Johann Sebastian Bach

From The Academic American Encyclopædia

Bach, Johann Sebastian

Johann Sebastian Bach, one of the greatest composers in Western musical history, created masterpieces of choral and instrumental music, both sacred and secular. More than 1,000 of his compositions survive, including works in virtually every musical form and genre in use in 18th century Germany. During his lifetime he enjoyed greater renown as an organist than as a composer, and although such later composers as Mozart and Beethoven held his work in great esteem, it was not until nearly a century after his death that the broader musical public came to appreciate the level of craftsmanship his works embody. Bach's music is now regarded as the high point of the baroque era, which lasted from 1600 to 1750, the year of his death (see BAROQUE MUSIC).


Bach was born in Eisenach, in central Germany, on Mar. 21, 1685, into a family of musicians. His parents died when he was nine years old, and in 1695 he went to live with his brother Johann Christoph, who was an organist at Ohrdruf. He remained there until 1700, learning the fundamentals of the keyboard from his brother and studying composition on his own, using works of older composers as models.

In 1703 he took an orchestral post in Weimar and after six months was appointed organist at the Neukirche in Arnstadt, where he composed his earliest surviving organ works. In 1705 he went to Lubeck (he traveled the 320 km/200 mi, reportedly, on foot) to hear Dietrich Buxtehude, one of the great northern German organist-composers. His Arnstadt tenure lasted two more years and was marked by clashes with the authorities about the scope of his duties. Such difficulties with his employers were constantly to mar his career.

In 1707, Bach married his first cousin Maria Barbara and was appointed organist in Muhlhausen. Almost immediately, the congregation objected to the innovative harmonized music he was introducing, and by the end of the year he moved back to Weimar, where he served as court organist for nine years. There he began composing a cycle of weekly cantatas, and his duties expanded, but he was not granted the position of music director (KAPELLMEISTER) he had hoped for, and he sought a post elsewhere. When he found one, at Kothen, in 1717, he asked for release from his duties at Weimar in a manner so antagonistic that he was imprisoned for a month.

Bach remained at Kothen until 1723. After the death of his first wife, he married (1721) Anna Magdalena Wilchen. In all he fathered 20 children, of whom several--including Wilhelm Freidemann, Carl Philipp Emanuel and Johann Christian--became well-known composers. Because his patron at Kothen, Prince Leopold, enjoyed music, Bach composed both secular and sacred works. After the prince married, however, music played a less important role in court life, and again Bach sought employment elsewhere.

He found it in Leipzig, where in 1723 he was appointed choir leader and KAPELLMEISTER of Saint Thomas Church--a prestigious post that made Bach, in effect, the director of music for the entire city. He remained in Leipzig for the rest of his life and wrote many of his greatest works there. Bach died in Leipzig on July 28, 1750.


Bach's duties required his writing compositions of varying kinds-- organ and choral music for the church, chamber music for court use, and fairly straightforward harpsichord works for teaching the instrument. In addition, there are difficult solo works composed either for his own use or for that of friends, and there are also works that are clearly theoretical exercises, such as the Mass in B-minor and the Art of Fugue. These were, in a sense, Bach's private explorations. They were not performed during his lifetime. Today, however, they stand as some of the most glorious of baroque works.

One considerable body of Bach's music is his cantata series, of which more than 200 survive. (It is believed that over half of his secular cantatas and more than a third of his sacred ones have been lost.) The secular cantatas, by far the smaller group, were composed for public and private festivities and use allegorical or mythological texts. Most of the sacred cantatas were composed as parts of cycles, with a specific work intended for each Sunday in the year. Their texts are either biblical or based on church hymns, although some also include poetry. In the greatest of these, the chorale melody often serves as an underlying theme that unifies the complete cantata. Besides the cantata, Bach is believed to have composed five Passion settings, although only the St. John and St. Matthew Passions survive. Other sacred works include the Easter and Christmas oratorios, the motets, and the Mass in B-minor.

The sacred works show one side of Bach--that of a composer working in, and responding to the Lutheran tradition. Another side, that of the keyboard virtuoso, is seen in his organ and harpsichord works. The organ works run the gamut from fairly simple chorale settings to ornate fantasies, toccatas, fugues, and sonatas. Among the harpsichord works, the Goldberg Variations and the two books of The Well-Tempered Clavier remain at the peak of music for the keyboard.

Bach's command of other instruments and their resources is evident in the six cello suites, the six violin sonatas and partitas, the four lute suites, and the accompanied sonatas for flute, violin, viola, and viola de gamba (now usually played on the cello). For chamber orchestra, he composed four extended suites, as well as the six Brandenburg Concertos, and concertos for harpsichord, violin, and oboe.

Bach performance style has varied greatly over the years. As scholars have unearthed new evidence and offered new theories about how the music was performed in Bach's time, approaches have changed radically. Thus the massive chorale presentations of the St. John and St. Matthew Passions and the Mass in B-Minor that were common through the 1960s have given way to performances by much smaller ensembles. One theory that gained prominence in the early 1980s suggested that the choral and many of the instrumental works were performed with one singer and one player to a part. Since the 1950s the practice of using instruments constructed as they were during Bach's time has become an increasingly important aspect of Bach performance.


At the start of his career, Bach built on the foundations laid by Buxtehude and others of the north German school, but he quickly developed not only a distinctive compositional voice, but an unparalleled sense of structure. These qualities did not always serve him well politically. As an employee of a German church establishment, he was required to provide music of the kind to which the congregation had become accustomed. There were, therefore, those who in the early years found Bach's counterpoint too florid and his harmonization too bold. Later in his life, as musical styles moved toward the elegant simplicity of the "stil galant" (the basis of the classical style, of which his son, Johann Christian, was a pioneer), Bach came to be regarded as a musical arch-conservative, an adherent to an antiquated style.

He was keenly aware of these changes, however, and in the last decade of his life he composed works of great complexity using the musical techniques that most interested him. An example is his final work, the Art of Fugue. Begun during the 1740s but left incomplete at his death, this compilation is a thorough examination of a sublime musical form by a master who knew that the form was falling out of fashion.

Counterpoint, or the interplay of independent musical strands, is certainly one of the salient features of Bach's work, and his brilliant use of this technique is something on which both professional musicians and general listeners can focus easily. Yet Bach's appeal lies in the more human qualities the music embodies. Combined with its cerebral aspects are exquisite melodies and complex figuration, and a sense of passion that comes through both in his text settings and in his instrumental works.

Allan Kozinn

Bibliography: Arnold, D., Bach (1984); Boyd, M., Bach (1983); David, H., and Mendel, A., eds., The Bach Reader (1966); Dowley, T., Bach: His Life and Times (1983); Felix, W., J.S. Bach (1985); Robertson, A., Bach (1977); Schweitzer, A., J. S. Bach, 2 vols. (Eng. trans. 1911; repr. 1962); Spitta, P., Johann Sebastian Bach, 2 vols. (1873-80; Eng. trans., 1884-99); Terry, C. S., The Music of Bach: An Introduction (1933); Wolff, C., et al., The New Grove Bach Family, rev. ed. (1983).

Christopher Hogan (email: finger:

Last updated Mon Oct 7 14:28:23 EDT 1996