Johann Sebastian Bach



Johann Sebastian Bach lived in Germany during the Baroque era, and helped to bring Baroque music to a glorious peak.

Early in his career he composed many works for keyboard instruments and for orchestra, including his popular ‘Brandenburg’ Concertos. After working in the cities of Weimar and Köthen, he became the music director of St Thomas’s School in Leipzig, which provided music for four different churches in the city. So along came his great works for choir, including the St John Passion and St Matthew Passion. As well as composing and preparing music for church services, he also found time to be the father of 20 children! Several of them grew up to be composers too.

In Bach’s day he was best known as a talented organist. It wasn’t until the 19th century that his music rose to the top, thanks to composers such as Beethoven, Chopin and Mendelssohn telling the world how good it was. It was Mendelssohn especially who shone a light on Bach, by putting on a performance of his St Matthew Passion – the first in 100 years. Today, most people have heard Bach’s music even if they don’t realise it, because it has been used in countless films, TV programmes and commercials. It is often ‘arranged’ too: someone takes the notes and moves them round a bit, or gives them to other instruments, so the music has another flavour. Only the best music inspires people to do this and still sounds remarkable in its original version.

The Well-Tempered Clavier is another well-known set of pieces by Bach. Not only do they give a pianist practice at playing in every single key, they also demonstrate a clever form of music called a fugue. In a fugue, one theme starts and then everything is built brilliantly around it. On the piano, your two hands play three or four independent parts all at the same time!

Bach’s music is incredibly special. It isn’t just technically impressive, but warm and inspiring too: it satisfies both your brain and your heart!

J. S. Bach, courtesy of Benjamin Chai

Play Music!

Play Music!

Listen to a bit of Bach...

Orchestral Suite No. 2 in B minor, BWV 1067: VII. Badinerie

Flautists love this piece. The ‘Badinerie’ may be brief, but you can hear how difficult it is to play!

Performers: Cologne Chamber Orchestra; Helmut Müller-Brühl

Taken from Naxos 8.554609

‘Brandenburg’ Concerto No. 3 in G major, BWV 1048: III. Allegro

Bach wrote six ‘Brandenburg’ Concertos, dedicating them to one of his aristocratic patrons – the Margrave of Brandenburg. They use all the different instruments in very imaginative ways!

Performers: Cologne Chamber Orchestra; Helmut Müller-Brühl

Taken from Naxos 8.554607

Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D major, BWV 1068: II. Air (‘Air on the G String’)

This Air is part of Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D major, BWV 1068 but it has become more famous as a piece on its own. It wasn’t originally meant to be played on just one string, but some violinists like to play it that way anyway.

Performers: Cologne Chamber Orchestra; Helmut Müller-Brühl

Taken from Naxos 8.554609

Do You Know?

Do You Know?

See if you can answer the questions below!

 Which instrument did J.S. Bach play?

a. Organ
b. Tuba
c. Cello

 Where did Bach work for much of his life?

a. London
b. Leipzig
c. Düsseldorf

 How many children in total did Bach have?

a. 20
b. 4
c. None

 A composer in the Romantic era helped Bach and his music to be rediscovered, 100 years after his death. Who was it?

a. Mendelssohn
b. Rachmaninov
c. Liszt

 Bach was brilliant at a complicated style of writing – what was it called?

a. Monotony
b. Glissando
c. Polyphony

Key Facts…

Key Facts…
  1. J.S. Bach became an orphan at the age of 10: he lived with his eldest brother for five years.
  2. It is said that Bach walked 280 miles (450 kilometres) from Arnstadt to Lübeck, and back again, to see the organist and composer Dietrich Buxtehude.
  3. Bach was born in the same year as George Frideric Handel and Domenico Scarlatti. It was a happy year for music!
  4. Although most of his choral works have religious words, Bach wrote one about people drinking coffee! It is called his ‘Coffee Cantata’.
  5. Bach struggled with his eyesight, and poorly handled operations for cataracts left him completely blind. (The same surgeon also operated on Handel and left him blind too.)

Play More Music!

Play More Music!

Here is more music to listen to. Click the + to see tracks and information about each work!

Ensemble and Orchestral

Concerto for violin in A minor, BWV 1041

This concerto is an example of Bach at his best. He wrote it around 1730 and it is understandably popular. During the Baroque period the solo concerto was developing into the form we know today: a solo instrument as the star of the show, supported by an ensemble or orchestra. So here, the star is a violin. There are three movements (complete sections): the first one is fast (‘Allegro’ means fast); the second is steadier (‘Andante’ indicates a walking speed); and the third one is faster than the first (‘Allegro assai’ means ‘very fast’). You can hear the solo violin clearly first at 0.29 in track 1. Sometimes its sound folds into the rest of the music, but it’s always there, singing at the top!

