Johann Sebastian Bach (b. Eisenach, March 21, 1685 - d. Leipzig,
July 28, 1750)
Nicht Bach! Meer sollte er heissen: wegen seines unendlichen,
unerschoepflichen Reichtums an Tonkombinationen und Harmonien."
(Not "brook" [in German: Bach], but "sea" should he be called ---
because of his infinite, inexhaustible richness in tone combinations
and harmonies.) --- Ludwig van Beethoven
Wir sind alle Stuemper gegen ihn. (We're all plodders
compared to him.) --- Robert Schumann
Studiert Bach! Dort findet ihr alles. (Study Bach, there
you'll find everything.) --- Johannes Brahms
Das ist doch einmal etwas, woraus sich was lernen laesst! (At
last, this is something I could learn from!) --- W. A. Mozart,
upon hearing his first Bach composition.
Disclaimer: any opinions expressed on this webpage are those of its author,
in no way purport to be those of his employer.
|| The "mysterious symbol" you see on Bach scores is in fact
the composer's monogram. Under the crown you can clearly see (slanting
almost 45 degrees downward) the calligraphed letters JSB; this design
is superimposed on its mirror image.
Some links for the Bach enthusiast
Watercolor painting by Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (dated 1838) of the
Thomaskantorei in Leipzig. Original held by Sotheby's of London:
low-resolution scan from p. 390 of
Prof. Christoph Wolff's delightful book, "Johann
Sebastian Bach: the learned musician" (W. W. Norton, 2000). The
three windows on the first floor (European count) corner
above the gate (through the old inner city walls)
were almost certainly those of J. S. Bach's "Komponierstube" (composing
studio). The Bach family apartments (only about 75 m2,
the Komponierstube!) were located on the ground and first floor.
of the Thomaskantorei before its demolition in 1902 can be found here.
My personal JSB top ten:
Having to pick my ten favorite Bach works is truly "l'embarras de
(the embarrassment of riches). Let me try anyhow (in no particular
- The Art of Fugue BWV1080 (first choice: the piano
version by Tatiana Nikolayeva, second choice: the orchestration by
Hermann Scherchen). The "Western Wall" of contrapuntal music. The most
difficult work for the casual listener (the orchestral version of
Scherchen is perhaps the most accessible one, since it helps the
distinguish the different voices and themes), but the most rewarding.
Bach wrote a first version in 1741-2
which had only 12 fugues of increasing complexity, plus two canons. At
point, Bach added two additional canons and a "mirror fugue", then
writing what appears to have been intended as a quadruple fugue (i.e.
four themes). The manuscript breaks off just before the point where the
fourth subject (the subject of the very first fugue in the cycle) was
have been combined with the other three themes as the "grand finale".
Scherchen builds up to an enormous crescendo, then fades into nothing
last notes in the manuscript; Glenn Gould's piano version abruptly
off on a crescendo in mid-air; both Davitt Moroney (harpsichord) and
Helmut Walcha (organ) tried to reconstruct how Bach would have ended it
death had not staid his hand forever. Moroney's ending (MIDI file
available here) is the simpler and more convincing one.
Tatiana Nikolayeva's double CD has a nice bonus, namely the 3- and
6-voice Ricercars from The Musical Offering BWV1079.
- Goldberg Variations BWV988 (Glenn Gould, piano, 1981
I quite literally never tire of hearing this piece (a sarabande and 30
- The six French Suites (Glenn Gould, piano).
- Fantasy and fugue in G minor BWV542 (Helmut Walcha or
Michel Chapuis, organ). One of the two greatest pieces in the entire
organ literature. The drama and chromaticism of the fantasy
contrast and mesh at the same time with the tight and rhythmically
fugue. In all probability,
Bach wrote it as an "audition piece" for the position
of organist at the Jacobikirche in Hamburg, and it is as technically
as it was musically audacious for its day. (The theme of the fugue, a
folk tune, was a nod to the retiring organist, Dutch-born J. A.
Reinken. It is the ring tone of one of our cellular phones.)
Bach got offered the job but refused to make the substantial donation
to the church treasury that was expected of all new appointments, and
hence stayed in Weimar.
