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Awesome Music / Johann Sebastian Bach

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Johann Sebastian Bach is considered by many to be the greatest composer of all time. You can see why below.

  • In his capacity as organist and choral director at various churches and courts of the nobility in Weimar, Köthen, and Leipzig, Bach was required to be a prolific composer of vocal music, both sacred and secular. The results are a veritable cornucopia of awesomeness.
    • Many of Bach's cantatas are of very high quality despite the fact that there are literally hundreds of them. In fact, they are considered the finest examples of the genre.
      • Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern (BWV 1) is not Bach's earliest cantata, but was chosen to lead off Wolfgang Schmieder's Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis ("Bach work catalogue") in 1950, and is a fine choice for the position, with first-rate vocal writing over rich orchestral textures provided by two oboes, two horns, two solo violins, strings, and continuo. The opening choral fantasia on the eponymous hymn tune by Philipp Nicolai is one of Bach's best, with a cantus firmus in the soprano over counterpoint that draws from both the melody of the hymn and an elaboration initially presented by a solo violin. The concluding four-part chorale, "Wie bin ich doch so herzlich froh", is joyfully decorated by a solo horn as the other instruments double the voices.
      • Christ lag in Todes Banden (BWV 4) may be the single greatest example of what Bach could do with a single melody, as Bach sets the seven verses of Martin Luther's hymn "Christ lag in Todes Banden" in seven different ways, each one growing out of the hymn's melodic line. There's a chorus in which the melody is used as a cantus firmus in the sopranos, a straightforward chorale with four-part harmony, and assorted monophonic and polyphonic treatments that break down and re-work the melody, all while still keeping it recognisable. It is believed to be one of Bach's earliest surviving cantatas,note  and is a harbinger of great things to come.
      • Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis (BWV 21) features the sort of journey from tragedy to redemption that characterised Romanticism - over a century before the Romantic movement really took off. The first half of the cantata sings of mourning, grief, and pain, but the second half sees the singers in the roles of sinners putting their trust in God, starting with a dialogue between the soul and Jesus, and ending with an exuberant hymn of praise.
      • Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen (BWV 51) is Bach's only sacred cantata for solo soprano to include a trumpet in its orchestra, and the theme of celebrating God in all lands provides plenty of opportunities for both of the featured soloists to show off their virtuosity, especially in the concerto-like opening aria and the buoyant fugal "Alleluja" that follows the chorale fantasia on "Sei Lob und Preis mit Ehren".
      • Ich will den Kreuzstab gerne tragen (BWV 56) was described by Albert Schweitzer as "one of the most splendid of Bach's works", and features a libretto that uses marine imagery to call for the release of death. The first four movements are scored for a bass soloist, each one pairing the voice with a different combination of instruments (strings and winds, solo cello, oboe, strings only) and continuo, but the last movement brings in a choir for a four-part chorale, creating a wide variety of textures with few parallels among Bach's short cantatas.
      • Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott (BWV 80) takes the four verses of the eponymous hymn by Martin Luther and sets each of them in a different way, with a masterclass of counterpoint in the opening choral fantasia, an elaboration on the melody for soprano, a unison rendition over increasingly tense orchestral accompaniment, and a four-part chorale to round things off. Along the way, Bach finds time for two recitative-aria pairs (an aria duetto in the latter case), both of them among his best.
      • Ich habe genug (BWV 82) is Bach's most widely recorded cantata, helped by the fact that it exists in versions for solo bass (in C minor, accompanied by oboe and strings) and solo soprano (in E minor, accompanied by flute and strings). The five movements trace a journey from the slowdown of one's final days to the anticipated joy of the afterlife, and the extended central aria, "Schlummert ein, ihr matten Augen", is a fine example of a "slumber aria" which makes careful use of pedal points and fermatas to create a sense of sleepiness.
      • Herr, gehe nicht ins Gericht mit deinem Knecht (BWV 105) opens with a chorus that proceeds from a sinister fantasia with sustained orchestral accompaniment to a spiky fugue in which the four voices rush past each other in a frenzy. The soprano aria "Wie zittern und wanken der Sünder Gedanken" cleverly uses string tremolos to depict the anxiety of a sinner before the judgement of God, and in the final chorale, "Nun, ich weiß, du wirst mir stillen, mein Gewissen, das mich plagt", the tremolos return, but gradually slow down as the singers' tension ebbs and gives way to inner peace.
      • Gottes Zeit ist allerbeste Zeit (BWV 106), also known as Actus tragicus, is believed to have been composed for a funeral, and juxtaposes Old and New Testament passages to contrast fear of impending death with anticipation of being received by God. After an opening orchestral sinfonia, two extended vocal movements explore death from these two perspectives, before giving way to a chorale that re-visits motifs from the sinfonia and concludes with a double fugue for the final "Amen", ending on a note of serenity.
