J. S. Bach’s Music

I have also found a list of compositions by Johann Sebastian Bach, but they are too numerous to list here so for those interested, this is a link to the Wikipedia page: List of compositions by Johann Sebastian Bach

A handwritten note by Bach in his copy of the Calov Bible.

The above note, written next to 2 Chronicles 5:13 reads: “NB Bey einer andächtigen Musiq ist allezeit Gott mit seiner Gnaden Gegenwart”, meaning ‘(N(ota) B(ene) In a music of worship God is always present with his grace’. From an early age, Bach studied the works of his musical contemporaries of the Baroque period and those of prior generations, and those influences were reflected in his music. Like his contemporaries Handel, Telemann and Vivaldi, Bach composed concertos, suites, recitatives, da capo arias, and four-part choral music. Some works employed a basso continuo which is used in baroque music as an accompanying part that includes a bass line and harmonies, typically played on a keyboard instrument and with other instruments such as cello or lute. The music of Bach was harmonically more innovative than his peer composers, employing surprisingly dissonant chords and progressions, often with extensive exploration of harmonic possibilities within one piece. The hundreds of sacred works Bach created are usually seen as manifesting not just his craft but also a truly devout relationship with God. He had taught Luther’s Small Catechism as the Thomaskantor in Leipzig, and some of his pieces represent it, in fact the Lutheran chorale was the basis of much of his work. In elaborating these hymns into his chorale preludes. He wrote more cogent and tightly integrated works than most, even when they were seen as massive and lengthy by some and the large-scale structure of every major Bach sacred vocal work is evidence of subtle, elaborate planning to create a religiously and musically powerful expression. For example, the St Matthew Passion, like other works of its kind, illustrated the Passion with Bible text reflected in recitatives, arias, choruses, and chorales. But in crafting this work, Bach created an overall experience that has been found over the intervening centuries to be both musically thrilling and spiritually profound, something I wholeheartedly agree with. Bach published or carefully compiled in manuscript many collections of pieces that explored the range of artistic and technical possibilities inherent in almost every genre of his time except opera. For example, The Well-Tempered Clavier comprises two books, each of which presents a prelude and fugue in every major and minor key, displaying a dizzying variety of structural, contrapuntal and fugal techniques.

“O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden”: the four-part chorale setting as included in the St. Matthew Passion.

Four-part harmonies predate Bach, but he lived during a time when modal music in Western tradition was largely supplanted in favour of the tonal system. In this, a piece of music progresses from one chord to the next according to certain rules, each chord being characterised by four notes. The principles of four-part harmony are found not only in Bach’s four-part choral music, as he also prescribes it for instance for the figured bass accompaniment. The new system was at the core of Bach’s style, and his compositions are to a large extent considered as laying down the rules for the evolving scheme that would dominate musical expression in the next centuries. Some examples of this characteristic of Bach’s style and its influence may be seen when, in the 1740s, Bach staged his arrangement of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater where he upgraded the viola part (which in the original composition plays in unison with the bass part) to fill out the harmony, thus adapting the composition to his four-part harmony style. Also, starting in the 19th century in Russia, there was a discussion about the authenticity of four-part court chant settings compared to earlier Russian traditions and Bach’s four-part chorale settings, such as those ending his Chorale cantatas, were considered as foreign-influenced models. Such influence was deemed unavoidable, however. Bach’s insistence on the tonal system and contribution to shaping it did not imply he was less at ease with the older modal system and the genres associated with it, more than his contemporaries (who had ‘moved on’ to the tonal system without much exception). Bach often returned to the then-antiquated modi and genres. In addition modulation, or changing key in the course of a piece, is another style characteristic where Bach goes beyond what was usual in his time. Baroque instruments vastly limited modulation possibilities, as with keyboard instruments, prior to a workable system of temperament, limited the keys that could be modulated to, and wind instruments, especially brass instruments such as trumpets and horns, about a century before they were fitted with valves, were tied to the key of their tuning. Bach pushed the limits, as he added ‘strange tones’ in his organ playing, confusing the singing. The major development taking place in Bach’s time, and to which he contributed in no small way, was a temperament for keyboard instruments that allowed their use in all available keys (12 major and 12 minor) and also modulation without retuning. His Capriccio on the Departure of a Beloved Brother, a very early work, showed a gusto for modulation unlike any contemporary work this composition has been compared to but the full expansion came with the Well-Tempered Clavier, using all keys, which Bach apparently had been developing since around 1720, the Klavierbüchlein für Wilhelm Friedemann Bach being one of its earliest examples.

“Aria” of the Goldberg Variations, showing Bach’s use of ornaments.

