Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)



Known as the “composer’s composer”, Bach is one of the most important composers in the entire canon. He is one of the Holy Trinity of composers, Mozart and Beethoven being the two. It’s not an exaggeration to say Mozart, Beethoven or Brahms, Duke Ellington and The Beatles would not have sounded the way they did had it not been for Bach. The pianist Andras Schiff has called Bach the “daily bread” of musicians, whose work they must all learn how to perform. Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven all admired Bach a great deal. Brahms famously said,”study Bach, there you will find everything”. And yet, for a 100 years after his death, his music fell into obscurity. Most people didn’t listen to it. It made a resurgence in the late 1700s and early 1800s, but really took off after 1829 when Mendelsohn conducted the St Mathews Passion. For listeners today, it’s hard to imagine there was a time the classical music scene did not include Bach.


He was born on 23rd March 1685 in Eisenach, which is today in central Germany, into a family of musicians stretching back generations. So much so that being a member of the Bach family and being a musician were virtually synonymous. Naturally, therefore, Bach had a very musical upbringing. He learnt to play the violin and harpsichord from his father, Johann Ambrosius, and the clavichord from his brother, Johann Christoph. In his time J.S Bach was known not as a composer, but as a performer. He was, after all, a skilled virtuoso at the keyboard sometimes even improvising fugues at the organ!


Even though Bach died being remembered as a performer, his job required him to compose, a lot. In terms of religious music, he wrote about 300 cantatas of which 209 survive, nearly 200 chorales, 7 motets, 3 oratorios, 2 passions, a Latin mass and a magnificat. His secular works include 6 organ sonatas, 6 partitas for keyboard, 2 sets of preludes and fugues for the harpsichord, 13 harpsichord concertos (7 for solo, 3 for double, 2 for triple and 1 for quadruple harpsichords), 6 cello suites, 3 violin partitas and 3 violin sonatas for solo violin, 2 violin concertos for solo violin, 1 double violin concerto, 6 orchestra concertos, and 4 orchestral suites, among other things. These are the works that have survived. God only knows how much he actually wrote.


So you get the picture, he wrote a lot of stuff for a lot of different instruments and occasions, though no operas. One of the main things Bach is known for, is the way he composed. To completely oversimplify how music is written, you have a melody (the tune) and a harmony (chords) to go with it. Bach turned the melody into a harmony of its own by playing the same tune on top of itself, starting at different points. To make things interesting, sometimes the tune is played twice as fast as the original, or twice as slow, or even backwards. If this sounds complicated, then that’s because it is! And Bach is the undisputed King of this kind of composition, or “counterpoint” to use the fancy word. If you’re still confused, and I really don’t blame you, then hopefully this will make it a bit clearer:

Now, onto a few recordings. In truth, picking out only 5 really does not do justice the monument he is. But, this article is intended as an introduction, not an encyclopaedia entry. As a compromise, here are 8 recordings.


  1. Toccata and Fugue in D minor

(Normally here I’d put who the performers are, but in this case I don’t know who the organist is. Sorry)

This you definitely will have heard, the beginning bit of it at least. It’s one of those pieces of classical music that is very famous in popular culture (Disney’s Fantasia), and the most famous piece of organ music. It was probably written 1702-1707, but there is no exact date and some even doubted Bach wrote it, who say it’s too crude for someone like him. True or not, and I’m not sure I really care, it’s a mighty magnificent work that gets your blood going.


  1. Bach: Cello Suites

Cello: Mstislav Rostropovich

Bach wrote 6 suites (sort of dances) for unaccompanied cello, and are in a sense the bread and butter for cellists. Each suite is made up of six 6 separate bits (movements in the fancy word). The prelude (the opening bit) of Suite 1 in G major is the most famous, and like the Toccata and Fugue in D minor, you will probably have heard it. If you’ve seen Hangover 3 then you’ve definitely heard it. Rostropovich was one of the greatest cellists who ever lived, and his recording of these suites are one of the “go to” recordings.


  1. Violin Partita 2 in D minor

Violin: Gidon Kremer

Bach wrote 3 partitas (suites) and 3 sonatas for solo violin, and they form part of the core repertoire for violinists. They were written between 1703-1720 but we don’t really know if they were performed in his life time; a shame really. In my opinion the second partita in D minor ranks among the finest writing the violin has ever seen. The “meaty” bit of the second partita comes in the final movement, known as the Chaconne. Truth be told, I never thought a solo violin piece could reduce me to a babbling emotional mess of a human, but that is exactly what happened. At the time, I had no words to describe what had happened to me, or how I felt, except for overwhelmed and emotionally paralysed, which is really a weak description of what happened. The recording below is the one I heard at the time. Then, as now, I have nothing more to say.


