Johann Sebastian Bach


Johann Sebastian Bach (Johann Sebastian Bach, Eisenach, 2131 March 1685 – Leipzig, 28 July 1750) was a German composer, orchestra conductor, music educator and performer (organist, cellist, violinist and violinist) of the Baroque period.

He was undoubtedly the greatest composer of this period, as well as one of the greatest in the history of Western art music. His more than 1000 works that have survived to the present day bear all the characteristics of the Baroque period, which he elevates to perfection. Although he does not introduce any new musical form, he enriches the German musical style of the period with a strong and impressive anti-static technique, a seemingly effortless control of harmonic and motif organization, and the adaptation of rhythms and styles from other countries, especially Italy and France. His music is characterized by technical excellence, an arhythmic background and, above all, high spirituality.

His works cover a wide range of both instrumental (works for harpsichord, organ, concertos) and vocal music (oratorios, liturgies, passions, cantatas, etc.). Typical works of Bach”s can be mentioned: the Toccata and Fugue in D minor, the Mass in B minor, the St. Matthew Passion, the Brandenburg Concertos, the Well-Tempered Clavier and the Art of the Fugue.

In Eisenach (1685-1695)

Johann Sebastian was the son of Johann Ambrosius (1645-95) and Maria Elisabeth Lemmerhirt (1644-94). He was the youngest of a total of eight children in the family (six boys and two girls), of whom three (two boys and one girl) died in infancy. His father”s family home on Lutherstrasse (then known as Fleischgasse) had been purchased by his father in 1674 after he became a citizen of Eisenach and is not identical with the present-day museum called Bach House (Bachhaus), located on Frauenplan Street. His date of birth, 21 March 1685, is documented both by Johann Gottfried Walter”s entry in the Musikalisches Lexicon, and by Johann Sebastian himself in his family genealogy, and by his son in the obituary he wrote for his father. His baptism took place on 23 March with godfathers Sebastian Nagel, a musician from the Thuringian province of Gota, and Johann Georg Koch, a forester, from whom he took his name. The name Johann Sebastian was later given to two other members of the family: his brother”s son Johann Christoph, who was baptised by Johann Sebastian but died at the age of two, and his grandson, son of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, who excelled in painting. Throughout life he remained faithful to his connection with his native town, Eisenach, the only town, moreover, of which he was officially a citizen. He later called himself, with great pride, ”Johann Sebastian Bach Isenacus” or ”Isenacus”, or ”ISBI” for short.

Before settling in Eisenach in 1671 to work as the city”s musical director (Hausmann), Johann Ambrose Bach was a musician in Arnstadt and a violinist in his hometown of Erfurt. With a population of about eighteen thousand, Erfurt was then the largest city in Thuringia and at the same time the historical, commercial and cultural centre of the region. An important factor in his appointment to Eisenach seems to have been the presence there of his cousin Johann Christoph Bach, who was working as an organist in the historic Georgenkirche and at the court of the Duke of Eisenach. The Bach family had already made a major contribution to the musical life of Thuringia, so much so that the name Bach had become synonymous with the musician and, by 1793, the town”s musicians (Stadtpfeifer) were called “Bach”, despite the fact that no one in the town carried the family name any longer. When in 1693 a vacancy occurred at the church court of Arnstadt, the local count emphatically requested that ”a Bach” be sent to him. Bach was certainly aware of the family”s long musical tradition and felt proud of it, as can be seen from his valuable Genealogy (Ursprung der musikalisch-Bachischen Familie), written in 1735 and later brought to light by his son, Karl Philipp Emanuel. According to it, the roots of the family go back six generations to Feith (or Vitus) Bach, a baker originally from Pressburg (now Bratislava), which at the time was the capital of the Kingdom of Hungary. During the period of the Counter-Reformation, refusing to renounce his religious beliefs, Vitus Bach chose to settle in Thuringia and, more specifically, in the small village of Vechmar in the province of Gota, where he probably had relatives. Vitus Bach enjoyed playing the zither, which he even took with him to the mill where he worked. He probably had two sons, one of whom was Johannes Bach who worked as a musician.

Little is known with certainty about Johann Sebastian Bach”s childhood until 1693. In Eisenach, as in many other regions, schooling was compulsory for all children between the ages of five and twelve, and parents were free to choose between eight German schools and the Latin school (Lateinschule). German schools followed a specific circular curriculum, focusing on religion, grammar and arithmetic. Although they did not usually keep records of the students, we know that one of Eisenach”s German schools was located on Fleischgasse, so it is very likely that Bach attended there from the age of five to seven. At the age of eight he was enrolled in the fifth class of the Latin School, whose circular curriculum gave a foundation in religious and Latin, but also included arithmetic and history and, at a higher level, Greek, Hebrew, philosophy, logic and rhetoric. He attended the fifth grade for two years (1692-4), as was customary at the time, ranking 47th in the first year and 14th in the second year, out of a total of 90 students. In the fourth year (1694-5) he ranked 23rd out of 64 students, having 103 absences, probably due to illness, but also to the fact that he lost his parents. His performance was better than that of his brother Jacob, who was ranked two places lower, although he was three years older and had fewer absences.

He received his first musical education in music theory and the basics of stringed instruments from his father. Johann Ambrosius” cousin Christoph Bach, Johann Ambrosius” cousin, Christoph Bach, with whom the young Sebastian must have come into contact in Georgenkirche in Eisenach, probably also contributed. Even at this young age, he was probably already able to appreciate the abilities of Christoph, whom he would later in his genealogy describe as a “profound” composer. Undoubtedly, Bach must also have learned a great deal from Andreas Christian Dedekind, the leader of the school choir (chorus musicus) of the Latin School, in which Bach participated as a pupil. The young Sebastian even had an excellent soprano voice and, later, must have excelled as a soloist. The repertoire of the school choir at Eisenach included a cappella music of the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries by such great composers as Walter, Zenfl, Josquin, Aubrecht, Michael Pretorius, Schein, etc. From his uncle, Johann Christoph Bach, he gained his first impressions of the organ, which Bach immersed himself in and later became the performer most famous for his virtuosity. However, he received his first regular keyboard lessons quite a bit later at Ordruf. It is a fact that he grew up in a thoroughly musical environment. The researcher of his life and work, Christoph Wolff, says that, “because of the strong ties and regular family gatherings, he and his brothers were integrated in a very natural way into the extended family of professional musicians, much as the children of a craftsman learn to become familiar with tools. Most musical activities at home, in which young Sebastian was present, involved teaching, studying, rehearsing, preparing concerts, arranging and copying for sheet music, and also tuning and repairing instruments.”

He experienced the loss of loved ones early on when, at the age of six, he lost his eighteen-year-old brother Johan Balthazar and, just three years later, he was faced with the loss of both his parents in the space of nine months. His mother died of unknown causes in May 1694, followed in February 1695 by the death of his father after a serious illness. After Maria Elisabeth”s death on 27 November 1694, Johann Ambrosius Bach married Barbara Elisabeth who, by an unfortunate coincidence, had by then been widowed twice. Her first husband was another member of the Bach family, the musician Johann Günther Bach (1653-83), and the second time she had married the theologian Jacobus Bartolomei.

In Ordruf: 1695-1700

The death of Johan Ambrosius put Barbara Elisabeth in a difficult situation, especially after the city council refused to allow her to take over her husband”s duties herself with the help of third parties. This led to the separation of the family, with Sebastian and Jakob being placed in the care of their elder brother, Johann Kristoff, who by 1690 was an organist at the Michaeliskirche in Ordruf, of outstanding reputation and a pupil of the then renowned Johann Pachelbel. The two brothers moved in, March 1695, and attended the Lyceum. Jakob returned to Eisenach in 1697 to be educated alongside his father”s successor, while Sebastian remained in Ordruf until the age of fifteen. During this time, he attended the town”s monastic school (Klosterschule), whose curriculum was influenced by the progressive ideas of Komnenius. Although theology and Latin remained the main pillars, subjects such as geography, history, arithmetic, natural sciences and music education were also taught. The school”s archives bear witness to Bach”s very good academic performance. He was enrolled in the fourth class – probably in March – and was promoted to the third class in July 1695, achieving the fourth best result in an examination on 20 July 1696. On 19 July 1697 he was placed first out of 21 pupils and promoted to the second class, where he was placed fifth in July 1698 and second in July 1699. He enrolled in the first class at about fourteen years of age, while the average age of the pupils in the first class was 17.7 years.

