Johann Sebastian Bach, 1685-1750


Selected Recordings

Double Concerto in D minor

Brandenburg Concertos

The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I

Selected Sheet Music

Aus der Tiefer rufe ich (Cantata #131)

Showcase Piece

Cantata: Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben

Notes and Commentary

“Practically all of those who were his superiors at the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, and most of those who attended the services there regularly, had little idea that their cantor, Johann Sebastian Bach, was one of music’s elect.”—David Ewen, The Complete Book of Classical Music

“A titan on Western Art.”—Phil GouldingClassical Music

Johann Sebastian Bach was a German composer, organist, harpsichordist, violist, and violinist of the Baroque period. He enriched many established German styles through his skill in counterpoint, harmonic 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 Mass in B minor, the The Well-Tempered Clavier, his cantatas, chorales, partitas, Passions, and organ works. His music is revered for its intellectual depth, technical command, and artistic beauty.

Bach was born in Eisenach, Saxe-Eisenach, into a very musical family; his father, Johann Ambrosius Bach was the director of the town musicians, and all of his uncles were professional musicians. His father taught him to play violin and harpsichord, and his brother, Johann Christoph Bach, taught him the clavichord and exposed him to much contemporary music. Bach also went to St Michael’s School in Lüneburg because of his singing skills. After graduating, he held several musical posts across Germany: he served as Kapellmeister (director of music) to Leopold, Prince of Anhalt-Köthen, Cantor of Thomasschule in Leipzig, and Royal Court Composer to August III.

Bach’s abilities as an organist were highly respected throughout Europe during his lifetime, although he was not widely recognised as a great composer until a revival of interest and performances of his music in the first half of the 19th century. He is now generally regarded as one of the main composers of the Baroque period, and as one of the greatest composers of all time. He lived from (31 March 31, 1685, to July 28, 1750.—Excerpted from Wikipedia

Was Bach’s son J.C. Bach sometimes referred to as “The English Bach?” That’s open to debate.

Books and Music

Selected Books
Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician
W.W. Norton & Co., 2001
Christoph Wolff
$16.63 on Amazon


“A magisterial biographical portrait . . . necessarily learned, but also user-friendly, helpful and entertainingly informative.”—Chicago Tribune

The New Bach Reader
W.W. Norton & Co., 1999
Christoph Wolff, Arthur Mendel, and Hans David (eds.)
$18.45 on Amazon


“This book is essential for anyone wanting to understand the life and work of J. S. Bach. It provides wonderful insights about the man through his own documents and writings by those who knew and worked with him. He comes across as an amazingly hard working genius with a quick temper and absolute focus.”—Craig Matteson on Amazon

The Cello Suites
Grove Press, 2011
Eric Siblin
$12.87 on Amazon


“I fell in love with this book both for the caliber of the writing and the subject matter. Because Siblin doesn’t stick rigidly to discussing Bach and the cello suites themselves, he doesn’t get bogged down in the kind of musicological detail that would lose him part of his audience. What appealed to me most is that it’s the kind of book that at its heart addresses the enduring impact of great art.”—S. McGee on Amazon

Selected Music

brandenburg 6 Brandenburg Concertos / 4 Orchestral Suites (1989), 3-CD set

goldberg Goldberg Variations (2000), 1 CD

fugue The Art of Fugue (2003), 1 CD

Complete Works

Bach composed hundreds of works during his lifetime, too many to list here. For a complete list of his wok, broken up by catgory, go to the J.S. Bach home page. The following information is excerpted from Wikipedia.

His work is generally broken into organ and other keyboard works, orchestral and chamber music, and vocal and choral works, which are in turn broken into his cantatas and Passions, and his major choral work, Mass in B Minor.

Among his noteworthy organ works are Toccata and Fugue in D minor and Concerto No. 1 in D Major. His well-known keyboard works are The Well-Tempered Clavier, his English and French Suites, and his Goldberg Variations.

Orchestral and chamber music
Bach wrote for single instruments, duets, and small ensembles. Many of his solo works, such as his six sonatas and partitas for violin, six cello suites, and Partita for solo flute, are widely considered among the most profound works in the repertoire. Bach composed a suite and several other works for solo lute. He wrote trio sonatas; solo sonatas (accompanied by continuo) for the flute and for the viola da gamba; and a large number of canons and ricercare, mostly with unspecified instrumentation. The most significant examples of the latter are contained in The Art of Fugue and The Musical Offering.

Bach’s best-known orchestral works are the Brandenburg Concertos, so named because he submitted them in the hope of gaining employment from Margrave Christian Ludwig of Brandenburg-Schwedt in 1721; his application was unsuccessful. These works are examples of the concerto grosso genre. Other surviving works in the concerto form include two violin concertos; a Concerto for Two Violins in D Minor, often referred to as Bach’s “double” concerto; and concertos for one to four harpsichords. It is widely accepted that many of the harpsichord concertos were not original works, but arrangements of his concertos for other instruments now lost. A number of violin, oboe and flute concertos have been reconstructed from these. In addition to concertos, Bach wrote four orchestral suites, and a series of stylised dances for orchestra, each preceded by a French overture.

Vocal and choral works
As the Thomaskantor, beginning mid of 1723, Bach performed a cantata each Sunday and feast day that corresponded to the lectionary readings of the week. Although Bach performed cantatas by other composers, he composed at least three entire annual cycles of cantatas at Leipzig, in addition to those composed at Mühlhausen and Weimar. In total he wrote more than 300 sacred cantatas, of which approximately 200 survive.

His cantatas vary greatly in form and instrumentation, including those for solo singers, single choruses, small instrumental groups, or grand orchestras. Many consist of a large opening chorus followed by one or more recitative-aria pairs for soloists (or duets) and a concluding chorale. The recitative is part of the corresponding Bible reading for the week and the aria is a contemporary reflection on it. The melody of the concluding chorale often appears as a cantus firmus in the opening movement. Among his best known cantatas are:

  • Christ lag in Todes Banden
  • Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis
  • Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott
  • Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit
  • Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme
  • Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben

In addition, Bach wrote a number of secular cantatas, usually for civic events such as council inaugurations. These include wedding cantatas, the Wedding Quodlibet, the Peasant Cantata and the Coffee Cantata.

Bach’s large choral-orchestral works include the grand scale St Matthew Passion and St John Passion, both written for Good Friday vespers services at the Thomaskirche and the Nikolaikirche in alternate years, and the Christmas Oratorio (a set of six cantatas for use in the Liturgical season of Christmas). The two versions of the Magnificat (one in E-flat major, with four interpolated Christmas-related movements, and the later and better-known version in D major), the Easter Oratorio, and the Ascension Oratorio are smaller and simpler than the Passions and the Christmas Oratorio.

Mass in B minor
Bach assembled his other large work, the Mass in B minor, near the end of his life, mostly from pieces composed earlier (such as the cantatas Gloria in excelsis Deo, and Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen). The mass was never performed in full during Bach’s lifetime. All of these movements, unlike the six motets (Singet dem Herrn ein neues LiedDer Geist hilft unsrer Schwachheit aufJesu, meine FreudeFürchte dich nichtKomm, Jesu, komm!; and Lobet den Herrn alle Heiden), have substantial solo parts as well as choruses.

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