Bach's Greatest Works

Johann Sebastian Bach would probably be astounded at his reputation today as among the greatest – perhaps the greatest – of all composers. In his own day he was famed chiefly for his keyboard skills, and much of his time was spent writing for the churches where he worked. Yet, when it came to the quality of his work, he produced more jewels than Bvlgari. Here are a few essentials.

(1685 - 1750)

A Role Model for Later Composers

To Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, Bach was a master of keyboard counterpoint. To Mendelssohn, he was a composer of epic choral works. To Stravinsky he was a master craftsman. In recent decades, the period performance movement has helped to return a sense of historical context to Bach's music, and fresher, lighter instrumental and vocal textures. All of these ideas remain current, and the great German composer's huge catalogue of works continues to invite new interpretations.

Bach was born in the Thuringian town of Eisenach into a family of church musicians. His early education included the study of rhetoric, which some modern scholars have suggested influenced his approach to musical form, and he learnt several instruments and studied composition. Both of Bach's parents had died by the time he was ten, and he was sent to the small town of Ohrdruf, into the care of his half-brother, who had been a pupil of Johann Pachelbel. While in Ohrdruf, Bach developed abilities in keyboard playing, improvisation, fugue writing and all of the other skills then required of a church musician. He also copied out many keyboard works and became acquainted with musical styles from across Europe.

In 1703 he gained the position of organist at the Neue Kirche in Arnstadt, although some disputes with the church administration may have contributed to Bach's decision to take an extended leave of absence in 1705-06 to visit the organist and composer Dieterich Buxtehude in Lübeck. There was talk of him succeeding Buxtehude at the Marienkirche. But a condition of the appointment was marrying Buxtehude's eldest daughter, and Bach, now engaged to his cousin, Maria Barbara, did not pursue matters.

Six Brandenburg Concertos

Many Baroque composers wrote dozens or even hundreds of concertos, but Bach managed to sum up the entire genre with only six. His Brandenburg Concertos, each featuring a different line-up of soloists with a wide range of moods and even structures (shocking in an era when concertos were supposed to have three movements: fast–slow–fast). So we leap from the dizzying heights of the outlandishly difficult trumpet-writing that colours the Second, to No.6, which gets its dark shades from the lack of violins. And for pure virtuosity try the brilliant No.5, in which flute, violin and harpsichord steal the limelight.

Johann Sebastian Bach Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 1. Allegro Orchestra Mozart, Claudio Abbado

Four Orchestral Suites

Alongside the concerto, the other genre in vogue in Bach's time was the orchestral suite (or 'overture' as he called it). Whereas the concerto came out of an Italian tradition, the suite was, in origin, a sequence of French dances. While all four of Bach's have a kind of courtly nobility, beyond that they range enormously: from the gracious sequence of dances in the First; via the catchy 'Badinerie' for flute that ends the Second; to the trumpets-and-drums opening of the Third; and finally the heady grandeur of the Fourth, which rivals Handel's most opulent creations in terms of pure pomp.

Johann Sebastian Bach Ochestral Suite No.2 In B Minor, BWV 1067 7. Badinerie The English Concert, Trevor Pinnock

Organ Fantasia and Fugue in G minor, BWV542

Bach was particularly admired for his keyboard skills, not least his knack for improvisation; much of his organ music probably started out life as just that – a doodle turned into something mighty. Leaving aside the most famous organ work of all, the Toccata and Fugue in D minor (which some doubt is by Bach at all), one of the most brilliant works is his Fantasia and Fugue in G minor. The free-flowing Fantasia has an angular beauty and a dark-hued mood that comes from Bach's liking for crunchy dissonance, while the Fugue is a tour de force that builds to a firmament-shaking climax.

Johann Sebastian Bach Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 538 "Dorian" Toccata Helmut Walcha

Cantata No.21

Bach's cantatas (nearly 200 sacred and a good-handful of secular ones survive) are all the more remarkable when you think that this was real bread-and-butter stuff, produced for the church services every week. This meant they had to be performable without much rehearsal; so either the congregation endured some pretty ropey playing, or Bach's musicians were out of the ordinary, as they're far from easy. Cantata No.21 is one of the most beautiful. Its text is a popular subject in the Lutheran tradition: 'Has God forsaken me? Phew, no he hasn't.' It's unusually large-scale and demonstrates that no one expresses anguish more deliciously than Bach.