- Passacaglia and fugue in C minor BWV582 (same
performers). The other greatest organ piece.
The "passacaglia" is twenty different variations on the same eight-bar
"ground" (bass ostinato). The fugue subject and countersubject are both
derived from the same theme. Recent research suggests that Bach may
have written it while he was a mere 18 years old (after an extended
Luebeck to hear D. Buxtehude, who wrote several extensive
"Bach is Bach, as G-d is G-d" (Hector Berlioz).
- 5th Brandenburg Concerto in D major BWV1050. Pure "joie
de vivre" set to music. The best
example that a concerto can be both virtuoso and highly musical, and
not bore for a second. I grew up with Karl Richter's classic recording,
was very pleasantly surprised by Walter Carlos' synthesizer
arrangement. (Glenn Gould, not exactly one to go in for musical fads,
very fond of Carlos' Bach renditions because of a degree of voice
--- and hence contrapuntal clarity --- that is well-nigh impossible to
achieve with conventional instruments.)
- Fugue in D minor BWV539 (alternatively, the sonata
in G minor
for solo violin BWV1001, which contains another version of the same
was justifiably very proud of this fugue, to the extent that he wrote
no less than three versions of it (the third for lute or guitar
BWV1000, likewise transposed
to G minor).
- Partita in D minor for solo violin BWV1004. The
"Chaconne" at the end enjoys a deserved reputation as the "Mount
Everest" of solo violin music.
My favorite performances are Itzhak Perlman, followed by Henryk
- WTC book 1. The Well-Tempered Clavier (two sets of 24
preludes and fugues in all major and minor keys) is the "Torah" of
like Beethoven's sonatas are its "Neviim" (Prophets). Book I (according
to one theory, composed in part while sitting in
the Weimar jail as punishment for taking another job without his
employer's consent) is more varied in
form and texture (e.g. fugues ranging from two to five voices), while
Book II (composed two decades later) is somewhat more rigorous formally
some pre-classicist style elements. They are a universe in
themselves, so I have trouble picking favorites. Yet especially
from Book 1 are: C major (the fugue is a little numerological gem, with
the theme entering exactly 24 times), C minor (the prelude really
"rocks" if played with a tight beat), C# minor (marvellous triple fugue
in five voices),
Eb major (wonderfully gentle and reflective prelude harking back to
"Ricercar" styles), F minor ("De Profundis" like
only Bach can be), Ab major (zest for life bubbling over), A minor
(after the short prelude, the extensive fugue gives people with
organophobia a feeling of what Bach's virtuoso
organ works would sound like if they were playable on the piano), Bb
minor (a prelude full of restrained sorrow that sounds like it was
written with a string orchestra in mind --- some speculate Bach wrote
it upon the death of his first wife Maria Barbara Bach
--- followed by a five-voice
fugue that sounds like choir music), and B minor (the theme uses all 12
on the chromatic scale yet proves that that can be done without
- WTC book 2. See above. The Db major is especially nice,
as is the
F# minor (whose prelude strangely anticipates on both Chopin nocturnes
well as on the adagio in the
same key of Beethoven's "Hammerklavier" sonata, both written almost a
later!), Bb minor (a gem of a fugue).
- 10th piece? I can't make my mind up between the Chorale
Partita in G minor
"Sei Gegruesset" BWV768 (a series of variations on a Lutheran hymn),
Toccata, Adagio and Fuga in C major BWV564 (aside from the
rapid manual and
pedal solos at the beginning, really a 3-movement "Italian concerto"
for organ solo),
the Keyboard Concerto in D minor (Glenn Gould, piano; Leonard
Bernstein, conductor), the Leipziger Chorales, the Fantasy
in G major for organ BWV578, the Partitas for
keyboard, the French Overture BWV831, the Organ Prelude
and Fugue in Eb major
BWV552 (which opens and closes the 3rd part of the Clavieruebung)...
Well, you get the idea :-)
Some questions and answers not covered in Bernie Greenberg's
Let us leave the last words to 20th-century composer Mauricio Kagel...
"Es mag sein, dass nicht alle Musiker an G-tt glauben, an Bach jedoch
alle." [Perhaps not all musicians believe in G-d, but all of them
believe in Bach.]
