Skip to main content Skip to Search Box
Summary Article: Bach, Johann Sebastian
from The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

German composer. A master of counterpoint, his music represents the final stage of the baroque polyphonic style. His orchestral music includes the six Brandenburg Concertos (1721), other concertos for keyboard instrument and violin, four orchestral suites, sonatas for various instruments, three partitas and three sonatas for violin solo, and six unaccompanied cello suites. Bach's keyboard music, for clavier and organ, his fugues, and his choral music are of equal importance.

His appointments included positions at the courts of Weimar and Anhalt-Cöthen, and from 1723 until his death he was musical director at St Thomas's choir school in Leipzig.

He married twice and had over 20 children (although several died in infancy). His second wife, Anna Magdalena Wilcken, was a soprano; she also worked for him when his sight failed in later years.

Although he was not always appreciated by other musicians of his day, Bach's place in music history was aptly summed up by his first major biographer, Johann Nikolaus Forkel (1749–1818), in his book Über Johann Sebastian Bachs Leben, Kunst, und Kunstwerke (1802; English translation 1820 and 1920): ‘He is the river, to which all other composers are tributaries’.

Born at Eisenach, Thuringia, Bach came from a musical family. After his father's death in 1695 he went to Ohrdruf and studied under his brother Johann Christoph. At 15 he became a chorister at Lüneburg, and at 19 he was appointed violinist in the court orchestra of the Duke of Weimar, but left the same year to become organist in Arnstadt. In 1705 he took leave to travel to Lübeck, to hear Dietrich Buxtehude play the organ.

In 1707 he moved to Mühlhausen, where he married his cousin Maria Barbara Bach; among their seven children were Wilhelm Friedemann and Carl Philip Emanuel. A year later he returned to Weimar as court organist, and remained there for nine years; during this time he wrote such famous cantatas as Christ lag in Todesbanden, Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen, and Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis.

In 1717 Bach was appointed Kapellmeister (director) to the court of Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen. His wife died in 1720, and he married Anna Magdalena Wilcken in 1721. They had 13 children together. At Cöthen Bach had little opportunity for composing church music and there he wrote mainly instrumental works, including the Brandenburg Concertos, Orchestral Suites, and works for solo cello and violin. In these works instrumental music seems for the first time to emerge from private use into the public domain.

In 1723 he returned to church work when he succeeded Johann Kühnau as cantor of St Thomas's in Leipzig. He remained there for the rest of his life and wrote some of his greatest compositions there, including the B minor Mass, St Matthew Passion, and Goldberg Variations. In 1747, with his eldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann, he visited the court of Frederick the Great at Potsdam, where his second son, Carl Philip Emanuel, was court harpsichordist. Two years later his eyesight failed; an operation in 1750 was unsuccessful, and he spent his last months totally blind.

Although Bach did not make huge changes to musical forms, he invested contemporary models with a unique brand of creative polyphony and intense spirituality: all his works were dedicated ‘To the Greater Glory of God’.

WorksChurch cantatas 200 are extant. Among those most frequently performed are: no. 12 Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen (1714), no. 20 O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort (1724), no. 21 Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis (about 1714), no. 51 Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen (1730), no. 56 Ich will den Kreuzstab gerne tragen (1726), no. 61 Nun komm der Heiden Heiland (1714), no. 80 Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott (1724), no. 82 Ich habe genug (1727), no. 106 Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit (about 1707), no. 140 Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme (1731), no. 147 Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben (1723).

Secular cantatas no. 202 Weichet nur, betrübte Schatten (about 1720), no. 211 Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht/Coffee Cantata (1734).

Other church music Mass in B minor, BWV 232, assembled about 1748 from previously composed music; Magnificat in E flat, BWV 243 (1723, including four Christmas texts; revised about 1730, in D, without Christmas texts); St Matthew Passion (1729); St John Passion (1724, later revised); Christmas Oratorio, six cantatas for Christmas to Epiphany (performed 1734–35) BWV 248; six motets BWV 225–30; Easter Oratorio (1725) BWV 249.

Organ 19 preludes and fugues, including E♭, (‘St Anne’, 1739) BWV 548; six trio sonatas BWV 525–530; Toccata and Fugue in D minor (‘Dorian’) BWV 538 and D minor BWV 565 (now doubtful); Fantasia and Fugue in C minor BWV 562 and G minor BWV 542; Toccata, Adagio, and Fugue in C BWV 564; Passacaglia in C minor BWV 582; Pastorale in F BWV 590 (about 1710); 134 chorale preludes BWV 599–768, some of the best known being An Wasserflüssen Babylon BWV 653, Ein feste Burg BWV 720, In dulci jubilo BWV 729, Jesu, meine Freude BWV 713, Vom Himmel hoch BWV 700, Wachet auf BWV 645.

Other keyboardThe Well-tempered Clavier, Books 1 (1722) and 2 (about 1740), 24 preludes and fugues in each, BWV 846–893; Capriccio in B♭, on the departure of a beloved brother BWV 992; Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue in D minor BWV 903 (1720); six English Suites BWV 806–811; six French Suites BWV 812–817; Goldberg Variations BWV 988; 15 Inventions BWV 772–786; 15 Sinfonias BWV 787–801; Italian Concerto BWV 971; six partitas BWV 825–830; seven toccatas BWV 910–916.

Chamber three Partitas for solo violin, in B minor, D minor, and E, and three Sonatas for solo violin, in G minor, A minor, and C BWV 1001–1006 (about 1720); six Sonatas for violin and harpsichord BWV 1014–1019; six Suites for solo cello BWV 1007–1012 (about 1720); three Sonatas for viola da gamba and clavier BWV 1027–1029 (about 1720); Partita in A minor for solo flute BWV 1013 (early 1720s); The Musical Offering BWV 1079 (1747) for flute, violin, and continuo; The Art of Fugue BWV 1080 (about 1745–50; published 1751), for keyboard.

Orchestral concertos, six Brandenburg, in F, F, G, G, D, and B♭ BWV 1046–1051 (1721), for violin in A minor and E, for two violins in D minor, for flute, violin, and harpsichord in A minor, seven for harpsichord and strings BWV 1052–1058, three for two harpsichords, two for three, and one for four; four orchestral suites in C, B minor, D, and D BWV 1066–1069.

quotations

Bach, Johann Sebastian

essays

Music Through Time: Baroque music

Johann Sebastian Bach

didyouknows

Bach, Johann Sebastian

weblinks

Bach Bibliography

images

Bach Museum

audios

Bach, J S Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue, Fantasia

Bach, J S Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue, Fugue

Bach J S Concerto for in D minor for Two Violins

Bach, J S Dorian Toccata

Bach, J S Fifth Brandenburg Concerto

Bach, J S Fourth Brandenburg Concerto, Allegro

Bach, J S Partita

Bach, J S: St John Passion

Bach, J S Toccata and Fugue in D Minor

© RM, 2018. All rights reserved.

Related Articles


Full text Article Bach, Johann Sebastian (21 Mar. 1685, Eisenach - 28 July 1750, Leipzig)
The Harvard Biographical Dictionary of Music

His father, Johann Ambrosius Bach, served as Stadtpfeifer in Arnstadt, as violinist in Erfurt, and (from 1671) as...

Full text Article Bach, Johann Sebastian
Philip's Encyclopedia

1685-1750 Prolific German baroque composer. He held a series of successive court positions as organist and music director and had 20...

Full text Article Bach, Johann Sebastian (1685 - 1750)
The Macmillan Encyclopedia

German composer and keyboard player, the greatest member of a large musical family. An orphan from the age of nine, he was brought...

See more from Credo