Johann Sebastian Bach
German baroque musical composer

1685 - 1750

Johann Sebastian Bach, a German composer, is considered the greatest genius of baroque music. A highly complex and dramatic style, baroque music reached its peak in the early 1700's. Like most art of the baroque period, baroque music emphasized continual motion. In his compositions, Bach brought such musical techniques as counterpoint and fugue to their greatest heights. Counterpoint is the playing of two or more melodies at one time. Fugue is a composition in which different instruments repeat the same melody with slight variations.

Bach's career is one of the wonders of music. In addition to supporting a large family and fulfilling his many duties as a musician and conductor, he wrote hundreds of compositions, including nearly 300 religious and nonreligious choral works called cantatas.

Bach was born in Eisenach, Germany, on March 21, 1685. His parents died before he was 10. He then lived with his older brother, who taught him to play the clavichord and harpsichord. Young Bach studied music until 1703, when he joined an orchestra at Weimar as a violinist. He then became an organist, first at the New Church in Arnstadt from 1703 to 1707, and then at the Church of St. Blaise at Muhlhausen in 1707 and 1708. In 1707, he married his cousin Maria Barbara. They had seven children before she died in 1720. Four of his sons also had distinguished careers as composers: Wilhelm Friedemann (1710-1784), Carl Philipp Emanuel (1714-1788), Johann Christoph Friedrich (1732-1795), and Johann Christian (1735-1782).

Bach apparently was a devoted father, but outside the home he could be short-tempered when faced with incompetence or opposition. In both Arnstadt and Muhlhausen he quarreled with his employers, and he was happy to return to Weimar in 1708.

Bach worked in the court of the Duke of Saxe-Weimar for nine years as court organist and chamber musician. His duties included composing music for religious services and he wrote many church cantatas. He also wrote some of his finest organ works there. But Bach quarreled with the duke and left the court in 1717. From 1717 to 1723, he served Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cothen as director of music. The religious services at this court were simple, and did not require much music. Therefore, Bach could devote himself to composing nonreligious instrumental music.

In 1721, Bach married Anna Magdalena Wilcken, a professional singer. They had 13 children. Bach moved to Leipzig in 1723 and spent the rest of his life there. He became the director of music for St. Thomas's School, which provided music for churches in the city. About 1740, he developed serious eye trouble, and in his last years he was nearly blind. He died of a stroke in 1750.

Bach was a devout Lutheran, and his religious feeling is reflected in his works. With many other baroque composers, he felt almost everything people do and believe is religious. Many of these composers felt baroque music and art helped protect people against the advance of doubt bred by the Renaissance ideas of scientific, rational inquiry. Bach often wrote I.N.J., for the Latin words meaning In the Name of Jesus, on the manuscripts of even his nonreligious works.

The people of Bach's time appreciated him as an organist, but generally ignored his compositions. His complete works fill about 60 volumes, but only 9 or 10 of his compositions were published during his lifetime. The people of his time considered his complex baroque compositions too elaborate. Instead, they preferred a simpler, more lively style. His reputation as a composer was not firmly established until 1829, when the German composer Felix Mendelssohn revived his Passion According to St. Matthew.

Bach did not concern himself with writing much on musical theory, and did not experiment with or originate new forms. He composed in almost all of the musical forms of his day except opera. His skill covered the widest range of musical combinations--dramatic and intimate, and from the most complex counterpoint to the simplest chords. He always tried to convey meaning and avoid mere showiness. He used a kind of musical shorthand in his works, in which the chords formed from the bass part were indicated by figures. This is called figured bass or, in Italian, basso continuo.

Bach carefully based each movement of his work on a characteristic mood such as joy, and tended to maintain the mood more consistently than later composers, including Beethoven. Bach's love of counterpoint influenced the most simple and most complex of his pieces. He frequently restated a melody by imitation, repeating it in a higher or lower voice than in the original melody. Bach also used a constant unit of rhythm through a given movement. His works mixed the national music styles of his day, chiefly French, Italian, British, and German.

