Johann Sebastian Bach

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Related to Johann Sebastian Bach: Franz Schubert, George Frideric Handel, Frederic Chopin

Bach, Johann Sebastian

Bach, Johann Sebastian (sābäsˈtyän) (bäkh), 1685–1750, German composer and organist, b. Eisenach; one of the greatest and most influential composers of the Western world. He brought polyphonic baroque music to its culmination, creating masterful and vigorous works in almost every musical form known in his period.


Born into a gifted family (see Bach, family), J. S. Bach was devoted to music from childhood. He was taught by his father and later by his brother Johann Christoph, and was a boy soprano in Lüneberg. His education was acquired largely through independent studies. He had an insatiable curiosity about music and sometimes walked great distances to hear the organists Johann Adam Reinken (at Hamburg) and Buxtehude (at Lübeck). In 1703 he became violinist in the private orchestra of the prince at Weimar but left within a year to become organist at Arnstadt.

Bach went to Mühlhausen as organist in 1707. There he married his cousin Maria Barbara Bach, who was to bear him seven children. In 1708 he was made court organist and chamber musician at Weimar, and in 1714 he became concert master. Prince Leopold of Anhalt engaged him as musical director at Köthen in 1717. Three years later his wife died, and in 1721 he married Anna Magdalena Wülken, a woman of considerable musical cultivation who eventually bore him 13 children. In 1723 he took the important post of music director of the church of St. Thomas, Leipzig, and of its choir school; he remained in Leipzig until his death.


Since few of Bach's many works were published in his lifetime, exact dates cannot be fixed for all of them, but most can be placed with some certainty in the periods of his life. At Arnstadt and Mühlhausen he began a series of organ compositions that culminated in the great works of the Weimar period: the Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor, most of the great preludes and fugues, and the 45 chorale-preludes gathered in Das Orgelbüchlein [the little organ book].

At Köthen he concentrated on instrumental compositions, especially keyboard works: the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue; the English Suites; the French Suites; the Two-Part and Three-Part Inventions, written for the education of his son Wilhelm Friedemann; and Book I of the celebrated Well-Tempered Clavier. He also wrote several unaccompanied violin sonatas and cello suites, and the Brandenburg Concertos, recognized as the best concerti grossi ever composed.

The St. John Passion was performed (1723) at Leipzig when Bach was a candidate for the position of musical director at St. Thomas. His Magnificat was presented shortly after he assumed that post. Many more of his superb religious compositions followed: the St. Matthew Passion (1729), the Christmas Oratorio, the sonorous Mass in B Minor, and the six motets. The principal keyboard works of this period were Book II of The Well-Tempered Clavier and the four books of clavier pieces in the Clavierübung, which includes: six partitas (1726–31); the Italian Concerto and the Partita in B Minor (1735); the Catechism Preludes, the Prelude and Fugue (St. Anne) in E Flat (1739), and four duets; and the Goldberg Variations (more formally Aria with Thirty Variations, 1742). His last notable compositions were the Musical Offering composed (1747) for Frederick the Great and The Art of the Fugue (1749).

Accomplishments and Influence

In all his positions as choir director, Bach composed sacred cantatas—a total of some 300, of which nearly 200 are extant. There are also over 30 secular cantatas, composed at Leipzig, among them Phoebus and Pan (1731). The bulk of his work is religious—he made four-part settings of 371 Lutheran chorales, also using many of them as the bases of organ preludes and choral works. In addition, he composed an astonishing number of instrumental works, many of them designed for the instruction of his numerous pupils. In his instrumental and choral works he perfected the art of polyphony, displaying an unmatched combination of inventiveness and control in his great, striding fugues.

During his lifetime, Bach was better known as an organist than as a composer. For decades after his death his works were neglected, but in the 19th cent. his genius came to be recognized, particularly by romantic composers such as Mendelssohn and Schumann. Since that time his reputation has grown steadily.


The classic study of his life and music is by P. Spitta (tr. 1884–85, repr. 1972), and A. Schweitzer's study (tr. 1911, repr. 1962) attracted much attention. See also biographies by K. and I. Geiringer (1966), C. S. Terry (1928, repr. 1988), C. Wolff (2000), M. Geck (2000, tr.2006), and P. Williams (2012); studies by J. N. Forkel (tr. 1920, repr. 1970), R. L. Marshall (2 vol., 1972), B. Schwendowius and W. Domling, ed. (1984), and J. E. Gardiner (2013); H. T. David and A. Mendel, The Bach Reader (1945, rev. ed. 1966); O. L. Bettmann, Johann Sebastian Bach as His World Knew Him (1995).

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Johann Sebastian Bach, the great German composer, spent much of his career serving as organist and music director for a Lutheran church in Leipzing. The Art Archive/Society of the Friends of Music Vienna/Dagli Orti.

