I cannot begin to state how nervous I am to write about Bach. He is so important to church music, and his body of work is so vast that I’m sure I’m going to leave something out. Please feel free to correct or add on in the comments!
Here we go.
Born into a musical family, Bach began his training with his father and his older brother. He played both violin and organ, but his primary interest was in composition. Like many composers, he learned composition by studying or arranging works by other composers. In doing so, he became well versed in French, German, Austrian, and Italian styles. Bach held a number of positions over the course of his career–organist at Arnstadt (1703-1707), organist at Muehlhausen (1707-1708), court organist and concertmaster for the duke of Weimar (1708-1717), and music director at a court in Coethen (1717-1723). He finally settled in Leipzig in 1723 where he served as “Cantor of St. Thomas and Director of Music in Leipzig” at St. Thomas’s School.
[Here I will greatly simplify Bach’s work so that I don’t go on and on and on about preludes, fugues, toccatas, and whatnot.] Bach wrote many works for harpsichord and organ. He also wrote for violin, cello, various combinations of chamber ensemble, and voice. In A History of Western Music, Donald Grout explains that Bach wrote in “all the genres practiced in his time with the exception of opera.”(1)
In church, we know Bach largely for his choral anthems, but he also wrote cantatas (both sacred and secular), motets, two Passions (St Matthew and St John) and the Mass in B Minor. During his lifetime, he was respected, but not overly popular. His potential fame was eclipsed by many of his contemporaries, and due to rapidly changing trends in music, much of his work fell into obscurity until the 1800s.
Bach was a profoundly religious person, and the letters “SGD,” standing for “Soli Deo Gloria” or “to the glory of God alone” can be found on many of his manuscripts. Gerhard Herz writes,
That Bach was a Christian has never been doubted. Yet he was not, as many writers have pointed out, a Christian who lived apart from his time, but one who in every respect lived and remained within the social and religious boundaries of his century. Bach’s personality and creations, which today move us chiefly aesthetically and emotionally, are deeply rooted in the ethos of the old Lutheran church.(2)
Among the qualities that account for the continuing vitality of [Bach’s] music are his concentrated and distinctive themes, his copious musical invention, the balance he struck between harmonic and contrapuntal forces, the strong rhythmic drive, clarity of form, grand proportions, imaginative use of pictorial and symbolic figures, intensity of expression always controlled by a ruling architectural idea, and technical perfection of every detail.(3)
St Matthew Passion–“Kommt, ihr Tochter, helft mir klagen” —
(Wiki page about St Matthew Passion)
St John Passion–“Ruht wohl ihr heiligen Gebeine“–
(Wiki page about St John Passion)
Mass in B Minor—Dona Nobis Pacem
Mass in B Minor–Osanna in excelsis
Jesu, meine Freude (Jesus, my joy)
Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben (Heart and mouth and deed and life)
Everyone’s favorite wedding song (next to “Canon in D”)
There are so many great recordings of Bach, so if you feel up to it, do a little digging on YouTube or iTunes. I’ve only included choral arrangements, but there are many instrumental and solo works that are equally important.
Fun fact: The “BWV” that you see on the videos stands for “Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis” (Bach Works Catalogue), and it was developed by Wolfgang Schmieder in 1950 to help us keep track of Bach’s works. This is common for composers with a large output. For example, Mozart’s works are organized by “K” number because that system was developed by Ludwig von Koechel. Similar systems exist for Schubert, Handel, Wagner, and many other composers.
So, what are your thoughts on Bach? Love him? Hate him? Let’s discuss!
1. Grout, Donald Jay and Claude Palisca. A History of Western Music. London: W.W. Norton & Co., 2001.
2. Herz, Gerhard. “Bach’s Religion,” Journal of Renaissance and Baroque Music. Vol. 1, No. 2 (Jun., 1946), pp. 124-138.
3. Grout, Donald Jay and Claude Palisca. A History of Western Music.