      • Herr Jesu Christ, wahr' Mensch und Gott (BWV 127) shows that while Bach may not have been an operatic composer, he knew how to use orchestral textures for dramatic effect in vocal passages. For the soprano aria "Die Seele ruht in Jesu Händen", Bach presents a dialogue between a solo oboe and three recorders, encircling pizzicato passages representing funeral bells. Meanwhile, the bass recitative and aria "Wenn einstens die Posaunen schallen" contrasts the destruction of Heaven and Earth during the Last Judgement with the security and redemption of the believers with judicious use of trumpet.
      • Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme (BWV 140) is another masterclass in how to get the most out of a single hymn tune. The first movement is a jaunty choral fantasia with the melody used as a cantus firmus in the soprano and an extended fugato passage on "Alleluia" at its heart. The fourth-movement chorale, "Zion hört die Wächter singen", is one of Bach's most recognisable vocal works, with the tenors singing the hymn tune accompanied by unison violins and violas with basso continuo; it received an enduringly popular arrangement for organ as the first of the six "Schübler" chorales. And finally, the cantata rounds things off with a four-part chorale for the verse "Gloria sei dir gesungen".
      • Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben (BWV 147) ranks as Bach's most famous cantata thanks to its sixth and tenth movements, "Wohl mir, daß ich Jesum habe" and "Jesus bleibet meine Freunde", which share a delightful, gentle melody (originally composed by Johann Schop for the hymn "Werde munter, mein Gemüte") with a triplet-based orchestral accompaniment that is now better known as "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" (with new English words by Robert Bridges). Celtic Woman does a beautiful rendition of it.
      • Was mir behagt, ist nur die muntre Jagd (BWV 208), also known as the "Hunting" cantata, is Bach's oldest surviving secular cantata. Believed to be a birthday gift for a friend of his then-employer who was both a keen hunter and had a court with a tradition of brass playing, it naturally features horns to imitate hunting calls in its more boisterous arias and choruses.note  By far its most famous movement, however, is the serenely pastoral ninth-movement aria "Schafe können sicher weiden" for solo soprano (playing the role of Pales, the Ancient Roman deity of shepherds and livestock), two recorders, and continuo, better known in English as "Sheep May Safely Graze" and a staple of wedding ceremonies. The thirteenth movement, "Weil die wollenreichen Heerden," is another highlight, with a main continuo theme that in sticking with Three Chords and the Truth sounds much more like a traditional folk song than a Bach work, and has even been recycled for other works twice: the second movement of BWV 68, Also hat Gott die Welt geliebt; and the Canonic Trio Sonata, BWV 1040.
      • Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht (BWV 211), better known as the "Coffee" cantata, is Bach's most well-known secular vocal work, a miniature comic opera full of witty songs about the perils of caffeine addiction as Schlendrian (whose name translates as "Stick-in-the-mud") ponders what to do about his daughter Lieschen's penchant for drinking three cups a day. Eventually, in a trio with Lieschen and the cantata's narrator, Schlendrian is forced to concede that drinking coffee is natural.
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    • The six motets, most of which were originally composed for funerals, may be overshadowed by the cantatas, but they are no less amazing. Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied, Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit auf, Fürchte dich nicht, and Komm, Jesu, komm all feature expertly composed dialogue between two four-voice choirs, while Jesu, meine Freunde provides yet another showcase of Bach's gifts for vocal counterpoint (with a two-subject, five-voice fugue at its heart) and finding multiple possibilities in the same chorale tune. Loben den Herrn, alle Heiden, scored for four voices and organ, is possibly not by Bach, but is a fascinating contrapuntal display nonetheless.
    • The Mass in B minor was Bach's last choral masterpiece,note  and is one of the most ambitious settings of the Latin Mass ever composed. It is a veritable parade of some of his best counterpoint (especially the opening five-voice fugue for the words "Kyrie eleison" and the duets for "Domine Deus" and "Et in unum Dominum") and virtuoso vocal solo writing (such as the soprano aria "Laudamus te" and the bass aria "Et in Spiritum Sanctum").
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    • Bach's setting of the Latin Magnificat, in both the D major and the earlier E-flat major versions, is a triumph that will make any listener's spirit rejoice.
    • Bach set the accounts of the Passion from all four Gospels to music,note  but only two have survived to the present day. The later and larger scale of the two is the St. Matthew Passion, which ranks as one of his most celebrated choral achievements. Scored for double orchestra, double choir, and children's choir as well as featured vocal soloists, it is nearly three hours of brilliant yet heart-rending music. The recitative passages, taken from Chapters 26 and 27 of the Gospel According to Matthew, include such outstanding touches as judicious use of chromaticism and diminished sevenths to heighten dramatic tension, a "halo" of sustained string notes to accompany Jesus' words (except "Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani", His last words on the Cross), and turba passages for chorus that see the voices weave and dive around each other to depict the chatter of the disciples and the abuse of the crowd at Jesus' trial. The events are punctuated with solo arias and expertly harmonised chorale settings that offer "commentary" on the story of the Passion.
