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Who Was Johann Sebastian Bach? A Brief Introduction

December 4, 2023
Elias Gottlob Haussmann, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Johann Sebastian Bach was born March 21, 1685, in what is now Germany. He came from a family of musicians and was taught to play the organ by his eldest brother. Soon after this, in his teenage years, he began to focus on composing and performing keyboard and sacred music. Hundreds of his compositions, such as his church cantatas, were created for a religious context; he also composed an enormous amount of secular music, much of it purely instrumental.

The Baroque Era

Baroque refers to a style of architecture, music, and art that developed in Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries and can be broadly characterized as exuberant, ornate, and lavish. As with any artistic period, it has no official beginning or end (further complicated by the fact that the dates differ in the realms of music and visual arts), but the year of Bach’s death—1750— is often cited as a rough estimate for the end of the Baroque musical period.

Notable Works

The Brandenburg Concertos (1720) 

The Brandenburg Concertos are a collection of six works that show Bach at his most colorful, covering nearly the entire gamut of what was possible in Baroque concertos and allowing for improvisation, as is often the case in Baroque music.

The Well-Tempered Clavier (1722 & 1742)

This two-book collection of 48 preludes and fugues for keyboard was written to showcase the possibilities of a system that allowed for all keys to be played in tune. Prior to this, keyboards were typically tuned to favor certain keys, making it difficult to play in all tonalities. That said, these compositions aren’t merely exercises. While spotlighting all 24 major and minor keys, these pieces also explore an astonishing array of musical ideas.

The Art of the Fugue (published posthumously in 1751)

As this sequence progresses, it increases in intricacy, ensuring that a student would learn the forms of various types of fugues. Throughout The Art of the Fugue, the theme is stated, then developed and transformed. The collection was unfinished at Bach’s death.

Influence

Bach’s influence affected every subsequent major composer, including Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Brahms, and practically every other Western composer. Although he was better known in his own day as a keyboard virtuoso, his compositional achievements secured his fame for centuries to come. He mastered every musical style that was available to him, and through his many works he effectively synthesized the rules of composition that would not be significantly altered until the 20th century. His influence is still felt to this day, as his music continues to be a wellspring of inspiration for musicians all over the world.

 

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