Johann Sebastian Bach
Johann Sebastian Bach belonged to a dynasty of musicians.
He spent his earlier career as an organist, at the court of one of the two ruling Grand Dukes of Weimar.
In 1717 he moved to Cothen as Court Kapellmeister to the young Prince Leopold and in 1723 made his final move to Leipzig, where he was Cantor at the Choir School of
St. Thomas, with responsibility for music in the five principal city churches.
In Leipzig he eventually took charge of the University Collegium musicum where he was working on his collection and publication of many of his earlier compositions.
Despite disinterest for almost a century after his death, Bach is now regarded as one of the greatest of all composers.
Choral & Vocal Music
Bach wrote a very large amount of choral music, basically because of his employment at Leipzig, where he prepared complete cycles of cantatas for use throughout the church year, in addition to the larger scale settings of the Latin Mass and the accounts of the Passion from the gospels of St. Matthew and of St. John.
These works include the Mass in B minor, BWV 232, the St. Matthew Passion, BWV 244, the St. John Passion, BWV 245, the Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248, and the Easter Oratorio, BWV 249, with the revised setting of the Magnificat, BWV 243. Cantatas include, out of over 200 that survive, Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben, BWV 147 (from which the pianist Dame Myra Hess took her piano arrangement under the title Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring, making this the most popular of all), Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott, BWV 80, Ich habe genug, BWV 82, Jesu, meine Freude, BWV 358, Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut, BWV 199, Wachet auf, BWV 140 and Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen, BWV 51, for soprano, trumpet, strings and basso continuo.
The rather more formal half dozen or so Motets include a memorable version of Psalm CXVII, Lobet den Herrn, alle Heiden, BWV 230.
Secular Cantatas include the Coffee Cantata, BWV 211, a father's attempt to stem his daughter's addiction to the fashionable drink, the Peasant Cantata, BWV 212, in
honor of a newly appointed official, two Wedding Cantatas, Weichet nur, BWV 202, and O holder Tag, BWV 210.
Was mir behagt, ist nur die muntre Jagd, BWV 208, was written in 1713 to celebrate the birthday of the hunting Duke Christian of Saxe-Weissenfels and later reworked for the name-day of August III, King of Saxony, in the 1740s.
The Italian Non sa che sia dolore, BWV 209, apparently marked the departure of a scholar or friend from Leipzig.
Much of Bach's organ music was written during the earlier part of his career, written in the period he spent as court organist at Weimar.
Among many well known compositions we may single out the Chromatic Fantasia & Fugue in D minor, BWV 903, the Dorian Toccata & Fugue in D minor, BWV 538, the Toccata, Adagio and Fugue, BWV 564, Fantasia & Fugue in G minor, BWV 542, Passacaglia & Fugue in C minor, BWV 582, Prelude & St. Anne Fugue, BWV 552, (in which the fugue theme resembles a well known English hymn), Toccata & Fugue in D minor, BWV 565, and the Toccata & Fugue in F, BWV 540.
The Chorale Prelude is a composition for organ that consists of short variations on
simple hymn tunes for all seasons of the church year.
Better known melodies used include the Christmas In dulci jubilo, BWV 508, Puer natus in Bethlehem, BWV 603, the Holy Week Christ lag in Todesbanden, BWV 625, and Easter Christ ist erstanden, BWV 627, with the moving Durch Adam's Fall ist ganz verderbt, BWV 637, and the familiar Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, BWV 645, and Nun danket alle Gott, BWV 657.
Other Keyboard Music
Important sets of pieces are the six English Suites, BWV 806 - 811; the six French Suites, BWV 812 - 817; the Goldberg Variations, BWV 988, written to soothe an insomniac patron; the Italian Concerto, BWV 971, the six Partitas, BWV 825 - 830, suites of dance movements, and the monumental two books of preludes and fugues in all keys, The Well-Tempered Clavier, BWV 846 - 893, the so-called
During the period Bach lived in Cothen, he was able to devote his attention more to instrumental composition for solo instruments and for smaller groups or for the small court orchestra.
Particularly important are the three Sonatas and three Partitas for unaccompanied violin, BWV 1001 - 6, works that make great technical demands on a player, and the six Suites for unaccompanied cello, BWV 1007 - 1012.
There are six Sonatas for violin and harpsichord, BWV 1014 - 1019, and a group of three Sonatas for viola da gamba and harpsichord, sometimes appropriated today by viola-players and cellists, BWV 1027 - 1029.
The six Brandenburg Concertos, BWV 1046 - 1051, dedicated to the Margrave of Brandenburg in 1721, feature a variety of forms and groups of instruments, while the four Orchestral Suites or Overtures, BWV 1066 - 1069, include the famous Air on the G string, a late 19th century transcription of the Air from the Suite in D major, BWV 1068.
Three of Bach's violin concertos, written in Cothen between 1717 and 1723, survive in their original form, with others existing now only in later harpsichord transcriptions.
The works in original form are the Concertos in A minor and in E major, BWV 1041 and 1042, and the Double Concerto in D minor, for two violins, BWV 1043.
Bach wrote his harpsichord concertos only for the use of himself and his sons within the Leipzig University Collegium musicum between 1735 and 1740.
These works include eight Concertos for a single solo harpsichord and strings, BWV 1052 - 1059, and others for two, three and four harpsichords and strings.