- How do I know whether or not Bach wrote something? For
questions of authenticity, the latest edition of the Bach Werke
Verzeichnis (BWV) is considered
the authoritative source. The first edition (1950)
already listed a number of pieces of doubtful origins in an Anhang
(Appendix). Since then, another set of genuine Bach works has been
and given BWV numbers, but of an about equivalent number the true
has been established to be someone other than JSB. In order not to
everybody to renumber everything, such works do keep their original
BWV number but are in addition listed in Appendix III (if true author
certain) or Appendix II (if doubtful). Appendix I lists lost works
to have existed at one point (e.g. from descriptions by contemporaries,
correspondence, or preserved text of a libretto).
- How much of Bach's music has survived? Depends.
to Prof. Christoph Wolff, at most 40% of his church cantatas survive
The music was not printed, and only a single composing score and a
set of parts existed of most of them. Upon Bach's death, these were
distributed among his sons. Those handed on to C. P. E. Bach were
cherished and have generally survived; the other sons were less
careful. The librettos of
cantatas were printed more often (it was much cheaper to do so) and
a number of librettos have survived of which the music has been lost.
The attrition rate for orchestral music was somewhat less horrifying.
Most of Bach's keyboard and organ works have probably survived thanks
to his being very much in demand as a teacher on these instruments:
students made their own copies of the works assigned to them by their
teacher, thus creating several "backups" for each manuscript. Only very
few works were printed in Bach's lifetime, almost all of them
keyboard music. Bach arranged for having The Art of Fugue printed in
lifetime, but the first edition appeared one year after his death.
- Did Bach really write Toccata and Fugue in D minor BWV565?
While it is undoubtedly Bach's best-known organ piece (and perhaps the
best-known organ piece, full stop [excuse the pun]), it is musically
much less "mature" than Bach's other great organ compositions:
it was often regarded as either a youthful work or a composition by a
epigone. No other known Bach keyboard
piece includes extensive runs of parallel octaves, nor such a liberal
of tempo change indications.
In addition, Bach in later years minced no words in
expressing his distaste for what he termed "Klavierhusaren" (freely:
Riders of the Keyboard Cavalry), i.e. composers of music filled with
work but superficial in structure. Being by all accounts as exacting of
himself as he was of others, Bach would presumably not have deemed
BWV565 a worthy example of his composition "ideology" to his students
--- hence its oddly peripheral
transmission. In consequence, some people have argued that it was
not a Bach piece at all. Alternatively, Bach scholar Peter Williams
it was a much later organ transcription (by an unknown third party)
of a Bach piece originally written for solo violin (hence the sketchy
counterpoint, some arpeggios
that are more idiomatic for the violin than for the organ, and more).
to fit the violin range well the original would have to have been in A
[See here for a
However, Prof. Christoph Wolff points out that the organ at Arnstadt
--- unlike other organs played by Bach --- did not
have a 16-foot stop to "flesh out" the tutti ("all open") organ sound.
One workaround is of course to simply double up the passage involved
one octave below with your left hand --- which is exactly what happens
all over the place in the Toccata! Also, Bach was barely 18 when
he took the Arnstadt job. In short: the theory that best fits the
observations is a youthful work by Bach.
- Why do some "authentic" performances of Bach sound out of
Related question: What do the terms "chamber pitch" and "choir
mean?. The prevalent tuning of most instruments in Bach's time
("chamber pitch") was A=415 Hz, almost a semitone lower than modern
(A=440 Hz). Most exponents of "authentic Baroque performance practice"
their (generally historical or reconstructed) instruments
to A=415 Hz nowadays: if you have absolute rather than relative musical
hearing, this is bound to drive you up the wall (one reason why I avoid
"authentic" performances like the plague).
In contrast, many organs in Bach's days were tuned to "choir pitch"
a full tone higher than "chamber pitch" and about a semitone higher
modern pitch) in order to save metal (all pipes being about 10% shorter
Finally, some of the most fanatic "authenticists" insist on not playing
in equal temperament but in other so-called 'well-tempered' tunings
(see next item). If you have really fine musical hearing and
have gotten used to equal temperament, the harpsichord will sound a bit
String players have a natural tendency towards Pythagorean
intonation, and temperament (only in the musical sense of the word!)
is anyhow less of an issue there.
