3 (11:00) The first and last movements are pure Italian-style string ensemble writing, while the second was notated by the composer as just a few unornamented chords.
CONCERTO NO. 4 (13:45) Bach combined a solo violin concerto with a concerto grosso, with the violin vying for attention with two recorders.
CONCERTO N0. 5 (19:35) The fifth concerto marks Bach’s first use of the transverse flute. The harpsichord plays a prominent role throughout.
CONCERTO N0. 6 (15:00)The final work of the collection features a string ensemble throughout.

Cello Suite No. 1 in G,  (Six Suites for Solo Cello)

Each of these cello suites has a prelude and five dance movements comprising a wide variety of styles. They are remarkably sophisticated and self-contained works, and form

the foundation of the solo cello repertoire.

Harpsichord Concerto No. 1 in D Minor

1. Allegro - 00:40
2. Adagio - 08:04
3. Allegro - 14:21

Musical Offering, BWV 1079

On Sunday 7 May, 1747 (so the story goes) Bach arrived at the royal court in Potsdam and was immediately summoned to the King’s presence. Frederick the Great was an avid musician himself and often played the flute alongside his court musicians (including Bach’s son Carl Philipp Emanuel). Frederick sat at the keyboard and played Bach the “royal theme”; Bach listened and then freely improvised a three-part fugue on the same theme. The next night Bach was invited back, but was challenged to provide a six-part fugue on the same theme, a daunting task. Bach demurred, instead improvising a six-part fugue on another theme, but subsequently wrote out a similar fugue on the king’s theme. He then elaborated a series of other pieces on the same theme including a full trio sonata for flute, violin and continuo, had the music bound and inscribed with an extended dedication, and presented to the delighted monarch.

Art of the Fugue

1 Contrapunctus I 
2 Contrapunctus II 
3 Contrapunctus III 
4 Contrapunctus IV

Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248 (Cantatas 1-3)

The Christmas Oratorio is properly a six-part cycle: six sacred cantatas to be performed on the three days of Christmas, New Year’s Day, the Sunday after the New Year and the Feast of the Epiphany. Much of the music is reworked from earlier secular cantatas which were written for the Collegium Musicum in Leipzig.

Goldberg Variations, BWV 988

As the story goes, during a trip to Dresden in 1741, Bach presented Count von Keyserlinck his Aria mit verschiedenen Veranderungen (Aria with Sundry Variations) for use by the resident harpsichordist in the Count’s household, oneJohann Gottlieb Goldberg. Goldberg had studied with Bach as well as with Bach’s eldest son Wilhelm Friedemann (then resident in Dresden). As Goldberg was only 14 in 1741, the story may well be apocryphal; if not, that Bach would present such a difficult work to such a young performer implies either great lalent on Goldberg’s part or great optimism on Bach’s. The variations were published as Part IV of Bach’s Glavier-Ubung (Keyboard Works) collection the next year. The 30 so-called Goldberg Variations (plus the aria and final reprise) are one of the most complex sets of theme and variations ever written. The “aria”, or main Iheme, is a sarabande in two sections; the theme, unusually, lies in the bass line. Each of the variations follows the same bass line and harmonic progression in some form, albeit often with additional notes interjected. Bach presents a surprising array of forms: gigue (No. 7), fugue (No. 10), French overture (No. 16), and of course a few flashy showpieces. As an added level of complexity, every third variation is a canon, written at increasingly broad intervals: in No. 3 the second part enters one bar later at the unison, in No. 6 the second part enters a major second up from the first entry, and so forth to the interval of a ninth in No. 27. The final variation is a quodlibet - a contrapuntal combination of two popular tunes, set above the main theme in the bass.

Mass in B Minor, BWV 232

The Mass in minor was an ongoing work; the Sanctus was written in 1724, while the Credo dates from near the end of his life. The Kyrie and Gloria are taken from a 1733 Mass dedicated to the Dresden court, and the last four movements are parody works, based on other music and added later.

St. Matthew Passion, BMV 244

The Lutheran oratorio passion, a sacred drama popular in Germany, already existed in the 17th century
as a mixture of Lutheran chorales, strophic arias, and choruses. By the next century, composers (including Bach) had added the flare of operatic recitative and aria to the genre. Bach wrote three Passions during his career: the St Matthew, the St John and the

St Mark, though of these the latter has largely been lost. The first two, however, remain favourites of the choral repertoire and are frequently performed in concert during the Easter season. The St Matthew Passion, for double chorus, double orchestra, two organs and soloists, is a grand work first performed on Good Friday 1727. The text is taken from the Gospel According to Matthew, chapters 26 and 27, with added recitative and aria texts by local poet Christian Friedrich Henrici. The narrative structure is thus: the Evangelist narrates the unfolding events as they occur in recitatives, with occasional lines of dialogue sung by soloists. Solos are also used for prayers and commentary on the story, as in the alto solo “Buss und Reu” (“Grief and Sin". The chorus sometimes take a direct participatory role, presenting dialogue by the crowds in the drama for example, and sometimes offer detached commentary or prayer, including the interjected chorales. While Bach never wrote an opera, the Passions are very much in the same theatrical vein.

PART ONE (68:001 The work opens with a prologue in which the chorus lament the events to come. The narrative proper begins in Bethany with Christ prophesying his own imminent crucifixion. The story then follows the Biblical story of Judas’s collusion with the Pharisees,Jesus’s appeals to God, and finally the betrayal and arrest. After each section of narrative a commentary is inserted in the form of a recitative and aria or a chorale.
PART TWO (92:00) After another Prologue, which bemoans the arrest of Jesus, the second part begins with the interrogation before Caiaphas, Peter’s denial, and the judgment by Pilate. Bach concludes the work withJesus’s crucifixion, death and entombment, and a final choral lament.

Violin Concerto in A minor, BWV 1041

Violin Concerto in E major BWV 1042

1 : Allegro
2 : Adagio
3 : Allegro assai

Concerto for 4 Harpsichords in A minor, BWV 1065

Orchestral Suite No. 2 in B minor, BWV 1067

I. Overture 00:00
II. Rondeau 06:36
III. Sarabande 08:48
IV. Bourrée 12:19
V. Polonaise 14:12
VI. Menuet 17:31
VII. Badinerie 18:56

Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D major, BWV 1068

Toccata and Fugue in D Minor

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

The Wender organ Bach played in Arnstadt

Johann Sebastian Bach monument in Eisenach, Germany

Partita No.2 in D minor BWV 1004 (including Chaconne)

Sonata No. 3 in C major BWV 1005

1. Adagio 0:00
2. Fuga 5:09
3. Largo 15:44
4. Allegro assai 18:58

Prelude and Fugue in C Major (BWV 547)

Great Fantasia and Fugue in G minor, BWV 542

English Suite No 3 BWV 808 G minor 

Prelude 0:00
Allemande 3:18
Courante 6:25
Sarabande 8:21
Gavotte I, Gavotte II 11:28
Gigue 14:43

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