Performers: Kolja Blacher, violin; Cologne Chamber Orchestra; Helmut Müller-Brühl

Taken from Naxos 8.554603

Concerto for two violins in D minor, BWV 1043

Concertos come in all different shapes and sizes. This one has two solo instruments: a pair of violins. All the string instruments, soloists and orchestra, knit together so neatly that it can be difficult to pick out the soloists sometimes: it’s easier when you see them live, standing at the front of the stage! Like the Concerto in A minor for solo violin, this work is much loved. There is energy when it is fast and beauty when it is slow – beauty that is difficult to put into words. Listen to the slow movement (track 2) and see what you think. At the beginning, one of the solo violins begins the tune: see if you can hear the second one take over at 0.16. They keep doing this kind of thing all the way through, developing the music bit by bit as a perfect pair.

Performers: Christine Pichlmeier, violin; Lisa Stewart, violin; Cologne Chamber Orchestra; Helmut Müller-Brühl

Taken from Naxos 8.554603

‘Brandenburg’ Concerto No. 2 in F major, BWV 1047

Bach wrote six ‘Brandenburg’ Concertos, all dedicated to the Margrave of Brandenburg – a royal prince who had met Bach and showed an interest in his music. Each concerto is for a different combination of instruments, and Bach uses them in imaginative ways. This second concerto is notable for its brilliant high trumpet part. See if you can hear it trilling at the top at 0.06 – it carries on to play a starring role. It is still one of the hardest trumpet parts to play – Bach would have written it for an expert on the ‘clarino’ – that is a ‘natural trumpet’, which has no valves. It gets a break in track 2, but just listen to it blast in for track 3, as if it’s decorating the sky!

Performers: Jürgen Schuster, trumpet; Cologne Chamber Orchestra; Helmut Müller-Brühl

Taken from Naxos 8.554607

‘Brandenburg’ Concerto No. 3 in G major, BWV 1048

Bach’s six ‘Brandenburg’ Concertos were dedicated to the Margrave of Brandenburg – a royal prince who had met Bach and showed an interest in his music. This one has just string instruments (three violins, three violas, three cellos) and a harpsichord, and it is full of joyful energy. Picture the musicians in a semi-circle, having fun, their busy bows moving back and forth on the strings to produce the sounds Bach dreamt up so many years ago. There isn’t much rest – just one minute in the second movement ‘Cadenza’, which is a decorative few bars for the harpsichord on its own. Then, they’re all off again! Can you hear the buzzy sound of the harpsichord running and jumping along underneath in track 3?

Performers: Cologne Chamber Orchestra; Helmut Müller-Brühl

Taken from Naxos 8.554607

Orchestral Suite No. 2 in B minor

A suite is a collection of pieces that make up a complete work. They are often based on different kinds of dance music, and that is true here. So whether the music is steady or lively, there is usually a strong sense of rhythm. Listen to track 4, for example: the bourrée is a quick dance that came from France; or try track 5: you can hear a strong beat for the polonaise, which came originally from Poland. The final track, ‘Badinerie’, isn’t a dance form: it’s a bit like the word ‘Scherzo’ that we see a lot in symphonies, and suggests something playful or jokey. It’s the flute that is being playful here – it seems to be saying ‘chase me’!

Performers: Cologne Chamber Orchestra; Helmut Müller-Brühl

Taken from Naxos 8.554609

Solo Instrumental

Cello Suite No. 1 in G major, BWV 1007

Bach’s suites for solo cello are like jewels – precious, and very special. A good cellist can sit on a concert stage with the cello, all alone, and command the attention of everyone in the room with this music. A suite is a collection of pieces, and the music is usually based on different kinds of dances. So each piece here, in the Suite No. 1, has a different feel. See which one you like best!

Performers: Maria Kliegel, cello

Taken from Naxos 8.557280-81

Violin Sonata No. 1 in G minor, BWV 1001

Bach composed several solo sonatas for the violin. They are not like the sonatas of the later Classical era, which were written to a particular design called ‘sonata form’. Here, ‘sonata’ just means a piece that is played on an instrument, rather than a ‘cantata’, which is a piece that is sung. In many works we hear the violin accompanied by a piano or an orchestra: here it is completely alone. Often you can hear two notes though – the very start, for example. This is called ‘double-stopping’ and it isn’t easy for the violinist. Bach was challenging both players and instruments with his writing. Listen to track 2: can you believe there is only one violin? This is a fugue, which means there are different ‘parts’ – but, amazingly, the parts are all played by one person on one violin!