      • The mournful atmosphere is established immediately with the sombre opening chorus, "Kommt, ihr Töchter, helft mir klagen". The heavy bassline, melisma passages that sound like wails of despair, "dialogue" between the two choruses as one draws the other's attention to Jesus' suffering, and an ethereal cantus firmus for children's choir on the hymn "O Lamm Gottes, unschuldig" are synthesised into a depressing yet beautiful whole.
      • In Part I, aria highlights include the angsty one-two punch of "Buß und Reu" for alto (with flutes and continuo) and "Blute nur, du liebes Herz!" for soprano, the almost buoyant "Ich will dir mein Herze schenken", and the anguished duet "So ist mein Jesus nun gefangen" for soprano and alto (with spiky choral interjections begging the Romans to let Jesus go), which leads straight into the whirlwind frenzy of "Sind Blitze, sind Donner in Wolken verschwunden?" for full chorus. Bach rounds things off on a note of calm with the chorale fantasia "O Mensch, bewein dein Sünde groß", exhorting the audience to reflect on Jesus' willingness to redeem their sins with His life.
      • Aria highlights from Part II include the defiant "Geduld! Wenn mich falsche Zungen stechen" for tenor and viola da gamba, the devastating soprano aria "Erbarme dich" with its undulating solo violin line (sometimes said to represent Judas' thirty pieces of silver falling to the ground), the bleak "Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben" for soprano and sparse accompaniment by flute and oboes da caccia, the solemn bass aria "Komm, süßes Kreuz" with viola da gamba accompaniment,note  the oddly upbeat "Sehet, Jesus hat die Hand" for alto and chorus, and the lullaby-like "Mache dich, mein Herze, rein" for bass.
      • The capstone is put on the Passion with the richly scored "Wir setzen uns mit Tränen nieder", uniting both orchestras and choruses in their sadness at Jesus' death and their wish that He "gently rest" in His grave.
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    • The earlier and smaller scale of Bach's surviving Passionsnote  is the St. John Passion, which presents the story of John's account of Christ's betrayal, arrest, trial, crucifixion, death, and burial with a rich tapestry of solo arias, verses from hymns, and chorale settings with an orchestra including viola da gamba and contrabassoon,note  ultimately presenting the Passion as a triumph for Jesus in the face of adversity.
      • As in the St. Matthew Passion, the atmosphere of the St. John Passion is established immediately with the tense opening chorus, "Herr, unser Herrscher", a song of praise that nevertheless strikes a note of solemnity with its insistent, perpetual motion figures in the violins and choir.
      • Aria highlights include the heartbroken tenor aria "Ach, mein Sinn", the heavily ornamented "Erwäge, wie sein blutgefärbter Rücken"note  for tenor and two muted violins, the sombre alto aria "Es ist vollbracht" (Martin Luther's translation of Jesus' final words on the Cross according to John) with its surprisingly energetic central episode, and the reverent bass aria "Mein teurer Heiland, laß dich fragen", accompanied by solo viola da gamba and the chorus singing the chorale "Jesu, der du warest tot".
      • Bach went back and forth on how to write a suitable ending, and ultimately decided to go with his first instinct to follow the chorus "Ruht wohl, ihr heiligen Gebeine", in which the singers mourn Jesus' death but praise His sacrifice on their behalf and the redemption it brings, with a four-part chorale, "Ach Herr, laß dein lieb' Engelein", that ends the Passion on a note of optimism as though anticipating the Resurrection.
    • Bach's Christmas Oratorio is every bit as stirring and glorious as the Passions are devastating, and is as ubiquitous at Christmas in the German-speaking world as Handel's Messiah is in the English-speaking world.note  Not so much a single oratorio as six cantatas intended for performance between Christmas and Epiphany, it blends arias and chorales with recitatives on Gospel verses describing Jesus' birth, the annunciation to the Shepherds, the adoration of the Shepherds, the circumcision and naming of Jesus, the journey of the Magi, and the adoration of the Magi.note 
      • The tone is set immediately with the celebratory opening cantata, Jauchzet, frohlocket, auf, preiset die Tage, the orchestra featuring trumpets and timpani as well as strings and winds. As well as a rousing opening chorus that puts the trumpets and timpani front and centre, it includes such gems as the bass recitative/soprano chorale/oboes d'amore ritornello hybrid "Er ist auf Erden komme arm" and the extroverted bass aria "Großer Herr und starker König", the only aria in the oratorio to feature trumpet accompaniment.
