The development of instrumental music in the late Baroque culminates in the works of Johan Sebastian Bach.
Bach was a composer of the Baroque era. He is known for great compositions such as “The Brandenburg Concertos”, the “Matthaus Passion”, the “Mass in B minor”. Bach’s compositions include hundreds of Cantatas, both sacred and secular. He composed Latin church music, Passions, Oratorios, and Motets. He often adopted Lutheran hymns, not only in his larger vocal works, but for instance also in his four-part chorales and his sacred songs.
He was organ master and harpsichordist and for these instruments he composed many pieces, preferring the form of Prelude, or Toccata, and Fuga.
To better understand the evolution of Bach’s musical style, it is important to know the course of his life.
J. S. Bach Biography
Johann Sebastian Bach was born on 14/03/1685 in Eisenach in a family of musicians, remained orphan at 10 years of age he was educated by his older brother who gave him organ and harpsichord lessons.
In 1700 he moved to Luneburg, where he joined the choir of the Michaeliskirche (Church of San Michele) as a soprano.
After being a violinist for the Saxe-Weimar court for a short time, in 1703 he became titular organist of St. Boniface in Arnstadt and, in a short time, he became famous.
After settling in Weimar where he composed a large number of pieces for organ and cantatas, he himself achieved great success as an organist with the concerts he held from 1713 to 1717 in Dresden, Halle, Leipzig and in other centers.
In 1717 he assumed the post of chapel master at the reformed court of Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cothen in Kothen, with the task of composing Cantatas for occasion and concert music.
In 1723 he moved to Leipzig and accepted Kantor’s place in the church of S. Thomas, he composed a large number of Sacred Cantatas and the famous great Passions, returning to instrumental music only around 1726.
From 1729 to 1740 Bach was director of the “Collegium Musicum Universitario” for which he continued his work as a composer of music for harpsichords and various instrumental music.
In 1747 King Frederick II of Prussia invited him to Potsdam, reserving him great honors admiring his masterful improvisations.
Towards 1749 the composer’s health began to decline, his eyesight faded more and more and, having gone blind, he dictated his last, immense (unfortunately unfinished) composition, “Die Kunst der Fuge”.
Johann Sebastian Bach died in Leipzig on 28 July 1750 and his music (published in 59 volumes) was rediscovered only in 1829, thanks to a public performance by Mendelssohn of the “Matthäus Passion”.
Bach musical style
We can divide the formation and production of Bach into three periods.
The first Bach, influence of Italian music
He began by studying and copying almost all the works of the most important Italian, French and German musicians. Among the Italians we mention G. Frescobaldi of which he fully copied “I Fiori Musicali”), A. Corelli and mainly A. Vivaldi.
His fervor in learning from others and improving is born from his inclination for a scrupulous craftsmanship present in all its melodies, composed with great consistency over a very complex polyphonic fabric.
Bach was a musician who bent to his personal style all the music of the late Baroque currents. Unlike his contemporaries, he prefers not to abandon the Counterpoint. Influenced by that of the Flemish school, it leads the elaboration to an interaction of abstract and instrumental lines that moderns call “Harmonic Counterpoint“.
He found his identity by transcribing Vivaldi‘s concerts for violin and orchestra, adapting them to the organ or harpsichord, following in that way his inclination for keyboards.
Bach studied the melodic and harmonic principles underlying the Italian themes. In its early compositions we recognize many traits of those of Corelli. In these works, although very evolved in the use of counterpoint, still it lacks harmonic clarity and melodic balance. To remedy this deficiency, he elaborated them independently obtaining a valuable result in the Fugues on themes from Corelli, Albinoni, Vivaldi and others. These compositions, despite being imitations, rose to the rank of autonomous compositions thanks to their complexity.
Bach’s creativity in the face of Italian music is clearly manifested in the incisiveness of the themes and in the lucidity of the form and the richness of the ideas. To better understand the evolution from the first Bach to his maturity, just examine the “Prelude and Fugue in C major” BWV 846 and the “Fantasy and Fugue in C minor” BWV 537.
The second period and the fusion of Italian and German style.
In the organ works of the second period, the Italian concert style and the German polyphonic style are inseparable. In the “Fantasy and Fugue in G minor” BWV 542 Bach brings to perfection the alternation of the “solo” with the mighty chords of the “tutti” typical of the Concerto Italiano.
In the composition of Cantatas, Bach reached his first maturity in the Weimar period. Fully aware of the centuries-old roots of the cantata, he did not hesitate to expand the traditional forms of “Concertato da Chiesa” with the formal innovations of the Cantata and the Opera.
The third period and the integration between French and German music.
We can identify the third period when Bach was tutor in Köten. Bach integrated the influences of French music with the German tradition and abandoned what was initially pure mannerism, thus giving birth to his very personal musical style.
The compositions in which Bach ventured.
