SearchBeat Home
comparison shop | family | fashion | gov't | games | genealogy | history | kids/teens | movies | repairs | traffic | weather | featured sites | site map |

 Search Beat > Arts > Music > Styles > Classical Music > Featured Composer > Johann Sebastian Bach

Shopping and Product Search for
biography - Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)

Johann Sebastian Bach (March 21, 1685 - July 28, 1750) was a German Baroque composer. He is generally ranked among history's greatest and most influential composers. His compositions often embody profound intellectual depth, emotional power, and technical command.

Bach is especially noted for his complex and ingenious contrapuntal writing; more than any other composer, Bach is associated with the fugue. The best known example of his fugal writing is probably The Well-Tempered Clavier, which comprises 48 preludes and fugues, two for each major and minor key. Another work with much fugal writing is The Art of Fugue, which was incomplete when Bach died. There are 14 fugues (called Contrapuncti by Bach), all based on the same theme.

Bach wrote much of his music for the Lutheran Church; in particular, his many cantatas were composed for normal Sunday services, and the St. John Passion and St. Matthew Passion were composed for special services on Good Friday.

His family life was substantial. Of the 13 children his wife bore him, several survived to become respected composers in their own right: most notably Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, who was very well regarded by Mozart. The trust Johann Sebastian placed in one of his elder sons (Johan Christian?) was ill-fated; he forever lost several Passions, inter alia, left behind by his father that could have been the equal of the St. Matthew & St. John. Were it not for C.P.E.'s faithful stewardship of his father's manuscripts, the world may never have known J.S. In more ways than one, Bach's music was elevated by family collaboration.

Other famous works by Bach include Brandenburg Concerti, Mass in B Minor, the 4 Orchestral Suites, 6 Cello Suites and a number of Violin Concertos.

Amongst Bach's students was Johann Friedrich Agricola.

Timeline of important events in Bach's life

  • March 21, 1685 born in Eisenach in a musical family.
  • 1708 appointed as chambermusician and organist at the court in Weimar. Concertmaster in 1714.
  • 1717 musician at the court of Leopold von Anhalt-Köthen
  • from 1723 cantor of St Thomas church in Leipzig
  • July 28, 1750 died in Leipzig after a botched eye operation. It is now thought that Bach suffered from blindness brought on by an untreated diabetes.
  • 7 children from his first marriage, 13 from his second, including Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach and Johann Christian Bach

The article below is adapted from the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), German musical composer. The Bach family was of importance in the history of music for nearly two hundred years. Four branches of it were known at the beginning of the i6th century, and in 1561 we hear of Hans Bach of Wechmar who is believed to be the father of Veit Bach (born about 1555). The family genealogy, drawn up by Johann Sebastian Bach himself and completed by his son Philipp Emanuel, describes Veit Bach as the founder of the family, a baker and a miller, "whose zither must have sounded very pretty among the clattering of the mill-wheels." His son, Hans Bach, "der Spielmann," is the first professional musician of the family. Of Hans's large family the second son, Christoph, was the grandfather of Sebastian Bach. Another son, Heinrich, of Arnstadt, had two sons, Johann Michael and Johann Christoph, who are among the greatest of J. S. Bach's forerunners, Johann Christoph being now supposed (although this is still disputed) to be the author of the splendid motet, Ich lasse dich nicht ("I wrestle and pray"), formerly ascribed to Sebastian Bach. Another descendant of Veit Bach, Johann Ludwig, was admired more than any other ancestor by Sebastian, who copied twelve of his church cantatas and sometimes added work of his own to them.

The Bach family never left Thuringia until the sons of Sebastian went into a more modern world. Through all the misery of the peasantry at the period of the Thirty Years' War this clan maintained its position and produced musicians who, however local their fame, were among the greatest in Europe. So numerous and so eminent were they that in Erfurt musicians were known as "Bachs," even when there were no longer any members of the family in the town. Sebastian Bach thus inherited the artistic tradition of a united family whose circumstances had deprived them of the distractions of the century of musical fermentation which in the rest of Europe had destroyed polyphonic music.