      • The gentle Und es waren Hirten in derselben Gegend pares the orchestra back to strings and winds only. It opens with a serenely pastoral Sinfonia, the only instrumental movement in the oratorio, to create a vivid musical image of the shepherds keeping watch over their flocks in the fields. Other highlights include the "lullaby" alto aria "Schlafe, mein Liebster, genieße der Ruh'", the exuberant angels' chorus "Ehre sei Gott in der Höhe", and the concluding chorale, "Wir singen dir in deinem Heer", that quotes the opening Sinfonia between lines.note 
      • The trumpets and timpani return for the lively Herrscher des Himmels, erhöre das Lallen, standout movements in which include the opening chorus (which doubles as the closing chorus) and the easy-going "love duet" "Herr, dein Mitleid, dein Erbarmen" for soprano and bass.
      • The mood switches to reverent for Fallt mit Danken, fallt mit Loben, the only cantata to feature horns along with oboes and strings. The apex of this cantata is the "echo" aria "Flößt, mein Heiland, flößt dein Namen" for soprano (with a second voice echoing the words "Nein" and "Ja") as the singer insists that Jesus Himself says "No" and "Yes" to the questions "Should I be afraid?" and "Should I rejoice?"
      • The buoyant Ehre sei dir, Gott, gesungen scales down the orchestra further to oboes d'amore and strings. The trio "Ach! wann wird die Zeit erscheinen?", in which the soprano and tenor soloists wonder aloud when their saviour will appear and the alto soloist interrupts to say He has already arrived, is a masterpiece of vocal counterpoint.
      • Finally, the trumpets and timpani return to finish the oratorio with pure triumph for Herr, wen die stolzen Feinde schnauben. As well as the fugal opening chorus, this cantata boasts the dignified soprano aria "Nur ein Wink von seinen Händen", the defiant tenor aria "Nun mögt ihr stolzen Feinde schrecken" (in which the "proud foes" have gone from "breath[ing] vengenace" to being afraid), and the concluding chorale, "Nun seid ihr wohl gerochen", decorated by a jaw-droppingly virtuosic trumpet fanfare.note 
  • Bach is by far the most celebrated composer of organ music, and his library of organ works is packed to overflowing with awesomeness.
    • Pick one of Bach's organ preludes/fantasias/toccatas and fugues. Any of them. You're guaranteed to pick a winner.
      • The "Fanfare" Prelude and Fugue in C major is an amazing demonstration of pedal technique. To quote one commenter, "Look Ma, no hands!"
      • The prelude from the Prelude and Fugue in D major blasts off up a D major scale in the pedal, pauses for a slower interlude, then rockets through an alla breve section before slowing down for a surprisingly dark coda,note  while the fugue stands out for its "spinning" subject and harmonic journey far away from and then back to D major.
      • The "Dorian" Toccata and Fugue in D minor is one of the more famous pieces written in the Dorian mode,note  giving us a perpetual motion runaway train of a toccata that grows out of a single theme, followed by a fugue with a long subject that emphasises syncopation and chromaticism.
      • The star of the Toccata and Fugue in F major is the flashy opening toccata, which starts by alternating two-voice canons in the manuals with epic pedal solos before giving way to an exhilarating, concerto-like journey back to the home key. The more low-key fugue places two explorations of a chromatic, syncopated subject either side of a more lively central episode on a second subject.
      • The Fantasia and "Great" Fugue in G minor ranks among Bach's very best organ works, its opening fantasia in the North German style popularised by Dieterich Buxtehude setting things up for the fugue, a masterpiece of counterpoint with a subject based on the Dutch song "Ik ben gegroet van" and two countersubjects constantly rotated among the four voices.
      • The Prelude and Fugue in B minor shows that Bach's creative powers burned brightly even in his later years, with a highly ornamental prelude in the Rococo style and a fugue whose initial subject, based around scalar motion, is subtly joined by a second subject near the halfway mark that winds its way around the four voices to provide yet another showcase of Bach's gift for counterpoint.
      • The Prelude and "Wedge" Fugue in E minor matches a prelude full of remarkable melodic and countermelodic ideas with a fugue with a subject based on contrary chromatic motion and an intensely virtuosic central episode in which appearances of the subject peek through whirlwinds of scalar runs racing from hand to hand with abandon.
      • The Prelude and "St. Anne" Fugue in E-flat major is a stellar example of Bach's contrapuntal artistry. The majestic, epic-length prelude sets the stage for a monumental five-voice fugue whose three subjects are sometimes said to represent the three parts of the Trinity, and are expertly interwoven with each other.
      • The Toccata, Adagio, and Fugue in C major is Bach's longest single composition for organ, and one of his most captivating. The toccata, another example of Bach's mastery of the North German "prelude" form, opens with an almost improvisatory passage for manuals before leading into the pedal solo to end all pedal solos, followed by a contrapuntal section that explores ideas introduced by the pedal solo. The haunting, almost orchestral Adagio is quite unlike anything in Bach's organ works, the initial A minor gloom transitioning via diminished sevenths and harmonic suspensions to a resolution in C major - just in time for a carefree fugue that merrily passes its subject and countersubject back and forth across the four voices.
      • Easily his most famous organ work is the Toccata and Fugue in D minor (shown here).note  The sinister opening measures are instantly familiar, and have been a staple of horror soundtracks for decades, but they're just the beginning of a series of dazzling technical displays in the toccata, and the fugue, if less widely known, is still an intense emotional journey for performer and listener alike. It is used as the Warcraft 2 menu theme, and less than fifteen seconds of it, as performed on violin, is the core of this theme (typically used as "you underestimated by awesomeness" music) from Bleach.
      • The Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor boasts perhaps the best example of a Baroque passacaglia, a series of variations on an ostinato ground bass (speculated to be adapted from a short passacaglia by the French composer André Raison); Robert Schumann said the variations were "intertwined so ingeniously that one can never cease to be amazed." And just as the twentieth variation resolves, the melody of the ground bass makes an almost seamless transition into its new role as the subject of the four-voice fugue, rotating with two countersubjects among the voices until the triumphant final measures.
    • Second only to the D minor Toccata and Fugue in reputation is the "Little" Fugue in G minor, a brief but memorable jaunt with an immediately hummable subject. Such is its power that it has been used as the final boss music for Mega Man Legends.
    • Bach's other organ music, including his prelude-and-fugue and toccata-and-fugue groups and his chorale preludes, are used today as the benchmark upon which all other organ music is compared. In fact, Bach improvised much of his work, including fugues; he just wrote down what he remembered later. Bach could probably have farted a four-part fugue and it would have sounded brilliant.
  • Along with his organ works, Bach is also revered for his harpsichord/other keyboard works. Some have suggested that these works may have contributed to the keyboard's rise from accompaniment instrument to solo instrument.
    • The Inventions and Sinfonias (also known as the Two-Part and Three-Part Inventions) were composed as exercises in voicing, and many of them are a staple of intermediate-to-advanced keyboard studies to this day. What truly makes them rise above mere technical studies is the remarkable craft behind them.
      • Among the Inventions, the affable No.1 in C major, the agitated No.4 in D minor, the sprightly No.8 in F major, and the strident No.13 in A minor are the most popular, all four boasting expert interplay between the two voices. Other highlights include the fluid scalar motion subjects of No.2 in C minor, No.3 in D major, and No.11 in G minor; the ornate subject of No.5 in E-flat major; the jigsaw-like way the subject and countersubject of the sonata-like No.6 in E major complement each other; the seemingly effortless modulation of No.7 in E minor; the harmonic flexibility of the subject and countersubject of No.9 in F minor; the lithe arpeggiated subject of No.10 in G major; the back-and-forth counterpoint in the episodes of No.12 in A major and No.14 in B-flat major; and the solemn dignity of No.15 in B minor.
      • The Sinfonias add a third voice, with all the possibilities that brings. Standout moments include the merry ascending scale subject (and its decending scale inversion) of No.1 in C major, the graceful arpeggiated subject of No.2 in C minor, the permutations of the subject and two countersubjects in No.3 in D major, the intense chromaticism of No.4 in D minor, the unique "two voices with bass accompaniment" texture of No.5 in E-flat major, the climactic half cadence in No.6 in E major, the shocking harmonic swerve at the climax of No.7 in E minor, the stretti and double sixth subject entry in the "development" of No.8 in F major, the sheer majesty of the subject and countersubjects of No.9 in F minor, the pure joy of No.10 in G major, the tautly constructed ritornello of No.11 in G minor, the interlocking counterpoint of No.12 in A major, the many double third subject entries in No.13 in A minor, the three-voice stretto near the end of No.14 in B-flat major, and the spiky triplet subject of No.15 in B minor.
    • Bach was a master of the French-style dance suite.
      • No-one is quite sure what's supposed to be English about the six English Suites, as they are stylistically more French than English (apart from the Preludes, most of which sound like transcriptions of movements from Italian violin concerti).note  Each one includes a heavily ornamented Allemande, a stately Courante in the French style, a dignified Sarabande, and a frolicsome Gigue, with an alternating pair of dances between the Sarabande and Gigue.note  Of the six, No.2 in A minor is perhaps the most popular, especially its spiky opening Prelude, while highlights from the other suites include the intense lyricism of the Sarabande from No.1 in A major, the alternating percussive and gentle Gavottes from No.3 in G minor, the hunting horn-inspired Gigue that closes the sunny No.4 in F major, the sharply accented Courante and highly chromatic Gigue from No.5 in E minor, and the epic-length Prelude and wild Gigue from No.6 in D minor.
