In this lesson, you'll meet Johann Sebastian Bach, one of the greatest composers and organists from music's Baroque period. This lesson will introduce you to Bach's life and works, with an emphasis on his organ music.
Bach & the Baroque
Today, the German composer Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) is renowned for the music he wrote, but did you know that during his lifetime, Bach was much more famous as an organist than as a composer?
Bach lived during the Baroque period, a musical era that lasted from 1600 to 1750. During the Baroque, a musical texture called counterpoint was popular. Counterpoint means several melodies playing simultaneously. Imagine one paintbrush painting a green line, then a second brush painting a blue line over it. Imagine that each painted line is a melody, and add as many lines as your imagination would like. That's a great mental image of Baroque counterpoint!
Counterpoint is one of the reasons why the pipe organ was a popular Baroque instrument. With an organ, musicians can play many simultaneous melodies in equal volumes and distinct tone colors. In terms of our paintbrush image, that means that an organ is like a paint box with many colors of bright, contrasting paint. That makes it perfect for counterpoint!
Bach was both an expert organist and a master of counterpoint. In this lesson, we'll explore Bach's life, his love of the pipe organ, and some of his famous contrapuntal organ pieces.
Bach's Life & Music
Bach was born in the North German town of Eisenach, where his family was known for producing generations of musicians. Bach mastered the organ pretty quickly, landing his first organist job at the age of 18. He was also energetic about improving his art. In 1705, he hiked about 260 miles to meet the famous Danish organist Dietrich Buxtehude.
It may not surprise you to hear that Bach's best-known musical job involved church music. From 1723 to the end of his life, he served as cantor (that is, music director) for the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, Germany. This was an important job that involved overseeing musical events for four churches and the entire city of Leipzig. It also involved writing sacred music to perform at St. Thomas Church. One of Bach's most famous sacred works is his St. Matthew Passion, a dramatic musical retelling of the death of Jesus.
Throughout his career, Bach also taught music students and wrote instructional pieces like his set of harpsichord works called The Well-Tempered Clavier. Additionally, he raised a large family; he was married twice and had over twenty children!
Does it sound like Bach might have needed a lot of caffeine to get through his day? Apparently, he did! Bach owned several coffeemakers, and he wrote a comic vocal work called the Coffee Cantata, all about the wonders of caffeine. It premiered at Zimmermann's Coffeehouse, a Leipzig hangout where Bach performed many of his secular pieces.
Bach & the Organ
The Baroque period was an exciting time to be an organist. Though wind-powered instruments with pitched pipes had been around since ancient Greece and Rome, Baroque organ builders created instruments that were bigger, louder, and had more tone colors than ever before.
These completely mechanical instruments were real feats of engineering, but Bach understood them more than many. He often served as an organ consultant to advise churches building new organs, and he was a friend of the Baroque organ builder Gottfried Silbermann.
Pipe organs formed the musical center of churches all over Europe. Musicians used the organ to accompany congregations and as a key player in ensemble performances. They also used it for virtuosic solo pieces. Let's look at some of the solo works Bach wrote to let the organ shine.
Bach's Organ Works
Some of Bach's most famous organ works are part of a contrapuntal genre called fugue. The word 'fugue' comes from the Latin word 'fugare', which means 'to chase'. In a fugue, melodies chase each other through various keys and melodic ranges.
For example, listen to the opening of the Fugue in E-flat by Bach. This fugue is sometimes called the St. Anne Fugue because its main melody, or fugue subject, sounds like the opening of a hymn tune called St. Anne. It's probably just a coincidence, but there's nothing wrong with a catchy name!
You'll hear the fugue subject played, followed by the same tune a little lower. Then you'll hear the music weave in counterpoint. Since a fugue is a musical chase scene, you can imagine these layers of melody chasing each other across the musical landscape as you listen!
Another great example is Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor, one of his most recognizable works.
That's an excerpt from the toccata, a virtuosic introduction Bach wrote for this fugue. This piece comes from Bach's early years, and its in-your-face sound shows a bit of teenage rock star attitude! In this exerpt from the piece's fugue, you'll hear a faster, sparklier subject than that of the St. Anne Fugue. You'll still hear the fugue subject chase itself and create layers of contrapuntal melody.
Besides fugue, another of Bach's organ specialties was the genre of chorale prelude. A chorale prelude is an organ arrangement of a Lutheran hymn called a chorale. Bach's chorale preludes often combine a traditional hymn tune with a countermelody. Bach would play chorale preludes before his congregation sang a hymn, as a musical introduction.
Here's a sample of Bach's chorale prelude called Sleepers, Awake. It's based on a hymn about spiritual awakening. You'll hear its beautiful countermelody, which makes this piece one of Bach's most popular compositions.
Johann Sebastian Bach was a composer from music's Baroque period, which lasted from 1600 to 1750. Bach spent much of his career as a cantor of the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig and throughout his career, he composed music in many genres, including keyboard works and sacred choral pieces. The Baroque technique of counterpoint, or layering multiple melodies, helped make the pipe organ popular during the Baroque. Bach was an expert organist and composed many contrapuntal organ works including fugues, like the St. Anne Fugue, and chorale preludes, like Sleepers, Awake.
When you are finished, you should be able to:
- Assess the popular musical style of the Baroque period
- Summarize Bach's beginnings with music and his familiarity with the organ
- Name some of Bach's more famous fugues and choral preludes