Bach, Johann Sebastian

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

Anyone who has attended Protestant worship services for any length of time has experienced in some way the music of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). Raised in the Lutheran tradition, Bach is history's most prolific composer of church music and one of the true musical giants. During his lifetime Bach was recognized as a brilliant organist, but the people of his day—possibly because they lived at a time of fluctuating musical tastes—didn't really appreciate his genius as a composer. He died in 1750, but it wasn't until Felix Mendelssohn revived the Saint Matthew Passion in 1829 that Bach finally took the place he holds today as one of the most respected composers of all time. His organ music, choral cantatas, and instrumental works have become standard repertoire for church musicians, and beloved hymns like "Sleepers Awake," "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God," and "Break Forth, O Beauteous Heavenly Light" are in every hymn book.

The Religion Book: Places, Prophets, Saints, and Seers © 2004 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Bach, Johann Sebastian


Born Mar. 21, 1685, in Eisenach; died July 28, 1750, in Leipzig. German composer and organist.

Bach was a member of a large family from Thuringia which provided the world with several generations of musicians during the 17th and 18th centuries. Bach enjoyed fame as an organist, but during his lifetime he did not attract the attention he deserved as a composer. His biography, typical for a German musician of that time, conflicts with his brilliant work, which is one of the high points of philosophical thought in music.

Bach’s biography, meager in its external events, is conventionally divided into three periods. The first period includes his years of study (1695–1700 in Ohrdruf; 1700–03 in Lüneburg). Bach early mastered the organ, clavier, and violin; he became a choir singer and studied scores by old and contemporary masters. The second period of Bach’s life (1703–23) embraces his professional and creative maturity; it was characterized by frequent changes of positions and duties, as well as by continuous conflicts with obtuse authorities who suppressed the great composer’s creative initiative. In 1703, Bach was working in Weimar as a court violinist; from 1703 to 1707 he was church organist in Arn-stadt. After a year of work at the church in Mühlhausen, Bach served for 15 years as a court musician in Weimar (1708–17 and Cöthen (1717–23). The third period—the Leipzig years (1723–50)—was the peak of Bach’s creativity. During these years he composed his most monumental works. Bach was working as cantor (precentor and teacher) at St. Thomas Church in Leipzig and at the school attached to the church. It was a difficult position which caused Bach to search (unsuccessfully) several times for a different post. He was also director of the student group Collegium Musicum. Bach died leaving a large family in difficult material circumstances.

Bach’s long-standing ties with the Protestant movement and its musical culture played a fundamental role in the formation of his art. The Protestant chorale—the “Marseillaise of the 16th century,” according to F. Engels—was the source of the national and democratic character of Bach’s works. Bach made contributions to all fields of musical work except opera. His works are organically related to the musical schools and genres of various European countries, beginning in the 17th century—the choral polyphony of the Renaissance; the Protestant chorale; the German song; Italian and German organ music; Italian opera; Italian violin ensemble, clavier, and orchestral schools; and French harpsichord music. G. F. Handel and Bach were the last great composers of the Baroque period. Although he remained within the framework of the old genres, Bach constantly enriched them with features borrowed from other genres and types of musical works.

Bach’s musical idiom went beyond the limits of his own time and anticipated later musical styles, including romanticism. The combination of polyphonic lines with harmonic chord structure gave rise in Bach’s works to a richness of sounds unknown to his predecessors. Bach surpassed his contemporaries in his astounding mastery of form. In his creative work, the art of polyphony reached its high point. Bach’s works are distinguished by the unity of all their elements, their even musical structure connected by a strong internal logic, severe architectonics, and an enormous diversity of devices used to vary the material.

Bach’s tremendous creative legacy, which includes more than 1,000 works in various genres, may be divided into three spheres—vocal dramatic works associated for the most part with Leipzig; organ works (the Weimar period); and instrumental works stemming from the secular tradition and belonging primarily to the Cöthen period.

Bach’s vocal dramatic works include approximately 300 religious cantatas and the oratorios St. John Passion, St. Matthew Passion, Magnificat, Christmas Oratorio, Easter Oratorio, the Mass in B minor, and others. In Bach’s cantatas the images of man are not revealed in a specific crisis; they are revealed as symbols of definite ethical ideas. Nevertheless, the music of the cantatas is free from mysticism. A feeling for the infinite beauty and joy of life is predominant in the composer’s world view. The expressive style of the cantatas, which encompasses an extremely broad range of ideas and moods, defined the features of all Bach’s choral works. The high points of Bach’s vocal dramatic music are his St. Matthew Passion and the Mass in B minor. The St. Matthew Passion, which tells of the last days of Christ’s life and his death, has an exceptional degree of unity for a work of such multileveled structure. The traditional plot scheme is interwoven with lyrical, psychological, epic, and dramatic elements. The music embodies the idea of moral perseverance and self-sacrifice for the good of the people. The Mass in B minor is remarkable for its grandiose scale and a diversity of devices unprecedented even for Bach; it is treated as a free cycle of pieces containing a general philosophy and life-affirming music. Even according to formal criteria, this monumental work violates the requirements of a church service.

Bach’s secular cantatas (about 30) were written, as a rule, for specific occasions. It is possible that some of these works were performed with a stage setting.

