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This list of composers is continuously updated and does not claim to be complete.

Johann Sebastian Bach (21.03.1685–28.07.1750)

Johann Sebastian worked as a composer, organ and harpsichord virtuoso and organ inspector. He was the most important member of a musical family of minstrels, town pipers, court musicians and organists dating back to the 16th century, which significantly shaped the musical life of Central Germany for a period of 150 years. Between 1723 and 1750 he held the post of Thomaskantor in Leipzig. Today he is regarded worldwide as one of the most famous and important composers in the history of music par excellence.

  1. Biography
  2. Private Life
  3. Connection to Leipzig
  4. Reception
  5. Works
  6. Sources and Links

1. Biography

Bach was born in Eisenach on March 21, 1685, the youngest of four sons of the town musician Johann Ambrosius Bach (1645–1695) and his wife Elisabeth (née Lämmerhirt (1644–1694). In 1692–95 Bach attended the Latin school in Eisenach. After the early death of his parents in 1694 (his mother) and 1695 (his father), his brother Johann Christoph (organist in Ohrdruf), who was almost ten years older, took him into his home and supplemented the musical education he had begun at home and taught him to play keyboard instruments. At the age of 14, in the spring of 1700, Johann Sebastian went to Lüneburg, where he is recorded as a member of the Mettenchor of the grammar school attached to the Michaeli monastery between 1700 and 1702. In the summer of 1703, he is violinist and court organist to Duke Johann Ernst of Weimar for a short time. On August 9 of the same year, Bach was appointed organist of the New Church in Arnstadt. In November 1705, Bach traveled to Lübeck to, as it is said in the necrology, "listen to Diedrich Buxtehude, the famous organist at St. Mary's," but probably also to apply to succeed the 70-year-old organist at St. Mary's. When Bach returned to Arnstadt from this educational trip three months late, tensions arose between him and the authorities, which became increasingly aggravated by a multitude of further accusations. In response, Bach applied for the position of organist at Divii Blasii in Mulhouse, which he took up in early July 1707. On 17.10 of the same year he married Maria Barbara Bach. In June 1708 he was appointed court organist and chamber musician at the ducal court of Weimar. In August 1717 he became court kapellmeister to Prince Leopold of Anhalt Köthen. A few months after the death of his first wife in July 1720, Bach made a trip to Hamburg, where he gave concerts at the organ of St. Jacobi Church with great success. The vacancy of the organist position there may have been the cause of his trip, but Bach withdrew his application because the conditions of the position apparently did not suit him. In December of the following year, Bach married again, to Anna Magdalena Wilcken, a court singer from Köthen. Since conditions for music were possibly already deteriorating before Prince Leopold's marriage to Princess Friederica Henrietta von Anhalt-Bernburg, Bach applied for the post of Thomaskantor in Leipzig after a six-year tenure in Köthen, which he took up on June 1, 1723. In his last years Bach suffered from an eye disease. He also seems to have had motor disorders in his right arm. After an unsuccessful eye operation by the oculist John Taylor (1703–1772), who was already controversial at the time, Bach died on the evening of July 28, 1750, and was buried three days later in the Johannis Cemetery in Leipzig.

2. Private Life

Very little is known about the private man Bach, as there are hardly any self-testimonies such as letters or diaries. From only a few surviving documents we can gather that Bach was a thoroughly spirited man who, especially in his younger years, liked to argue with his superiors and lived first and foremost for his music. Beyond his extremely strenuous workday with a multitude of official duties, however, he must also have led an extremely lively and vibrant private life: Bach was the father of twenty children from his two marriages to Maria Barbara and Anna Magdalena. Half of Bach's children died before the age of 3. Especially in the second half of the 1720s and the beginning of the 1730s not only the births but also the deaths increased, so that the family had to experience times of deep mourning again and again. In addition to the numerous children, many of his private pupils also lived in the household, so that there was a constant coming and going and the cantor's apartment resembled a "pigeon house" according to the second-born son Carl Philipp Emanuel. Five of the six sons who reached adulthood also became musicians. Four of them surpassed their father's fame as composers for a time and are still performed today: Wilhelm Friedemann Bach (1710–1784) served as organist in Dresden and Halle. Carl Philipp Emanuel (1714–1788) was court musician at the Prussian royal court of Frederick II and later cantor and music director at the Johanneum in Hamburg. Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach (1732–1795) became concertmaster at the court of Bückeburg and Johann Christian Bach (1735–1782) worked as cathedral organist in Milan and as opera composer in London.

3. Connection to Leipzig

Only after Georg Philipp Telemann and Christoph Graupner each declined election as Thomas Cantor for different reasons was Bach appointed to succeed Johann Kuhnau in this office, which he took up on June 1, 1723, and held until his death on July 28, 1750. Particularly during his first years in Leipzig, Bach had a tremendous workload. He composed the cantatas of his first two cantata years at weekly intervals. The Christmas Oratorio (BWV 248), the St. John Passion (BWV 245), the St. Matthew Passion (BWV 244), and the Mass in B minor (BWV 232) were also composed in Leipzig. With the Collegium musicum, which he took over as director in 1729, he performed German and Italian instrumental music twice a week in the Zimmermann coffee house, including his works written for Weimar and Köthen. 1729/30 were crisis-ridden years in which Bach found himself in continued conflict with the Leipzig authorities, among other things to fight for adequate scoring for his demanding church music. In the last decade of his life, Bach wrote hardly any sacred vocal works, concentrating instead primarily on the composition of contrapuntal works, predominantly for keyboard instruments. He wrote the Goldberg Variations (BWV 988), the Musical Offering (BWV 1079) and The Art of the Fugue (BWV 1080).

