Bach, Johann Sebastian

(21 March 1685 Eisenach, Thuringia, [modern Germany] – 23 July 1750, Leipzig)
   In his own day, J. S. Bach was recognized within German-speaking principalities as an outstanding performing musician, particularly on keyboard instruments, and by connoisseurs as one of the great composers of the time. Today his work continues to influence sacred music more than that of any other single composer, and even in the secular repertories Bach’s voice is so predominant in the Western tradition that the year of his death has been traditionally observed as the end of the Baroque period. He composed masterworks in every genre of the early 18th century except opera.
   Bach concentrated on whatever kind of composition was demanded by the church or court post he held at a given time. His first two important appointments, as organist to the New Church at Arnstadt from 1703–1707 and then to St. Blasius’s in Mühlhausen (both in Thuringia) from 1707–1708, produced early organ pieces (e.g., Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565) and a small number of church cantatas (e.g., "Gott ist mein König," BWV 70). Next, he was appointed organist and chamber musician at the court of Saxe-Weimar from 1708–1717 where he composed the great bulk of his keyboard works, including didactic collections (e.g., Orgelbü chlein, c. 1713–1715, BWV 599–644). His promotion to concertmaster in March 1714 required the composition once per month of a church cantata for small instrumental and vocal ensemble in order to fit into the confined space of the chapel at the Weimar castle (e.g., Himmelskönig, sei willkommen, BWV 182). In 1717, he moved to Cöthen (Thuringia) to be kapellmeister to Prince Leopold where he directed an ensemble of professional court musicians. Here, Bach composed or collected much of his secular concertos, suites (including those for solo violin and cello), sonatas, and other ensemble works (e.g., Brandenburg Concertos). In 1723, Bach was elected cantor of St. Thomas Church by the town council of Leipzig. He remained in this post until his death.
   As Thomaskantor, Bach had to supervise the music at four churches (St. Thomas, St. Nicholas, St. Paul’s, and the New Church) and the musical education of students at the St. Thomas school. In the 1720s, according to Bach’s obituary, he composed five liturgical cycles of about 60 church cantatas each for the Lutheran church year, only three of which survive, as well as at least two passions (St. John, 1724, BWV 245 and St. Matthew, 1727, BWV 244), as well as the Magnificat (1723, BWV 243) and a number of secular cantatas and keyboard works. Toward 1730, he became increasingly unhappy with the lack of support for his program from the town authorities. The prodigious compositional production of more than one cantata per week at the beginning of his Leipzig tenure fell off. Thereafter he often parodied older compositions to meet liturgical demands (e.g., The Christmas Oratorio, 1734, BWV 248) and devoted himself increasingly to secular compositions for the local Collegium Musicum and to compilations of a speculative nature such as the "Goldberg" Variations" (1742 pubd., BWV 988), the "Musical Offering" (1747 pubd.), and the "Art of Fugue" (1742–1750; pubd. 1751, BWV 1080). In these encyclopedic works, Bach explores the limits of his musical style, the technical possibilities of his inherited language. Even his last major composition, the Mass in B minor (BWV 232), is such an exploration, since there is no known commission for its Credo, Sanctus, or Agnus Dei. Thus Bach’s last two decades adumbrate the modern composer who creates after his own inspiration rather than for a particular event or liturgy. In 1950, Wolfgang Schmieder published his Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis, a catalog of Bach’s works (rev. ed. 1990). His BWV numeration, running to more than 1,070 works, is the most common way of precisely identifying a Bach composition today. The catalog, however, is not chronological but categorical; BWV numbers cannot be trusted to indicate priority of composition even within a category. Bach’s music influenced the sacred repertory of the ChristianWest in at least five areas. Accounting by breadth of dispersal and frequency of hearing, his music exercises the widest sphere of influence through his four-voiced chorale harmonizations. Many of these originated as movements, usually concluding, from his church cantatas.
   First collected by Bach’s son, Carl Phillip Emmanuel (1714–1788), in 1765 and 1769, they have since populated the hymn repertories of Lutheran, Anglican, Roman Catholic, and other Christian churches. The soprano melodies were, of course, already traditional in Bach’s time; he added alto, tenor, and bass voices, resulting in arrangements of exceptionally inventive harmonic goals, animated inner part-writing, and dissonances that, while at times strident, never violate the syntax of his native musical language. Music students the world over study Bach chorales because they capture in miniature the synthesis of harmonic function and counterpoint that is the essence of the Western tradition.
   Next most influential is the organ music, which stands at the summit of the entire organ repertory. There are five categories: improvisational genres (stylus phantasticus), fugues, sonatas, chorale preludes, and transcriptions.
   The improvisational genres include works with titles such as prelude, toccata, and fantasia. Bach was an incomparable improviser on the keyboard, and these works are thought to be derived from such extemporaneous performances that might occur at the beginning of a liturgy or as part of an organ recital. Typical of these works are passages with discontinuous meter, disjointed phrasing, chromatic wandering, extended sequential modulations, and other devices suggesting invention on the spot. Because they are not rhythmically unified in the manner of most Baroque instrumental compositions, rather like instrumental recitative, they present a tentative and unclosed structure and often do not stand alone but introduce a following fugue.