A famous virtuoso organist, Bach created works that were the culmination of three-centuries, development of organ literature. The chorale preludes played a great role in the formation of Bach’s organ style. They may be treated mainly as a unique, intimate diary of the composer. Each of them embodies one mood. In these free fantasies there was a fusion of popular and highly professional art, which made Bach’s bold artistic endeavors accessible to the listener.

In the genres of the prelude and fugue, fantasy, and toccata, Bach was the successor to the German organ school. In addition, he profoundly renewed its traditions. The emotional richness of Bach’s organ works, their profound internal concentration, dramatic scope, magnificent sounds, and apparent freedom of form have no parallels in the composer’s other works. In two-part cycles, Bach combined sections that are polar opposites in their quality of expression—an improvised toccata, fantasy, or prelude with a homophonic harmonic character and a strict, polyphonic fugue. These works make maximum use of the dynamic and timbre resources of the instrument available to the composer at that time.

In the field of music for the clavier, Bach was the first to compose concertos (on the model of violin concertos). He affirmed the independent importance of the clavier and opened up new paths in the field of clavier music, despite the imperfections of the instrument at that time. The two volumes of preludes and fugues entitled The Well-Tempered Clavier (Das Wohltemperierte Klavier), written in all the keys of the chromatic scale, are a brilliantly composed encyclopedia of musical styles of the 17th-18th centuries. The work was composed with the intention of demonstrating the equal value of all tonalities in the new system of tuning instruments, which was established in musical practice from that time on. In addition, The Well-Tempered Clavier was designed to show the characteristic color of each key. Traditional genres were also developed in Bach’s clavier works. In the six English Suites and six French Suites Bach transformed each dance into a lyric poem or a realm of profound meditation. A number of genres were borrowed from other fields of music. In his Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue Bach brought to a clavier work the brilliant virtuoso style, dramatic quality, and feeling of organ toccatas and fantasies. In the Concerto in the Italian Style all the characteristics of a violin concerto were recreated. Among Bach’s works for the clavier are six partitas, the Goldberg Variations, and The Art of the Fugue.

Bach’s six Brandenburg Concertos, each of which uses different solo instruments, and four suites based on dance forms are important landmarks in the history of orchestral music. Bach composed the first concertos for solo clavier and several claviers (on the model of violin concertos), concertos for violin with orchestral accompaniment, sonatas for violin, suites for the cello (solo), and works for the flute, viola da gamba, lute, and other instruments. Bach worked a great deal to improve musical instruments, especially the organ and the clavier.

Since 1950 (the 200th anniversary of Bach’s death), the International Bach Competition has been held every four years in Leipzig (German Democratic Republic).


J. S. Bachs Werke, [vols.] 1–46. Published by the Bach-Gesellschaft, Leipzig, 1851–1960. New edition: Leipzig-Kassel-Basel, 1958–67 (edition still in progress).


Khubov, G. Sebast’ian Bakh, muzykant-filosof: Opyt khara-kteristiki. Moscow, 1936. (Bibliography, pp. 117–22.) Fourth ed.: Moscow, 1963.
Livanova, T. Muzykal’naia dramaturgiia I. S. Bakha i ee istoriches-kie sviazi, part 1. Moscow-Leningrad, 1948.
Gruber, R. “Bakh i Gendel’.” Sovetskaia muzyka, 1935, no. 3.
Rozenov, E. K. I. 5. Bakh (i ego rod): Biograficheskii ocherk. Moscow, 1911. (Bibliography, pp. 118–19.)
Wolfrum, P. Iogann Sebast’ian Bakh, vols. 1–2. Moscow, 1912. (Translated from German.)
Schweitzer, A. I. S. Bakh. [Translated from German, with an afterword by M. S. Druskin.] Moscow, 1964. (With detailed bibliographical index.)
Materialy i dokumenty po istorii muzyki, vol. 2. Translated and edited by M. V. Ivanova-Boretskii. Moscow, 1934.
Spitta, P. Johann Sebastian Bach, vols. 1–2. Leipzig, 1873–80.
Pirro, A. L’Esthétique de Jean Sebastian Bach. Paris, 1907.
Pirro, A. J. S. Bach: Les maîtres de la musique, 2nd ed. Paris, 1913.
Forkel, J. N. Über Johann Sebastian Bachs Leben, Kunst und Kunstwerke. Augsburg, 1925.
Besseler, H. Johann Sebastian Bach. In the collection Die grossen Deutschen, vol. 2. Berlin, 1935.
Vetter, W. J. S. Bach, 2nd ed. Berlin, 1943.
Vetter, W. Der Kapellmeister Bach. Potsdam, 1950.
Terry, C. S. Johann Sebastian Bach. Leipzig, 1950.
Smend, Fr. Bach in Köthen. Berlin, 1951.
Frank, H. Johann Sebastian Bach: Die Geschichte eines Lebens. Berlin, 1961.
Spitta, P. Johann Sebastian Bach. Abridged edition with notes and appendix by W. Schmieder. Wiesbaden, 1961.
Lebmann, CI. J. S. Bach (L’Homme et son oeuvre: Liste complete des oeuvres, discographie, bibliographie). Paris, 1964.
Geiringer, K. Johann Sebastian Bach. London, 1967.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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