Bach was convinced that through his music he could serve his church, his community, his principality, or his patron. As a result, his works not only provided enjoyment for listeners, but they also had instructional value for the musicians who performed them. The choirs that performed his works were small, usually about 12 people, some of whom sang solo parts. The instrumental ensembles he used were also small. Thus Bach concentrated on creating a sense of spiritual, rather than physical, bigness.

Bach's work can be divided into five periods. Each has special characteristics that resulted in part from his duties in the musical post he filled.

The First Period (1703-1708) consists of works written in Arnstadt and Muhlhausen. These somewhat loosely organized works show the influence of the composer Dietrich Buxtehude. Bach's cantata Gottes Zeit, intended to be performed at funerals, is a strong, expressive work of this period.

The Second Period (1708-1717) consists of works composed at Weimar. There, Bach wrote many brilliant organ works and several cantatas in the northern European style. But some of his works reflect the concentrated clarity of the Italian style. Bach's famous Toccata and Fugue in D minor was written during this period.

The Third Period (1717-1723) consists of works written at Anhalt-Cothen. Most are instrumental compositions, written for solo or ensemble (group) performance. Bach completed Book I of the Well-Tempered Clavier in 1722. Book I and Book II (completed in 1744) each have 24 preludes and fugues, written in each of the 12 major and 12 minor keys. He incorporated more Lutheran hymns into his works, as in the set of organ chorale preludes called the Little Organ Book.

Bach completed the six Brandenburg Concertos in 1721, and dedicated them to the ruler of the province of Brandenburg. He also wrote four Orchestral Suites, or Overtures, six sonatas and partitas for solo violin, and six suites for solo cello. He wrote French Suites for the harpsichord. His arrangements of his own or Italian composer Antonio Vivaldi's solo violin concertos for keyboard instead of violin with orchestra show his growing ability to use counterpoint to increase the substance and texture of such works.

The Fourth Period (1723-1745) consists of works written at Leipzig. These are principally works for chorus and orchestra, but also include significant collections of solo instrumental works. His cantatas of this period show more organization than his earlier works.

Bach's great sense of telling a story dramatically without stage properties or settings is demonstrated in the form and imaginative breadth of The Passion According to St. John (1723) and The Passion According to St. Matthew (1729). In these, Bach relied on a narrative story more than he did in his sacred cantatas. Even the Christmas Oratorio, a series of six cantatas written in 1734, is more a series of Christmas meditations than a narration of the Christmas story. Bach's secular cantatas, including the Coffee Cantata, depended more on plot narration than did the religious cantatas. Bach often illustrated episodes by using melodies or chords to describe an event like the crowing of a cock or a physical or spiritual occurrence like an ascent into heaven.

Bach's Mass in B minor adapted certain operalike forms to religious purposes, expressing a universal idea of Christianity. A close relationship between worship and musical study also can be seen in Bach's Keyboard Practice, which includes his Concerto in the Italian Style; the monumental Aria with 30 Variations, known as the Goldberg Variations; and six partitas for harpsichord.

Bach showed astonishing ability to carry to maturity compositional types he treated in his earlier years. He composed the Mass in B minor about 15 years after he wrote the splendid Magnificat (1723). Book II of the Well-Tempered Clavier presented in a less unified form the systematic succession of keys found in Book I. He also composed his concertos for one, two, three, or four harpsichords during this period. Most of these works are arrangements of earlier concertos for melody instruments with orchestral accompaniment.

The Fifth Period consists of works from Bach's last five years. These display strong unity of organization and were usually based on one melody. The major works include Canonic Variations on a chorale "Von Himmel hoch," Musical Offering, and The Art of Fugue. This last work, left unfinished, contains 18 individual sections arranged in progressively greater complexity, but all based on one melodic line.

Contributor: Darrell Matthews Berg, Ph.D., Visiting Associate Prof. of Music, Washington Univ.

Additional resources

Felix, Werner. Johann Sebastian Bach. Norton, 1985.

Wolff, Christoph. Bach: Essays on His Life and Music. Harvard Univ. Pr., 1991.


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