Skip to main content
Humanities LibreTexts

4.6: Music of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)

  • Page ID
  • \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \)

    \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)

    ( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\)

    \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\)

    \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\)

    \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\)

    \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\)

    \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\AA}{\unicode[.8,0]{x212B}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorA}[1]{\vec{#1}}      % arrow\)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorAt}[1]{\vec{\text{#1}}}      % arrow\)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorB}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorC}[1]{\textbf{#1}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorD}[1]{\overrightarrow{#1}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorDt}[1]{\overrightarrow{\text{#1}}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectE}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash{\mathbf {#1}}}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \)

    \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)

    \(\newcommand{\avec}{\mathbf a}\) \(\newcommand{\bvec}{\mathbf b}\) \(\newcommand{\cvec}{\mathbf c}\) \(\newcommand{\dvec}{\mathbf d}\) \(\newcommand{\dtil}{\widetilde{\mathbf d}}\) \(\newcommand{\evec}{\mathbf e}\) \(\newcommand{\fvec}{\mathbf f}\) \(\newcommand{\nvec}{\mathbf n}\) \(\newcommand{\pvec}{\mathbf p}\) \(\newcommand{\qvec}{\mathbf q}\) \(\newcommand{\svec}{\mathbf s}\) \(\newcommand{\tvec}{\mathbf t}\) \(\newcommand{\uvec}{\mathbf u}\) \(\newcommand{\vvec}{\mathbf v}\) \(\newcommand{\wvec}{\mathbf w}\) \(\newcommand{\xvec}{\mathbf x}\) \(\newcommand{\yvec}{\mathbf y}\) \(\newcommand{\zvec}{\mathbf z}\) \(\newcommand{\rvec}{\mathbf r}\) \(\newcommand{\mvec}{\mathbf m}\) \(\newcommand{\zerovec}{\mathbf 0}\) \(\newcommand{\onevec}{\mathbf 1}\) \(\newcommand{\real}{\mathbb R}\) \(\newcommand{\twovec}[2]{\left[\begin{array}{r}#1 \\ #2 \end{array}\right]}\) \(\newcommand{\ctwovec}[2]{\left[\begin{array}{c}#1 \\ #2 \end{array}\right]}\) \(\newcommand{\threevec}[3]{\left[\begin{array}{r}#1 \\ #2 \\ #3 \end{array}\right]}\) \(\newcommand{\cthreevec}[3]{\left[\begin{array}{c}#1 \\ #2 \\ #3 \end{array}\right]}\) \(\newcommand{\fourvec}[4]{\left[\begin{array}{r}#1 \\ #2 \\ #3 \\ #4 \end{array}\right]}\) \(\newcommand{\cfourvec}[4]{\left[\begin{array}{c}#1 \\ #2 \\ #3 \\ #4 \end{array}\right]}\) \(\newcommand{\fivevec}[5]{\left[\begin{array}{r}#1 \\ #2 \\ #3 \\ #4 \\ #5 \\ \end{array}\right]}\) \(\newcommand{\cfivevec}[5]{\left[\begin{array}{c}#1 \\ #2 \\ #3 \\ #4 \\ #5 \\ \end{array}\right]}\) \(\newcommand{\mattwo}[4]{\left[\begin{array}{rr}#1 \amp #2 \\ #3 \amp #4 \\ \end{array}\right]}\) \(\newcommand{\laspan}[1]{\text{Span}\{#1\}}\) \(\newcommand{\bcal}{\cal B}\) \(\newcommand{\ccal}{\cal C}\) \(\newcommand{\scal}{\cal S}\) \(\newcommand{\wcal}{\cal W}\) \(\newcommand{\ecal}{\cal E}\) \(\newcommand{\coords}[2]{\left\{#1\right\}_{#2}}\) \(\newcommand{\gray}[1]{\color{gray}{#1}}\) \(\newcommand{\lgray}[1]{\color{lightgray}{#1}}\) \(\newcommand{\rank}{\operatorname{rank}}\) \(\newcommand{\row}{\text{Row}}\) \(\newcommand{\col}{\text{Col}}\) \(\renewcommand{\row}{\text{Row}}\) \(\newcommand{\nul}{\text{Nul}}\) \(\newcommand{\var}{\text{Var}}\) \(\newcommand{\corr}{\text{corr}}\) \(\newcommand{\len}[1]{\left|#1\right|}\) \(\newcommand{\bbar}{\overline{\bvec}}\) \(\newcommand{\bhat}{\widehat{\bvec}}\) \(\newcommand{\bperp}{\bvec^\perp}\) \(\newcommand{\xhat}{\widehat{\xvec}}\) \(\newcommand{\vhat}{\widehat{\vvec}}\) \(\newcommand{\uhat}{\widehat{\uvec}}\) \(\newcommand{\what}{\widehat{\wvec}}\) \(\newcommand{\Sighat}{\widehat{\Sigma}}\) \(\newcommand{\lt}{<}\) \(\newcommand{\gt}{>}\) \(\newcommand{\amp}{&}\) \(\definecolor{fillinmathshade}{gray}{0.9}\)