Johann Sebastian Bach was baptized at Eisenach on the 23rd of March 1685. His parents died in his tenth year, and his elder brother, Johann Christoph, organist at Ohrdruf, took charge of him and taught him music. The elder brother is said to have been jealous of Sebastian's talent, and to have forbidden him access to a manuscript volume of works by Froberger, Buxtehude and other great organists. Every night for six months Sebastian got up, put his hand through the lattice of the bookcase, and copied the volume out by moonlight, to the permanent ruin of his eyesight (as is shown by all the extant portraits of him at a later age and by the blindness of his last years). When he had finished, his brother discovered the copy and took it away from him. In 1700 Sebastian, now fifteen and thrown on his own resources by the death of his brother, went to Lüneburg, where his beautiful soprano voice obtained him an appointment at the school of St Michael as chorister. He seems, however, to have worked more at instrumental than at vocal music. Apart from the choristers' routine, his position provided only for his general education, and we know little about his definite musical instructors. In any case he owed his musical development mainly to his own incessant study of classical and contemporary composers, such as Frescobaldi (c. 1587), Caspar Kerl (1628-1693), Buxtehude, Froberger, Muffat the elder, Pachelbel and probably Johann Joseph Fux (1660-1741), the author of the Gradus ad Parnassum on which all later classical composers were trained. A prettier and no less authentic story than that of his brother's forbidden organ-volume tells how, on his return from one of the many holiday expeditions which Bach made to Hamburg on foot to hear the great Dutch organist Reinken, he sat outside an inn longing for the dinner he could not afford, when two herring-heads were flung out of the window, and he found in each of them a ducat with which he promptly paid his way, not home, but back to Hamburg. At Hamburg, also, Keiser was laying the foundations of German opera on a splendid scale which must have fired Bach's imagination though it never directly influenced his style. On the other hand Keiser's church music was of immense importance in his development. In Celle the famous Hofkapelle brought the influence of French music to bear upon Bach's art, an influence which inspired nearly alibis works in suite-form and to which his many autograph copies of Couperin's music bear testimony. Indeed, there is no branch of music, from Palestrina onwards, conceivably accessible in Bach's time, of which we do not find specimens carefully copied in his own handwriting. On the other hand, when Bach, at the age of nineteen, became organist at Arnstadt, he found Lübeck within easy distance, and there, in October 1705, he went to hear Buxtehude, whose organ works show so close an affinity to Bach's style that only their lack of coherence as wholes reveals to the attentive listener that with all their nobility they are not by Bach himself. Bach's enthusiasm for Buxtehude caused him to outstay his leave by three months, and this, together with his habit of astonishing the congregation by the way he harmonized the chorales got him into trouble. But he was already too great an ornament to be lightly dismissed; and though his answers to the complaints of the authorities (every word of which makes amusing reading in the archives of the church) were spirited rather than satisfactory, and the consistorium had to add to their complaints the grave scandal of his allowing a "strange maiden" to sing in the church,1 Bach was able to maintain his position at Arnstadt until he obtained the organistship of St Blasius in Mühlhausen in 1707. Here he married his cousin, easily identified with the "strange maiden" of Arnstadt; and here he wrote his first great church cantatas, Aus der Tiefe, Gott ist mein König and Gottes Zeit.

Bach's mastery of the keyboard attracted universal attention, and prevented his ever being unemployed. In 1708 he went to Weimar where his successes were crowned by his appointment, in 1714, at the age of twenty-nine, as Hofkonzertmeister to the duke of Weimar. Here the composition of sacred music was one of his most congenial duties, and the great cantata, Ich hatte viel Bekümmerniss, was probably the first work of his new office. In 1717 Bach visited Dresden in the course of a concert tour, and was induced to challenge the arrogant French organist J.-Louis Marchand, who was making himself thoroughly disliked by the German musicians who could not deny his powers. Bach was first given an opportunity of listening secretly to Marchand's playing, then a competition on the organ was proposed, and a day was fixed for the tournament at which all the court and all the musical celebrities of the town were to be present, to see nothing less than the issue between French and German music. Marchand took up the challenge contemptuously; but it would appear that he also was allowed to listen secretly to Bach's playing, for on the day of the tournament the only news of him was that he had left Dresden by the earliest coach.

This triumph was followed by Bach's appointment as Kapellmeister to the duke of Cöthen, a post which he held from 1717 to 1723. The Cöthen period is that of Bach's central instrumental works, such as the first book of the Wohltemperirtes Klavier, the solo violin and violoncello sonatas, the Brandenburg concertos, and the French and English suites.