      • Ironically, the six French Suites are stylistically more Italian than French, leaving another mystery as to the origin of their name; where the dances in the English Suites are long and ornate, those in the French Suites are short, crisp, and direct. As well as including an Allemande, Courante,note  Sarabande, and Gigue, each suite includes between one and four extra dance movements in a variety of styles. The first three suites in D minor, C minor, and B minor are largely solemn and reflective; the Menuet from No.3 in B minor may be recognisable to veteran gamers as Music C from the Game Boy verison of Tetris. Meanwhile, the last three suites in E-flat major, G major, and E major are more extroverted and optimistic, with standout moments including the vivacious Gigue from No.5 in G major and the dizzying Bourrée from No.6 in E major.
      • The six Partitas for harpsichord are Bach's longest and most ambitious keyboard dance suites, with some movements taking cues from the ornamental French style, while others owe more to the extroverted Italian style (exemplified by the use of stately French Courantes in the C minor and D major suites, and lively Italian Correntes in the others). The most frequently performed and recorded are No.1 in B-flat major, with its serene opening Praeludium and galloping Gigue, and No.2 in C minor, with its stark opening Sinfonia and technically demanding Capriccio (in place of the traditional Gigue). No.3 in A minor shows off Bach's sense of humour with its quirky Burlesca, Scherzo, and Gigue, while No.5 in G major boasts a rhythmically ambiguous Tempo di Minuetta and a Gigue in the form of a double fugue. But for pure awesome, the crown jointly goes to No.4 in D major, which gives us a majestic French Overture, a songlike Allemande, and a delicate Sarabande, and to No.6 in E minor, whose movements include a Toccata with a "sighing" fugue at its heart, a furious Corrente, and an angular Gigue.
      • The Overture in the French Style, a companion piece to the Italian Concerto (see corresponding entry), sees Bach's command of the compositional techniques found in the suites of Jean-Baptiste Lully and François Couperin reach its zenith. The opening French Overture is full of pomp and ceremony in its outer sections and intelligent fugal counterpoint in the faster centre section, and heralds a parade of dances including a sober Courante, a pair of spry Gavottes, a pair of Passepieds with instant appeal, a heartfelt and noble Sarabande, a pair of energetic Bourrées, and a skipping, tripping Gigue. But Bach isn't finished yet; there's still an Echo of almost orchestral texture that gets the most out of the harpsichord's capabilities as an instrument.
    • The Well-Tempered Clavier was the first set of substantial pieces to cover all twenty-four keys. Book I, written in the early 1720s, is the more famous of the two books. Just to give highlights, there's the famous arpeggio-based Prelude and stretto-packed Fugue in C major; the almost-as-famous furious Prelude and spiky Fugue in C minor; the shimmering Prelude and jaunty Fugue in C-sharp major, the first substantial piece ever to use that key; the three-subject, five-voice Fugue in C-sharp minor; the majestic French Overture-like Fugue in D major; the restless Prelude and inversion-laden Fugue in D minor; the prelude-and-double-fugue-in-one Prelude in E-flat major; the haunting Prelude in E-flat minor and stretto/augmentation/inversion-stuffed Fugue in D-sharp minor;note  the boisterous Prelude and inversion-loaded Fugue in G major; the haunting Prelude and four-voice stretto-boasting Fugue in G minor; the concerto-like Prelude and gavotte-like Fugue in A-flat major; the strident Prelude and highly ambitious Fugue full of double stretti and inversions in A minor; the haunting Fugue in B-flat minor that climaxes with a five-voice stretto; and the sonata-like Prelude and highly chromatic Fugue in B minor.
    • As if one Well-Tempered Clavier wasn't enough, Book II followed about twenty years after the first, and while it may not be as famous as its predecessor, it's just as rich in masterpieces of melody and counterpoint, if not more so. Highlights of this volume include the Fugue in E minor with its very long and elegant subject; the winding and twisting Prelude and gigue-like Fugue in F major; the haunting, parallel interval-led Prelude and angular Fugue in F minor; the vast three-subject Fugue in F-sharp minor; the upbeat Prelude and stately two-subject Fugue in B major; and the Invention-like Prelude coupled with a Fugue with a subject distinguished by octave hops in B minor.
    • Bach's Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue in D minor (BWV 903) is perhaps his most freestyle work, almost unhindered by the forms of the time, and taking maximum advantage of the then-new system of well temperament that finally made it possible to include chromatic scales in keyboard works without half the steps of the scale sounding horrendously out of tune.
    • Bach's seven keyboard toccatas are incredibly varied in tone and form; they are written to sound as though they are made up as they go along, thus giving us some of our best insight into what the master sounded like when he improvised. Many are just as wild as the harpsichord solo from the Brandenburg Concerto No.5 (see corresponding entry).