It was probably at Ordruf that he received his first lessons in the organ, and under the strict supervision of his brother the foundations were laid on which he developed his technique in the following years. Up to this time, Sebastian had no inclination towards any particular musical instrument. Although his uncle was his first important mentor, it is a fact that it was only under his brother”s supervision that he was to really concentrate his interest on the organ and the clavichord. The lessons under him were directed towards a good technique in the performance of the most in-use keyboard instruments of those times, especially the organ. At the same time, the aim was to gain familiarity with the different genres and styles but also with free improvisation (preludes, toccatas) and with the strictness in the interweaving of voices (fugue and ricercare), either completely free or based on a given theme or a coral melody.

It is not known exactly when he started composing, but it is not unlikely that it also happened during his stay in Ordruv. It was, after all, not unusual for musicians of that time to compose their first works at the age of fifteen, as Bach”s own children did. Moreover, it was in Ordruf that he came into contact with the church choir director Elias Herda. As a student of Herda”s and as a member of the choir he was able to secure a considerable amount of money. The members of the chorus musicus could by some arrangement earn through the so-called Currenden, i.e. singing in small groups that sang in the streets about three times a year. Bach was probably paid as a solo voice (concertist) and was thus able to contribute to the maintenance costs which, for his brother, were crucial. For Sebastian, the so-called hospitia or hospitia liberalia were also of vital importance. This was an arrangement whereby aristocratic and wealthy families paid the school, maintenance and accommodation costs of poor students in return for the education of their own children. Bach finally left Ordruf on 15 March 1700 for Lüneburg. In the official records of his school, his departure is justified by the phrase ob defectum hospitorium, i.e. it was due to an inability to accommodate him. It is not clear, however, whether the problem was related to the fact that the school had a limited number of places or whether it was no longer possible for him to remain in his brother”s home. It is possible that his departure was due to an end being put to his hospitia, but it is also known that in 1700 the first class of the school was overcrowded and, combined with a change in his voice, this may have played a part in his decision to leave Ordruf. On the other hand, the situation in his brother”s house was also becoming more difficult for him to stay. From the day of Sebastian”s settlement in Ordruf, Kristoff had had two children and in March 1700 a third was expected. It is possible, however, that this was a premeditated departure, perhaps in consultation with his classmate and fellow traveller Georg Erdmann, at an age when boys of the time were becoming independent anyway.

In Lüneburg (1700-1703)

In 1700, Bach departed with his fellow student and scientist friend Georg Erdmann for Lüneburg in North Germany. This was a long journey by the standards of the time-about 280 kilometers north-and at least part of it must have been made on foot. No doubt, Bach”s choice to make such a long journey to a city where no relatives lived or family members had previously worked there is surprising. It is more likely that Elias Herda intervened to secure a place for Bach and Erdmann at the St. Michaelischule in Lüneburg, where he had previously attended. Besides, given Bach”s excellent school performance, it is not unlikely that Herda urged him to continue his studies and not follow the example of his brother Jakob, who immediately sought a professional position as a musician in Thuringia. The school belonged to the church of St. Michael (Michaeliskirche), which also had a second school (Ritterakademie) for young noblemen. The emphasis was on the old humanities classics, theology and languages, alongside the then modern subjects of history, mathematics and physics. The courses were intended to prepare students for university studies in the liberal arts, theology, law and medicine. Thus, Bach was fluent in Latin by the end of his school years, and was still immersed in other subjects that were essential for a university education. He also took part in the school choir (chorus symphoniacus), now as a bass, for he had undergone transcription, and, above all, he had at his disposal a music library, which, together with that of the Thomasschule (St. Thomas School) in Leipzig, was one of the oldest and largest in Germany. At the same time, he practised on the large – if somewhat problematic – organ of St. Michael”s church. Because of his exceptional talent, he was regularly used in the chorus musicus, but also in the main mass when he had to replace the main organist. It was then that his performance of the organ began to take shape and he gradually became known in the circles of the great performers who, not coincidentally, were all North Germans.

One of them was Georg Bem, a famous assassin, of whom Sebastian”s father spoke highly of him in his lifetime and, of course, he was eager to meet him. As far as can be ascertained, Bach never formally took lessons with Bem. But considering his musical family background, his ambition, his experience as a singer, instrumentalist and organist, he would certainly have benefited greatly from this musician”s professionalism. Through Bem, he came into contact with the genre of the stylized dance form, with the French suite, but also with the preludes and fugues of the composer himself, his North German colleagues, and his masterly coral variations. It is no coincidence that Bach”s own early compositions in these forms date from Lüneburg and were created due to the influence of Bem.

But in Lüneburg Bach also had interesting musical stimuli, as he had the opportunity to listen to the orchestra of the Duke of Celle-Lüneburg, which consisted mainly of French musicians. Duke Georg Wilhelm, based in Celle, was a lover of French music and occasionally visited his palace in Lüneburg accompanied by his orchestra, of which Toma de la Selle, a dance teacher at the Ritterakademie, was a member. Through de la Selle or another student, Bach must have secured access to the palace, thus coming into direct contact with the authentic French musical style of the time. It cannot be excluded that Bach may have assisted the orchestra as a performer on occasion.

In Weimar (1703)

In the spring of 1702 Bach completed his studies at St. Michael”s School and began to seek a position as a professional musician. Although we do not know exactly when he left Lüneburg, it was most likely during the Easter period. It also remains unknown whether immediately afterwards Bach returned for a time to his brother in Ordruf or possibly visited his sister in Erfurt. A first professional opportunity arose in July 1702, when the organist of St. James” Church in Sangerhausen died and Bach competed for the vacant position. Despite his inexperience, he managed to win the appointment, but after the intervention of the Duke of Weissenfels, the position was eventually filled by the older and more experienced Johann Augustin Kobelius. Sebastian”s first official professional appointment came, finally, shortly afterwards. From January to June 1703 Bach was appointed violinist at the court of the Duke of Weimar, Johann Ernst. The appointment may have been influenced by the Duke of Weissenfels, who had ties of friendship with the Weimar court and thus wanted to compensate Bach for his interference regarding the organist”s position at Sangerhausen. A decisive factor may have been the presence at the Weimar court of the musician David Hoffmann, whose family was linked by marriage to that of the Bachs. His salary amounted to 6 florins and 18 florins.

The relevant documents relating to the recruitment of Bach do not accurately describe his duties. He must have taken part in musical performances of a secular and ecclesiastical nature, but it is possible that he also undertook some other, special duties for the duke – his direct employer and younger brother of the ruling duke Wilhelm Ernst – who was officially in charge of the church court. The musicians of the Weimar church court usually played various kinds of instruments, imitating the larger ensembles of the city”s state musicians. Thus, Bach also had the opportunity here to show his musical exuberance. It is probable, however, that he played mainly the organ and harpsichord, since, because of his virtuosity on these instruments, he was always in the first choice. Although Bach later described his post as that of court musician (Hoff Musicus), in palace situations he seems to have been employed as a member of the service staff. This was not unusual for young musicians, but the fact that he had to undertake, among other servant duties, as well as other dull musical duties was probably the reason for his remaining in this post for only a few months. At the duke”s court he met some notable musicians, such as the tenor Georg Christoph Stratner (c. 1644-1704) and the violinist Johann Paul von Westhoff (1656-1705), one of the first to compose solo violin works. The court organist was Johann Effler (c. 1640-1711), whom Bach probably often replaced. Perhaps for this reason he was later described as ”court organist” (Hofforganiste) in the official documents of his appointment to Arnstadt in 1703, although it is possible that this was an exaggeration by Bach to secure the appointment.