4. Reception

During his lifetime, Bach was famous primarily as an organist and piano virtuoso. His compositional output, on the other hand, was far less well known than that of his contemporaries George Frideric Handel, Georg Philipp Telemann and Johann Mattheson, for example. After his death, his works were initially forgotten relatively quickly, especially since it was not customary to publicly perform the works of deceased composers in concerts, as is the case today. Subsequent Thomaskantors also rarely performed his works or made any effort to preserve them. In the second half of the 18th century, when people spoke of the "Great Bach," they meant his second-born composer son C. P. Emanuel. In the 19th century, the appreciation of Bach's work grew, first with the publication of the first Bach biography by Johann Nikolaus Forkel. However, the Bach renaissance that continues to this day was initiated first and foremost with the revival of an abridged version of the St. Matthew Passion on March 11, 1829, with the Singakademie zu Berlin under the direction of Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, who was only 20 years old at the time.

For Mendelssohn Bartholdy, as for many other Romantic composers, such as Robert Schumann, Frederic Chopin, Franz Liszt and later Johannes Brahms, Bach became an important musical model. However, it is only since the 20th century that Bach's work in all its facets has been anchored in concert life and has been studied in depth by musicologists. The number of composers in the 20th century up to the present day who refer to Bach's works in their compositions is legion. The B-A-C-H motif alone, which Bach inserted in the last part of the Art of Fugue, has been used musically by more than 300 composers. But not only in contemporary art music, also in popular music, especially jazz music (e.g. by Jacques Loussier) numerous Bach references can be found. The reception of Bach's works has long since ceased to be a solely European phenomenon, but is taking place all over the world.

5. Works

In the course of his life, Bach adopted a wide variety of compositional styles and composed significant works in all musical genres prevalent during his lifetime (with the exception of opera). Many of his works, however, must be considered lost today. An overview of Bach's surviving works is given in the Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis by Wolfgang Schmieder, the third version of which was published in June 2022. In the following, only the best-known of his works are mentioned in the respective genre categories.

Sacred vocal works (selection)

- 200 sacred cantatas

- seven motets

- five masses, including the Mass in B minor (BWV 233)

- passions and oratorio works, including the Magnificat (BWV 243), the St. John Passion (BWV 245), the St. Matthew Passion (BWV 244), the Christmas Oratorio (BWV 245),a large number of chorale movements, sacred songs and arias (e.g. Schemelli's Gesangbuch, BWV 439–507)

Secular vocal works

  • 24 secular cantatas, including Was mir behagt ist nur die muntre Jagd (BWV 208), Schweigt Stille, Plaudert nicht (the so-called coffee cantata), BWV 211, Weichet nur betrübte Schatten (BWV 202)

Organ and piano works

  • About 250 organ works: preludes and fugues, trio sonatas, toccatas, passacaglias, organ chorales, chorale arrangements, chorale preludes, etc.; 270 harpsichord works: inventions, symphonies, suites, partitas, preludes and fugues, toccatas, capricci, sonatas and concertos, e.g., the Goldberg Variations (BWV 988), Das Wohltemperierte Klavier (parts 1 and 2, BWV 846–893), the English Suites (BWV 806–811) and the French Suites (BWV 812–817), Clavierübung I, II, III and IV.

Chamber music

  • Works for lute, for solo instruments, such as flute, violin, cello, sonatas with harpsichord or basso continuo

Orchestral works

  • Concertos for one or two violins and orchestra, Concertos for one or more harpsichords and orchestra, the Brandenburg Concertos, orchestral suites)

Counterpoint works

  • Canons, e.g. Canonical changes over a Christmas carol (BWV 769), Musical Offering (BWV 1079), The Art of the Fugue (BWV 1080)


  • Johann Nikolaus Forkel: Über Johann Sebastian Bachs Leben, Kunst und Kunstwerke, Leipzig 1802
  • John Eliot Gardiner: Bach. Musik für die Himmelsburg. Hanser, München 2016, ISBN 978-3-446-24619-5.
  • Konrad Küster (Hrsg.): Bach Handbuch. Bärenreiter-Verlag, Kassel 1999, ISBN 3-7618-2000-3.
  • Martin Geck: Johann Sebastian Bach. Rowohlt, Reinbek 2002, ISBN 3-499-50637-8.
  • Christoph Wolff: Johann Sebastian Bach. 2. Aufl. Fischer-Taschenbuch

6. Sources and Links

Johann Sebastian Bach, painter Elias Haussmann


Author: Dr. Christiane Hausmann