- What is the difference between 'Well-Tempered' and
Equal temperament is the tuning system used on modern fixed-pitch
in which the octave is divided in twelve equal parts. In this scheme,
intervals except the octave are 'pure', all keys are playable, and all
are equivalent in terms of relative pitch. At the other extreme stands
intonation (a.k.a Ptolemaean tuning), in which all intervals in the C
scale are 'perfect' simple ratios (e.g. 3/2 for a perfect fifth, 5/4
for a perfect major third,...) akin (but not identical!) to the
scale of overtones. (The latter contains a 'natural seventh', 7/4,
which does not
exist in Western classical music: it can be heard from blues
The trouble with Ptolemaean tuning is that music in any key other than
sounds out of tune. Pythagorean temperament (commonly heard in string
is based on stacking up pure fifths (3/2), leading to "sharp"
Pythagorean thirds(81/64 rather than 5/4):
in addition, it is easily seen that after stacking up twelve pure
fifths, you do not get back exactly to C: the difference of
fifth of a semitone is known as the 'Pythagorean comma'. So-called
tuning tries to get rid of the Pythagorean thirds by tuning fifths to 51/4
rather than 3/2. This leads to a tuning that sounds 'clean' in C major
and tolerable up to three sharps and two flats, but intolerable to
in 'remote' keys like F# major or Eb minor. (This was the prevalent
tuning when Bach started his
career.) A number of theoreticians, notably Werckmeister, advocated
'well-tempered' tunings which would remain playable in all 24 keys.
Modern equal temperament
is one special case of the more general 'well-temperament'. Other
well-tempered tunings have unequal intervals, and hence every key
acquires its own characteristics even to a listener with relative
It is unclear to the present day what the 'well-tempered' tuning is
had in mind for the 'Well-Tempered Clavier'. At one extreme is the
of Kellner who claims
have reconstructed the specific well-tempered tuning due to
Bach allegedly used. At the other extreme stands R. Rasch (1985), who
argues equally persuasively that Bach in fact did use equal
Those fascinated by the "temperament" problem might be interested in
the following web
tuning and polyphony (book-length essay on all manners of tuning,
just Pythagorean), Tuning
Reference Page at midicode.com (has very neat tables), Temperaments
comparison page, The
Well or Equal Tempered Clavier? (essay by Gordon
tunings explained, and Understanding
temperaments. Of course, if your favorite Bach performers are Glenn
Gould or Andras Schiff, then equal temperament is
all you get. (I am willing to pay that "price" for listening to Glenn
- Isn't it "wrong" to play Bach on the piano rather than the
First of all, by all accounts, Bach's favorite keyboard instrument for
playing for himself and those present at his home was the clavichord.
the harpsichord, the clavichord is velocity-sensitive (i.e. you can
soft and loud, like on a piano), but its sound is too weak for a
hall. The piano (and its predecessor, the fortepiano) were developed in
no small measure to combine the "piano e forte" (soft and loud)
of the clavichord with the greater volume of the harpsichord. One early
fortepiano builder, Gottfried Silbermann, was not only a close friend
Bach but was in contact with the latter concerning improvements in his
design. (Moreover, records of purchases of Silbermann fortepianos
"Kapellmeister J. S. Bach" have been preserved: see Prof. Wolff's
Considering Bach's lifelong love for the technical details of
instrument making (as witnessed e.g. by his steady second income as
we would nowadays call a "consultant" or "quality control expert" on
organ construction, his invention of a 5-string viola which he named
"viola pomposa", and his lifelong insistence that only he
could tune and adjust his harpsichord to his satisfaction) it is quite
likely that he would have embraced, rather than rejected, technical
innovations in instrument making such as represented by the modern
- I heard a performance of the 3rd Brandenburg concerto. Why
the middle movement just two chords?
In Bach's time, improvisation skills were taken for granted from good
musicians. The second movement was in fact meant to be a free
by the harpsichordist (Bach himself, a legendary improviser in his
day), the only "boundary condition" being that it had to
lead up to a Phrygian cadence (the two chords written out in the
Very few present-day classical musicians are facile improvisers, so
do not even try and just go for the "safe but trite" solution. Good
musicians with a flair for improvisation are nowadays to
be found in your local jazz club or even in a progressive rock band,
not on the classical concert stage.