The “Didactical” music
The cycle of preludes and fugues for harpsichord, collected for educational purposes, is a journey through all the tonalities made possible by the advent of “Temperament” (an equalized tuning system of instruments). The two-volume collection takes the title of “The well-tempered Harpsichord” and includes pieces formed by “Prelude and Fugue” in each of the 24 major and minor keys.
Another important cycle of didactic pieces is given by the “Inventions” with two or three voices, realized on all the tones more easily playable by the students (up to 4 alterations in key). These are compositions that use the “Stile fugato” in which the writing of the voices reveals all of Bach’s ability.
Bach also composes suites for keyboard and for orchestra, abandoning the close link with dance while maintaining its rhythmic patterns. The non-authentic denomination of “English Suites” and “French Suites” is misleading as both styles are mixed with the Italian style.
In chamber compositions, Bach, not satisfied with the simple use of the harpsichord as an accompanying instrument (Basso continuo), introduces the “Cembalo Obbligato” in which the musical part was entirely written and was in concerted style, meaning that he had the same relevance of the solo instrument.
He also composed solo music writing suites for Violin, Violoncello and Lute without Basso Continuo.
The orchestral compositions reveal how Bach had masterfully learned and interpreted the Italian style of both the Soloist Concerto and the “Concerto Grosso“. This style, however, is partially obscured by the use of counterpoint and complex musical formulas such as the use of thematic contrasts between slow and fast times. In this regard, we mention the “Brandenburg Concertos” in which homophony with “Basso Continuo” and counterpoint polyphony blend beautifully.
The Sacred Cantatas
The sacred cantatas have great importance, if we analyze for example, as a mature style, “Jesu der du meine seele” composed around 1740, we can see how Bach, using a “Ciaccona” bass and a “Corale” in a double choir, although these are not his originals themes, he managed to unite them with great skill, making them think that they are composed as “subject” and “counter-object”.
It is not easy to determine which task he did best, whether in the plasticity of the music, in the intensely dramatic “recitatives”, or in the impetuous style of the “Concerto” or in the richness of the harmonic and melodic material.
He also dedicated himself to the composition of Cantatas in which he expressed a vocal virtuosity favoring the profane forms. An example for all is the cantata “Ich will den kreuzstab gerne tragen” written for bass and a small instrumental group.
In the Mottetto “Jesu Meine Freude” the verses of the Choral alternate symmetrically with texts taken from the Epistles, with the aim of communicating the idea of the contrast between body and soul and reaching the climax with a Fugue placed at the center of the composition.
The culmination of Bach’s compositional ability, with regard to choral music, reached him with four monumental works: the “Mathäus Passion”, the “Johannes Passion”, the “Magnificat” and the “Missa in B minor”.
In the first two the same choirs are used several times, harmonized, however, always in a different way and sometimes even superimposed on the arias, such as, for example, in Johannes Passion in the air for Basso “Mein Teurer Heiland”, where the two independent compositions form a set of stunning intensity, as only Bach could have achieved.
The Profane Music
Although Bach wrote mainly on sacred subjects, he also approached secular music with the “Profane Cantatas” also called “Drama for Music“.
In these compositions, counterpoint is used for an elegant pictorial representation of nature (Examples: la Kaffeekantate, Phoebus und Pan, der Zufriedegesstellte Aeolu, Hercules auf der Scheidewege).
The last period
Continuing along with Bach’s musical life, we can see how he approaches increasingly “modern” ways of writing, also adopting a virtuosic style in instrumental technique but also an ever greater compositional complexity.
The publication, in 1731, of the “Clavierübung” reveals a much more mature composer.
Divided into 4 sections it contains Partitas, Concertos in the Italian style, French Overture, the Bb Suite, the “Goldberg variations”, the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue in C minor and the second part of the “Well-tempered Harpsichord”.
A curious fact:
In 1705 he embarked on a journey on foot, which later became legendary (400 km), to go to Lübeck to listen to the famous organist D. Bextehude, whom he particularly admired for his compositions.
The absolutely personal character that distinguishes Bach‘s music is due to three main factors.
The first is the fusion of the national, Italian, French and German styles which he transforms into a single unit.
The second is the almost superhuman compositional ability that allows him to overcome the technical limits imposed by musical forms which, instead of limiting it, stimulate his creative imagination.
The third is the balance between polyphony and harmony. Bach lived in an era when the former was in decline in favor of the rise of the latter. The horizontal and vertical forces are in perfect balance.
While its melodies possess the maximum of linear energy, they are at the same time full of harmonic implications, the harmonies have the vertical power of the concatenation of chords while managing to be linear in all the voices that compose them.
When writing harmoniously, the parts proceed by independent melodies. When writing using polyphony the overlapping of the voices also follows the tonal harmony.
So, in conclusion, while in the first polyphonic writing there was the most complete independence between the musical voices in Bach’s they are intrinsically linked by harmonic rules, giving in their combination that complexity and grandeur that is the secret of his very personal style.