In Arnstadt (1703-1707)

At the beginning of 1703, the city council of Arnstadt met to select an expert to test the new organ of the St. Boniface Church (Neue Kirche, ), the construction of which had been entrusted in 1699 to Johann Friedrich Venter. The agreement with Venter stipulated that the work would be completed by 24 June 1701, but the organ was finally ready for use some two years later. The organist for the church was Andreas Berner (1673-1728) and it is surprising that the eighteen-year-old Bach was appointed to test the organ rather than himself. It was not simply Bach”s undoubted abilities that contributed to the choice, as there were other organists, older and more experienced. But Johann Sebastian had something that followed him everywhere and contributed to his being preferred – when there were no other considerations: the Bach name and the family”s connections in the greater Thuringian region. In the past, at least seven members of the family worked as musicians or organists in the city. Two important connections for the young Bach in Arnstadt were organist Christoph Hertum, and the city”s mayor, Martin Fedhaus. The former had married Heinrich Bach”s daughter, Maria Katarina, while the latter”s wife”s sisters had also married relatives of Sebastian Bach.

The in-depth knowledge of organ structure that would eventually make him one of the most sought-after specialists in Central Germany, Bach acquired through the many organ tuning and repair processes in which he had been involved over the years, such as the organ upgrades in Eisenach and Ordruf. This experience, became even greater in Lüneburg and Hamburg, primarily through the discussions he often overheard between the performers and the organ builders. Bach impressed the audience with the – carefully selected by him – programme he presented and, it justified the decision to choose him.

Bach”s appointment at Arnstadt was accompanied by a decent salary (84 florins and 6 groats per annum) and a strict contract, which Johann Sebastian ultimately did not honour because of his great artistic ambition. The organ of the Neue Kirche was the best thing for Bach at that time: New, large (21 Suites, 2 Handbells and Pedal) with a clear and crystalline sound and, most importantly, with the new tuning system of the distinguished 17th century German theorist Andreas Werckmeister, which came much closer to today”s flexible conjoined system and allowed the use of tonalities with many alterations (refrains and pentas). This organ still exists today in the Neue Kirche in Arnstadt, but the original and worn parts from that time are on display in the city museum. His duties mainly included accompanying the church services and maintaining the organ, leaving him plenty of free time for further study and composition.

Bach apologized before the council on 21 February 1706, stating that during his absence he had arranged for his cousin to be hired as a replacement, hoping that no problems would arise with the performance of the organ. The council then expressed its displeasure at the fact that Bach had employed many strange variations, combining “many strange tones within his music, embarrassing the congregation…” It is clear that Bach”s talent, his advanced for the time performance skills – mainly based on improvisation – and, in particular, his deliberate deviation from the Church Formula, which defined the body of the Lutheran Mass, caused the consternation, at first, and the anger, later, of the church council. On November 11 of that year, the council revisited the issue of its cooperation with the student choir, this time in response to another incident when Bach allowed a woman to be in the choir without permission. It is clear from the official minutes of the church council that Bach was unable to establish harmonious relations with its members, nor with the students in the choir. This, combined with the fact that his ambitions far exceeded the limited opportunities offered by Arnstadt, led him to decide to seek other professional opportunities soon. After all, he was already becoming widely known for his abilities and, according to Forkel (1920), had been offered several other positions.

It is certain that during his time at Arnstadt, Bach worked assiduously to develop his technique and performance skills, particularly in the art of improvisation. His repertoire and early compositions included choral works of various genres (partitas, preludes, etc.), fantasias, preludes, toccatas, organ and harpsichord compositions, suites, sonatas and variations. It is likely that some of the early sketches for the Little Book for the Church Organ (e.g. for BWV 601 and BWV 639) date back to Arnstadt”s period, as does the Pasakalia in C minor (BWV 582), which is a tribute to Buxtehude and Reincken. Of Bach”s works dating from Arnstadt”s time, special mention should be made of the famous Tokatá and Fugue in D minor (BWV 565). Various things have been written about this work – mainly because of its style and structure – that are not in keeping with the Baroque era, such as the continuous parallel octaves in the overture. Wolff attributes these ”peculiarities” to two main reasons. Firstly, to the fact that the young composer had not yet settled down to such a distinctive and recognisable style that characterises his works and, secondly, to the defect of the – otherwise modern – organ at Arnstadt, not having a 16-foot manualiter. Thus, it becomes clear that doubling in octaves was an ingenious way to compensate for this deficiency and thus create an organo pleno sound that, typically, requires the need for a 16-foot bass. It is precisely these “peculiarities” that make this work so beloved and recognizable, not only in musical circles (classical, rock, pop and jazz) where it has undergone countless transcriptions and arrangements, but also in popular culture where it has been used extensively (e.g. in film, video games, etc.).

The organ of the Blasiuskirche was not bad. But because some parts of it were already one hundred and fifty years old and showing defects, Bach succeeded after some time in persuading the Parish Council to undertake a large-scale renewal and further expansion of the organ as a whole, only twenty years after its last inspection and repair. This fact shows the great confidence and esteem in which the young organist was held by the decision-makers, considering that he had taken up his duties only half a year before. On 4 February 1708, Bach performed, on the occasion of the annual change of the town council, the famous cantata Gott ist mein König (BWV 71). Wolff says: ”The work was presented in the other official church in Mulhouse, the Marienkirche. The spacious church with its many colonnaded keys had hosted polychoral music on several occasions. But never, in its four centuries of history, had the excellent acoustics of the place been honoured by such a magnificent and varied sound of an organ-voice ensemble, under the skilful direction of its new organist. On that day, in February 1708, Johann Sebastian Bach, following the model of the famous Abend-Musiken of Buxtehude from Lübeck, created a multi-music, based on the separation of instruments and voices into groups, unprecedented for the time and its standards. In this way, he succeeded in laying the foundations for what was, without exaggeration, a stereo sound, coming from two choirs and four instrumental ensembles.” The manuscript score of the cantata BWV 71 itself is clear in its separation of voices and instruments, and, as noted above, includes six altogether distinct units, plus the organ. The council printed not only the libretto, as was customary, but also the music of the cantata, indicative of the impression its performance must have made.

In a relatively short time, Bach realised that the position in Mülhausen did not meet his ambitions, despite the fact that his salary was good, and the authorities and the congregation were extremely sympathetic to him. One of the reasons may have been the limited possibilities for composing and performing orchestral works, as most, if not all, of the cantatas he composed during this period did not correspond to the repertoire of the St. Vlasius church, which remained faithful to Johann Georg Ale”s musical approach. In his letter of resignation Bach refers to ”obstacles” he encountered in his attempt to serve a well (re)arranged church music, which would not be easy to overcome. According to Spitta (1899a), the underlying causes of these obstacles were related to the conflict between the orthodox Lutherans, who were music lovers, and the Pietists (evangelicals) of a Lutheran sect, who were strict puritans and discouraged the use of music in church services. We can therefore assume that at the same time that a part of the city”s inhabitants listened to Bach”s repertoire with admiration and appreciation, another part of the congregation viewed his work with suspicion.

In the summer of 1708 Bach played before the Duke of Weimar, Wilhelm Ernst, who offered him a place at his court. On 25 June he formally submitted his letter of resignation to the council of Mulhouse, which was accepted on the condition that he would continue to provide assistance in the work of repairing the organ of St. Vlasius Church. For this purpose, and given that the work on the new organ was completed in 1709, he must have travelled at least once from Weimar, perhaps more frequently. In his letter he stated that he had ”the ultimate goal of a better life and a well (arranged) church music”… Along with the professional prospects that opened up for him in Weimar, the higher salary secured in his new post was certainly another strong incentive for Bach, especially given that he was soon to become a family man. His successor in Mulhouse was his cousin Johann Friedrich.

Return to Weimar (1708-1717)

Bach, with his four-month pregnant wife, was on his way to Weimar again in mid-June 1708, returning as a distinguished executioner. Weimar was the capital of the Duchy of Saxony-Baimara, though much smaller than Mulhouse, with a population of about five thousand. For many decades, power was held by two dukes from the Ernestian branch of the House of Saxony, who were not the happiest duo in terms of their coexistence. In 1683, the dukes Wilhelm Ernst and Johann Ernst inherited power from their deceased father, while Johann Ernst was succeeded by his son Ernst August in 1709. The relationship between Wilhelm Ernst and his nephew, who was 26 years younger than him, suffered from a lack of mutual understanding due to the generation gap on the one hand and the discrepancy in their characters on the other. Thus, during the nineteen years of their joint exercise of power in Weimar, they engaged in an unprecedented and provocative quarrel that sometimes bordered on absurdity. It is characteristic that the two brothers lived in different mansions, the ”Yellow” and ”Red” palaces respectively, and forbade musicians who played in their own palace to perform in the other. Bach was not aware of this when he was appointed by Wilhelm Ernst, but his value was such that he managed not only to keep an equal distance from the brothers, but to be paid by both.