    Johann Sebastian Bach (B. 1685-1750) During the seventeenth century, many families passed their trades down to the next generation so that future gen- erations may continue to succeed in a vocation. This practice also held true for Johann Sebastian Bach. Bach was born into one of the largest musical families in Eisenach of the central Germany region known as Thuringia. He was orphaned at the young age of ten and raised by an older brother in Ohrdruf, Germany. Bach’s older brother was a church organist who pre- pared the young Johann for the family vocation. The Bach family, though great in number, were mostly of the lower musical stature of town’s musicians and/or Lutheran Church organist. Only a few of the Bach’s had achieved the accomplished stature of court musicians, but the Bach family members were known and respected in the region. Bach also in turn taught four of his sons who later became leading composers for the next generation.

    Screen Shot 2020-06-12 at 3.43.21 PM.png
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Portrait of Johann Sebastian Bach by Elias Gottlob Haussmann. Source: Wikimedia

    Bach received his first professional position at the age of eighteen in Arnstadt, Germany as a church organist. Bach’s first appointment was not a good philosophical match for the young aspiring musician. He felt his musical creativity and growth was being hindered and his innovation and originality unappreciated. The congregation seemed sometimes confused and felt the melody lost in Bach’s writings. He met and married his first wife while in Arnstadt, marrying Maria Barbara (possibly his cousin) in 1707. They had seven children together; two of their sons, Wilhelm Friedemann and Carl Phillipp Emmanuel, as noted above, became major composers for the next generation. Bach later was offered and accepted another position in Műhlhausen.

    He continued to be offered positions that he accepted and so advanced in his professional position/title up to a court position in Weimer where he served nine years from 1708-1717. This position had a great number of responsibilities. Bach was required to write church music for the ducal church (the church for the duke that hired Bach), to perform as church organist, and to write organ music and sacred choral pieces for choir, in addition to writing sonatas and concertos (instrumental music) for court performance for his duke’s events. While at this post, Bach’s fame as an organist and the popularity of his organ works grew significantly.

    Bach soon wanted to leave for another offered court musician position, and his request to be released was not received well. This difficulty attests to the work relations of court musicians and their employers. Dukes expected and demanded loyalty from their court musician employees. Because musicians were looked up- on somewhat as court property, the duke of the court often felt betrayed when a court musician wanted to leave. Upon hearing of Bach’s desire to leave and work for another court for the prince of Cöthen, the Duke at Weimer refused to accept Bach’s resignation and threw Bach into jail for almost a month for submitting his dismissal request before relenting and letting Bach go to the Cöthen court.

    The Prince at Cöthen was very interested in instrumental music. The Prince was a developing amateur musician who did not appreciate the elaborate church music of Bach’s past; instead, the Prince desired instrumental court music, so Bach focused on composing instrumental music. In his five year (1717-1723) tenure at Cöthen, Bach produced an abundance of clavier music, six concerti grossi honoring the Margrave of Brandenburg, suites, concertos and sonatas. While at Cöthen (1720), Bach’s first wife Maria Barbara died. He later married a young singer, Anna Magdalena and they had thirteen children together. Half of these children did not survive infancy. Two of Bach’s sons birthed by Anna, Johann Christoph and Johann Christian, also went on to become two of the next generation’s foremost composers.

    At the age of thirty-eight, Bach assumed the position as cantor of the St. Thom- as Lutheran Church in Leipzig, Germany. Several other candidates were considered for the Leipzig post, including the famous composer Telemann who refused the offer. Some on the town council felt that, since the most qualified candidates did not accept the offer, the less talented applicant would have to be hired. It was in this negative working atmosphere that Leipzig hired its greatest cantor and musician. Bach worked in Leipzig for twenty-seven years (1723-1750).

    Leipzig served as a hub of Lutheran church music for Germany. Not only did Bach have to compose and perform, he also had to administer and organize music for all the churches in Leipzig. He was required to teach in choir school in addition to all of his other responsibilities. Bach composed, copied needed parts, directed, rehearsed, and performed a cantata on a near weekly basis. Cantatas are major church choir works that involve soloist, choir, and orchestra. Cantatas have several movements and last for fifteen to thirty minutes. Cantatas are still performed today by church choirs, mostly on special occasions such as Easter, Christmas, and other festive church events.