The Well-tempered Clavier

Bach was not merely one of the greatest composing geniuses in history; he was also a devoted family man, and frequently wrote keyboard music as a teaching aid for his many children. The Well-Tempered Clavier is a set of preludes and fugues in all 24 major and minor keys (together, 48 works). And if that sounds a little dry, then just remember this is Bach we're talking about. The '48' are just as gripping to listen to as they are to play, and, given that this was never music intended for an audience, it's hardly surprising that there's a sense of intimacy about even the most extended and grandiose of the pieces.

Johann Sebastian Bach The Well-Tempered Clavier: Book 1, BWV 846-869 Prelude In C Major BWV 846 Maurizio Pollini

Goldberg Variations

Ultimately with Bach, you can either spend ages trying to analyse why his music is so endlessly compelling, or, as with the Goldberg Variations (purportedly written to soothe an insomniac nobleman to sleep), you can just enjoy it. Designed for harpsichord, but equally enthusiastically claimed by pianists, it consists of a lyrical theme with 30 variations, lasting about an hour. Bach puts the theme through myriad permutations of mood and speed, and when the theme returns unadorned at the end, the sense of a momentous journey is complete.

Johann Sebastian Bach Aria mit 30 Veränderungen, BWV 988 "Goldberg Variations" Aria Andrei Gavrilov

St Matthew Passion

Passions are large-scale choral works telling of the suffering and death of Christ, and none come finer than those of Bach, of which two have come down to us: the St John and the St Matthew. The latter is one of the great icons of music, but after Bach's death it went unperformed for nearly 80 years until a young Felix Mendelssohn reintroduced it to the world. Its combination of scale, solemnity and touching humanity (encapsulated in the gravely sorrowful aria 'Erbarme dich' for alto and violin) gives it an enduring appeal that captivates believers and non-believers alike.

Johann Sebastian Bach St. Matthew Passion, BWV 244 No.39 Aria (Alto): "Erbarme dich" Magdalena Kozená, Gabrieli Players, Paul McCreesh

Violin Sonatas and Partitas

Violinists have no need to envy the Cello Suites, since Bach left them an equivalent solo work: the Sonatas and Partitas. The most famous of them is the D minor Partita, with its fiendish and epic final 'Chaconne', in which a simple theme is varied no fewer than 64 times, to extraordinary emotional effect. Equally effective is the E major Partita, which dances in with an irrepressible spirit that is rarely threatened during the remaining movements. The listener never desires accompaniment with any of these pieces, as the violin is placed in the spotlight so compellingly.

Johann Sebastian Bach Partita For Violin Solo No.2 In D Minor, BWV 1004 5. Ciaccona Nathan Milstein

Concerto in D minor for Two Violins

Bach didn't leave many solo concertos, but this one is a gem. Featuring two violinists with a simple string-and-harpsichord accompaniment, it is particularly beloved for its rhapsodic slow movement (shamelessly plundered by myriad film directors for moments of high emotion), in which the two soloists entwine confidingly, sounding more like singers than instrumentalists. This contrasts with the energetic outer movements in which the two players brilliantly spark off each other. It's hardly surprising that great violinists throughout history have paired up for this irresistible double-act.

Johann Sebastian Bach Double Concerto For 2 Violins, Strings, And Continuo In D Minor, BWV 1043 1. Vivace Mayumi Hirasaki, Giuliano Carmignola, Concerto Köln

Six Cello Suites

While it's easy enough for the keyboard to stand alone, string instruments have a harder time of it. Bach's solo Cello Suites are immensely difficult, not least because he was determined to make the instrument sound self-sufficient. They vanished for years from the repertoire, only to be rediscovered and subsequently celebrated when the great Catalan cellist Pablo Casals began to play them and proved that they were not, as previously thought by some, merely studies! The suites have been daunting players and delighting audiences ever since. They turn the cello into a veritable orchestra, and range from the gloriously affirmative No.1, via the introspection of No.2, to the brilliant, high-flying Sixth.