    • The Italian Concerto shows that Bach was just as adept at writing in the virtuosic, extroverted Italian style as in the stately, ornamental French style, its orchestral textures conveying the sense that it is a reduction for solo keyboard of a concerto for violin and strings. From a first movement that captures the listener's attention immediately with its brash opening measures, through a solemn slow movement, and culminating in a lively finale, it is deservedly one of Bach's most popular keyboard works.
    • The "Goldberg" Variations represent one of the greatest achievements for keyboard not just by Bach, but by any composer. A set of thirty variations bookended by the Aria on which they are based and organised into ten groups of three, the third of each group of three except the last is a two-voice canon over ever widening intervals, the second of each group of three except the first and last is a fluid arabesque, and the other variations include a lively Gigue, a four-voice Fughetta, a stately French Overture, a bright Alla breve, a sombre Adagio, and a Quodlibet on two folk melodies... all without losing sight of the structure of the theme. Truly one of Bach's masterworks.
    • In 1747, Bach visited his son Carl Philipp Emmanuel at the court of Frederick the Great in Potsdam, and the king played a lengthy fugal subject on the fortepiano and challenged Bach to improvise a three-voice fugue around it on the new instrument.note  Impressed by the result, the king doubled the challenge: a six-voice fugue on the same subject. Bach said he would need time to compose such a work, and two months after his return to Leipzig, he sent King Frederick The Musical Offering (Das Musikalische Opfer), a set of pieces based on the "Thema Regium" ("King's Theme") including a re-worked three-voice fugue, the requested six-voice fugue, five canons (and another five on other themes), and a trio sonata for flute (the part for which was intended for King Frederick), violin, and continuo. Collectively, they represent one of the most monumental, ingenious explorations of the possibilities of a single theme.
    • The Art of Fugue (Die Kunst der Fuge) was one of Bach's last works. It consists of 14 fugues and 4 canons, all based on the same fugal subject, which is given ever more complex treatments as the volume progresses. The last fugue, Contrapunctus XIV, was never finished due to Bach's deteriorating eyesight. The Art of Fugue is considered by some to be the pinnacle of Bach's contrapuntal style. One must listen to the work to fully appreciate its awesomeness.
  • His works for unaccompanied solo stringed instruments include many of the greatest examples of the genre.
    • The Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin explore what the instrument is capable of in a way few works before or since have done; all three sonatas and all three partitas are packed end to end with staggering displays of technical prowess and contrapuntal genius, with some genuinely heartstring-tugging emotion thrown in for good measure.
      • The three sonatas follow the same basic four-movement structure - a slow introduction, an expansive fugue, a slow movement in a contrasting key, and a perpetual motion finale - but what Bach does with a single instrument with only four strings, particularly in the fugues, is staggering. Though No.1 in G minor stands out for its ornate opening Adagio and a Fugue of which Bach was so proud that he arranged it for both organ and lute, while No.2 in A minor boasts a truly dazzling finale, it is No.3 in C major that takes the crown for awesome with an introductory Adagio that manages to build from one voice into four in its opening measures, a Fugue with a subject based on the chorale "Komm, heiliger Geist" and packed with stretti and double counterpoint, and a rushing torrent of a finale.
      • The three partitas alternate with the sonatas and are structured as French dance suites. Partita No.1 in B minor features three of the standard quartet of dances, with a Bourrée instead of a Gigue, and each one is accompanied by a more elaborate Double with the same (implicit) bassline. Partita No.2 in D minor features all four of the standard dances, and follows them with a titanic Chaconne which is longer than the other four movements combined and taxes the violinist's skill to its limit; it has inspired several even more difficult arrangements (Ferruccio Busoni's arrangement for piano being one of the most famous). Partita No.3 in E major drops all but the Gigue from the usual quartet in favour of a sparkling Prelude and an assortment of French dances, including a dignified Loure, a charming Gavotte en Rondeau (perhaps the partita's most famous movement), a pair of contrasting Menuets, and a sunny Bourrée. Of the D minor Chaconne, Johannes Brahms had this to say:
        "On one stave, for a small instrument, the man writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings. If I imagined that I could have created, even conceived the piece, I am quite certain that the excess of excitement and earth-shattering experience would have driven me out of my mind."
    • Bach's six suites for solo cello are some of the greatest showcases for the instrument to come out of the Baroque era, and are often held up as proof that monophony - the presence of one melodic line instead of the multiple lines of polyphony - remained ripe with possibilities. Structurally, they all follow the same contours as the English Suites: Prelude, Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, alternating pair of French dances,note  Gigue. The arpeggiated Prelude of No.1 in G major is by far the most famous movement across the set, but every suite has its outstanding moments, from the jumping back and forth across the strings in the Minuet of No.2 in D minor, to the scalar Prelude and charming Bourrées of No.3 in C major, to the irresistibly serene Sarabande and buoyant Bourrées of No.4 in E-flat major, to the French overture-like Prelude and heartfelt, purely monophonic Sarabande of No.5 in C minor, to the almost unbridled joy that permeates every measure of No.6 in D major.