    Bach felt that the rigors of his Leipzig position were too bureaucratic and restrictive due to town and church politics. Neither the town nor the church really ever appreciated Bach. The church and town council refused to pay Bach for all the extra demands/responsibilities of his position and thought basically that they would merely tolerate their irate cantor, even though Bach was the best organist in Germany. Several of Bach’s contemporary church musicians felt his music was not according to style and types considered current, a feeling which may have resulted from professional jealousy. One contemporary critic felt Bach was “old Fashioned.”

    Beyond this professional life, Bach had a personal life centered on his large family. He had seven children by his first wife, one by a cousin, and thirteen by his second wife, Anna Magdalena, who was also a singer. He wrote a little home school music curriculum entitled The Notebook of Anna Magdalena Bach. At home, the children were taught the fundamentals of music, music copying, performance skills, and other musical content. Bach’s children utilized their learned music copying skills in writing the parts from the required weekly cantatas that Sebastian was required to compose. Bach’s deep spirituality is evident and felt in the meticulous attention to detail of Bach’s scared works, such as his cantatas. Indeed, the spirituality of Bach’s Passions and his Mass are unequaled by other composers.

    Bach did not travel much, with the exception of being hired as a consultant with construction contracts to install organs in churches. He would be asked to test the organs and to be part of their inauguration ceremony and festivities. The fee for such a service ranged from a cord of wood or possibly to a barrel of wine. In 1747, Bach went on one of these professional expeditions to the Court of Frederick the Great in Potsdam, an expedition that proved most memorable. Bach’s son, Carl Philipp Emanuel, served as the accompanist for the monarch of the court who played the flute. Upon Bach’s arrival, the monarch showed Bach a new collection of pianos—pianos were beginning to replace harpsichords in homes of society. With Bach’s permission, the king presented him with a theme/melody that Bach based one of his incredible themes for the evening’s performance. Upon Bach’s return to Leipzig, he further developed the king’s theme, adding a trio sonata, and entitled it. The Musical Offering attesting to his highest respect for the monarch and stating that the King should be revered.

    Bach later became blind but continued composing through dictating to his children. He had also already begun to organize his compositions into orderly sets of organ chorale preludes, preludes and fugues for harpsichord, and organ fugues. He started to outline and recapitulate his conclusive thoughts about Baroque music, forms, performance, composition, fugal techniques, and genres. This knowledge and innovation appears in such works as The Art of Fugue—a collection of fugues all utilizing the same subject left incomplete due to his death—the thirty-three Goldberg Variations for harpsichord, and the Mass in B minor.

    Bach was an intrinsically motivated composer who composed music for him- self and a small group of student and close friends. This type of composition was a break from the previous norms of composers. Even after his death, Bach’s music was ignored nor valued by the musical public. It was, however, appreciated and admired by great composers such as Mozart and Beethoven.

    Over the course of his lifetime, Bach produced major works, including The Well-Tempered Clavier (forty-eight preludes and fugues in all major and minor keys), three sets of harpsichord suites (six movements in each set), the Goldberg Variations, many organ fugues and chorale preludes (chorale preludes are organ solos based upon church hymns—several by Luther), the Brandenburg Concertos, and composite works such as A Musical Offering and The Art of Fugue, an excess of 200 secular and sacred cantatas, two Passions from the gospels of St. Matthew and St. John, a Christmas Oratorio, a Mass in B minor, and several chorale/hymn harmonizations, concertos, and other orchestral suites and sonatas.

    Focus Composition:

    Bach, A Mighty Fortress is Our God Cantata, BWV 80

    Bach’s A Mighty Fortress is Our God cantata, like most of his cantatas, has several movements. It opens with a polyphonic chorus that presents the first verse of the hymn. After several other movements (including recitatives, arias, and du- ets), the cantata closes with the final verse of the hymn arranged for four parts. For a comparison of cantatas, oratorios and opera, please see the chart earlier in this chapter. For more information on cantatas go to:

    Bach composed some of this music when he was still in Weimar (BWV 80A) and then revised and expanded the cantata for performance in Leipzig around 1730 (BWV 80B), with additional re-workings between 1735 and 1740 (BWVA 80).