The second page of this Klavierbüchlein für Wilhelm Friedemann Bach is an ornament notation and performance guide that Bach wrote for his eldest son, who was nine years old at the time. Bach was generally quite specific on ornamentation in his compositions (where in his time much of the ornamentation was not written out by composers but rather considered a liberty of the performer), and his ornamentation was often quite elaborate. For instance, the Aria of the Goldberg Variations has rich ornamentation in nearly every measure. Bach’s dealing with ornamentation can also be seen in a keyboard arrangement he made of Marcello’s Oboe Concerto, where he added explicit ornamentation, which some centuries later is played by oboists when performing the concerto. Although Bach did not write any operas, he was not averse to the genre or its ornamented vocal style. In church music, Italian composers had imitated the operatic vocal style in genres such as the Neapolitan mass. In Protestant surroundings, there was more reluctance to adopt such a style for liturgical music. For instance Kuhnau, Bach’s predecessor in Leipzig, had notoriously shunned opera and Italian virtuoso vocal music. Bach was less moved. One of the comments after a performance of his St Matthew Passion was that it all sounded much like opera. In concert playing in Bach’s time the basso continuo, along with instruments such as organ, viola da gamba or harpsichord, usually had the role of accompaniment, providing the harmonic and rhythmic foundation of a piece. From the late 1720s, Bach had the organ play ‘concertante’ (i.e. as a soloist) with the orchestra in instrumental cantata movements, a decade before Handel published his first organ concertos. Apart from the 5th Brandenburg Concerto and the Triple Concerto, which already had harpsichord soloists in the 1720s, Bach wrote and arranged his harpsichord concertos in the 1730s, and in his sonatas for viola da gamba and harpsichord neither instrument plays a continuo part as they are treated as equal soloists, far beyond the figured bass. In this sense, Bach played a key role in the development of genres such as the keyboard concerto. Bach wrote virtuoso music for specific instruments as well as music independent of instrumentation. For instance, the sonatas and partitas for solo violin are considered the pinnacle of what has been written for this instrument, only within reach of accomplished players. The music fits the instrument, pushing it to the full scale of its possibilities and requiring virtuosity of the player but without bravura. Notwithstanding that the music and the instrument seem inseparable, Bach made transcriptions for other instruments of some pieces of this collection. Similarly, for the cello suites, the virtuoso music seems tailored for the instrument, the best of what is offered for it, yet Bach made an arrangement for lute of one of these suites. The same applies to much of his most virtuoso keyboard music. Bach exploited the capabilities of an instrument to the fullest while keeping the core of such music independent of the instrument on which it is performed.
In this sense, it is no surprise that Bach’s music is easily and often performed on instruments it was not necessarily written for, that it is transcribed so often, and that his melodies turn up in unexpected places such as jazz music. Apart from this, Bach left a number of compositions without specified instrumentation. Another characteristic of Bach’s style is his extensive use of counterpoint, as opposed to the homophony used in his four-part Chorale settings, for example. Bach’s canons, and especially his fugues, are most characteristic of this style, which Bach did not invent but contributed to so fundamentally that he defined it to a large extent. Fugues are as characteristic to Bach’s style as, for instance, the Sonata form is characteristic to the composers of the Classical period. These strictly contrapuntal compositions, and most of Bach’s music in general, are characterised by distinct melodic lines for each of the voices, where the chords formed by the notes sounding at a given point follow the rules of four-part harmony. From about 1720, when he was thirty-five, until his death in 1750, Bach’s harmony consists in this melodic interweaving of independent melodies, so perfect in their union that each part seems to constitute the true melody, and here I think Bach excels all the composers in the world. At least, I have found no one to equal him in music known to me. Even in his four-part writing we can, not infrequently, leave out the upper and lower parts and still find the middle parts melodious and agreeable. Bach devoted more attention than his contemporaries to the structure of compositions. This can be seen in minor adjustments he made when adapting someone else’s composition, such as his earliest version of the “Keiser” St Mark Passion, where he enhances scene transitions, and in the architecture of his own compositions such as his Magnificat and Leipzig Passions. In the last years of his life, Bach revised several of his prior compositions, and often the recasting of such previously composed music in an enhanced structure was the most visible change, as in the Mass in B minor. Bach’s known preoccupation with structure led to various numerological analyses of his compositions, although many such over-interpretations were later rejected. The librettos, or lyrics, of his vocal compositions played an important role for Bach. He sought collaboration with various text authors for his cantatas and major vocal compositions, possibly writing or adapting such texts himself to make them fit the structure of the composition he was designing when he could not rely on the talents of other text authors. His collaboration with Picander for the St Matthew Passion libretto is best known, but there was a similar process in achieving a multi-layered structure for his St John Passion libretto a few years earlier.

In 1950, Wolfgang Schmieder published a thematic catalogue of Bach’s compositions called the Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis (Bach Works Catalogue). Schmieder largely followed the Bach-Gesellschaft-Ausgabe, a comprehensive edition of the composer’s works that was produced between 1850 and 1900. The first edition of the catalogue listed 1,080 surviving compositions indisputably composed by Bach. This BWV range of compositions comprised as BWV 1–224: Cantatas, BWV 225–231: Motets, BWV 232–243: Liturgical compositions in Latin, BWV 244–249: Passions and Oratorios, BWV 250–438: Four-part chorales, BWV 439–524: Small vocal works, BWV 525–771: Organ compositions, BWV 772–994: Other keyboard works, BWV 995–1000: Lute compositions, BWV 1001–1040: Other chamber music, BWV 1041–1071: Orchestral music, BWV 1072–1078: Canons and BWV 1079–1080: Late contrapuntal works. BWV 1081–1126 were added to the catalogue in the second half of the 20th century, whilst BWV 1127 and higher are 21st-century additions.