  1. Glenn Gould Plays Bach: Goldberg Variations Bwv 988 – The Historic 1955 Debut Recording; The 1981 Digital Recording

Piano: Glenn Gould

If writing towering masterpieces for the cello and violin weren’t enough, Bach did it again for the keyboard. The Goldberg Variations are a set of 30 variations based on the bass line of the opening “aria”. Rather unusually for Bach’s work, it was published in his lifetime around 1741 but the “aria” can be dated back to at least the late 1730s  when Bach’s second wife, Anna Magdalena, wrote it out. The Variations are usually played on the piano these days, an instrument he did not like all that much, but they were actually written for a two keyboard harpsichord. Below is the 1981 recording by the legendary pianist and Bach interpreter Glenn Gould, the benchmark for this piece. Gould recording the Variations in 1955 as well, a much faster and fiery interpretation, but he became unhappy with it leading to the 1981 recording.


  1. Bach: Violin Concertos

Orch: English Chamber Orchestra. Cond: Daniel Barenboim. Violin: Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zukerman

Onto some concertos now. Bach wrote three violin concertos, but the recommendation here is the Double Concerto in D minor for two violins. It’s a greatly uplifting and fun piece with the two violins duelling it out. We don’t know the precise date for when it was composed, some say it was during his Leipzig period (1723-50). Others think he recycled material from his Cöthen period (1717-1723). Bach wrote some pretty intense stuff, but he could do joyful and jubilant just as well, and the Double proves it, even though it’s written in D minor. These concertos were recorded by Itzhak Perlman, probably the greatest violinist alive today, with Pinchas Zukerman helping him out for the Double. This recording is a personal favourite.


  1. Brandenburg Concerto 5 in D major

Orch: Freiburger Barockorchester.

If someone were to point to the best orchestral writing of the baroque period, then this is where they’d point, to the 6 Brandenburg Concertos. Each is scored for different instruments, probably reflecting what he had at the time to use. The first concerto, for example, requires two horns, the fourth concerto for two recorders and the fifth concerto a harpsichord. They were composed 1708-1721, during his Cöthen years when he himself remarked was his happiest period. The concertos show a much lighter side to Bach, sounding almost dance like, a world away from the Toccata and Fugue or Chaconne. All the Concertos are worth checking out, but start with number 5 which features the harpsichord a lot, intended to dazzle the audience with flashy playing. The performance below, one I like, uses period instruments – instruments they used in Bach’s day.


  1. Bach: Mass in B Minor BWV 232

Cond: Phillipe Herreweghe. Orch and Choir: Collegium Vocale Gent. Soloists:Dorothee Mields (soprano 1) Hana Blazikova (soprano 2), Damien Guillon (alto), Thomas Hobbs (tenor), Peter Kooij (bass).

Cantatas, chorales and church music in general make up a big chuck of Bach’s music. It’s impossible to introduce anyone to him without mentioning it. Bach was brought up strongly in the Lutheran tradition; he set the German bible to music in nearly 300 cantatas. And yet, (and this is a really big exception to the rule) he wrote a massive Catholic mass in Latin. The Mass started out life as a job application, to put it crudely, to the Catholic Augustus III of Poland who had just become King. Bach presented the Kyrie and Gloria (the first bit of the Mass) which were performed in 1733. At some point, scholars don’t really know when exactly, Bach decided to turn it into a full mass, which he only finished in 1749, the year before he died. He never heard it performed in its entirety, and nor did anyone else until 1849. Today the Mass is central to the choral repertoire.


  1. St Matthew Passion

Cond: Phillipe Herreweghe. Orch and Choir: Collegium Vocale Gent. And there are too many soloists to name.

The crown jewel not only in Bach’s musical output, but in all of Baroque music (I think so anyway), is Bach’s setting to music Christ’s crucifixion and the events that led up to it first performed in 1727. Scored for double orchestra, double choir and soloists, and about 3 hours long, it’s massive in scale compared to the half an hour cantatas written before. Even the earlier St John Passion of 1724 (Bach wrote at least 3, maybe more but they haven’t survived) was only a “mere” 2 hours long. The St Matthew Passion was revised in 1736, 1742 and again in 1743-46. It’s the last version that we’re familiar with today. 3 straight hours of anything can get a bit much, so start with the opening (1:06) and ending chorus (2:35:50), and this aria (1:24:00). This is the version that I first heard, and still listen to. Don’t worry if you can’t understand what they’re singing, let the music take care of it.



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