Bach”s title, as recorded in his appointment order, was that of organist, but in official documents he is also described as a court musician (Cammermusicus), so he must have participated in various musical events at the duke”s court. His salary was originally 150 florins (still including additional allowances in kind), but in 1711 and 1713, by order of Wilhelm Ernst, it was increased to 200 and 215 florins, respectively. Various historical sources praise the quality of the organ in the chapel of Wilhelm Ernst”s palace. It was the work of the renowned German maker Ludwig Kompenius and underwent several changes shortly before Bach”s appointment. Similar improvements were later made during Bach”s stay, in collaboration with the builder Heinrich Nikolaus Trebs. In addition to the organ in Himmelsburg (German: Himmelsburg, Engl. “Castle of Heaven”), as the chapel in the Weimar castle was typically called, Bach also had at his disposal that of Johann Gottfried Walter in the Stadtkirche (City Church). His main duties included the performance of the introductions (choral preludes), the accompaniment of all the hymns sung by the congregation and, finally, the epilogues (postludes) at every service, whether Sunday or festive… However, his participation in all kinds of musical events, according to the wishes and for the pleasure of the ducal family, must be considered a given.

In December 1713 he visited Halle and tried out the organ of the Liebfrauenkirche, which was to be renovated. Bach impressed the local authorities and considered the prospect of taking up the position of organist there, which had been held until 1712 by Handel”s teacher F. W. Zachow. At the regular rehearsal, he performed a cantata, and on 13 December he received a verbal offer from the church authorities. We cannot know for certain whether Bach used the position at Halle as a form of pressure to improve his working conditions in Weimar. Other possible reasons why he considered the prospect of Halle may have been related to the Liebfrauenkirche organ, which was undoubtedly an attraction, or to internal problems at the Weimar court, which to some extent later contributed to his decision to depart for Kaiten. It is a fact that Bach had doubts and negotiated about the financial terms of the offer made to him, but in the end he decided to remain at the court of Wilhelm Ernst, where he very soon secured a new salary increase to 250 florins. In addition, on 2 March 1714, he was appointed to the post of concertmaster (Konzertmeister), a title which in Germany was the second in rank for senior musicians. The fact that he simultaneously held two positions, court organist and orchestra director, testifies to his skills in both performance and composition. Duke Ernst”s appreciation of Bach was once again demonstrated on 25 March 1715, when he decided to pay him the same salary as the Kappelmeister Johann Samuel Drese.

After Johann Samuel Drese”s death on 1 December 1716, Bach believed that he was the ideal successor for the position of Kapellmeister. Duke Wilhelm Ernst initially offered the post to Georg Philipp Telemann, and when he declined he showed a preference for Drese”s son Wilhelm, who by 1704 was second in command as Kapellmeister”s assistant. In making his final choice, the duke probably took into account the existing hierarchy and the Dreze family”s many years of service, but the fact caused Bach”s strong dissatisfaction, who saw that he had little room for further advancement in Weimar, and as a result he began to seek other professional outlets. In fact, Bach”s discontent at the Weimar court had long since begun to intensify. Although he failed to secure the position of Kapellmeister in Gota, another opportunity presented itself in the summer of 1717, this time for the corresponding position in Anhalt-Cöthen, at the invitation of Prince Leopold. They had previously met in January 1716, on the occasion of the marriage of the prince”s sister to Duke Ernst Auguste, son of Johann Ernst. The elder Duke Wilhelm, no doubt annoyed by Bach”s desire to leave the Weimar Court, and even more annoyed by the fact that this was being done through his connections with the “Red Palace,” refused to relieve him of his duties. In the autumn of 1717, Bach visited Dresden, where he was invited to face the then famous French virtuoso Louis Marchand in an informal competition of virtuosity on the organ, but he chose to withdraw. Bach played on his own, giving an impressive recital, and was now established as the finest organ performer of his time. On his return to Weimar, Bach again pressed the Duke to secure his freedom, but the Duke, furious, ordered his imprisonment by decree on 6 October. On 2 December, by a new decree, he was released and finally allowed to resume his activities in his new position.

Only a very small part of his compositions in Kaiten survive. It is generally extremely difficult to know today when Bach began a work, because he left no clues. It is easier to know when he completed them, based on their date of execution, or their date of publication. In Kaiten, many of his earlier works are revised and given their final form, such as the Suites for Orchestra, the Sonatas and Partitas for Violin Solo, the Six Suites for Cello Solo, the French Suites and the English Suites for Keyboard. Here he completed the famous Brandenburg Concertos and some secular cantatas dedicated to Prince Leopold. In Kaiten, Bach also engaged in his teaching work. He continued the Little Book For the Ecclesiastical Organ, wrote two more Little Books For Anne Magdalene Bach, and completed the first book of the Well-Tempered Clavicle. Finally, he composed and dedicated to his son Wilhelm Friedemann, the 15 Two-voice Inventions and the 15 Three-voice Sinfonia”s for Keyboard.

This period he also travelled more than ever before. An overall examination of his travels suggests that, unlike the cosmopolitan Georg Friedrich Handel, Bach lived and worked in a relatively small geographical area. His business travel, whether on a personal matter, such as examining a church organ, or on princely business, helped not only to enrich his musical and cultural experiences, but also to broaden his political and geographical horizons. In 1719, Bach attempted to meet the famous Handel at the relatively nearby Halle. Once there, however, he learned that Handel had just left town. Another failed attempt followed, and as a result the two greatest composers of the Baroque period never met, much to the dismay of Bach, who admired Handel. In May 1718 he was in Carlsbad, with Prince Leopold and other musicians, for about five weeks, and in early 1719 he visited Berlin, where he negotiated the purchase of a new harpsichord.

His wife Maria Barbara died unexpectedly in July 1720, while Bach was absent with Prince Leopoldo for a second visit to Carlsbad. Shortly afterwards, Bach visited Hamburg and, apparently affected by the sad event, seriously considered filling the vacancy in the church of St. James there. A competition was held on 28 November for a total of eight candidates for the post, but Bach had to return to Kaiten five days earlier, presumably to prepare for the Prince”s birthday celebrations. The committee was not satisfied with the performance of the four candidates who eventually attended the audition and tried unsuccessfully to persuade Bach to take the post. Perhaps one of the reasons why he ultimately did not accept the St. James” committee”s proposal was his inability or refusal to pay the four thousand marks (a form of simony) required by the church. During his stay in Hamburg, Bach gave a recital in another church in the city in the presence of his mentor Reincken. The elderly musician, listening to Bach improvising on the organ, politely told him, “I thought that this particular art had died, but it is obvious that it survives in you.” On February 22, 1721, Bach experienced the loss of another loved one, his older brother Johann Christoph. On December 3, 1721, Bach married Anna Magdalena Wilcke, 16 years his junior, the daughter of a court trumpeter and a good high-pitched singer. With her he had 13 children, six of whom survive, including the remarkable later composer Johann Christian Bach.

A few days after Bach”s marriage to Anna Magdalene, Prince Leopold married his cousin and Princess of Anhalt-Bernburg, Frederica. This event, which was very happy for the prince, had a negative effect on the good relations between Bach and Leopold, which until then had been good. The princess was – as Bach described her in a letter to his friend Georg Erdmann – ”an Amusa” and indeed did not share her husband”s interest in music in the least. At the same time, the prince”s financial support for the various artistic events was considerably reduced, because much of the money went to support the Prussian army. Although Frederica”s negative influence was not the main reason why Bach decided to leave Kaiten, it undoubtedly played a role. Bach was seriously considering the future of his children and when in 1722 the position of Cantor Johann Kuhnau in the church of St. Thomas in Leipzig became vacant, he applied for its replacement. A total of six candidates showed interest, including Telemann who was at that time in Hamburg. Despite the fact that Telemann did not wish to teach Latin, as the duties of the Cantor”s position required, the Leipzig authorities hired him, but his case did not proceed as he did not secure his freedom from his employers in Hamburg. At the trial hearing on 7 February 1723, Bach performed Cantatas Nos. 22 and 23 and was one of a total of three candidates considered for the position. The other candidates refused to teach, as Telemann had done earlier, with the result that Bach was finally selected. For the members of the Leipzig authorities, Bach was necessarily a mediocre choice, but for Bach, the Kantor position was also a step backwards. In April 1723, Bach requested and received permission to leave Kaiten, taking up his new duties in Leipzig a month later.