Violinist Nigel Kennedy was on to something
when he referred to JSB as "Jazz Bach" :-)
The most far-out rendition I have ever heard is certainly that on
"Switched-on Bach" album. It sounds like what you might get if you
could seat JSB behind
a couple of synthesizers and ask him to improvise something along the
lines of BWV903/1 and
BWV542/1. (I'd give an arm and a leg to be able to do that!)
- I heard that some rock musicians are very fond of quoting
The most complete source I could find on classical quotations in rock
is a Ph.D.
Thesis (in German) by somebody at the Free University
of Berlin. Perhaps the one band that took this furthest was (1970s
rock group) Emerson, Lake and
Palmer, whose keyboardist (Keith Emerson) would often quote entire
movements of Bach pieces note-for-note as instrumental breaks (with
and drums provided by his two band mates).
- I read a very interesting book "The Little Chronicle of Anna
Magdalena Bach". Is it
I must admit that I devoured the Dutch edition of the book when I was
15 or so and had
just discovered JSB. Well-written if somewhat sentimental, based on
many known facts
about the life of JSB with some legends thrown in for good measure...
it is a complete
work of fiction written by Esther Hallam
Meynell (Chatto and Windus, London, 1925).
- I read somewhere that Bach's IQ has been estimated as 185.
I shudder at the thought of
how this number was "derived". There can however be no doubt that
Bach's intellectual abilities
were in a class by themselves. The fact that Bach was not only able to
solve the staggering
intellectual puzzles involved in his more ambitious polyphonic works,
but had enough mental "surplus power" to turn them into not just
successful academic exercises but
emotionally stirring pieces of music, speaks for itself.
Nor was this talent limited to music. True, his formal education was
limited to Latin high school
(he was the only Thomaskantor since the Reformation who did not have an
academic degree), but he entered the
prima (the final grade of said high school) four years
younger than his classmates.
This suggests a precocious mind in areas other than music as well.
Bach either displayed the type of humility that comes with true genius,
or took his singular mental abilities for granted and did not realize
how unique they were. In his own words: "Ich habe fleissig sein
muessen ; wer ebenso fleissig ist, der wird es ebensoweit bringen
["I was obliged to be industrious; whoever works equally hard will be
get just as far."] Or, when queried about
his gifts at the organ: "Da gibt es kein Geheimnis. Man muss nur
zur rechten Zeit die rechten Tasten mit der rechten Staerke druecken,
dann gibt die Orgel ganz von selber die allerschoenste Musik."
["There's nothing to it. You just have to press the right keys with the
force at the right time, and the organ will produce the nicest music
- Is it true that Bach had trouble getting his last job, and
he got it only after two other candidates turned it down?
The "last job" in question was that of Thomaskantor of Leipzig, i.e.
musical director and prefect of the city's St.-Thomas high school and
Lutheran churches in the city. The position had a dual character:
and educational. Some members of the administration
were very reluctant to hand what was in
effect the educational direction of the city's best high school over
to a man without a university degree --- and felt that they needed an
educator first, a composer second, and an instrumental virtuoso third.
(To my knowledge, Bach was the
only Thomaskantor since the Reformation who did not have an
Incidentally, Bach made no secret of his lack of enthusiasm for some of
education duties of the Thomaskantor --- such as the teaching of Latin,
for which he hired a substitute from his own pocket.
The city board's first choice was G. F. Telemann, possibly the
German composer of his day (time has corrected a great injustice)
and then city music director
of Hamburg. Telemann not only had a law degree from Leipzig University
had started his own musical career as director of the Leipzig city
(A personality conflict with the previous Thomaskantor, J. F. Kuhnau,
had led to his departure. The post became vacant upon Kuhnau's death.)