In 1723, finding his position at Cöthen uninspiring for choral music, he removed to Leipzig, where he became cantor of the Thomasschule, being still able to retain his post as visiting Kapellmeister at Cöthen, besides a similar position at Weissenfels. His wife had died in 1720, leaving seven children, of whom Friedemann and Philipp Emanuel had a great future before them. (For his sons see BACH, K. P. E., below.) In December 1721 Bach married again, and for the beautiful soprano voice of his second wife he wrote many of his most inspired arias. She was a great help to him with all his work, and her musical handwriting soon became so like his own that her copies are difficult to distinguish from his autographs. In 1729 Bach heard that Handel was for a second time visiting Halle on his way back to London from Italy. A former attempt of Baeh's to meet Handel had failed, and now he was too ill to travel, so he sent his son to Halle to invite Handel to Leipzig; but the errand was not successful, and much to Bach's disappointment he never met his only compeer. Bach so admired Handel that he made a manuscript copy of his Passion nach Brockes. This work, though almost unknown in England then as now, was, next to the oratorios of Keiser, incomparably the finest Passion then accessible, as Graun's beautiful masterpiece, Der Tod Jesu, was not composed until four years after Bach's death. The disgusting poem of Brockes (which was set by every German composer of the time) was transformed by Bach with real literary skill as the groundwork of the non-scriptural numbers in his Passion according to St John.

All Bach's most colossal achievements, such as the Passion according to St Matthew and the B Minor Mass, date from his cantorship at Leipzig. But, important and congenial as was his position there, and smooth as the course of his life seems to have been until

Spitta points out that this cannot mean singing in the choir at a service, but making music in church privately. ' his death in 1750, he must have had quite as much experience as can have been good for him. He was often ruffled by the town councillors of Leipzig, who (like his earlier employers at Arnstadt) were shocked by the "unecclesiastical style" of his compositions and by his independent bearing. But he had more serious troubles. Of his seven children by his first wife only three survived him. By his second wife he had thirteen children, of whom he lost four of the six sons. For the head of so large a family his post was dignified rather than lucrative, and few documents tell a prouder tale of uncomplaining thrift than the inventory of his possessions made after his death. One can only be thankful that he did not live to see anything but the wonderful promise of his son Friedermann, who, in the words of the brilliantly successful K. Philipp Emanuel Bach, was more nearly capable of replacing his father than all the rest of the family together. The prospect of complete loss of the tradition of his own polyphonic art he faced with equanimity, saying of the new style, which in the hands of his own son, Philipp Emanuel, was soon to eclipse it for the next hundred years, "The art has advanced to great heights: the old style of music no longer pleases our modern ears." But it would have broken his heart if he had forseen that Friedermann Bach was to attain a disreputable old age after a dissolute and unproductive life.

The brilliant successes of Philipp Emanuel led to his appointment as court-composer to the king of Prussia and hence, in 1747, to Sebastian's being summoned to visit Frederick the Great at Potsdam, an incident which Bach always regarded as the culmination of his career, much as Dr Johnson regarded his interview with George III. Bach had to play on the numerous newly invented pianofortes of Silbermann which the king had bought, and also to try the organs of the churches of Potsdam. Frederick, whose musical reputation rested on a genuine if narrow basis, gave him a splendid theme on which to extemporize; and on that theme Bach afterwards wrote Das musikalische Opfer. Two years after this event his sight began to fail, and before long he shared the fate of Handel in becoming perfectly blind.2

Bach died on the 28th of July 1750. His loss was deplored as that of one of the greatest organists and clavier players of his time. Of his compositions comparatively little was known. At his death his works were divided amongst his sons, and many of them have been lost; only a small fraction of his greater works was recovered when, after the lapse of nearly a century, the verdict of his neglectful posterity was reversed by the modern upholders of polyphonic art. Even now some important works are still apparently irrecoverable.

The rediscovery of Bach is closely connected with the name of Mendelssohn, who was amongst the first to proclaim by word and deed the powers of a genius too gigantic to be grasped by three generations. By the enthusiastic endeavours of Mendelssohn, Schumann and others, and in England still earlier by the performances and publications of Wesley and Crotch, the circle of Bach's worshippers rapidly increased. In 1850, a century after his death, a society was started for the correct publication of all Bach's remaining works. Robert Franz, the great song-writer, did good service in arranging some of Bach's finest works for modern performance, until the experience of. a purer scholarship could prove not only the possibility but the incomparably greater beauty of a strict adherence to Bach's own scoring. The Person of Bach-scholarship, however, is Wilhelm Rust. During the fourteen years of his editorship of the Bach-Gesellschaft he displayed a steadily increasing insight into Bach's style which has never since been rivalled. In more than one case he has restored harmonies of priceless value from incomplete texts, by means of research and reasoning which he sums up in a modest footnote that reads as something self-evident. His prefaces to the Bach-Gesellschaft volumes are perhaps the most valuable contributions to the criticism of 18th-century music ever written, Spitta's great biography not excepted.