In Leipzig (1723-1750)

In May 1723 Bach moved to Leipzig with four carriages full of his belongings. Leipzig was not a particularly large city, but it was the most important commercial centre in a vast region, with interstate transport of goods, banks and international fairs that attracted thousands of visitors every year. However, in addition to this, Leipzig was also the seat of a university (Academia Lipsiensis), famous in Germany for its high level of education. Finally, the city, with its magnificent buildings, squares and parks, had become one of the seats of the international bourgeoisie and was called ”Little Paris”. Bach was appointed as Cantor Figuralis after passing an examination before the local church authorities before the theology professor D. Johann Schmidt to test his training in theological matters. Specifically, Bach was appointed as Cantor of the St. Thomas School – where he settled – and Director of Church Music in four churches: at St. Peter”s (Peterskirche), the Neue Kirche (New Church), St. Nicholas (Nikolaikirche) and St. Thomas (Thomaskirche). In addition, he was responsible for some musical events at the University of Leipzig, in particular the so-called Old Mass in St. Paul”s Church. Since each church had to have a separate choir ensemble, each of which needed at least 8 singers (2 sopranos, alto, tenors and basses) and 4 soloists, material from the approximately 55 students of the St. Thomas School was used The first choir ensemble included the best voices and was conducted by Cantor himself. There were also two highly regarded musical ensembles in the city, the Collegia Musica, but in recent years they had experienced significant dysfunctions. It is possible that Bach attempted to mobilise and utilise members of these orchestral ensembles. The limited number of professional musicians at his disposal forced him to look for musicians among the university students.

This position, which for about two centuries was held by eminent musicians, was considered, even from a social point of view, the pinnacle of a musician”s career. Bach, with his 27 years in the post, was the second longest tenured holder, after Valentin Otto, who had been here for 40 years. His financial remuneration, including free accommodation at the School and additional sources of income beyond the basic salary, was about the same as at Kaiten. In Leipzig, except for brief interruptions, Bach remained until his death. In the hierarchy of the School, Cantor was third, after the Director and Deputy Director. The Cantor”s duties included teaching music and other subjects, as well as private lessons to students when necessary. He directed the first choir (chorus primus) in the two central churches and was responsible for the repertoire material and musical instruments. Every fourth week he also acted as superintendent, supervising the students and imposing discipline when necessary. Bach soon persuaded the fourth in command of the school, Friedrich Petzold, to take over those duties not related to music for 50 talers a year.

Bach began his teaching duties at St Thomas” School and, shortly afterwards, the official ceremony for his elevation to Cantor took place in St Paul”s Church. Here, most likely, he presented the cantata Wer mich liebet, der wird mein Wort halten, BWV 59 (1723-24). The first confirmed cantata he composed in Leipzig was the cantata Die Elenden sollen essen, BWV 75 (1723), which he presented shortly afterwards. In Leipzig Bach experienced different circumstances. Unlike his previous experience in other cities, there was a great deal of organisation at all levels, bureaucratically, culturally and financially. Everything was predetermined by strict contracts with no room for personal conflicts. Bach found an ideal working environment, but he was obliged to supply two of the four churches to which he was appointed with his own works. In particular, every Sunday and/or every festive day of the Church Year – with the exception of the weeks preceding Christmas and Easter – he had to present a new work for orchestra and voice ensemble, either in the Thomaskirche or the Nikolaikirche, depending on the service, i.e. about 60 cantatas per year. Bach, since he had applied the system of annual cycles to his cantatas, supposedly wrote 5 cycles. Considering that about 220 cantatas have survived in our days, it can be concluded that a large part of these works have been lost.

On Good Friday 1727, after four years in Leipzig, Bach performed the work The Passion of Matthew BWV 244. The unrealistic dimensions of the work for the time, its performance demands, its refined style combined with its ambiguous – always for the time – expressive and technical structures, but above all its spirituality, make it a work of distinction in the musical events of Western art music. Bach himself considered it a special and ambitious work. It is no coincidence that for many years after his death, when reference was made to this work, the designation “The Great Passion” was used. The foundations of the work had been laid earlier with the Christmas Magnificat, BWV 243a (1723) and The Passion of John, BWV 245 (1724). The latter, in particular, was one of those works by Bach that was in a dynamic state. Bach began it in 1724 and, by 1739, it had undergone three very major revisions, the last of which, in fact, was the cause of friction with the ecclesiastical authorities in the city.

In addition to vocal music, Bach was also involved with his favourite organ. The Six Sonatas (BWV 527-30), the Fantasy and Fugue in C minor (BWV 562), the Six Coral (Schubler) (BWV 645-50), the Eighteen Coral (BWV 651-68) and the Prelude and Fugue in G Major (BWV 541), among others, date from Leipzig. Bach usually played in the large organ of St. Paul”s Church (Paulinerkirche), which was specially arranged for musical performances. He also gave several recitals in Dresden to rave reviews.

In Leipzig, Bach, in collaboration with musicians and academic circles of the time, would expand his personal music library, a project he had begun while copying his first musical texts (scores) in Ordruf, where he lived with his brother. His collection included all known and unknown composers from Germany, France and Italy, starting from the oldest and reaching up to the contemporary ones, and was one of the largest of those times.

In March 1729 he took over the direction of one of the two important orchestral ensembles Collegium Musicum. His responsibilities increased, for in addition to cantatas, he had to prepare and perform orchestral music with this ensemble every week. The orchestra consisted mainly of music students of the highest level, many of whom later developed into top performers. With the Collegium Musicum, Bach had the opportunity to perform some of his most important orchestral works. Examples include his Sonatas for various instruments (violin, flute, clavichord, 2 flutes, viola da gamba) and bass consort, his famous concertos for clavichords (for 1, 2, 3 or 4 clavichords) and bass consort, and his Suites for Orchestra (BWV 1066-69). In the summer of 1737, Bach resigned as director of the Collegium Musicum, probably due to unfulfilled obligations in the church. However, he did not abandon this ensemble for good, and even gave some extraordinary performances with it. He resumed its direction in 1739 and Bach”s overall involvement with it lasted at least until 1741, probably until 1744.

With the death of Prince Leopold in March 1729, Bach officially lost the title of Kapellmeister of Kaiten, but he made sure to retain the title of Kapellmeister in time thanks to his connections with the court of the Duke of Saxony-Wassenfels, Christian. When the Duke visited Leipzig in 1729, during the New Year”s celebrations, Bach dedicated the cantata O angenehme Melodei, BWV 210a to him. A few weeks later, Bach travelled to Weissenfels on the occasion of the duke”s birthday, and it was probably then that he was granted the honorary title of Kapellmeister of the ducal court.

August 1730 saw his first friction with the church council, which accused Bach of negligence and absences without leave, and even considered reducing his salary. The incident is probably linked to a more general period of disruption in school life that followed immediately after the death of the school”s headmaster, Johann Heinrich Ernesty. The situation seems to have been smoothed out when a new headmaster, G. H. Hernestein, took over. M. Gessner, with whom Bach even developed a friendship. His letter to Georg Erdmann on 28 October 1730, however, bears witness to Bach”s dissatisfaction. In it he admits that the position of Cantor did not have the expected prestige, stresses the higher cost of living and, above all, describes his employers as ”strange” who have very little interest in music. During his stay in Leipzig, his relations with the church authorities were generally good, but not with the municipal or school board. From the early 1730s, Bach attempted to develop closer ties with the city of Dresden through recitals or performances with the Collegium Musicum orchestra. In July 1733 he visited the city and performed parts of the Mass in B minor (BWV 232) in the presence of the new Elector of Saxony, Friedrich August II, even formally submitting a request to serve at his court. The work was probably performed in the Church of St. Sophia, as Bach”s son Wilhelm Friedemann had been organist there since June 1733, and the organ he had was the best in town. Bach”s request went unanswered for about three years, but was met with a positive response when he decided to bring it up again on 27 September 1736, this time asking to be granted the title of “Composer” of the Court.

