Johann Sebastian Bach

Composer Johann Sebastian Bach

Bach was a formidable intellectual and technical composer, but his music is also uplifting and spiritual, melodic, and rhythmically irresistible. Few names in music are as revered as Bach’s.

Vital Statistics
March 21, 1685, in Eisenach, Saxony (Germany)
July 28, 1750, in Leipzig, Saxony (Germany)
Performed As:
Organist, violinist
During Lifetime:
Enlightenment thinking flourished. Contemporaries included Isaac Newton, John Locke,
Biographical Outline
  • Genealogy: Bach was a member of a seven-generation family of talented composers and instrumentalists.
  • Choirboy: Grew up surrounded by music and Lutheran church doctrine.
  • First gigs: Church organist, 1703-08. Appointed concertmaster of the Duke of Weimar’s court orchestra at age 23; hired by the young Prince of Cöthen to direct the court orchestra and compose as required in 1717.
  • Cantor and choirmaster, 1723: Placed in charge of training choirboys and composing/directing weekly cantatas for Leipzig’s four main churches, including the Thomaskirche (St. Thomas’ Church). Was also civic music director and music director for Leipzig University, which had its own church.
  • Superman: In 1729, Bach took on the direction of Leipzig’s Collegium Musicum, a group of professional musicians that gave weekly concerts. He revised some of his Cöthen works and wrote others for this group.
  • Last decade: In the 1740s, Bach worked on several personal projects, like The Art of Fugue, the completion of the Mass in B Minor, the Goldberg Variations, and The Musical Offering (commemorating his visit with Frederick the Great of Prussia).
Fun Facts
  • Bach fathered 20 children: only nine of them survived him.
  • Sons of Bach:Several Bach sons became professional musicians and composers. The most famous were Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach and Johann Christian Bach.
  • Orphan:Bach was orphaned at age 10 and was raised by an uncle.
  • Germany only:Although he traveled frequently, Bach never ventured beyond a 150-mile radius of his birthplace, and never left Germany.
  • Technical expert: Bach was often invited to inspect the mechanics of church organs.
  • Duel: In his early 20s, Bach pulled a sword on a bassoonist who had accused him of slander.
  • Jail: Bach spent about a month in jail after showing disrespect to the Duke of Weimar by illegally seeking employment elsewhere.
  • Third choice: Bach was hired at Leipzig only after Georg Friedrich Telemann and another (now practically forgotten) composer refused the post.
  • Old-fashioned: By the time of his death, Bach’s fugues and contrapuntal style were out-of-date with the newer, lighter style; his sons referred to him as “old powdered wig.”
  • In his own words: “The aim and final end of all music should be none other than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul. If heed is not paid to this, it is not true music but a diabolical bawling and twanging.”
Recommended Biography
Explore the Music
  • As both a Kapellmeister (a court position requiring ceremonial and entertainment music) and an organist/cantor (requiring liturgical knowledge and music for church services), Bach wrote music that is wide-ranging. Although he never left Germany, he was aware of many other musical trends in Europe and owned a large library of scores and books.
  • Bach is considered to be the epitome of German Baroque style, but his Italian concertos, French keyboard suites, Lutheran church music, and pieces in the cutting-edge styles of early 18th-century music, show how broad that designation is.
  • Counterpoint: Bach mastered the art of balancing independent musical lines simultaneously. He also perfected the strict musical structure known as fugue.
  • Organist extraordinaire: Bach was best known for his virtuosic keyboard technique. Occasionally, his church improvisations were so far out that churchgoers and city officials were scandalized.
  • After encountering Antonio Vivaldi’s music in 1713-14, Bach transformed his own style, making it clearer and crafting more sharply defined rhythms.
  • BWV: This acronym (short for Bach Werke Verzeichnis or “Catalog of Bach’s Works”), plus a number, refers to the scholarly ordering of Bach’s more than one thousand unique compositions.
Recommended Websites
  • Orchestral/Chamber
  • Brandenburg Concertos, Nos. 1-6
  • Orchestral Suites Nos. 1-4
  • Violin concertos BWV 1041-43
  • Solo Strings
  • Cello Suites
  • Partitas and Sonatas for Violin
  • Keyboard
  • Toccata and Fugue in D Minor (BWV 565)
  • Simon Preston (DG, 1989)
  • E. Power Biggs
  • Well-Tempered Clavier—a set of piano works featuring all the major and minor keys.
  • The Goldberg Variations
  • Toccatas and Inventions
  • French Suites
  • Vocal Music
  • B-Minor Mass
  • Magnificat
  • Passion According to St. John
  • Church cantatas: No. 140, Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme; No. 80, Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott
  • American Bach Soloists (Koch International, 1996)
  • Secular cantatas: Peasant/Coffee