Johann Sebastian Bach
Mass in B Minor and Christmas Oratorio

Born: 21 March 1685, in Eisenach
Died: 28 July 1750, in Leipzig

{Biography} {A Note on Performance} {Mass in B Minor} {A Personal Note} {Christmas Oratorio} {Works} {For Further Reading}


Bach was born into a musical family of many generations.  The youngest son, he lost his mother in 1694 and his father a year later, after which he went to live with his oldest brother.  This brother, Johann Christoph, was organist in Ohrdruf and had studied with Pachelbel (of canon fame).  Bach lived with his brother for five years, and then went to the Michaeliskirche in Lüneburg, initially as a choirboy and then likely as an instrumentalist after his voice broke.  He probably met composer and organist Georg Böhm while in Lüneberg; Böhm was an early and important influence.  He also visited Hamburg, a city with a rich musical life, multiple times.  Here, as at all times during his life, Bach was alert to all opportunities for more learning and exposure to music.  His musical style ultimately demonstrated a multiplicity of influences: the richness of earlier keyboard music, the sacred music of his predecessors, the new forms and genres of Italian instrumental music, the French orchestra he heard in nearby Celle, and so on. Towards the end of his life Bach supposedly said something along the lines of “anyone could have done what I did.”  Well, yes and no.  An indefatigable desire to learn enabled Bach’s innate musical talent to blossom early and continue to bloom throughout his life, but no one else had the same background, influences, or opportunities that came his way.

In 1703 Bach undertook his first professional position, as violinist in the Weimar court orchestra of Duke Johann Ernst.  Later the same year he moved to Arnstadt to become the organist at the Bonifaciuskirche (also known as the Neue Kirche, and now named after Bach).  He remained in Arnstadt until 1707, and it is during this period that he began to develop as an organ virtuoso, an improvisor without parallel, and ultimately an expert on organ construction and design (late in life Bach also advised instrument maker Gottfried Silbermann on the construction of pianos).  It was also during this time that he took a leave of absence to go to Lübeck (on foot) to hear famous organist and composer, Dietrich Buxtehude (ca. 1637–1707), whose special services in the weeks before Christmas were renowned.  Caught up in the musical wonders of Lübeck, Bach overstayed his approved leave by about three months.

During 1707–1708 Bach served as organist in the Blasiuskirche in Mühlhausen and married for the first time.  He eventually sired twenty children (seven by his first wife; thirteen by the second), of whom only nine survived him.  Three of these went on to become important composers in their own right: Wilhelm Friedemann (1710–1784), Carl Philipp Emanuel (1714–1788; his godfather was Telemann) and Johann Christian  (1735–1782).

In 1708 he moved yet again, this time to Weimar to serve as court organist, chamber musician, and eventually Konzertmeister to Duke Wilhelm Ernst August of Saxe-Weimar.  A good deal of organ music comes from this period, as do a batch of cantatas; starting in 1714 Bach was required to write a new one every four weeks.  By 1717, though, he had found a better position and was ready to move on.  The Duke was ready to let him go as well—after he’d made Bach sit in jail for almost a month (how dare Bach want to leave!), dismissing him finally in disgrace.

Bach’s new position was in Cöthen, where he stayed from 1717 to 1723 as Kapellmeister to the music-loving Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen.  Because Leopold was a Calvinist, instrumental music was the emphasis at his court.  Bach accordingly wrote various instrumental compositions while in Cöthen, such as some (if not all) of the Brandenburg concertos, the first book of the WTC, and so on.  He also composed cantatas for various occasions, e.g. New Year’s.

Things began to change in December 1721, when Leopold married his cousin, who was “eine Amusa,” someone not interested in the muses (Bach married his second wife, Anna Magdalena, barely a week before the Prince’s wedding; his first wife had died in 1720).  Then, in June 1722 Johann Kuhnau (b. 1660) passed away.  Kuhnau, probably best known for his Biblical Sonatas for keyboard, held the important post of Kantor of the Thomaskirche in Leipzig.  The top choice for his successor was Telemann ((1681–1767), at that time the best-known German musician not living abroad.  Telemann, though, did not want to teach Latin (one of the requirements of the position), and his Hamburg employers upped his salary, so he turned down the position.