The decade 1730-40 was the most productive for the composer and, in general, one of the most productive in the history of Western art music. The works Bach composed during this period are of enormous scope, both qualitatively and quantitatively. The main ones are: Christmas Oratorio (BWV 248), Easter Oratorio (BWV 249), Passion of John (BWV 245) (revised version), Passion of Mark (BWV 247) (lost), Mass in B minor (BWV 232) (2 parts, completed later), Mass in A major (BWV 234), Mass in F major (BWV 233), Magnificat in D major (BWV 243) and the Well-Tempered Clavier (Book 2). These do not include the weekly cantatas, the long series for keyboard under the name Clavier-Übung and the works for the Collegium Musicum. The keyboard series comprised four parts published in the period 1731-41: Clavier-Übung I (Partitas, BWV 825-830), Clavier-Übung II (Italian Concerto, BWV 971 and French Overture, BWV 831), Clavier-Übung II (German Mass for the Church Organ, BWV 669-689, and works BWV 552, 802-805), and Clavier-Übung IV (Goldberg Variations, BWV 988).

In recent years

Bach”s visit to Potsdam in May 1747 turned out to be one of the most important events of his life. His trip was combined with a visit to Berlin, where his son, Carl Philip Emanuel, was organist at the court of King Frederick II of Prussia. Three years earlier, Emanuel had married Johanna Maria Daneman (1724-95), a merchant”s daughter, with whom he had a son in December 1745. Bach had last visited Berlin in 1741, but hostilities between Prussia and Saxony had prevented him from travelling after the marriage of his son and the birth of his grandson. His interest in visiting Potsdam must have been aroused by the musical events organised there by Frederick, who even played the flute. The details of Bach”s meeting with the King were recorded in the press of the time. According to the rather more authoritative version in the Spenersche Zeitung (11 May 1747), King Frederick agreed to play a theme on the clavichord, on which Bach was to improvise. Kapelmeister did so in an impressive manner, delighting both the king and the crowd watching them, arousing the admiration of all. Bach even found the King”s musical theme so good that he expressed a desire to record it and publish it in fugue form. A slightly different version and additional details are given by Forkel, who was informed of the event by Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, who accompanied his father on the journey. According to Forkel, when Bach played the improvisation, the king challenged him to play a fugue in six parts on the given theme. Bach responded with some slight modification of the original theme, because not all themes become fugues, impressing those present. The next day he gave a recital, by invitation, in the Heiliggeistkirche in Potsdam in the presence of the King. After his return to Leipzig he published a complete work, dedicated to the King and based on the theme he had given him in Potsdam. This work was the Musical Offering (BWV 1079), an ensemble of two fugues, a trio sonata (flute, violin and bass cantabile) and canons.

In June 1747, despite some initial hesitation, he became a member of the Correspondierende Sozietät der Musicalischen Wissenschaften, a society for musical sciences founded in 1738 by the erudite Laurence Christoph Michler. Its members communicated by correspondence twice a year, exchanging musical news and essays or other theoretical and non-theoretical works, either their own or those they chose to share. Having studied theology at the University of Leipzig and music under Bach, Michler was interested in finding a mathematical and philosophical basis for musical art. Other renowned composers such as Telemann and Handel were members of the same community, which was probably the reason why Bach also participated. Within this community, Bach performed the composition Vom Himmel hoch (BWV 769) and sent the other members a part of the Goldberg Variations. According to Carl Philip Emanuel, he showed little interest in the ”dry, mathematical matters” with which Michler was concerned, but it is possible that this view underestimates Bach”s real and possibly closer relationship with the community .

During the last decade of his life, Bach composed the large-scale work now known as the Art of the Fugue (BWV 1080). It is a series of fugues and rules for the keyboarder on a theme in which the boundaries of all previously known forms and styles are in effect abolished through antistatic management over two, three, or even four voices. The first drafts of the work, published a year after his death, date from the early 1740s. The result is much more than a study of a fugue. It epitomises the possibility of working on a given theme through highbrow antistatic techniques. The work was to remain unfinished as Bach worked on the last fugue until his death.

Bach”s health was generally good until the spring of 1749, when a rapid deterioration in his eyesight occurred, which eventually led to total blindness. At that time, with the lighting conditions that existed, it was very easy for someone who worked hard at night to develop vision problems, especially for musicians. The cause of this particular problem remains unknown due to lack of medical evidence. It is more likely that he was suffering from diabetes, which gradually undermined his health by manifesting its obvious symptoms at some point, abruptly. This probably explains the rapid deterioration of his eye condition. The immediate consequence was a dysfunction in his writing and therefore in his work in general. Nevertheless, Bach presented one of his most ambitious works, the cantata Wir danken dir, Gott, wir danken dir (BWV 29), in August 1749, in which he even had himself the role of soloist on the organ. Later, and despite his failing health, he completed the Mass in B minor (BWV 232) and continued to work on the Art of the Fugue. In late March 1750 Bach requested surgery from the then famous ophthalmologist John Taylor (“Chevalier” John Taylor), who was then in Leipzig for a lecture and demonstration of his skills in ophthalmology. Taylor”s diagnosis was probably that Bach was suffering from glaucoma or cataracts. The local newspaper Vossische Zeitung of 1 April 1750 reported that an initial operation he underwent was successful, but it is likely that Taylor himself, who understood the role of public relations, was behind this version, using the press to establish his reputation. A few days later he had to undergo another operation and since then his health has deteriorated considerably, losing his sight completely. Necrology reports that after the second operation he was almost constantly ill and that he regained his sight ten days before his death. The accuracy of these allegations is being verified, while the temporary recovery of his sight may have been a mere hallucination. While hopes of a full recovery were raised, a few hours later he suffered a severe stroke with increased fever. On 28 July 1750, a Tuesday, in the presence of two of Leipzig”s most experienced doctors, shortly after 8.15 p.m., he died ”peacefully and quietly”.

Taylor remains a controversial figure and has been described by his contemporaries and later historians as a “quack” who, although he had medical knowledge, excelled in the “art of self-promotion” and his practice was “dishonest”. Whether his operations had a negative effect on his health remains, however, unknown, as we do not know in detail the condition in which Bach was in, nor the type of operation he underwent. An article in the Spenersche Zeitung refers to his death as a result of unpleasant consequences of the operation he underwent, while Forkel, in his biography, notes the general deterioration of his health after the operation, due to the use of harmful drugs in conjunction with the operation.

Johann Sebastian Bach”s funeral took place on 31 July and he was buried in the cemetery of St. John”s Church in Leipzig. For many years, the exact location of his grave remained unknown due to the lack of a tombstone or other evidence, but this did not prevent the students of the St Thomas School from honouring their teacher every year on 28 July for almost a century. In 1894, his remains were exhumed and transferred to the church of St. Thomas, where they remain to this day. Bach”s memory is commemorated by the Lutheran churches on 28 July. As he left no specific will, his estate was divided between Anna Magdalene (who received one-third), and their nine surviving children. The inventory of his estate, which was carried out after his death, shows that Bach was in good financial health. The total was valued at 1 160 talers, from which debts of 152 talers must be deducted. It contained, among other things, nineteen musical instruments (harpsichords, violins, violas, violas, lute and spinet), some eighty volumes of theological books, a share worth 60 talers in a mining company, gold, silver, and other valuables.

Although it is impossible to make a thorough study or even a critique of the work of a composer of Johann Sebastian Bach”s scope, it is possible in general terms to understand some elements of his music, writing style and thinking, especially in relation to the compositions of other famous composers of his time. But beyond the technical or aristocratic facts, for Bach, the ultimate goal and reason (equivalent to the theological term) for the existence of his music is the glory of God and the uplifting of the spirit. At the beginning of the work, he usually wrote the words Iesu iuva, meaning “with the help of Jesus”, while at the end he ended with the phrase Soli Deo Gloria (“only to the glory of God”). It is therefore obvious that Bach”s deeply formed theological views had a dramatic and universal influence on his music.