    Listening Guide

    For audio, go to: performed by the Bach Chorus & Orchestra of the Amsterdam Philharmonic Society / A. Vandernoot

    Composer: Johann Sebastian Bach

    Composition: Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott

    translated to A Mighty Fortress is Our God from Bach Cantata 80 (BWV 80)

    Date: 1715-1740
    Genre: First-movement polyphonic chorus and final movement chorale from a church cantata
    Form: sectional, divided by statements of Luther’s original melody line in sustained notes in the trumpets, oboes, and cellos.
    Nature of Text: For a translation from the original German to Enligsh, go to:
    Performing Forces: choir and orchestra (vocal soloists appear elsewhere in the cantata)

    What we want you to remember about this composition:

    • This is representative of Bach’s mastery of taking a Martin Luther hymn and arranging it in imitative polyphony for all four voice parts and instrumental parts

    Other things to listen for:

    • them to the first verse or strophe of the hymn. He weaves these new melody lines into a beautiful polyphonic choral work.
    • Most of the time the instruments double (or play the same music as) the four voice parts.
    • He also has the trumpets, oboes, and cellos divide up Luther’s exact melody into nine phrases. They present the first phrase after the first section of the chorus and then subsequent phrases throughout the chorus. When they play the original melody, they do so in canon: the trumpets and oboes begin and then the cellos enter after about a measure.
    • Also listen to see if you can hear the augmentation in the work. The original tune is performed in this order of the voices: Tenors, Sopranos, Tenors, Sopranos, Basses, Altos, Tenors, Sopranos, and then the Tenors
    • Screen Shot 2020-06-12 at 3.46.12 PM.png
      Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Ein’ feste Burg ist unser Gott Sheet Music by “Drboisclair.” Source: Wikimedia

    Bach was born into a century that saw great advancements in keyboard instruments and keyboard music. The keyboard instruments included harpsichord, clavichord, and organ. The harpsichord is a keyboard instrument whose strings are put into motion by pressing a key that facilitates a plucking of a string by quills of feathers (instead of being struck by hammers like the piano). The tone produced on the harpsichord is bright but cannot be sustained without re-striking the key. Dynamics are very limited on the harpsichord. In order for the tone to continue on the harpsichord, keys are replayed, trills are utilized, embellishments are add- ed, and chords are broken into arpeggios. Harpsichords are used a great deal for counterpoint in the middle voices.

    Screen Shot 2020-06-12 at 3.51.12 PM.png
    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): Harpsichord by Gérard Janot. Source: Wikimedia

    license | CC BY-SA 3.0

    During the early Baroque era, the clavichord remained the instrument of choice for the home; indeed, it is said that Bach preferred it to the harpsichord. It produced its tone by a means of keys attached to met- al blades that strike the strings. As we will see in the next chapter, by the end of the 1700s, the piano would replace the harpsichord and clavichord as the instrument of choice for residences.

    Bach was best known as a virtuoso organist, and he had the opportunity to play on some of the most advanced pipe organs of his day. Sound is produced on the organ with the depression of one or more of the keys which activates a mechanism that opens pipes of a certain length and pitch through which wind from a wind chest rushes. The length and material of the pipe determines the tones produced. Levers called stops provide further options for different timbres. The Baroque pipe organ operated on relatively low air pressure as com-
    pared to today’s organs, resulting in a relatively thin transparent tone and volume.

    Screen Shot 2020-06-12 at 3.51.20 PM.png
    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\):Clavichord byGérard Janot. Source: Wikimedia

    license | CC BY-SA 3.0

    Most Baroque organs had at least two keyboards, called manuals (after the Latin word for hand), and a pedal board, played by the two feet. The presence of multiple key- boards and a pedal board made the organ an ideal instrument for polyphony. Each of the keyboards and the pedal board could be assigned different stops and thus could pro- duce different timbres and even dynamic levels, which helped define voices of the polyphonic texture. Bach composed many of his chorale preludes and fugues for the organ.

    Screen Shot 2020-06-12 at 3.51.27 PM.png
    Figure \(\PageIndex{5}\): Pipe Organ Gérard Janot. Source: Wikimedia

    Focus Composition:

    Bach, “Little” Fugue in G Minor (BWV 578)

    The fugue is one of the most spectacular and magnificent achievements of the Baroque period. During this era of fine arts innovation, scientific research, natural laws, and systematic approaches to imitative polyphony were further developed and standardized. Polyphony first emerged in the late Middle Ages. Independent melodic lines overlapped and were woven. In the Renaissance, the polyphony was further developed by a greater weaving of the independent melodic lines. The Baroque composers, under the influence of science, further organized it into a sys- tem—more on this later. The term fugue comes from the Latin word “fuga” that means running away or to take flight. The fugue is a contrapuntal (polyphonic) piece for a set number of musicians, usually three of four. The musical theme of a fugue is called the subject.

