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The Music of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750)

1908 Statue of Bach in front of the Thomaskirche in Leipzig

1908 Statue of Bach in front of the Thomaskirche in Leipzig

Who Was Johann Sebastian Bach?

Johann Sebastian Bach was a German composer, organist and conductor during the Baroque period of music. He was born in March of 1685 and died in July of 1750 and was the last child of a city musician in Eisenach.

Johann Sebastian came from a large musical family. His father, Johann Ambrosius Bach, was the director of the town musicians. It would be a good guess that he provided the young boy his early musical training. The first two instruments Joann Sebastian learned to play were the violin and harpsichord.

The Music of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750)

Both parents died when he was ten years old. He lived with his older brother Johann Christoph Bach for about five years. His brother taught him the clavichord and helped young Johann Sebastian develop his musical skills.

According to Wikipedia, “He was enrolled in the prestigious St. Michael’s School In Luneburg. His two years there were critical in exposing Bach to a wider range of European culture. Addition to singing in the choir, he played the School’s three-manual organ and harpsichords. He came into contact with sons of aristocrats from northern Germany, sent to the highly selective school to prepare for careers and other disciplines."

For the most part, Bach was self taught. Aside from getting the basics from his father and elder brother, he learned music by studying, copying and arranging compositions of such composers as: Vivaldi, Pachelbel and Palestrina.

St Thomas Church, Leipzig

St Thomas Church, Leipzig

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

The Baroque Period

Often referred to as being very extravagant, complex, and of bizarre tastes, the Baroque Period was brought about by the Catholic Church. This period was both a political and religious movement. During this time, there was a revolution of religion in Western Europe centered around grievances against the Catholic Church called the Protestant Reformation. This Protestant church revolutionized the Christian faith.

Bach was all about the church and dedicated his life and music to it. A great article to read on this subject is: "Characteristics of the Baroque Period." This article explores Art, Architecture, Sculpture as well as the Music of the time.

The Baroque Period in music was between the years of 1600 and 1750. Below is a chart that outlines the historical musical time line,

Western Art Music Chart

Name of PeriodDatesFeatured Composers

Early Medieval Period

500 - 1400

Perotin, Leonin, Machaut

Renaissance Period

1400 - 1600

J. Desprez, W. Byrd, C. Monteverdi

Baroque Period

1600 - 1750

J.S. Bach, Handel, Purcell, Telemann

Classical Period

1750 - 1825

Mozart, Beethoven,,Haydn

Romantic Period

1825 - 1900

Tchaikovsky, Wagner, Berlioz

Modern Period

1900 - Present

Schostakovich, Ives, Stravinsky

The Personality of J.S. Bach

There are many stories that will describe Bach’s personality. Every creative person, be it an artist, composer, actor, or painter, has a dark side to their personality. Johann Sebastian Bach was no exception. As a young person, he was rebellious, a bully, with thuggish, gang-like behavior. As he got older and religious education set in his personality gravitated to the church and his music.

Many stories have been written describing Bach’s employment as a church organist, music director, etc. These stories tell of his resistance to authority and one, in particular, had him jailed for one month because he went against church rules. Bach was a perfectionist and wasn’t patient with incompetence. As a teacher, he would not tolerate students wanting to take shortcuts.

The Music of Johann Sebastian Bach

In the eyes of most musicologists, Johann Sebastian Bach was a musical genius. He had such a mathematical disciplined mind that many found his music composition output simply amazing. With over 1000 compositions to his credit, Bach created in just about every style of the time. Below is a list of the various genres he composed music for.

Vocal Music

  • Cantatas
  • Motets
  • Masses
  • Magnificats
  • Passions
  • Oratorios
  • Four-part Chorales
  • Songs
  • Arias

His instrumental music includes

  • Concertos
  • Suites
  • Sonatas
  • Fugues
  • Specialty works were written for: Organ, Harpsichord, Lute, Flute, Violin, Cello, Chamber Ensemble, and Orchestra.

Bach's most famous compositions

  • Toccata and Fugue in D minor
  • The Brandenburg Concertos
  • The 48 Preludes and fugues "The Well-Tempered Clavier"
  • The Goldberg Variations
  • The Concerto for Two Violins
  • The B minor Mass
  • The St Matthew Passion
  • The 6 solo cello suites

The music of Johann Sebastian Bach fortified already set styles. His brilliant use of counterpoint, harmonization, and motivic development set him apart from other composers of the day. His use of other elements of music known as: Rhythm, Form, and Texture, set his style of writing far more complex than composers from other countries.

It's easy to play any musical instrument: all you have to do is touch the right key at the right time and the instrument will play itself.

Johann Sebastian Bach

Toccata and Fugue in D minor

The Toccata and Fugue in D minor is probably the most famous of all the pieces composed by Bach. It was written for organ and demanded a highly capable organist at the keys. Confusing stories as to when it was actually written, scholars have it being composed around the early 1700s. Bach was in his youth when he wrote it and a superb organist. It is a very demanding piece making it a challenge for any aspiring organist of the day.

Such a monumental composition regained importance and popularity in 1833 during a Bach Revival era, when composer Felix Mendelssohn performed the piece in an acclaimed concert in 1840.

The 20th century marked its popularity once again due for example to its inclusion in Walt Disney's Fantasia. Today, this composition considered to be the most famous work in the organ repertoire. Because of the challenging aspects of this piece, professional groups like the Canadian Brass transcribed the organ manuscript for 2 Trumpets, Horn, Trombone, and Tuba. Below is an amazing performance of the Toccata and Fugue in D minor arranged for Brass Quintet by the Canadian Brass.

Johann Sebastian Bach - The Musician!

If Bach was living today, he would be a “Rock Star“! If not that, he would probably be a leading jazz artist because of his incredible "improvisational skills." Don’t forget, he was learning the harpsichord, clavichord, and the organ at a very early age. He didn’t belong to a little league team. No computer, cell phone. He practiced day in and day out.

The church organ has traditionally been referred to as "the king of instruments" due to its ability to create many different colorful sounds. Also, the sheer power it has when played. One must have great musical skills to perform music written for the organ. Bach excelled at this instrument along with challenging future organists by composing extremely difficult pieces.

Bach had a good religious education and throughout his life dedicated his music to his religious beliefs. It might be said that his early compositions improved his playing ability. It also meant that as he became a better musician so did his music. There wasn’t a piece of music that Bach wrote that he couldn’t play. To get a better idea of what a good musician he was, listen to Bach’s “Toccata an Fugue" below.

J.S. Bach, Gigue Fugue BWV 577 - Diane Bish

The Gigue Fugue in G Major BWV 577 was written for organ in 1707. This great Bach composition will amaze anyone not familiar with organ music. It is fun to listen to and even more captivating to watch in a video.

Diane Bish is a professional organist who plays this extremely difficult piece flawlessly. Please watch the video below and observe the control of the organ she exhibits as she performs this "jig" or "dance" composition in a lively tempo.

This composition requires the player to uses two hands and two feet. As Diane gets into the lower voices of the fugue, watch her feet “dance” on the peddles again, flawlessly.

A Fugue is a contrapuntal composition in two or more voices, built on a subject or theme. This subject is introduced at the beginning and recurs frequently in the course of the composition. Bach was a master of the genre and has many fugal compositions to his credits.

Please watch the video below and enjoy this wonderful dance number written over three hundred years ago.

Influences on the 20th Century

As mentioned earlier, the music of Bach was studied by composers of his day as well as every composer since. In fact, a student at any college or university seeking a degree in music must complete four semesters of music theory. Most of this study centers around the part-writing harmonic rules set forth by Johann Sebastian Bach.

Many musical artists performed and recorded Bach's music in the 20th century. One of the most popular vocal groups of the 1960s and '70s was the Swingle Singers. The uniqueness of this very talented group was their modern adaptation of Bach's music through the Jazz idiom.

Another artist who helped support the Bach name was Wendy Carlos. In 1968 Switched on Bach came out and received great reviews for the artistic treatment of many Bach compositions played on the Moog electronic synthesizer. It would be interesting to know if Bach would approve of the many treatments artists have taken with his music. Keeping with this theme, this author believes that this next artist would not be a fan of Bach.

P. D. Q. Bach is a composer created by musical satirist “Professor” Peter Schickele. Schickele made a career out of creating this fictitious child of Baroque composer Johann Sebastian Bach.

Johann Sebastian Bach had 20 children, four of whom became notable composers. The name “P. D. Q.” is a parody of the three-part names given to some members of the Bach children. The names were reduced to initials, such as C. P. E., for Carl Emanuel Bach. Thus, the name P.D.Q. Bach, the PDQ stands for “pretty damn quick."

Below are a few CDs of the Swingle Singers and PDQ Bach that you can add to your music library. There is also a sample below of the vocal style of the Swingle Singers performing a most difficult Fugue by Bach.

Fuga in REm da L'Arte della Fuga BWV 1080 (1963)

In Closing

If we take anything from this article, let us remember that history builds off the past. The Music of Johann Sebastian is a great example of this. Because of this great composer, we can thank him for the standards in music composition he set. I hope that you were able to listen listen to the examples provided here and that you have a better understanding and appreciation of the greatest composer of all time.

Please send me a comment and let me know what you think.

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This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2019 Reginald Thomas