Performers: Ilya Kaler, violin

Taken from Naxos 8.570277-78

The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1, BWV 846–869 (played on a harpsichord) (excerpts)

Bach composed two sets (‘books’) of preludes and fugues written in every single key. During the Baroque era, there wasn’t just one system of tuning (or ‘temperament’), and nobody is completely sure what tuning system Bach had in mind for these pieces. It’s a complicated subject, but all that really matters is the music we hear! These pieces are played today on a harpsichord or a piano – the sound of a modern piano was not what Bach imagined when he wrote his music, but today it is the most common keyboard instrument. Here is the first prelude and fugue on a harpsichord (you can hear it on a piano further down this playlist): can you hear how it sounds more buzzy than a piano? The strings of a harpsichord are plucked: in a piano, they are hit with little hammers. A fugue is a complicated kind of piece, with several lines. It begins with a ‘subject’ (a kind of theme) in one line; then a new line comes in to play the theme on different notes, while the first line carries on. Then a third comes in, and so it continues, with the theme popping up all over the place.

Performers: Luc Beauséjour, harpsichord

Taken from Naxos 8.557625-26

The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1, BWV 846–869 (played on a piano) (excerpts)

Bach’s two books of preludes and fugues that make up his The Well-Tempered were intended for the ‘Clavier’ – i.e. the keyboard. But that could mean the harpsichord, clavichord or even the organ. Here are some of them played on the modern piano, which happens a lot today. You can compare track 1 here with tracks 1 and 2 above, where the Prelude and Fugue No. 1 is played on the harpsichord: which do you like best? The great thing about the piano is that you can make notes sound really quiet or really loud: you can’t do that on the harpsichord. This is useful when it comes to playing fugues: different lines of music happen at the same time in a fugue, so it is nice to make it obvious, within all the busy music, when the ‘subject’ (the main theme) pops up. Try track 2, from 1.31: the start of the fugue. The subject begins on its own, so you know what it sounds like. Keep listening… at 2.06, the theme enters between other lines of music: can you hear it? The pianist makes it slightly louder than the music above and below, so that it’s more obvious. It’s quite complicated though, so don’t worry if you can’t spot it!

Performers: Jenő Jandó, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.553796-97

‘Goldberg’ Variations, BWV 988 (excerpts)

‘Variations’ in music are when a simple theme or tune is used again and again, in different ways. The composer might speed it up, slow it down, change the rhythm, make it louder or quieter, or add all sorts of other notes in between the ones already there. So each ‘variation’ is like a new costume! Sometimes it’s hard to hear the original theme, but it’s always there somewhere. Bach’s ‘Goldberg’ Variations are extraordinary, partly because there are so many variations – 30 in total. They were published in 1741 and named after Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, a young harpsichordist. He might have been the first to play them, but we can’t know for sure. Listen to the lovely theme – the ‘Aria’ (track 1) – and see if you can hear how tracks 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 dress it up in new clothes!

Performers: Jenő Jandó, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.557268

Anna Magdalena’s Notebook, Book 2 (excerpts)

In 1722 Bach wrote for his new wife, Anna Magdalena, a little book of keyboard pieces. Three years later came a second book – more of a family album, as it included compositions by other Bachs, including one of Bach’s sons, C.P.E. Bach. The three minuets here make a nice set. The first one is the best known. Because these pieces are less difficult than some of Bach’s other keyboard music, they are often given to piano students to learn.

Performers: Jenő Jandó, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.550679

Toccata and Fugue in D minor for organ, BWV 565

This rather dramatic and scary work is very famous, partly because it’s been used in a lot of films, including the classic Fantasia of 1940 and 20,000 Leagues under the Sea from 1954. Bach wrote a lot of music for the organ – a fantastic monster of an instrument, which needs a lot of skill to play. You really have to multitask on a big organ because there is more than one keyboard (called a manual) for your fingers to play, a lot of ‘stops’ at the side to pull out and push in (they change the sound), and a whole spread of pedals for your feet to press. Bach was an excellent organist himself, so he knew what he was doing when he wrote music for it.