Johann Sebastian Bach Suite For Cello Solo No.1 In G, BWV 1007 1. Prélude Mischa Maisky

Moving from City to City

Bach moved to St Blasius Church in Mühlhausen in 1707, where his first task was to supervise the building of a new organ. Better resources were at his disposal, as is shown by the technical demands of his Cantata BWV 4 Christ lag in Todesbanden. But employment difficulties soon led him to search for other positions. Within a year he had broken his family's long tradition of church music by becoming a court musician in Weimar. There he embraced new musical styles, in particular those of Vivaldi. Initially he was appointed court organist, with responsibility for providing church choral music. But Weimar was divided between two palaces and Bach quickly expanded his activities to include secular music. At first Weimar proved a congenial place to work, and the increased salary was no doubt helpful with the composer's growing family.

In 1713 one of the younger members of the Weimar royalty, Prince Johann Ernst, returned from the University of Utrecht. He brought with him a large amount of new Italian music including Vivaldi's Op.3 (L'Estro Armonico). Bach arranged four of these concertos for organ and two others for multiple harpsichords. He also learnt from Vivaldi how to harness rhythmic drive and longer-term harmonic expectations to extend his musical structures. Court squabbles and the reluctance to promote Bach to Kapellmeister again led him to look for another post. In 1717 he accepted a position in Cöthen, and was imprisoned in Weimar for a short period for entertaining the idea of leaving. At first Cöthen offered comfortable employment and seemed to be confirming Bach as a court rather than a church musician. The Cöthen court was Calvinist, so Bach worshipped in the local Lutheran church, and composed no Sunday-by-Sunday church cantatas. Instead he devoted his energies to secular music, notably the Brandenburg Concertos and the Orchestral Suites. In these he synthesised north German harmonic richness with the new-found energy of the Italian style.

Cöthen proved less congenial when it became clear that the prince's new wife disliked music. Bach applied for the post of Cantor of St Thomas's Church in Leipzig, his last appointment. His salary would be reduced but his children would receive a free education at the school. His Lutheran disposition and an intention to enlarge his cantata output may also have played a part in his decision. Telemann was first choice for the position, perhaps because he was a graduate of Leipzig University. But Bach secured the job, which he took up in 1723. It is usually thought that he devoted almost all of his time in Leipzig to choral music. In fact, over half his cantatas and the original versions of both surviving Passions were written in the first seven years. This suggests he was trying to speed through his contractual obligations. Nonetheless, the cantatas form a remarkable body of work. They are particularly notable for their use of obbligato instruments in the solo arias. Bach's use of chorales is another striking feature. Their melodies are often elaborated or extended in choruses and arias, and each cantata ends with a sublime harmonisation of the chorale on which it is based.

Career Highlights and Legacy

The high point of Bach's choral music came with his largest work, the St Matthew Passion, written in 1727 and revised in 1736 and 1740. French, German and Italian musical styles are employed to explore the story's wide range of spiritual and emotive connotations, and Bach takes the art of chorale harmonisation to new heights with multiple arrangements of the 'Passion' chorale (O Sacred Head Sore Wounded). The work is a microcosm of the composer's innovations during his Leipzig years and a startling contrast to his more intimate St John Passion.

As director of a student music-making body, Bach composed or re-wrote many violin and keyboard concertos for the group, which may also have performed earlier works such as the Brandenburg Concertos. Bach also began taking a serious interest in the publication of his works. He assembled some of his greatest keyboard compositions into sets, which were published as Clavierübung. These included the keyboard Partitas, the English and French Suites and Das Wohltemperierte Klavier (The Well-Tempered Clavier). 'Well-tempered' in this context refers to the keyboard tuning system that had only just made it possible to play in every major and minor key without re-tuning. Bach uses this as an opportunity to showcase a wide range of keyboard styles and contrapuntal techniques, while exploring the newly available tonalities. A similar range is shown in the Goldberg Variations, particularly in its succession of canons that form a separate cycle within the 30 variations. Das Musikalische Opfer (The Musical Offering), written for Frederick the Great of Prussia, is another fine exposition of Bach's unparalleled contrapuntal skills. So too are Die Kunst der Fuge (The Art of Fugue), left incomplete at his death, the Sonatas and Partitas for unaccompanied violin and the Suites for unaccompanied cello.

With one eye on posterity, Bach put a great deal of effort in his last years to completing his monumental Mass in B minor. Much of the music for the Mass dates back to the early 1730s, when Bach applied for an honorary position with the Catholic court of Dresden. But he continued work on it until not long before his death in 1750. The result is an epic survey of the many vocal and liturgical styles Bach had mastered over the course of his career. Widely regarded as one of the greatest masterpieces of Western music, it is a fitting testament to his exceptional life and a work.