Bach has plenty of humour, if the term may be applied to art which is, so to speak, always literal — art in which a jest is a jest and serious things are treated with familiar directness, and all, whether in jest or earnest, is primarily beautiful. In Der Streit zwischen Phoebus und Pan Bach answers the critics who censured him for his pedantry and provincial ignorance of the grand Italian operatic style, by making effective use of that style in Pan's prize-aria ("Zum Tanze, zum Sprunge, so wack-ack-ack-aekelt das Herz"), nobly representing his own style in Phoebus's aria, and promptly caricaturing it in the second part of Pan's ("Wenn der Ton zu miihsam klingt"). Midas votes for Pan — "denn nach meinen beiden Ohren singt er unvergleichlich schon." At the word "Ohren" the violins give a pianissimo "hee-haw" which is fully as witty in its musical aptness as Mendelssohn's clown-theme in the Overture to the Midsummer Night's Dream; and in the ensuing dialogue their prophecy is verified. As with many other great artists, Bach's playfulness occasionally showed itself inconveniently where little things shock little minds. The hilarious aria, "Ermuntre dich," in the church cantata, Schmiicke dich, o Hebe Seek, is one instance, and the quaint representation of the words "dimisit inanes" in the Magnificat is another. This great work, one of the most terse and profound things Bach ever wrote, contains, among many other subtle inspirations, one conception with which we may fitly end our survey, for it strongly suggests Bach himself and the destiny of all that work which he finished so lovingly, with no prospect of its becoming more than a family heirloom and a salutary tradition in his Leipzig choir-school. In the Magnificat he sets the words "quia respexit humilitatem ancillae suae "to a touchingly appropriate soprano solo accompanied by his favourite oboe d'amore. With the next sentence "ecce enim beatam me dicent" the tone brightens to a quiet joy, but Bach takes advantage of the syntax of the Latin in a way that defies translation, and the sentence is finished by the chorus. "Omnes generationes" seem indeed to pass before us-in the crowded fugue which rises in perpetual stretto, the incessant entries of its subject now mounting the whole scale, each part a step higher than the last, and now collecting in unison with a climax of closeness and volume overwhelming in its impression of time and multitude.

The Baroque genius--arguably the greatest composer of all time--continues to leave a lasting legacy of awe-inspiring works.

Johann Sebastian Bach, acknowledged as one of the greatest composers, was practically unknown during his lifetime. Unlike many of his great contemporaries Bach stayed close to home and never established the international reputation of more widely traveled composers. That's not to say that his name would be entirely forgotten before he died, however, as several of his composer-children would surpass his fame (but not his talent).

[read more...]

recommended recordings
Bach: Goldberg Variations (1955 Recording) / Glenn Gould

Composer: Johann Sebastian Bach
Performer: Glenn Gould
Sony Classics - #38479 / September 21, 1987

Click here for more information


In the summer of 1955, a brash, eccentric, and awesomely gifted 22-year-old pianist swept the didactic cobwebs off this monumental opus, and a star was born. For listeners weaned on romantic Bach stylings of Fischer, Casals, and Landowska, the effect was like stepping into an ice cold shower. Glenn Gould's agile, independent hands and hair-trigger rhythm ignited Bach's virtuosic writing with insight and irreverence, sprucing up the counterpoint with crisp articulation, perky accents, and...Read more

Bach: The 6 Cello Suites / Pablo Casals
Composer: Johann Sebastian Bach
Performer: Pablo Casals
Emd/Emi Classics - #66215 / September 16, 1997

Click here for more information

Casals crusaded for this music. When he first picked up a used copy of the score in a music store, Bach was not very popular with general audiences, and the cello suites were never played in public. If cellists knew them at all, they used them as finger exercises. After two decades of study, Casals finally gave his first public performances of the suites. For all we know, they may have been the world premieres. Casals thoroughly mastered the music, and by the time he made his recordings, in the...Read more