Bach”s musical style emerged from his exceptional fluency in anti-static invention and motivic control, his sense of improvisation at the keyboard, and his exposure to the music of southern and northern Germany, Italy and France. His access to the musicians, scores and instruments of the time as a child and teenager, combined with his emerging talent for composing dense music, seems to have set him on a path to developing an eclectic, energetic style where foreign influences are instilled in the pre-existing German musical language. Although practices varied considerably between the different schools of European music, Bach was regarded in his day as one of the two extreme ends of the spectrum, recording most or all of his melodic lines in extraordinary detail – particularly in the fast movements – leaving little interpretive input to the performers. This, he helped to “control” the dense antistatic structures he so loved, which allowed for less deviation from the “spontaneous” variation of musical lines. A characteristic of Bach”s music, in general, is his universality of style and influences. He not only uses models of various composers for his own compositions, but often extends them and tries to make them more “advanced”. Moreover, he combines French, Italian and German practice into a universal musical language, as his influences are not only geographical but also historical.

The first and immediately obvious element in Bach is his enormous productivity. Although much of his compositions have been lost, probably too much, what has survived shows that his total output was greater than that of any other composer who lived before or after him. Moreover, he created music in almost all the known forms of the time, except for opera and ballet (however, his vocal works, such as the Passion of Matthew, have elements of baroque opera with their da capo arias).

In Bach”s time, the concept of “melody” was different from that of the early Classical period. Until then, a composition usually consisted of melody, bass line and harmony. For Bach, however, the distinction between melody, harmony and bass line was a subtle one. Whereas in the classical era and later the melody was central to the harmonic concept, in the Baroque era the focus is on the bass line. The construction of a good bass line was central and, in fact, the first step in the composition of a piece of music. Given the harmony rules of the time, this was not easy. The use of accents and b-inversion chords was very limited, and the structure of the top voice, which we now think of as a melody, was directly and strongly dependent on what was happening in the bass line. For these reasons, most composers preferred a fairly gentle bass line that formed the basis for the piece, but was overshadowed by everything else going on in the pentameter. Bach, however, was sufficiently gifted at transforming bass lines into interesting melodies in their own right and had no problem combining them with the melodies of the upper voices. His melodies tended to be dense and very carefully considered. His ability to create a memorable melodic line under very strict constraints, such as in a canon or an antithetical mirror image, is a phenomenon in the history of music. And this, without shying away from bold “leaps”, melismas or attractive chromatic intervals.

He explores harmony much more “internally” than other composers of the time. Compared to, for example, Handel or Vivaldi, Bach”s music can contain, extremely unusual for his time, jazz (sic) chords and unexpected diatonic intervals that jump across many different harmonic regions. Bach”s harmony is characterized by his tendency to use brief, allusive references to another tonality, which last only a few beats of a measure at most, to add color to his textures. For the first important polyphonists like Palestrina, harmony was merely a “by-product” of counterpoint. However, for Bach, harmony is so intricately interwoven and interdependent with melody and counterpoint that it is extremely difficult – even for the initiated listener – to discern where one begins and the other begins (however, if there is any doubt, harmony is clearly articulated in the bass line for most of his works).

His love of fugue and its technical tools, such as twist, enlargement, reduction and mirroring (for specific terms, see fugue), appear very clearly in the Musical Offering. In particular, Ricercare 6 reveals another characteristic of Bach”s music that makes it so unique, namely the perfect balance between seemingly conflicting and opposing elements, such as polyphony, vertical chords and symmetry. Moreover, his ability in this piece to combine emotion and spirituality is particularly noticeable. This impulse to manifest structures is evident throughout his life: the famous Goldberg Variations include a series of rules at increasing intervals and The Art of Fugue can be seen as the epitome of fugue techniques. At the same time, however, Bach, unlike later composers, left the orchestration of major works such as The Art of Fugue and The Musical Offering open-ended. It is likely that, his detailed notation was less absolutely demanding of the performer, and more a response to a 17th century culture in which, the boundary between what the artist could enrich and what the composer demanded to be authentic, was debatable.

But perhaps the greatest structural element of Bach”s music is that it tends to exhaust all the possibilities available within the piece. For example, the Fugue in D Major from the Well-Tempered Clavier II and the Kyrie, Gott Vater from the Ewigkeit Clavierübung III show that he uses all the available tonal heights of the scale for the beginning of the theme, the time and intervals, and the structure of the theme. If there is no specific possibility, he modifies the theme to indicate an entrance to it. As an absolute builder, he draws from a brief idea from which everything is constructed. Bach uses his musical ideas so economically that at times there seem to be no other motives than theme and counterpoint.

The characterization of Bach”s works as “absolute music” is perhaps best reflected in his compositions for various instruments. In these, the music is inherent as a constructive idea in itself and, consequently, the same piece can function just as effectively on a piano, on a guitar, but also as a choral work or within an orchestra. The fact that no other composer of the time, with the – debatable – exception of Handel, even came close to Bach”s achievements, clearly suggests that, the application of mechanical techniques was not ”automatic”, but completely controlled by something else, probably artistic choice and taste. Bach is the great proof that, taste, a fully respected distinguishing characteristic of the 18th century mind, is an entirely personal combination of source talent, imagination, psychological disposition, judgment, processing and experience. It is neither taught nor learned.

Of all composers, Bach is perhaps the only one who can be called a “musical scientist”. His importance, influence and greatness are often compared to those of his near-contemporary Newton. Like Newton”s general laws of gravity, Bach”s convoluted tonality is a universal product of logic. Bach, like a scientist, works with the smallest musical idea and in so doing builds a piece of music. Bach”s worldview is still influenced by the classical principle of trivium (traditional approach), but he also considers newer trends and ways of forming ideas.

Johann Sebastian Bach is considered by many to be the greatest composer in the history of Western music. His innovations, together with his new concept of the dimensions that a musical composition can take, served as a pilot for all generations that followed. He is considered one of the leading geniuses of Western civilization, even by those who do not normally study music. The master musician John Eliot Gardiner, an unparalleled conductor of Bach”s music and author of the biography Music In The Castle of Heaven, described listening to Bach”s music as like swimming with a snorkel: “Going into Bach”s music has this sense of otherness: it”s another world that we enter as artists or listeners. You put on your mask and dive into a psychedelic world of myriad colours.”

The sources on the life and work of Johann Sebastian Bach, with the exception of purely musical texts, are divided into two major categories: the first includes those that are contemporary with the composer and come either from the archives of the cities through which the composer passed, or from various letters, statutes, professional contracts, tax receipts and so on, from which formal – albeit useful – information on the composer”s life is derived.

In the second and most important category, there are treatises, usually posthumous, published in various periods after 1750, which provide information about his work and performance skills, as well as his habits or character. Included here are the biographies and the famous Obituaries and the various essays on the composer, such as the famous ”Little Chronicle of Anne Magdalene Bach”. To this day, new information about Bach, thought to be lost, is still being discovered through constant searching in archives and music libraries around the world.

Four years after Bach”s death, in 1754, a former pupil of his, Lorenz Christoph Mizler, published an obituary for the composer, which is the most complete and reliable treatise on Bach. Important information is also drawn from the famous ”Genealogy” attributed to his son, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. Finally, mention is also made of Bach”s first official biographer, Johann Nikolaus Forkel, who in 1802 published an extensive biography of the composer, based on direct quotations from his sons Carl Philipp Emanuel and Wilhelm Friedemann, whom he knew personally.

Recognition and criticism

Bach was famous in his time as an exceptional virtuoso of the organ, but his fame as a composer was limited mainly to a relatively closed circle of music connoisseurs, as his compositions were considered by many of his contemporaries to be outdated, especially in relation to the aesthetics of the new galant movement of that time, which moved away from strict counterpoint. It is not accurate to say, however, that his value was not sufficiently recognized during his lifetime; on the contrary, there are several references by contemporary composers of the time that show the appreciation that existed not only for his performing, but also for his compositional abilities. In the 1754 edition of Michler”s Musikalische Bibliothek (Musical Library), a list of the most famous German musicians included Bach in seventh place, behind Hasse, Handel, Telemann, the brothers Karl Heinrich and Johann Gottlieb Graun, and Stelchel. Some fifty years after his death, Bach”s central position among other German composers of the time was captured by the German composer and theorist Augustus Frederick Christoph Coleman in a diagram published in 1799 in the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung magazine edited by Forkel. The diagram, which takes the form of a sun, includes Bach in the center, with Handel, Graun and Haydn flanking him, while the remaining rays of the sun represent other composers. The diagram is accompanied by an anecdotal report that, when Haydn saw Coleman”s drawing, he agreed to place Bach, the composer from whom ”all musical wisdom flows”, at the centre of the composition.

In 1802 Forkel”s extensive biography was published and interest in his work began again. Bach was also studied by Goethe, who, in a letter of 1827, related his way of life and thinking to the composer”s work. It was not until 1829, however, that the renowned German composer Felix Mendelssohn performed the St. Matthew Passion in Berlin for the first time since the Leipzig years. The impression made by this forgotten music was great and, in fact, from that time a revival of interest in the music community in the great Cantor began. At the performance of the work, the famous German philosopher Hegel was among those present. In 1850, with the encouragement of Robert Schumann, the Bach Society (Bach Gesellschaft) was founded to publish and promote his works. By 1899 all his then known works had been published and the Bach Society was succeeded by the Neue Bach Gesellschaft, which is still active today, organising festivals and publishing popular editions. Mention should also be made of the publication of Bach”s biography by Philipp Spitta (2 volumes, Leipzig 1873-80), which covers not only his life and compositions, but also the historical context of the time.In the 20th century, many works by Bach that were thought to be lost were discovered. Over the years, their great artistic and educational value now began to be known in circles of the world music community. At that time, an effort began to develop to perform the works with authentic period instruments and in such a way that the final result would correspond to what the composer had hypothetically had in mind from the beginning.


The influence of Johann Sebastian Bach through his work is catalytic. Almost all the great composers who have lived after him – especially those of the 20th century – have been influenced either directly (countless transcriptions or arrangements of his works) or indirectly (new works based on his style), not to mention the great educational value attributed to them. From Mendelssohn to Mahler, from Wagner to Villa-Lobos, from Stravinsky to Shostakovich, from Webern to Schnittke, from Busoni to Kagel. Since his death, more than 300 works have been written with some or all of Bach”s works as a source.

Indicatively listed are: Prelude no. Preludes No. 1 (from The Well-Tempered Clavichord) by Gounod, Variations on a Sarabande by Reineke, Three Corals by Respigi, 24 Preludes and Fugues by Shostakovich, Stravinsky”s From the Euphranias, Busoni”s Antistatic Fantasy, Villa Lobos” Bachianas Brasileiras, Webern”s Ricercare (from the Musical Offering), Schnittke”s various Concerti Grossi, Kagel”s Sankt Bach Passion.

But also many contemporary composers and artists who serve music from different positions have dedicated a small or large part of their work to Bach. Among the most important are Ennio Morricone, Lalo Schiffrin, Jacques Loussier, Georges Delrue, Miles Davis, Nina Simone, Ian Anderson, Bobby Mac Ferrin, Bobby Mac Ferrin, The Swingle Swingers.

His contribution to music is today placed on a par with Newton”s contribution to physics and Shakespeare”s contribution to literature.

Bach”s music was incorporated into two of the Voyager mission satellites. There, recorded on an optical beam disc, are excerpts from his compositions (including the Prelude and Fugue No. 1 from the Well-Tempered Clavicle) as a small sample of the achievements of human civilization.

The first catalogue of his works is contained in Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach”s Necrology and testifies that almost all the compositions printed while C. S. Bach was alive survive to this day. These include, among others, cantata No. 71, the four movements of Clavier-Übung, the Musical Offering, and the canons BWV 1074 and 1076. Most of his work was not printed, yet much of it survives, especially with regard to music for the organ and keyboard instruments in general. Exceptions are the cantatas, many of which have been lost, and the proportion of orchestral or chamber music that we do not have is probably significant. In some cases only the texts of the works survive, as is the case, for example, with the Passion of Mark (BWV 247). The picture we have of his catalogue of works is not only due to autograph scores, but is largely formed through the many copies of his works used by his pupils or family members. Such copies were sometimes included in notable private collections, such as the one created for Princess Anne Amalia of Prussia, which covers a wide range of Bach”s compositions.

A large part of his manuscripts went to his two eldest sons, while some were given in exchange to the St Thomas School, so that Anna Magdalene could continue to live there for six months after Bach”s death. Unlike Carl Philip Emanuel, who took great care of the material he acquired, Wilhelm Friedemann sold several valuable manuscripts because of financial problems he encountered. Those that had come into Emanuel”s possession ended up in the Berlin Königliche Bibliothek (Royal Library), now known as the Berlin State Library (Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin), which gradually acquired other Bach manuscripts.

The dating of his works is generally difficult. Various indirect indications have been used for this purpose, such as the type of paper, the ink or the binding of the manuscripts and, above all, the changes in Bach”s handwriting during his lifetime. This led in the 1950s to a major revision of their first dating, which had been based on the catalogue of his works in Philip Spitta”s biography. Since then, other minor variations have been made. The dating of his vocal works is now considered to be extremely accurate, but the same is not true of his orchestral works, the original manuscripts of which have largely been lost.

Bach Society (BG)

The German Bach-Gesellschaft (BG) was founded in 1850 to publish a systematic catalogue of Bach”s works, known as the Bach-Gesellschaft Ausgabe (BGA), which was gradually published in 50 volumes. The first was published in December 1851 and the last on 27 January 1900. The compilation of the catalogue represents the first German musicological undertaking of this scale and, despite not meeting today”s standards of critical analysis of sources, it was extremely detailed and scholarly for its time.

The society was dissolved after the publication of the last volume and was immediately followed by the founding of the new Neue Bachgesellschaft (NBG), whose main purpose was research on his work. Among other things, it publishes the periodical Bach-Jahrbuch, with a wide range of topics on Bach”s life and work, organises an annual music festival (Bachfeste) and operates the Bach Museum (Bachhaus) in Eisenach.

Catalogue of Bach”s works – classification BWV

Bach”s works are nowadays referred to by the catalogue numbers BWV, the initials of the German term Bach Werke Verzeichnis. This catalogue was published in 1950 and compiled by the German musicologist Wolfgang Schmieder. The BWV numbers are sometimes referred to as Schmieder numbers. In this case a variant is (rarely) used that uses the letter S instead of BWV. In compiling the catalogue, Schmieder largely followed an earlier comprehensive edition of the composer”s works (Bach-Gesellschaft Ausgabe). A characteristic of this catalogue of Bach”s works is that it is organised thematically rather than chronologically. In particular, the following convention is followed:

An appendix to the catalogue, distinguished by the index Anh. (BWV Anh.), also includes works that are incomplete (Anh. 1-23), of dubious authenticity (Anh. 24-155), or compositions previously attributed to Bach but now known to belong to other composers (Anh. 156-189). Work numbers followed by the letter R indicate reconfigured compositions; for example, the Concerto for oboe and violin based on the Concerto for Two Clavichords (BWV 1060) is numbered BWV 1060R.

A second edition of the catalogue, containing some changes in relation to works whose authenticity was re-examined, was completed in 1990. A shorter version of this catalogue was published in 1998 by Alfred Dürr and Yoshitake Kobayashi, and is distinguished by the index 2a (BWV2a).

New Bach edition

The Neue Bach-Ausgabe (New Bach Edition) is a historical-critical edition and the second complete catalogue of Bach”s works. It was published by the Johann Sebastian Bach Institute (Göttingen) and the Bach Archive Leipzig. This new edition comprises nine thematic series and an appendix, spanning some 100 volumes: I. Cantatas (47 volumes), II. Masses, Passions, Oratorias (12 volumes), III. II. Works for the organ (11 Volumes), V. Works for keyboard and lute (14 Volumes), VI. Chamber Music (5 Volumes), VII. Works for orchestra (7 Volumes), VIII. Rules, Musical Offering and The Art of Fugue (3 Volumes), IX. Supplements (7 Volumes) and Appendix (9 Volumes). The publication also contains critical commentaries on the works. The first volume was published in 1954 and the catalogue was completed in 2007.

Bach had 20 children by 2 wives, many of whom died at an early age. By his first wife and cousin Maria Barbara Bach (1684-1720) he had 7 children:

From his second wife Anna Magdalene Bach née Wilke (1701-1760) he had 13 children:


Sheet music



  1. Γιόχαν Σεμπάστιαν Μπαχ
  2. Johann Sebastian Bach
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