German composer and virtuoso organist
(31 March 1685 – 28 July 1750) whose works represent the culmination of the Baroque era and whose death is generally considered to mark the point of transition into the Classical era. Bach, Mozart
are seen as the three main contenders for "Most Sublime Music in Western History," and not without reason.
Bach was the most prominent member of an extended family of musicians. Though today he is considered one of the most influential composers in history, in his lifetime he was better known as an organist than a composer; particularly towards the end of his career, his work was deemed outdated by his contemporaries. He was generally not seen as one of the great composers until his works were re-popularized by composer Felix Mendelssohn
in the early 1800s, and has since been Vindicated by History
Noted in particular for his masterful use of contrapunctal technique, Bach's oeuvre consists of well over a thousand works. Some of the more well-known ones are:
- Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, BWV 565, the opening of which has become a Standard Snippet for Ominous Pipe Organ moments. Here's the whole thing played on the most awesome pipe organ in Australia.note
- The Well-Tempered Clavier, two sets of twenty-four preludes and fugues, a prelude-and-fugue in every key in each set. The very first prelude, in C major, is something you might recognize.
- The Mass in b minor and the St. Matthew Passion, two breathtaking works that are cornerstones of Western sacred choral music.
- The six Brandenburg Concertos, used widely in period dramas and various other works. The harpsichord solo from the fifth concerto could quite reasonably be considered the great-great-great-grandfather of metal. The second, with its high, treacherous trumpet part (played in Bach's day on a ''valveless'' instrument, no less) is the first piece of Earth music aliens will hear should they manage to acquire and decipher one of the Voyager golden records.
- Some suggested having only Bach on the record; Carl Sagan said "that would just be showing off".
- The Six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello are some of the most widely known cello pieces ever. The prelude to the first suite is the best known from them. Pretty good considering there isn't even an original copy.
- Pieces From The Little Notebook is a book of piano (originally harpsichord) pieces, written for his second wife Anna Magdalena. They are some of the more popular works used to introduce piano students to classical (not Classical) music as a whole, due to their relative simplicity. (Like the Toccata and Fugue, the attribution of many of them to Bach is dubious.)
In addition, Bach's church gig at Leipzig's Thomaskirche
required him to perform a sacred cantata on every Sunday and feast day of the Lutheran calendar. He composed at least three complete yearly cycles of cantatas — over 300 works (1/3 of which, alas, are lost). The variety of form and style, mastery of polyphonic vocal writing, and breadth of instrumental tone color found in these works were unrivaled by his contemporaries.
Despite Bach's virtuosity and deep spirituality he was also refreshingly human. He was once rebuked for stretching a brief leave of absence into several months
without apology or explanation. He often battled his employers over the duties and responsibilities of his position. He once wrote a cantata about a man's concern over his daughter's consumption of coffee (he was for it
, by the way). Then there is the wonderful story of Bach drawing his sword in an altercation with an instrumentalist that he had insulted, calling him a "nanny-goat bassoonist."
Interestingly, Bach shares not only a year of birth with George Frederic Handel
(who was born a mere 37 days before Bach), but also a possible cause of death: they were both unsuccessfully operated on by the same eye surgeon — an "oculist" called the Chevalier John Taylor, often referred to as "the poster child for 18th century medical quackery."
Tropes present in Bach's works:
- Dead Artists Are Better: Bach was better known as an organist than a composer during his lifetime. It was only when Felix Mendelssohn rediscovered his compositions in the 1800s that Bach became widely known as "The Father of Classical Music."
- Dawn of an Era: 1685, the year J.S. Bach was born, is widely held to be the year when Tonality in music (as we know it today) was invented by Archangelo Corelli. 1750, the year J.S. Bach died, is widely held to be the year when the Baroque period in music history ended and the Classical period began.
- Master of Your Domain: Frederick The Great gave Bach a tricky chromatic theme and challenged him to improvise a fugue on it. Bach obliged. Frederick asked if Bach could improvise a three-part fugue using the same theme, knowing that Bach probably couldn't. Bach did. Frederick asked if he could improvise a six-part fugue on the theme. Bach replied, in effect, "Leave it with me", and after tweaking the theme to make it easier to work with, wrote exactly that and sent it to Frederick, along with a bunch of other pieces based on the same theme. The collection is known as the Musical Offering and it's regarded as one of Bach's greatest achievements. Bach's skill at improvising must have approached Enlightenment Superpowers.
- This goes a step even further. This piece was for the relatively new instrument known as the fortepiano, the direct precursor to the modern grand. The fortepiano had only been created forty-seven years earlier, and was still getting the kinks worked out of it at the time. He basically improvised this piece, often regarded the most important pieces ever written for the piano, and one of the first. To repeat: he improvised this whole collection of compositions around an instrument that was still in its infancy. There have been many piano masterpieces, but this was one of the very first. And Bach improvised it off a theme given to him by Frederick the Great.
- Must Have Caffeine: Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht, AKA "The Coffee Cantata", which comments on the problem of coffee addiction, is the Ur Example.
- Overshadowed by Awesome: A strange case. From Bach's death until his music's rediscovery, historians and musicians considered his sons' accomplishments more noteworthy than his; Mozart said of C.P.E. Bach, "He is the father, we are the children." This was historically justified, in that Bach's sons were considered to be more innovative and experimental than their father. Things changed when composers decided that they wanted some of that old-school contrapuntal wizardry that Bach had, but which his sons weren't interested in.
- Passion Play: The St. Matthew Passion, of course, and also a lesser-known Passion from John's gospel.
- Strictly Formula: Necessary. He had to compose a new cantata just about every week for three years.
- Sincerest Form of Flattery: Name any great composer of Classical Music. Odds are all but absolutely certain that, at some point in their education, they studied from and imitated the works of J.S. Bach. Bach's fugues and chorales in particular are still required studying in most music conservatories to this day.
- Trope Codifier: His fugues are pretty universally considered as this. Some musicologists make the case that his music counts as codifying all harmonic music as a whole.