Bach: Mass in B minor / Gardiner, English Baroque Soloists
Composer: Johann Sebastian Bach
Conductor: John Eliot Gardiner
Performer: Nancy Argenta, Lisa Beznosiuk, et al.
Ensemble: English Baroque Soloists, Monteverdi Choir
Uni/Archiv - #15514 / January 1, 1987

Click here for more information

One of the most frequently mentioned "favorite" works of Bach, the B Minor Mass is not really a functional liturgical work, but an assemblage of movements written over a period of many years. Its grand scale is certainly awesome, but its musical and spiritual unity is more remarkable, considering its origin and the fact that it contains several different compositional styles--not to mention some of Bach's most profound and beautiful music. Performing this work and preserving a sense of...Read more

Bach: St Matthew Passion / Klemperer, Pears, Ludwig, et al

Composer: Johann Sebastian Bach
Conductor: Otto Klemperer
Performer: Walter Berry, Wilfred Brown, et al.
Ensemble: Hampstead Parish Church Boys' Choir, Philharmonia Chorus, et al.
Emd/Emi Classics - #63058 / March 8, 1989

Click here for more information

With all the (deserving) attention paid these days to period instruments and performance practices, it remains for any period performance group to equal or surpass this magnificent production, recorded in 1961. With soloists of a caliber hard to match today, and one of the world's finest orchestras and choruses, this recording brings the deeply spiritual and dramatic aspects of the work together in a way that is nothing less than revelatory. The opening chorus alone is a marvel of conducting...Read more

Bach: Cantatas BWV 140 & 147 / John Eliot Gardiner
Composer: Johann Sebastian Bach
Conductor: John Eliot Gardiner
Performer: Michael Chance, Ruth Holton, et al.
Ensemble: English Baroque Soloists, Monteverdi Choir
Uni/Archiv - #31809 / September 15, 1992

Click here for more information

John Eliot Gardiner offers the perfect introduction to two of Bach's most frequently recorded cantatas. The interpretations are spirited and insightful, the performances immaculate, and the clarity of the orchestral texture allows the inner details of Bach's scoring to emerge with radiant effect. The solo vocalists in these 1990 accounts are stylish, the instrumental obbligatos beautifully polished. It is all captured in naturally balanced digital sound. --Ted Libbey Read more

Bach: The Art of Fugue, Musical Offering / Neville Marriner
Composer: Johann Sebastian Bach
Conductor: Sir Neville Marriner
Ensemble: Academy of St. Martin in the Fields
Uni/Philips - #42556 / January 17, 1995

Click here for more information

There are many apocryphal stories in the classical-music world, but the one in which Frederick the Great challenged Bach to improvise a six-part fugue on a theme of the king's own invention is true, and The Musical Offering was, after a period of further reflection, the result. As with all the works of Bach's later years, the work is both great art and a "teaching piece," which shows everything that he thought could be done with the king's theme. The Trio Sonata based on the theme is the only...Read more

more recommended recordings
·     Chamber
·     Choral

·     Concerti
·     Solo Insrumental
works & recordings
  • Chamber Music
    Trios, Quartets, Quintets

  • Choral
    Secular and sacred choral music. Oratorios, Masses, Partsongs, Hymns, Carols

  • Instrumental
    Sonatas, Suites, Overtures, Minuets, Variations, Transcriptions, Dance Music

  • Orchestra
    Concertos, Symphonies

  • Vocal and Opera
    Opera, Operetta, Song, Lieder, Musical Theater

Complete List of Works and Recordings

Browse Johann Sebastian Bach

Help build the largest human-edited directory on the web.
Submit a Site - Open Directory Project - Become an Editor

Search for "Bach, Johann Sebastian" on


Sponsored Links


Featured Topics

UK Music Resources

Music Education

Music Resources

Learn more about Classical Music Terms

Learn more about Music Instruments

Classical Music Guide

Classical Composer History Timelines

Classical Music Record Companies

Symphony Orchestras on the Web

Classical Radio Stations

Shopping and Product Search for
Search the world for your music!

Site Sponsors


 Site Index: # A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

Arts/Entertainment | Autos | Books | Business | Colleges | Computers/Internet | Health | Home/Garden | Jobs
News/Media | Recreation | Reference | Regional | Science | Shopping | Society/Culture | Sports | Travel | World

Advertise | Feedback | Contact us
| Our Story | Privacy Policy | Terms and Conditions

Copyright © 1997-2021 SearchBeat, All Rights Reserved