Second choice was Christoph Graupner (1683–1760), composer of operas, numerous orchestral works, and more than 1000 cantatas (in contrast to that slacker Bach, who only wrote 300 or so).  Graupner was then offered more money by his Darmstadt employer, so he too was no longer in the running.  Thus, in the immortal words of the Leipzig authorities, “since the best cannot now be engaged one must accept the mediocre.”

From the safe distance of the twenty-first century, this judgment of the relative merits of the three composers is laughable.  Who besides musicologists/early music buffs knows of Graupner?  And while Telemann is a perfectly capable composer of much pleasant music, he’s no Bach.  Food analogy, anyone?  Enriched white bread vs. artisanal whole-grain loaf flecked with sunflower and chia seeds?  (Before the Telemann crowd descends on me with pitchforks, please note that I did label Telemann “enriched.”)

In the context of the eighteenth century, though, this was not an unfair assessment, with both Telemann and Graupner better known, and composers of more up-to-date music in general.  So third-choice Bach made the move to Leipzig, where he was to remain for the rest of his life.

His duties here were manifold.  He was responsible for the musical life of four different churches as well as the musical education of the Thomasschule schoolboys (he paid someone else to teach them Latin).  He also needed to mark important events in town life with new music, and he eventually directed the local Collegium Musicum (founded by Telemann in 1702) as well.  Accordingly he embarked on a massive cantata project to generate annual cycles of sacred cantatas.  A cycle included music for all Sundays as well as other feast days (e.g. Feast of the Purification, Easter Monday and Tuesday, Whit Monday and Tuesday, and so on)—thus, about 60 cantatas, though (fortunately) with breaks for the penitential seasons of Advent and Lent.  Bach created five of these cycles—around 300 works, of which we are now missing about 100.

The longer Bach remained in Leipzig, though, the more relations with his employers deteriorated, and he moved from composing functional music for his duties (as had been the case in all of his previous positions) to creating works that were of interest to him personally or pedagogically, or that might generate more income/esteem elsewhere.  He published some of his music, with an important series being the four volumes of the Clavier-Übung (“keyboard exercises”), with works for both organ and harpsichord.  The last volume of these, the Goldberg Variations, received their name from the probably apocryphal story that Count von Keyserlingk of Dresden, whom Bach visited, commissioned them so that von Keyserlingk’s resident harpsichord player, Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, could entertain the Count on sleepless nights.

Another visit generated another important work.  In May 1747 Bach visited the court of Frederick the Great in Potsdam (near Berlin), where his son C.P.E. Bach worked.  Frederick was not merely a music lover and credible flutist, but a composer as well, primarily of flute sonatas and concertos.  While at court, Bach did one of his spectacular improvisations on a theme supplied by the King.  Upon returning to Leipzig he worked this up into the Musical Offering: two ricercars, ten canons, and a trio sonata on the royal theme.  Dedicated to Frederick, it was printed in September.  Another printing project was left unfinished at Bach’s death: his Art of the Fugue, in which he demonstrated his unparalleled contrapuntal prowess with a simple yet fruitful theme.

Bach’s death in 1750 is considered by many to mark the end of the Baroque.  In reality, though, Bach’s style had been out of fashion for quite some time and had been critiqued while he was alive; the Baroque “ended” before 1750.  His Arnstadt congregants complained about the too elaborate nature of his chorale harmonizations, and in 1737 the critic J.A. Scheibe noted Bach’s “turgid and confused style” (he later relented and praised the Italian Concerto).  Bach’s predilection for chromatic counterpoint meant that his music did not fare well in a time when homophonic texture and a limited harmonic palette were in style, so his music was “forgotten” in the period immediately after his death.  What is interesting is that over the remainder of the eighteenth century, those who valued his music included another composer of equal ability: Mozart, who said something along the lines of “at last! someone from whom I can learn something!” when he first encountered Bach’s music.

Mozart and some others notwithstanding, the catalyst for a wide-scale revival of Bach was the performance of the Matthew Passion directed by Mendelssohn in 1829.  That year was thought to be the centennial of the work’s first performance.  As it turned out, 1729 did see a performance of the mass, but not the first—that actually took place in 1727.  Despite the inaccurate date, though, the 1829 production played an important role in Bach’s return to prominence.  The revival snowballed over the course of the nineteenth century, and by 1850 the newly-founded Bach Gesellschaft had embarked on plans to publish all of Bach’s music.

A Note on Performance

A desire to play Bach’s violin works with the so-called “Bach bow” prompted Arnold Dolmetsch to explore performance practice in Bach’s time, and, in effect, begin the movement to adopt contemporary performance styles to early instrumental music.  In recent years attention has focused on Bach’s vocal music, with one of the more contentious debates being the question of just how many singers were needed.  Some evidence (e.g. surviving performing parts) suggests that only a single voice per part would have been used, thus just four voices for a standard cantata.  At the same time Bach himself wrote that 12–16 voices were the ideal size for his choir.

Interestingly, those who champion soloistic Bach performance never use boys’ voices for soprano or alto parts, as Bach did, but rather use adult singers only, and often women (something that Bach never did).  What is indisputable is that large choirs have performed Bach for more than 100 years now, making that type of performance historically appropriate in its own way.  Bach himself regularly rewrote his (and others’) music for different performing forces.  And performing forces of more than one per part means that far more people will have a chance to sing this exquisite music.  All this means that if you, like many music-lovers, dislike the sound of “one-to-a-part” Bach, feel free to perform (or listen to) more robust renditions.

Mass in B Minor, BWV 232

We begin with A Short History of the Catholic Mass. The mass is the primary form of worship in the Catholic Church.  Developed over centuries in the course of the Middle Ages, it consists of a series of readings and prayers followed by the symbolic re-enactment of the Last Supper in the consecration of bread and wine and the taking of communion.  In Catholic theology, the bread and wine are transformed into the actual body and blood of Christ.  This doctrine of transubstantiation is typically rejected by other Christian religions, though some acknowledge the presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

The mass consists of multiple sections.  For some components, the text is unchanging no matter which feast is being celebrated.  These texts are known as “Ordinary” texts, the best known of which are the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus.  Whether the feast is Christmas, Easter, Pentecost, or any other, these texts are the same.

Other sections have texts that change depending on the feast (or even time of day).  These texts are known as “Proper” texts, as they are specific to the individual feast.  On Christmas Day, for example, the first section of the mass, the Introit, has a text beginning “Puer natus est nobis” (A child is born to us) while the Introit for Easter begins “Resurrexi” (I am risen).

The mass was originally sung throughout, in plainchant.  Texts that were essentially readings (e.g. the Epistle, the Gospel) were sung to reciting formulas that could fit any text (so-called liturgical recitative, with syllabic text-setting and many repeated notes).  Other texts were set to specific melodies fitted just to that individual text (so-called composed chant).  The major Ordinary sections were always sung to composed chant.

By the ninth century at the latest, polyphony began to be used for some liturgical items.  Because polyphony was a special technique (more than one melodic line at once—how fancy!) it was used only for Proper items.  That changed in the fourteenth century, with polyphony now being written to all the main sections of the Mass Ordinary.  The first composer to write a polyphonic setting of the Mass Ordinary as a unit was Machaut, who set the concluding “Ite missa est” as well as the Kyrie, Gloria, and so on.  The utilitarian nature of such a setting is obvious.

Machaut’s mass was an outlier for the fourteenth century, but unified polyphonic Mass Ordinary settings became the norm in the fifteenth century, with English and then continental composers embracing this new genre (a genre that is still being composed today, albeit rarely).  Movements were typically broken into multiple sections, e.g., a section for the initial Kyrie, one for the Christe, and another for the final Kyrie.  Items not set polyphonically continued to be sung in plainchant.  Thus, a mass would open with a plainchant Introit, then a polyphonic Kyrie and Gloria, a plainchant Collect and Epistle, and so on.  Although nowadays polyphonic masses are heard primarily in the concert hall, they were sung exclusively as part of the liturgy until the nineteenth century.  The exception to that statement is Bach’s B Minor Mass.

In 1733 Bach sent the Kyrie and Gloria of what we now call the B Minor Mass to the new Elector of Saxony, Friedrich August II, in Dresden.  Bach was fishing around for commissions / honors / other employment; he asked the Elector to “take me under Your Most Mighty Protection.”  Although Bach was never hired away from Leipzig, he did ultimately compose four other masses—all consisting of Kyrie and Gloria movements—that may have been intended for the Elector as well.  From a Catholic perspective, these are truncated masses, but from the Lutheran perspective, they are complete: the Lutheran mass was normally just those two movements.

Towards the end of his life Bach created a full Catholic Ordinary setting by adding a Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus to the Kyrie and Gloria,.  Exactly why he did this is unknown; Bach was not Catholic and in any event the work is far too long to function liturgically.  The Mass does, though, fit with the tendency of Bach’s later years for works that were not so much functional as comprehensive, e.g. The Art of the Fugue, with its thorough exploration of contrapuntal possibilities.  We can see the Mass in B Minor as a compendium of vocal and choral styles known to Bach, all treated masterfully.

Bach reworked various bits of earlier material for the mass.  The Qui tollis began as the opening chorus of Cantata 46 (for the tenth Sunday after Trinity, 1723).  The Patrem comes from Cantata 171 (for New Year’s, 1729?), the Crucifixus from the opening chorus of Cantata 12 (for the third Sunday after Easter, 1714), and the Et expecto from Cantata 120 (for the inauguration of the Leipzig Town Council, perhaps in 1729).  For the opening section of the Sanctus, Bach used a Sanctus he had written for Christmas 1724 (Robin Leaver has shown that, because of the hymnal used in Leipzig, a polyphonic Sanctus like the one of 1724 would not include the Benedictus and other sections).  The Osanna came from two lost secular cantatas, one for the 1732 name-day of August II (Anhang 11) and one for the birthday visit of August III in 1727 (Anhang 9), while the Agnus started life in the Ascension Oratorio, BWV 11, from 1735.  The Dona nobis pacem repeats the music of the Gratias agimus, itself taken from the first chorus of Cantata 29 (for the inauguration of the Leipzig Town Council, 1731).

The work is massive, with Gloria and Credo (the two movements with the longest texts) divided each into many, many, sections.  The entire mass consists of three duets, six solos, and eighteen choral sections.  A layout, showing the shifting vocal forces and tonal areas, is given below, with solo and duet sections in italics.  Despite the (modern) title, little of the mass is actually in b minor, just the first Kyrie, the start of the Qui tollis, Qui sedes, the Et incarnatus est, and the Benedictus.  The relative major, D Major, appears much more often.

Kyrie SSATB bm
Christe SS duet w/violins DM
Kyrie SATB f#m
Gloria in excelsis SSATB DM
Et in terra pax direct continuation of preceding DM
Laudamus te S solo w/violin AM
Gratias agimus SATB DM
Domine Deus ST duet w/flute GM
Qui tollis SATB bm
Qui sedes A solo w/oboe d’amore bm
Quoniam B solo w/corno da caccia and two bassoons DM
Cum Sancto Spiritu SSATB DM
Credo in unum Deum SSATB AM
Patrem omnipotentem SATB DM
Et in unum Dominum SA duet w/two oboes d’amore GM
Et incarnatus est SSATB bm
Crucifixus SATB em
Et resurrexit SSATB DM
Et in Spiritum sanctum B solo w/two oboes d’amore AM
Confiteor SSATB f#m
Et expect direct continuation of preceding DM
Benedictus T solo w/flute bm
Osanna repeat of previous Osanna DM
Agnus Dei A solo w/violins gm
Dona nobis pacem SATB DM

Both vocal and instrumental performing forces shift frequently, with Bach drawing on two flutes, three oboes, two oboes d’amore, two bassoons, horn, three trumpets, timpani, srings, and continuo.  Each solo or duet is accompanied by gorgeous instrumental solos (how can one choose a favorite?  the flute in Domine Deus!  the magnificent horn in the Quoniam! the oboes in Et in Spiritum sanctum!)  In the chorus we switch mostly between five-part writing (with two soprano lines) and four parts, but we also expand to six voices (with two altos) in the Sanctus, and eight-voice double chorus for the Osanna.  The listener is never without something new and fresh to hear, especially given the multiplicity of styles and techniques Bach uses.  These include, for example, numerous instances of fugal writing, e.g. the second Kyrie, the concertato fugue in the Et expecto, the stretto fugue of the Gratias agimus/Dona nobis pacem; the up-to-the-minute operatic ritornello solo arias; the chromatic passacaglia of the Crucifixus; the cantus firmus treatment of the chant model in augmentation in the stile antico opening of the Credo, mirrored in the Confiteor; and so on.

A Personal Note

My sophomore year in college began with the news that the “elite” choir would be dedicating the year—the entire year—to the B Minor Mass.  All of our choirs performed everything from memory, and this piece would be no exception (of course it’s easier to memorize things when you’re 19).  We had two 75-minute rehearsals as a group each week, during the day on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and on Monday evenings the women had a lengthy sectional as well (the men’s sectional was Tuesday evening).  So Fall turned into Winter turned into Spring, and the Mass grew and grew in our minds and hearts.  When we finally stepped on stage in May for the performance, it was with one of the high points of civilization engraved on our souls.  Every singer should be so lucky.

Christmas Oratorio

Bach’s Christmas Oratorio is a distinct entity with a single BWV number (248), but functions as a set of six individual cantatas for separate days across the Christmas season, all feasts for which Bach would normally be required to provide music anyway.  These are as follows:

  1. Christmas Day
  2. Second Day of Christmas (December 26, Feast of St. Stephen)
  3. Third Day of Christmas (December 27, Holy Innocents)
  4. New Year’s Day (January 1, Feast of the Circumcision)
  5. Sunday after New Year’s (January 2 in 1735, the year of the premiere)
  6. Epiphany (January 6)

In the Christmas Oratorio, the six cantatas treat, in order, Christ’s birth, the Annunciation to the Shepherds, the Adoration of the Shepherds, the Circumcision, the Journey of the Magi, and the Adoration of the Magi. 

The cantata was a new genre in the Baroque; one can see in the etymology that it is a work to be sung (cantare) as opposed to another new Baroque genre, the sonata (an instrumental genre to be “sounded,” sonare).  In broad terms, cantatas and sonatas are multi-movement works with contrasting sections.  Depending on the text, cantatas could be either secular or sacred.  In the seventeenth century, secular cantatas were usually for solo voice with continuo; instrumentation expanded in the eighteenth century.  As for sacred cantatas, in the Lutheran church the Gospel reading of the service was followed by the cantata for the day, which was thematically related to the Gospel reading and served as a musical counterpart to the sermon. 

Bach’s cantatas follow many, many different formal layouts, but a common one was to have an opening chorus and a closing chorale, with interior movements being a series of recitatives and arias sung by soloists.  From a purely practical point of view, this makes a great deal of sense, with the “heavy lifting”—the opening chorus—confined to a single movement.  And given the staggering demands of Bach’s position (especially at Leipzig), this makes even more sense. 

In constructing the Christmas Oratorio, Bach followed that general layout for the most part (the second section opens with an pastoral sinfonia to introduce the shepherds, a common Baroque device).  He was even more efficient in drawing a good portion of all six sections from music already written, rearranged as needed and with fresh text overall.  The main sources Bach drew on were three secular cantatas (BWV 213, 214, and 215) written in 1733 and 1734 (for, respectively, the birthdays of Prince Friedrich Christian and Electress Maria Josepha and the anniversary of the election of Polish King August III)—music that would otherwise never have been performed again.  For the opening of the entire oratorio he took over the first movement of Cantata 207a (for the name-day of August III).  Also, Section VI was apparently based almost entirely on a lost cantata, No. 248a. 

The text is in German, standard for Bach’s sacred cantatas, and combines the Christmas story as it is told in the gospels of Luke and Matthew with contemporary devotional poetry.  The solo arias provide commentary on the story.  A tenor evangelist links all the cantatas, playing the same role as in Bach’s two passions; other characters are a soprano angel (II only) and a bass Herod (VI only).  The chorus takes on various roles (e.g.  shepherds).  Instrumentation varies for each cantata; overall the forces include two flutes, two oboes, two oboes d’amore, two oboes da caccia, two horns, three trumpets, timpani, strings, and continuo. 

More than anything else the chorus sings chorales (or more properly, chorale harmonizations).  A chorale is simply a sacred text and a tune.  The genre dates back to Martin Luther and the Reformation.  For those who need A Refresher Course on the Reformation, it began in 1517 (October 31, to be precise) when Catholic priest Martin Luther nailed his “95 Theses,” which outlined issues facing contemporary Catholicism, to the door of Wittenberg Cathedral.  The highly intelligent and equally devout Luther, who had travelled to Rome, had observed many, many problems with the church of his day, including the selling of church offices to the highest bidder (simony) as well as the selling of indulgences, which shaved off time in Purgatory for those who could afford them.  Indulgences still exist today, by the way, but one must earn them through prayer and other practices; they are no longer for sale.

Luther was also bothered by the whole hierarchy of the church.  Why did a third party (e.g., priest, Virgin Mary, saint) need to intercede with God?  Shouldn’t a direct line exist between God and the individual?  And shouldn’t salvation be based on faith alone, rather than, say, good works?  And why can’t people read the Bible in German, not Latin?  And so on.

Luther’s aim was not to found a new religion, but rather to reform the Catholic Church.  And he was hardly the first to question the hegemony or practices of the Church.  The Church, annoyed by but used to heretics, at first observed its customary philosophy of “the dogs bark, but the caravan moves on.”  They also attempted their normal practice of inviting the dissenter to have a little chat with church leaders (often, those who went off to have a little chat with the officials died suddenly through mysterious means.  This, of course, was a coincidence.  Really). 

The savvy Luther, though, was not to be trapped in Rome’s net.  And he had a weapon available to no previous dissenter: the printing press.  Centuries after printing was invented in China, it made it to the West, where Johannes Gutenberg’s Bible of ca. 1454 kicked off an massive change in the dissemination of information.  Books printed before 1500 are known as incunabula; by the beginning of the sixteenth century six million of these circulated across Europe.  Luther jumped on that train, and his teachings became far more widely known than possible in the era of the manuscript.

Ultimately, of course, Luther gave up on reforming the Catholic Church and set about creating his own.  And here we can all thank the Gods of Music, for Luther (unlike many early reformers) loved, appreciated, understood, and performed music.  This meant that music played a key role in his new church—unlike some other new religions whose crabby founders banned it altogether, or destroyed all the organs in Switzerland, or condemned participants to a life of singing boring psalm settings and nothing else. 

Luther basically said that, if your church choir can handle it, keep singing all that great polyphony by Josquin and La Rue and Senfl and so on—hooray!  But, meanwhile, change the service to German, so that people can understand what’s going on.  And for heaven’s sake, give the congregation something to sing!  Aside from musicologists, not too many people know that the Catholic Church had restricted its music making to the celebrants and clergy; the congregation was essentially mute. 

But what was everyone to sing?  Josquin and La Rue and Senfl, great though they are, are much too hard for amateurs.  The solution was the chorale—that sacred text and tune—that was simple enough for anyone to get through.  And where did chorales come from?  Well, some were new; Luther himself is said to have written that classic hit, Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott (A Mighty Fortress is Our God).  Others came from plainchant, where the text was translated (or in some cases, changed altogether), rhythm was added, and presto!  A chorale!  And, famously, Luther and his cronies raided the secular larder, turning big hits of the day into sacred tunes by changing the words.  As Luther supposedly said, “why should the Devil have all the good tunes?”  Accordingly, Isaac’s famous farewell to the imperial city of Innsbruck, Innsbruck ich dich mich lassen (Innsbruck, I now must leave you) became O Welt, ich muss dich lassen (O world, I now must leave you); numerous others followed.  It wasn’t just Lutherans who did this, of course; think of how Greensleeves became What child is this?

Chorales then served as a starting point for composers to have fun with.  Harmonizations happened very early on; as with our modern hymns, the less talented would just sing the tune, while the musically gifted—people like us—would tackle the harmony.  By Bach’s time chorales served as the foundation for preludes, fantasias, cantatas, canons, and on and on.  Bach’s own harmonizations could be simple or gnarly.  The Christmas Oratorio contains some of both, including well-known ones such as No. 5 in I (based on O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden, O sacred head now wounded) and No. 12 in II (Brich an o schönes Morgenlicht, Break forth o beauteous morning light).

An amusing note: when the Catholic Church had its own “reformation” via the church council Vatican II in the 1960s, it said (among other things) that the service should be in the vernacular, not Latin, and that the congregation should have something to sing, at which point all sorts of great Protestant hymns became available to Catholic congregations.  On the down side, the Church also pretty much dumped plainchant at the same time.  Martin Luther must be smiling up in heaven (unless, of course, his refusal to purchase indulgences has delayed his entrance...)

Works (selected)

You will occasionally see “S” numbers before Bach’s works; the “S” stands for Wolfgang Schmieder, the scholar who prepared the catalogue of Bach’s works in use today.  More often “BWV” numbers are used.  These are the same as Schmieder’s numbers; “BWV” stands for “Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis” (List of Bach’s Works).  The modest Schmieder preferred using BWV to S, and most people follow that practice.  BWV numbers are organized by genre, not chronology. 

Bach wrote in every genre of his day except for opera, though he frequently followed the style of operatic arias and recitatives in his vocal music.  More than a thousand works survive; hundreds more were discarded in the decades following his death when his music was seen as outmoded.  The sound you hear in the background is me quietly weeping over this loss. 

Bach’s music tends to fall into the “it’s all good” category; some of the better-known pieces are noted below. 


Bach wrote some 300 cantatas; only about two-thirds of these survive.  One reason I went into musicology was to have greater opportunity to explore these works.  Here are some for you to explore as well (but don’t stop here).

  • 1: Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern (for the Feast of the Annunciation)
  • 4: Christ lag in Todesbanden (Easter)
  • 21: Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis (Third Sunday after Trinity)
  • 29: Wir danken dir, Gott (Inauguration of Leipzig Town Council)
  • 51: Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen (Trinity Sunday; for solo Soprano)
  • 61: Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland (first Sunday of Advent)
  • 78: Jesu, du der meine Seele (Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity)
  • 80: Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott (Reformation Festival; I confess to preferring the version with trumpets and timpani added by W.F. Bach)
  • 82: Ich habe genug (Feast of the Purification; solo Bass)
  • 106: Gottes Zeit ist der allerbeste Zeit (“Actus tragicus;” funeral)
  • 140: Wachet auf ruft uns die Stimme (Twenty-Seventh Sunday after Trinity)
  • 147: Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben (Feast of the Visitation; includes “Jesu joy of Man’s desiring”)
  • 198: Trauer-Ode (memorial service for Electress Christiane Eberhandine)
  • 201: Der Streit zwischen Phoebus und Pan (secular)
  • 202: Weichet nur, betrübte Schatten (wedding)
  • 208: “Hunt” Cantata—Was mir behagt, ist nur die muntre Jagd (birthday of Duke Christian of Saxe-Weissenfels; includes “Schafe können sicher weiden,” Sheep may safely graze)
  • 211: “Coffee” Cantata—Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht (secular)
  • 212: “Peasant” Cantata—Mer hahn en neue Oberkeet (secular) 


The exact number of motets Bach wrote shifts with scholarly opinion and the way in which a motet is defined.  The three listed here are all unquestionably Bach’s and all unquestionably wonderful.

  • BWV 225: Singet dem Herrn
  • BWV 227: Jesu meine Freude 
  • BWV 229: Komm Jesu Komm

Other Choral

  • BWV 232: Mass in b minor
  • BWV 243: Magnificat (this second version in DM is the well-known one)
  • BWV 244: Passion according to St. Matthew
  • BWV 245: Passion according to St. John
  • BWV 248: Christmas Oratorio
  • BWV 249: Easter Oratorio
  • Stand-Alone Chorales:
    • Christ lag in todesbanden
    • Ein feste Burg
    • Jesu meine Freude
    • Nun danket alle Gott
    • Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern


  • 6 sonatas and partitas for unaccompanied violin; a highlight is the Chaconne that closes Partita #2 in dm  (BWV 1001–1006)
  • 6 suites for unaccompanied cello (BWV 1007–1012)
  • Partita for solo flute (BWV 1013)
  • 6 violin sonatas (BWV 1014–1019) 
  • 3 sonatas for viola da gamba (BWV 1027–1029)
  • 6 flute sonatas (BWV 1030–1035); some authenticity problems here, but we flutists still appreciate the great gift of these works, regardless of the identity of “Bach” for these pieces.
  • 2 trio sonatas (BWV 1038–1039)


Many of these are constructed from other works.  They’re still terrific. 

  • 2 violin concertos (BWV 1041 and 1042)
  • Concerto for two violins (BWV 1043)
  • Concerto for flute, violin, and harpsichord (BWV 1044)
  • 6 Brandenburg concertos (BWV 1046–1051)
    When I was growing up I somehow thought there were two sets of Brandenburg concertos; I probably confused them with the two books of the WTC.  Nonetheless, I have always regretted the loss of that second set of Brandenburgs! 
  • 8 harpsichord concertos (BWV 1052–1059)
  • 3 concertos for two harpsichords (BWV 1060–1062)
  • 2 concertos for three harpsichords (BWV 1063–1064)
  • Concerto for four harpsichords (BWV 1065) 
  • 4 orchestral suites (BWV 1066–1069; the third suite includes the famous “Air on the G String”)


Where to choose among the plethora of compositions by the greatest organist of his day?  And arguably the greatest composer for organ ever?  Here are some especially significant works.

  • 6 Trio Sonatas, BWV 525–530
  • Toccata and Fugue in dm, “Dorian,” BWV 538
  • Toccata and Fugue in F, BWV 540
  • Prelude and Fugue in GM, “The Great,” BWV 541
  • Fantasia and Fugue in gm, “The Great,” BWV 542
  • Prelude and Fugue in am, BWV 543
  • Prelude and Fugue in bm, “The Great,” BWV 544
  • Prelude and Fugue in em, BWV 548
  • Prelude and Fugue in Eb, “St. Anne,” BWV 552
  • Toccata, Adagio, and Fugue in C, BWV 564
  • Toccata and Fugue in dm, BWV 565
  • Fugue in gm, “The Little,” BWV 578
  • Passacaglia and Fugue in cm, BWV 582
  • Orgelbüchlein, BWV 599-644 (chorale preludes)
  • 6 Schübler Chorales, BWV 645–650
  • 18 Chorales, BWV 651–668
  • Chorale Preludes BWV 669–689 in Clavier-Übung III
  • Canonic Variations on Von Himmel hoch, BWV 769

Other Keyboard

  • Two- and Three Part Inventions (15 Inventions, BWV 772–786, and 15 Sinfonias (BWV 787–801)
  • 6 English Suites, BWV 806–811
  • 6 French Suites, BWV 812–817
  • 6 Partitas, BWV 825–830 (Clavier-Übung I)
  • French Overture, BWV 831 (part of Clavier-Übung II)
    Well-Tempered Clavier, Books I (BWV 846–869) and II (BWV 870–893) “The 48”
  • Italian Concerto, BWV 971 (part of Clavier-Übung II)
  • Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue in dm, BWV 903
  • 7 Toccatas, BWV 910–916
  • Goldberg Variations, BWV 988 (Clavier-Übung IV)


  • 7 works for solo lute, BWV 995–1000 and 1006a.  Again, some of these are arranged from other works, but so what?  They fit nicely on a double CD set.
  • Musical Offering, BWV 1079
  • The Art of the Fugue, BWV 1080

For Further Reading

The first biography of Bach, by Johann Nikolaus Forkel, dates back more than 200 years, to 1802.  Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of books have been written about Bach and his music since then, including a landmark two-volume biography by Julius August Philipp Spitta in 1873/1880.  More recent books worth a look include the Cambridge Companion to Bach (1997, edited by John Butt), two biographies by Peter Williams (J.S. Bach: A Life in Music, from 2007, and Bach: A Musical Biography from 2016), and especially two books by Christoph Wolff: Bach: Essays on His Life and Music (1991) and Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician (2000). 

November 2016