    You may think of a fugue as a gossip party. The subject (of gossip) is introduced in one corner of the room between to people. Another person in the room then begins repeating the gossip while the original conversation continues. Then another person picks up on the story and begins repeating the now third-hand news and it then continues a fourth time. A new observer walking into the room will hear bits and pieces from four conversations at one time—each repeating the original subject (gossip). This is how a fugue works. Fugues begin with an exposition. This is when the subject is introduced until the original subject has been played or sung in all the voices or parts. Most fugues are in the four standard voices: soprano, alto, tenor, and bass. We will refer to the parts in these voices for both voices and instruments.

    At the beginning of the fugue, any of the four voices can begin with the subject. Then another voice starts with the subject at a time dictated in the mu- sic while the first voice continues to more material. The imitation is continued through all the voices. The exposition of the fugue is over when all the voices complete the initial subject.

    Voice 1 Soprano Subject-continues in a counter subject

    Voice 2 Alto Subject-continues in a counter subject

    Voice 3 Tenor Subject-continues in a counter subject

    Voice 4 Bass Subject-continues in a counter subject

    After the exposition is completed, it may be repeated in a different order of voices or it may continue with less weighted entrances at varying lengths known as episodes. This variation provides a little relaxation or relief from the early regiment systematic polyphony of the exposition. In longer fugues, the episodes are followed by a section in another key with continued overlapping of the subject. This episode and modulation can continue to repeat until they return to the original key.

    Fugues are performed as a prelude to traditional worship on the pipe organ and are quite challenging to perform by the organist. Hands, fingers, and feet must all be controlled independently by the single organist and all at the same time. Often in non-fugal music, this type of polyphony is briefly written into a piece of music as an insert, called a fugato or fugato section. When voices overlap in a fugue, it is called stretto (similar to strata). When the original voice continues after the second voice jumps in, the first voice is said to be singing the countersubject. The development of musical themes or subjects by lengthening or multiplying the durations of the notes or pitches is called augmentation. The shortening or dividing the note and pitch durations is called diminution. Both augmentation and diminution are utilized in the development of the musical subjects in fugues and in theme development in other genres. The “turning up-side down” of a musical line from an ascending passage to a descending passage is called inversion.

    Let’s listen to one of Bach’s most famous fugues. You may immediately recognize the piece from your past. The Little Fugue in G Minor is Bach’s most famous organ piece.

    Listening Guide

    For live performance, go to:

    To Listen and view the score, go to:

    Composer: Johann Sebastian Bach
    Composition: Organ Fugue in G Minor (BWV 578)
    Date: circa 1709
    Genre: Organ Fugue
    Form: Fugue
    Nature of Text: Bach was able to take the earlier vocal polyphony of the renaissance period and apply it to the organ fugue. This is regarded as one of Bach’s great achievements.
    Performing Forces: Organ

    What we want you to remember about this composition:

    • Listen to how Bach weaves and overlaps the subject throughout the piece.

    Other things to listen for:

    • The subject (tune) is introduced in the highest voices and then is imitated in each lower voice in order: soprano, alto, tenor and then bass in the pedals. After the exposition is completed in the bass pedals, the subject is introduced in the first voice. Upon the entrance of the second layer, the first voice goes into a counter subject. Just before the subject is introduced five more times, it is preceded by a brief episode. In each episode the subject is not played in its entirety.
    • Even though the fugue is in G minor, the piece ends with a major chord, a practice utilized during the Baroque period. Major chords were thought more conclusive than minor chords.
    Timing Performing Forces, Melody, and Texture
    00:00 Subject in soprano voice alone, minor key
    00:18 Subject in alto, countersubject in running notes in soprano
    00:42 Subject in tenor, countersubject above it; brief episode follows
    01:01 Subject in bass (pedals), countersubject in tenor
    01:17 Brief episode
    01:28 Subject begins in tenor, continues in soprano

    Brief episode, running notes in a downward sequence

    01:56 Subject in alto, major key; countersubject in soprano
    02:13 Episode in major, upward leaps and running notes
    02:25 Subject in bass (pedals), major key, countersubject and long trill above it
    02:42 Longer episode
    03:00 Subject in soprano, minor key, countersubject below it
    03:16 Extended episode
    03:47 Subject in bass (pedals), countersubject in soprano; fugue ends with major chord
    04:12 End

    This page titled 4.6: Music of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) is shared under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Clark, Heflin, Kluball, & Kramer (GALILEO Open Learning Materials) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform.