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Music / Johann Sebastian Bach

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German composer and virtuoso organist (21 March 1685 – 28 July 1750) whose works represent the culmination of the Baroque Music era and whose death is generally considered to mark the point of transition into the Classical era. Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven 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. It was often said of he, his wife, and his children that he could form an orchestra with them all. Between his first and second wives, Bach fathered twenty children note . Four of his sons— Carl Philipp Emanuel, Johann Christian, Wilhelm Friedemann, and Johann Christoph Friedrich— grew up to be notable composers in their own right. In Bach's full family tree there were over fifty professional musicians, making it at least a family business if not an outright dynasty. (Then there's P.D.Q. Bach, who... doesn't really count.)

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he was better known as an organist than a composer; particularly towards the end of his career, his work was deemed outdated by his contemporaries.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 did maintain Cult Classic status among professional composers who studied his work for technique, including such admirers as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven. But among the musical public 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 as one of the greatest musical artists of human history. No better evidence of that can be of the Voyager Golden Records on both deep space probes, Voyagers 1 and 2, which has three pieces by him, intended to be an introduction to any intelligent alien civilization who can figure out how to play it.

Noted in particular for his masterful use of contrapuntal 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,note  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, BWV 846–893, 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. note 
  • The Mass in B minor, BWV 232, and the St. Matthew Passion, BWV 244, two breathtaking works that are cornerstones of Western sacred choral music.
  • The six Brandenburg Concertos, BWV 1046–1051, 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."
  • "Air on the G String", the colloquial title given to the 2nd movement of Bach's Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D major, BWV 1068.note  Even if you don't follow classical music, and don't know Bach from Bono, it's a certainty you've heard it many times as background music in movies, TV shows, and commercials. A strong contender for "Most Sublimely Beautiful 5 Minutes of Music Ever Composed."
  • The Six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello, BWV 1007–1012, 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.
  • "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring", a melody used for two movements of the cantata Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben, BWV 147, and probably Bach's most well-known cantata-based piece of music.note 
  • Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht, BWV 211, also known as the "Coffee Cantata", a satire of the then-moral debate over coffee consumption.
  • "Sheep May Safely Graze", the ninth movement of Was mir behagt, ist nur die muntre Jagd, BWV 208, a.k.a. the "Hunting Cantata", which is often used at weddings alongside Lohengrin and Mendelssohn.
  • 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. As said above, he also 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 in a town just under 200km away by road—130 as the crow flies), 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." (Taylor may also have reduced the quality of life of the English historian Edward Gibbon, author of the famous The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.) Both Bach and Handel are honoured (with 17th-century English composer Henry Purcell) on July 28 (the day of Bach's death) in the calendar of saints used by most Anglican and Lutheran churches, as composers of sublime Protestant sacred music.

Tropes present in Bach's works:

  • Author Appeal:
    • Bach's devout Lutheran faith clearly inspires his cantatas, chorales, and service music. He was also a master of counterpoint, which can be found in virtually all of his compositions even though it was falling out of fashion in his day for the more spare Early Classical style. And his fondness for drinking coffee inspired the humorous "Coffee Cantata," Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht.
    • According to his son C.P.E. Bach and his biographer Johann Nikolaus Forkel, Bach had a special love for the viola and strongly preferred playing the viola in chamber music. This is quite evident in his music as the viola parts in much of his music are almost equally as important as the violin parts, which was quite odd during the baroque period as the viola usually played backup harmonies to the violin or kept the beat with the bass part. Additionally, Bach lets the viola shine forth in a solo aspect, which was virtually unheard of during the Baroque period. His sixth Brandenburg Concerto completely does away with the violin parts, instead using two violas as the soloists, two arias from two separate cantatas ("Ergieße dich reichlich, du göttliche Quelle" from Wo soll ich fliehen hin (BWV 5) and "Ich, dein betrübtes Kind" from Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut (BWV 199)) have a solo viola accompany the vocalist, and finally, Gleichwie der Regen und Schnee vom Himmel fällt (BWV 18) in its original score has the string section composed solely of four separate viola parts.
  • Baroque Music: One of the most famous composers of this era; his pieces are often seen as archetypal Baroque music. Some people claim the genre died out with him, too, though George Frederic Handel outlived Bach by nine years and can be more correctly considered the last such composer.
  • Cantata: Composed a lot of them.
  • Christmas Songs: The Christmas Oratorio and several cantatas intended for Christmas Day; "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" is sometimes used like this.
  • God-Is-Love Songs: Being a devout Lutheran who was mostly employed by churches, he wrote a lot of religious pieces for church performance, among them the Johannes Passion, Matthäus Passion, the Mass in B Minor and, most spectacularly, over 300 sacred cantatas, of which about 200 survive. These include many of his most famous pieces, such as "Jesu Bleibet Meine Freude" (given English words as "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring"), which is a chorale from cantata BWV 147 Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben. This trope is averted inasmuch as Bach's cantatas aren't disguised as secular works; they're completely up-front about their religious content — sample titles (translated) include Christ lay in Death's bonds, God's time is the best time of all and Praise the Lord, the mighty king of honour. But then again, they're very often performed in secular concert halls where you wouldn't expect much religious content.
  • Holy Pipe Organ: Bach composed extensively for organ, and many of his pieces (i.e. the chorales) had Christian themes and were intended to be played during worship.
  • Last Note Nightmare:
    • The "Great" Fugue in G minor (BWV 542) is quite soft and quiet for its first half. In the second half, the piece shifts toward being slightly more upbeat and louder, but still not too loud. Then at the very end, the piece shifts toward being loud and angry for a few seconds, contrasting with the light and soft qualities of the rest of the piece.
    • Quite a few of Bach's organ fugues end this way. Apparently, Bach loved using the Picardy third.
    • Perhaps Bach's most jarring example comes from the deceptively peaceful Adagio in C Major (BWV 564). Not only is the Adagio not actually positive-sounding, as its name would suggest, it has a short but incredibly aggressive ending portion that can only be described as Ominous Pipe Organ taken up to eleven. And, of course, the last chord is a Picardy Third. Listen here.
  • Mundane Made Awesome: The Art of Fugue is literally this trope, taking a simple subject and crafting fourteen fugues and four canons from it, in increasing complexity, to show the contrapuntal possibilities that could arise from a single theme.
  • Must Have Caffeine: Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht, BWV 211, A.K.A. the "Coffee Cantata" is the Ur-Example, where the entire plot is driven by coffee.
  • Non-Indicative Name: Unlike every other prelude in the collection of preludes and fugues known as The Well-Tempered Clavier, the Prelude in E-flat major (BWV 852) from Book 1 is actually a fugue in itself.
  • Ominous Pipe Organ: His Toccata and Fugue in D minor has become a cliché of Halloween music, when played on a organ.
  • Passion Play: The St. Matthew Passion, of course, and also a lesser-known Passion from John's gospel.
  • Progressive Instrumentation: A notable characteristic of Fugues and Inventions is voices that enter one at a time, copying the melody of the instruments that played earlier. This could be done with multiple instruments, or (if your organ skills are up to the task) adding multiple voices on the same instrument.
  • Real Men Love Jesus: Bach was a devout Lutheran who wrote a ton of Protestant church music, including at least 200 cantatas, 6 motets, 4 passions, 2 oratorios, and hundreds of sacred organ works. He also wrote a mass, several mass movements, and a magnificat which could be performed in Catholic services.
  • Sincerest Form of Flattery: Bach's fugues and chorales are still required studying in most music conservatories to this day. Most freshman music theory classes heavily reference the chorales, and Eighteenth-Century Counterpoint classes use Bach's contrapuntal works as their model.
  • Signature Style: The fugue. Not everything he wrote was in fugue form, but he clearly loved them; his last, great, unfinished work is a collection of them, all originating with variations on the same basic theme, called The Art of Fugue.
  • Strictly Formula: Necessary, but subverted: he had to compose a new church cantata just about every week for three years, but within the cantata form they vary enormously in mood and tone, and Bach scholars tend to consider his cantatas to be the foundation of his achievement.
  • Sweet Sheep: Sheep May Safely Graze is a soprano aria written in 1713 which is about a flock of sheep eating peacefully at a pasture with a shepherd watching on.
  • There Is No Rule Six: "Brandenburg Concerto No.3" has only first and third movements — no second movement (apart from a two-chord cadence — though the third movement is sometimes wrongly called the "second", even though it's definitely in the style of a third movement rather than a second).
  • Trope Codifier: He didn't invent the fugue, but he sure did codify it (see Signature Style, above). Given that he could improvise three-part fugues on request, this is not surprising. Some musicologists argue that his music goes some way towards codifying Western harmonic music in general.