   Bach’s name is almost synonymous with fugue, for he explored this technique more comprehensively, by far, than anyone else has ever done. The most explicit compendia are the two collections of The Well-Tempered Clavier (c. 1722, BWV 846–69 and 1742, BWV 870–93, not for organ but harpsichord or clavichord), in which Bach presents the player with 24 preludes and fugues from two to five voices, of every type, one for each of the major and minor keys, and The Art of Fugue (1742–1750, pubd. 1751, BWV 1080), which treats a single subject to the various traditional contrapuntal devices: simple imitation, double and triple counterpoint, inversion, and retrograde. The six trio sonatas (late 1720s, BWV 525–30) are thought to be among his most difficult because they require intricate passagework to be played with constant independence of the two hands and feet. The transcriptions of concertos by Antonio Vivaldi, Giuseppe Torelli, and other masters come from Bach’s early career as a means of learning the highly influential Italian manner. He often enlivened the simpler Italian textures by adding inner parts and fast bass rhythms. The chorale preludes take a traditional chorale as their compositional premise, usually as a sustained cantus firmus. The four important collections of these are the Orgelbü chlein, Part III of the Clavier-ü bung (1739 publ., BWV 669–89), a set known as The Great Eighteen (after 1740, BWV 651–68), and the Schubler Chorales (1748–1749 publ., BWV 645–50). Again, Bach explores every means of raising the humble chorale to undreamed of artistic heights: as a cantus firmus in soprano, alto, tenor, or bass, in canon, in a highly ornamented version, as the subject of a fugue and as canonic variations (on Vom Himmel hoch, 1747, BWV 769). Although the chorale may be drawn out slowly, Bach’s unflagging accompanying voices never fail to maintain an intense Baroque rhythmic continuity throughout.
   Bach often combined these genres and crossed categorical boundaries within a single work. Improvisatory toccatas may have tightly composed fugal sections. Late in life, he transcribed a number of vocal pieces for organ (e.g., two in the Schubler Chorales). Trio texture is common throughout the organ works, and of course the chorale prelude concept underlies all his "chorale" cantatas. Third most influential would be Bach’s church cantatas, passions, and masses. When Bach was Thomaskantor, these comprised his principal compositional responsibility. The cantatas, using Biblical texts with commentary, would be sung directly after the readings from Scripture in the Lutheran mass before the homily and so act as a musical exegesis of the day’s lessons. Longer cantatas would be performed in two parts, one before and the other after the homily. Bach’s St. John Passion and St. Matthew Passion occupy an analogous position in the Good Friday vespers liturgy but on a much larger scale, especially the St. Matthew Passion, of which the music alone lasts nearly three hours.
   Because the liturgical reforms of Martin Luther authorized both Latin versions of the mass ordinaries as well as German chorale substitutes, Bach composed four masses consisting of only Kyrie and Gloria movements (1733–1739, BWV 232–36) that might be used more frequently than the cantatas whose texts destined them for a particular feast. The Mass in B minor began as such a pair; the Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei were added only at the end of his life. Each of the four smaller masses has a Kyrie chorus of a single movement and a five-part Gloria in the form of three arias sandwiched between opening and closing choruses. The music in 19 of the 24 movements has been traced to previously composed cantatas. Today, only isolated movements of Bach cantatas, masses, and passions find their way into liturgies. Instead, they form an essential component of the concert choral repertory.
   The last but by no means inconsiderable influence on modern sacred music would be Bach’s music for instrumental ensemble: works for solo violin, cello, and flute; the sonatas for solo instrument and continuo; trio sonatas; and the many concertos. Although Bach would not have used any of this music in liturgy without some accompanying sacred text, today it is commonly found in worship services of nearly every denomination, some even non-Christian. Bach himself anticipated this by his practice of recomposing secular music for the sacred service by adding sacred text and by using organ preludes and fugues that had no explicit sacred semantic, before and after a liturgy. In sum, Bach’s style has come to represent so fine a sacred semantic in the modern sensibility that almost any composition of his is admissable in church today.
   That style was well out of fashion by the time of his death in 1750 and so, except for a small number of keyboard works used for teaching purposes and very rare revivals of isolated movements, his music went underground and much of it was lost. A modicum of interest was maintained by connoisseurs such as the Berliner Gewandhaus, but the great bulk of Bach’s music remained unknown for nearly a century. Felix Mendelssohn’s partial revival of the St. Matthew Passion in 1829 in Berlin sparked a more general interest, and by 1850 the Bachgesellschaft (Bach Society) was founded to publish a complete edition, finished in 1897. Performers and editors of those days routinely interpreted "historical" music according to Romantic tastes so that the sizes of choruses and orchestras would be far beyond anything Bach had in mind, to say nothing of added dynamics, changed orchestrations, and other "improvements."
   About the same time, however, a more "scientific" historicism in certain musicians began to question such liberal adaptations. Interest in manuscripts, contemporary theorists, original instruments, and other sources grew ever more intense, until the mid-20th century saw the emergence of ensembles that tried to recreate "authentic" performances such as Bach himself might have known. While the most egregious of 19th-century abuses certainly required remedy, Bach’s own common practice of transcribing and adapting his own works for other musical media suggests that his art accommodates a wide variety of interpretations. The universal and enduring qualities that has made Bach’s music the most studied all over the world seem to arise from the complex relations and coordinations, often very abstract, that he has built into the notes themselves.

Historical dictionary of sacred music. . 2006.

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