Performers: Wolfgang Rübsam, organ

Taken from Naxos 8.553859

Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor for organ, BWV 582

A ‘passacaglia’ has a bass line – a line at the bottom of the music – that keeps repeating, while the music above it changes. This is quite a slow version of Bach’s Passacaglia for organ, so you can really listen to the bass line at the beginning thundering out (0.00–0.37) – then see if you can hear how it comes back. The organist plays those first few bars with only feet: the notes are coming from the pedals! The fugue that follows the passacaglia, like all Bach’s fugues, is clever: there is a ‘subject’, which is actually part of the theme from the passacaglia, and the music becomes thick with snippets of that subject all overlapping joyfully to create a great work.

Performers: Wolfgang Rübsam, organ

Taken from Naxos 8.553859

Choral Music

Mass in B minor, BWV 232 (excerpts)

Bach’s Mass in B minor is a setting for choir and orchestra of the complete Roman Catholic Mass (even though Bach was a Protestant) – it is a masterpiece. It was written in 1749. It is likely that Bach never heard the complete work, perhaps only short sections. Unlike his Passions, it is written in Latin and it is often lively and jazzy. Listen on track 1 to the thrilling high trumpets and drums with the chorus singing ‘Gloria in excelsis Deo’ (‘Glory be to God on high’). It is likely that the soloists were intended to come out from the chorus to sing their solos. On track 2, you can hear the duet from the soprano and tenor accompanied by a beautiful flute, like an angel hovering overhead. The multitude of angels all gather together in the wonderful ‘Sanctus’ (track 3). In contrast, the alto and violins take you on a sad and lonely journey in the ‘Agnus Dei’ (track 4). The final excerpt here is the end of the whole work, with the choir singing (in Latin of course) ‘Give us peace’. Each rising phrase gives us joy and hope. Listen to the high trumpets and the low drums towards the end.

Performers: Sunhae Im, soprano; Markus Schäfer, tenor; Ann Hallenberg, mezzo-soprano; Dresden Chamber Choir; Cologne Chamber Orchestra; Helmut Müller Bruhl

Taken from Naxos 8.557448-49

St John Passion, BWV 245 (excerpts)

Bach’s St John Passion is much shorter than its big brother, the St Matthew Passion. Both describe the Passion of Christ – the final days of his life up to when he is crucified. This one is from the Gospel of John. It is written in German for soloists, choir and small orchestra. The main soloist is the Evangelist, a tenor, who tells the story rather like a news reporter on television. Some of the other soloists play actual parts, like Jesus and Pilate, and the other soloists sing arias (songs) that express the mood of the story – listen to track 4, where the countertenor (a male alto singer) sings soulfully that Christ has died on the cross. The chorus plays many parts. Sometimes they play the part of the action, e.g. the angry mob wanting to crucify Jesus: you can hear this on track 3, especially at 1.57 to 2.50, where they are singing (in German) ‘Away with him! Crucify him!’ Sometimes they comment on the state of play, as in track 1. And sometimes they are like a present-day audience, singing hymns (chorales) to express what they have learned from the suffering of Jesus – listen to track 2. Although Bach wrote the work in his native German, it is sometimes – in the UK and USA – performed in English, which lets native English-speakers hear exactly what is going on. It is a brutal and cruel story and Bach’s music brings out all the pain and drama.

Performers: The Choir of New College Oxford; Collegium Novum; Edward Higginbottom; James Gilchrist, tenor (Evangelist); Eamonn Dougan, bass (Pilate); James Bowman, countertenor

Taken from Naxos 8.557296-97

St Matthew Passion, BWV 244 (excerpts)

Like the Taj Mahal in India and the great pyramids of Egypt, Bach’s St Matthew Passion is one of the greatest creations in the history of mankind. Strangely enough, this great work lay dormant for over 100 years until it was rediscovered by Mendelssohn. Even when conducted quite briskly, it lasts almost three hours. Everything is bigger than in the St John Passion – there are three choirs and two orchestras. The third choir, usually sung by children, is used only occasionally but with great effect. Listen to track 1 and feel the thrill of those young voices entering the work just after 2 minutes (at 2.08 – you can hear them come in and rise over the top of the other singers). Another feature to listen out for is that when Jesus sings, his voice accompanied by the strings to represent the halo above his head – you can hear this at 0.13 on track 2. Probably the most loved aria in the work is ‘Erbarme dich’ (‘Have mercy’ – track 3). Listen to the tender violin solo with the bass pizzicato (plucked strings) underneath: the pain of Christ is being mourned here. The alto solo part can either be sung by a man (singing high) or by a woman (singing low) – which do you think it is? In the St John Passion, above, it is a man (a male alto, called a countertenor). The chorus of track 4 ends the whole thing: the two choirs occasionally part company but sing together to conclude this monumental achievement by Bach.