Bach’s autograph of the recitative with the gospel text of Christ’s death from St Matthew Passion (Matthew 27:45–47a).

Bach composed Passions for Good Friday services and oratorios such as the Christmas Oratorio, which is a set of six cantatas for use in the liturgical season of Christmas, whilst shorter oratorios include the Easter Oratorio and the Ascension Oratorio. With its double choir and orchestra, the St Matthew Passion is one of Bach’s most extended works and the St John Passion was the first passion Bach composed during his tenure as Thomaskantor in Leipzig. According to his obituary, Bach would have composed five year-cycles of sacred cantatas and additional church cantatas, for example weddings and funerals. Approximately 200 of these sacred works are extant, an estimated two thirds of the total number of church cantatas he composed. The Bach Digital website lists 50 known secular cantatas by the composer, about half of which are extant or largely reconstructable. Bach also wrote a range of cantatas, both church and secular. His A cappella music includes motets and chorale harmonisations but he is perhaps best known, certainly during his lifetime, as an organist, organ consultant, and composer of organ works in both the traditional German free genres (such as preludes, fantasias and toccatas as well as stricter forms such as chorale preludes and fugues. At a young age, he established a reputation for creativity and ability to integrate foreign styles into his organ works. A decidedly North German influence was exerted by Georg Böhm, with whom Bach came into contact in Lüneburg, and Dieterich Buxtehude, whom the young organist visited in Lübeck in 1704 on an extended leave of absence from his job in Arnstadt. Around this time, Bach copied the works of numerous French and Italian composers to gain insights into their compositional languages, and later arranged violin concertos by Vivaldi and others for organ and harpsichord. During his most productive period (1708–1714) he composed about a dozen pairs of preludes and fugues, five toccatas and fugues, and the Orgelbüchlein or “Little Organ Book”, an unfinished collection of 46 short chorale preludes that demonstrate compositional techniques in the setting of chorale tunes. After leaving Weimar, Bach wrote less for organ, although some of his best-known works (the six Organ Sonatas, the German Organ Mass in Clavier-Übung III from 1739, and the Great Eighteen Chorale Preludes, revised late in his life, were composed after leaving Weimar. Bach was also extensively engaged later in his life in consulting on organ projects, testing new organs and dedicating organs in afternoon recitals. The Canonic Variations on “Vom Himmel hoch da komm’ ich her” and the Schübler Chorales are organ works Bach published in the last years of his life. Bach wrote many works for harpsichord, some of which may also have been played on the clavichord or lute-harpsichord. Some of his larger works are intended for a harpsichord with two manuals, because performing them on a keyboard instrument with a single manual (like a piano) may present technical difficulties for the crossing of hands. In Books 1 and 2 of The Well-Tempered Clavier, each book consists of a prelude and fugue in each of the 24 major and minor keys, in chromatic order from C major to B minor. As a result, the whole collection is often referred to as ‘the 48’, and the term ‘Well-tempered’ in the title refers to the [temperament, or system of tuning. Many temperaments before Bach’s time were not flexible enough to allow compositions to utilise more than just a few keys. Bach’s best-known orchestral works are the Brandenburg Concertos, so named because he submitted them in the hope of gaining employment from Margrave Christian Ludwig of Brandenburg-Schwedt in 1721, however his application was unsuccessful. In his early youth, Bach copied pieces by other composers to learn from them. Later, he copied and arranged music for performance or as study material for his pupils.

The church in Arnstadt where Bach had been the organist from 1703 to 1707.

In 1935 the church was renamed “Bachkirche”. Throughout the 18th century, appreciation of Bach’s music was mostly limited to distinguished connoisseurs. Then the 19th century started with publication of the first biography of the composer and ended with the completion of the publication of all of Bach’s known works by the Bach Gesellschaft. A Bach Revival had started from Mendelssohn’s performance of the St Matthew Passion in 1829. Soon after that performance, Bach started to become regarded as one of the greatest composers of all time, if not the greatest, a reputation he has retained ever since. A new extensive Bach biography was published in the second half of the 19th century. Bach was originally buried at Old St. John’s Cemetery in Leipzig. His grave went unmarked for nearly 150 years, but in 1894 his remains were located and moved to a vault in St. John’s Church. This building was then destroyed by Allied bombing during World War II, so in 1950 Bach’s remains were taken to their present grave in St. Thomas Church and it is sad that later research has called into question whether in fact the remains in the grave are actually those of Bach. I like to think they are his.

This week…remember.
A gossip is someone with a great sense of rumour.

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