  • Bach is also known for his orchestral works, many of which are well-known to even people unfamiliar with the rest of his work.
    • Bach's violin concerti are some of the best the Baroque era has to offer; they are more heavily contrapuntal than the opera-inspired concerti of his contemporary, Vivaldi, but are just as full of dazzling passages for the soloist. Concerto No.1 in A minor is the less demanding of the two, consisting of a sterling example of his mastery of ritornello, a stately slow movement built over a bass ostinato, and a gigue-like finale. No.2 in E major is more technically difficult, with another outstanding ritornello as its first movement, a haunting Adagio in C-sharp minor, and a lively rondo finale. And the Double Concerto in D minor boasts one of Bach's most charming slow movements, framed either side by masterclasses in counterpoint for the two soloists; the opening melody of the first movement is justly one of his most famous.
    • The Brandenburg Concertos remain some of Bach's most beloved works, and are stellar examples of what constituted full orchestral works in the Baroque era.
      • No.1 in F major weaves a rich contrapuntal tapestry with two horns, three oboes, and a bassoon as well as strings; the ingenious fourth movement alternates a stately minuet with episodes devoted to each group of musicians.
      • No.2 in F major, a real tour de force for the solo trumpet, is so awesome its first movement was sent into space as the opening track on the Voyager record.
      • The rightly famous No.3 in G major weaves ten melodic and countermelodic lines around each other across its outer movements, always revealing new dimensions to the listener.
      • The joyful No.4 in G major gives a starring role to a pair of recorders, alternating with virtuosic solo violin passages sure to put a smile on the audience's faces.
      • No.5 in D major shines the spotlight on a solo violin, flute, and harpsichord, the last of which gets to strut its stuff at the end of the first movement in one of classical music's first solo cadenzas.
      • And while No.6 in B-flat major is the least performed of the six, the absence of violins in favour of violas, violas da gamba, cello, and continuo creates a rich sonority quite unlike anything else Bach composed.
    • Most - and probably all - of the harpsichord concerti were originally composed as violin concerti, but the contrapuntal possibilities offered by a soloist with all ten fingers available allowed Bach to add further layers of awesome to them; the concerti for which the original versions for violin have survived - No.3 in D major, No.6 in F major, and No.7 in G minornote  - offer plenty of evidence of this. The most spectactular of those for which the original violin versions are lost is the Vivaldi-esque No.1 in D minor, showcasing some especially virtuosic writing for the soloist in two fast movements flanking a dignified slow movement on a ground bass figure. No.2 in E major is also packed with displays of awesome by the soloist, particularly in the ritornello fast movements, while the solemn central Siciliano boasts almost vocal melodies.
    • And Bach didn't limit himself to a single soloist. The Concerto for two harpsichords in C minornote  features some truly outstanding interplay between the soloists and the orchestra, while the Concerto for three harpsichords in D minor sees the three soloists weaving and diving around each other with aplomb. And the Triple Concerto for violin, flute, and harpsichord in A minor shows that Bach's stellar multi-instrument concerti didn't stop with the Brandenburgs; all three soloists get plenty of chances to show off.
    • The four Orchestral Suites (or Ouvertures) rank alongside the Brandenburg Concertos as early masterpieces for full orchestra in Bach's day, and demonstrate that his command of French dance suites was not limited to solo instruments. All four suites open with sparkling French Overtures before proceeding to assorted dance movements, including sprightly Gavottes, affable Minuets, lively Bourrées, and more.note 
      • No.1 in C major is scored for oboes, bassoons, and strings, and its four pairs of alternately extroverted and tender or introspective dances - Gavottes, Menuets, Bourrées, and Passepieds - are some of Bach's most instantly endearing.
      • A solo transverse flute takes centre stage in No.2 in B minor, the concluding Badinerie in which is an incredible moment in the spotlight for any flautist up to the task. The other movements include an arresting Sarabande in the form of a two-voice canon and a charming Polonaise adapted from the Polish folk song "Wezmę ja kontusz".
      • Bach brings in trumpets and timpani for No.3 in D major, but while they add the right amount of spark and energy to the buoyant Gavottes, Bourrée, and Gigue, the star of the show has always been the gently lyrical Air for strings only, better known as "Air on the G string" and a contender for the title of "most instantly recognisable piece Bach composed".
      • The trumpets and timpani return for No.4 in D major, bringing a real zest for life to the rambunctious first Bourrée (the trumpets and drums sit out the quieter second Bourrée) and jaunty Gavotte, but Bach saves the best for last as the whole orchestra goes out in a celebratory showpiece with the apt title of Réjouissance.
  • We'll leave you with this: When someone suggested putting nothing but Bach on the Voyager Golden Record, Carl Sagan replied, "No, that would just be showing off."note 


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