Performers: Nico van der Meel, tenor (Evangelist); Raimund Nolte, bass-baritone (Jesus); Marianne Beate Kielland, alto; Dresden Chamber Choir; Cologne Cathedral Boys’ Choir; Cologne Chamber Orchestra; Helmut Müller-Brühl

Taken from Naxos 8.557617-19

Singet dem Herrn (‘Sing unto the Lord’), BWV 225

Singet dem Herrn (‘Sing unto the Lord’) is a motet (a kind of choral piece with a lot of variety). Like most of Bach’s other works for choir, it has words from the Bible, in German. The music is for two groups or choirs, each in four parts – so there are eight lines of music in total. These lines often weave round each other to make a wonderful web of sound – that is when the music is ‘polyphonic’. Bach was a master at writing polyphonic music: it is both clever and interesting. Right from the beginning he sets the word ‘Singet’ (‘Sing’) as if the ‘Sing’ (pronounced ‘Zing’ in German) jumps up on a trampoline. Listen out for that word leaping out every now and then from all the other busy voices until 0.53 when they move onto the next line of text. There are some calmer sections in the middle of the work, then at 9.03 it gets busy again for ‘Lobet den Herrn in seinen Taten’ (‘Praise the Lord in His words’). From 10.26 to the end, hear how the bass introduces a theme, then gradually each voice does it. And even though all the voices are singing things at different times, can you hear a strong 1–2–3 rhythm all the way through, as if it’s still bouncing on the trampoline?

Performers: The Scholars Baroque Ensemble

Taken from Naxos 8.553823

Arrangements and Transcriptions

Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring (J.S. Bach, arranged by Myra Hess)

200 years after Bach wrote this music for a choir, a pianist called Myra Hess created a version for piano. There is a beautiful sense of peace within it. Can you hear how, at 0.22, a tune comes in? Keep listening, and you’ll hear how that tune comes back, sometimes underneath the lovely flowing music on the top. More and more notes are used, so it seems to fill out, growing in joy. The original version is at the end of Bach’s Cantata, BWV, 147 ‘Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben’ (‘Heart and Mouth and Deed and Life’).

Performers: Eteri Andjaparidze, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.554041

Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor, P. 159 (J.S. Bach’s BWV 582, arranged by Respighi)

Bach’s Passacaglia and Fugue for organ is included above: here you can sample it for a big Romantic symphony orchestra. Ottorini Respighi was an Italian composer who made this ‘arrangement’ in 1930, over 200 years after Bach wrote the original piece. Just think: Bach wrote it for one instrument, and Respighi has divided it among around 100 instruments! A passacaglia has a theme that repeats in the bass: can you hear how he gives this to the powerful brass instruments? They play it right at the beginning, and they play it underneath the busy string instruments: listen at 4.02. Sometimes the theme moves from the bass to the top: listen at 4.23 as it moves to the high violins. It becomes really grand from 7.55 to the end of the Passacaglia at 8.22. Then there is the Fugue, where one part comes in and plays a theme (a ‘subject’) before another comes in with the same thing on different notes while the first part plays a ‘counter-subject’ – and so it carries on, building as it goes. Fugues are quite complicated and clever, and they were written a lot in the Baroque era. This whole track delivers a big, Romantic version of Bach’s music: his writing was so good, it works just as brilliantly on 100 instruments as it does on one. Some would argue that it works even better! What do you think?

Performers: Seattle Symphony Orchestra; Gerard Schwarz

Taken from Naxos 8.572741

Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, BWV 645 (J.S. Bach, arranged by Leopold Stokowski)

The wonderful thing about using a big symphony orchestra to play Bach’s music is that its extraordinary colour can be brought out in full. His writing is so interesting that it thrives when it is divided up between all the different instruments. Leopold Stokowski was born in London nearly 200 years after Bach, and he began to fall for Bach’s music when he was a young choirboy. He spent most of his life conducting orchestras in America, but he made many arrangements of music by Bach and other composers, often using many instruments to make a huge sound. This famous piece appears twice from Bach – as a tenor aria in his Cantata, BWV 140 ‘Wachet auf’ and also as an organ prelude. What on earth would he have thought of this lush Romantic sound – the big string section playing with lots of vibrato and the powerful brass instruments? The very end (from 3.30) would have knocked his socks off! But it isn’t all ‘big’: Stokowski is sensitive with the original music. Just listen, for example, to the lovely bassoon solo at 2.20.

Performers: Seattle Symphony Orchestra; Gerard Schwarz

Taken from Naxos 8.572050