After a long hesitation, Telemann decided he was better off
in Hamburg: being a friend of Bach's, he may have encouraged the latter
The city's second choice was another "old boy", the now-forgotten
Christoph Graupner, who in addition had studied composition with
Kuhnau. His then-employer,
the Landsgraf (count) of Hesse-Darmstadt, refused to grant him
permission to leave, which effectively reopened the
The events remind me of the Talmudic story about Rabbi Nachum of Gimzo,
acquired his nickname "Gamzu" because of his habit of saying at every
"Gam zu le-tova" (this too is for the good). There is no doubt that
did a much better deal on their 3rd candidate than they would have on
either of their two
- Did Bach ever finish the last fugue of "The art of Fugue"?
The inscription added by C. P. E. Bach on the last manuscript page:
point... the composer passed away" certainly sounds good as a
story, but is hard to reconcile with what has become known of Bach's
last months. (For one thing, the musical handwriting is too regular to
have been written in Bach's last days, when he was wholly or
nearly blind. Yet it is generally agreed to be in his own hand, and not
dictation to a student or copyist. Therefore, it almost certainly
predates his final illness.)
According to Prof. Wolff, Bach may have interrupted his work on the
fugue at the moment the manuscript breaks off (just before the
entry of the fourth subject, which would have been the same one that
off the first fugue), in order to work out the
possible combinations of all four themes on a separate piece of paper
This is not an easy task, and it is doubtful that even Bach would have
able to carry it out in his head. Then he may very well have woven some
material around the possible combinations, thus creating a "fragment X"
that would have basically completed the fugue but is now lost.
- Was it a triple or a quadruple fugue?
The title "Fuga a 3 soggetti" (Italian: Fugue with 3 subjects, i.e.
fugue) in the printed edition was added after JSB's death.
It is almost unimaginable that
Bach would not have reintroduced the main theme of the cycle (the theme
of Contrapunctus I) in its
final fugue, so a consensus exists among musicologists that
Contrapunctus XIV was intended as a quadruple fugue (one of a very very
few in the musical literature), with a reprise of the
Contrapunctus I subject as the fourth theme.
- Did anyone else every try to complete it? I am aware of
the following attempts:
Yet somehow I wonder if Glenn Gould ---
who, from a performance point of view,
probably understood Bachian counterpoint better than anybody --- did
make the right decision by ending his recording abruptly on the last
complete bar that has come down to us --- making it clear, in his very
Gouldian way, that the logical ending of a peerless masterpiece is lost
and gone forever.
- One by the 19th-century theoretician Hugo Riemann. (If
reading this has more details, please Email me --- thanks in
- Fantasia Contrappuntistica (1912) by the Italian composer
pianist Ferrucio Busoni. Like Busoni's piano transcriptions of
Bach organ pieces and of the Chaconne for solo violin, apparently more
Busoni (somebody for whom "over the top" was a compliment)
- The British musicologist D. F. Tovey wrote his own
as part of an edition for string quartet of The Art of Fugue. It can be
read in PDF format
as well as heard as a MIDI
file. Much more restrained than the Busoni, but quite recognizably
- The legendary blind German organist Helmut Walcha prepared
his own completion,
which can be heard on his recording of the Art of Fugue (recently
as part of his 12-CD set "Bach --- the organ works"). It is a fine
organ music, at times too idiomatically so to be credible as being what
Bach had in mind (unless you believe, like Walcha, that Bach intended
The Art of Fugue
as organ music --- among musicologists, Walcha appears to be in a
of near-one in this respect).
- Another, more recent (1990),
completion by composer and organist Michael Ferguson.
more details here]
- The British harpsichordist and musicologist Davitt Moroney
a "less is more" completion starting from the assumptions that (a) all
four themes are to be combined; (b) the whole should --- like the other
Contrapuncti --- remain playable
with two (skilled) hands on a keyboard. Only two combinations of the
four themes "satisfy the boundary condition" (b); in addition, the
third ("B-A-C-H", from the German names of the four first notes)
theme lends itself very well to a "stretto" which Bach would have kept
for the final section. With some brief connecting passages, this seems
to be the most satisfying completion yet. [You can download a MIDI
file of the completion here
--- for playback or for viewing in a MIDI-savvy music score editor,
Assistant for Macintosh and Windoze.]
... and to organist Helmut Walcha:
"Bach opens a vista onto the Universe. After hearing him, people feel
there may be meaning to life after all."
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