Bach Pioneers Modern Music

Bach pioneered modern music, creating a vast library of compositions for keyboard and stringed instruments and ushering in technical innovations that would influence later generations of musicians and composers.

Summary of Event

Johann Sebastian Bach lived and died almost unnoticed, but he has since come to represent a milestone in the history of Western music. Regarded as antiquated even during his lifetime, he was called “Old Bach” or “Papa Bach” by his enormous family, his patrons, his few musical acquaintances, and his ever-critical employers. His innovative genius has proven to be among the greatest in musical history. [kw]Bach Pioneers Modern Music (c. 1701-1750)
[kw]Music, Bach Pioneers Modern (c. 1701-1750)
[kw]Pioneers Modern Music, Bach (c. 1701-1750)
Classical music
[g]Germany;c. 1701-1750: Bach Pioneers Modern Music[0060]
[c]Music;c. 1701-1750: Bach Pioneers Modern Music[0060]
Bach, Johann Sebastian

Many basic factors in modern music were initiated or actually invented by Bach. Examples include the use of the tempered scale and his introduction of a much-needed new keyboard technique, which has now become standard. Bach composed a great many of the definitive foundation works, not only for keyboard but also for violin and cello. Chronologically, he can be said to mark the end of the prolific and variegated Baroque era, Baroque;music
Music;Baroque which extended roughly from 1600 to the year of his death, 1750.

In the view of most early music historians, Bach saw himself primarily as a church musician and teacher. He looked upon composing and performing on the organ as nothing more than part of his working routine. According to such historians, no thought of musical immortality or even of enjoying personal acclaim ever entered his mind; he thought of himself as simply a humble servant of God, expressing his faith through his work—music.

Later music critics and historians have argued with this view of Bach, however. They have pointed to his Coffee and Peasant cantatas, written for the clientele of Zimmermann’s Coffee House in Leipzig, and his semioperatic Phoebus and Pan, for the same audience, as evidence of Bach’s secular pursuits. These later reviewers hold that a view of Bach as a strictly religious man is incomplete and misleading, since much of his livelihood apparently derived from his composition of secular music.

Whatever Bach’s focus, his output was tremendous. Each work was usually performed soon after he wrote it, on the specific occasion for which it was composed. This fact explains the importance and prolificacy of the cantatas, Cantatas each one a substantial work involving many performers both vocal and instrumental. Solos, duets, recitatives, choruses, and instrumental accompaniments all formed a part of Bach’s oeuvre. Almost all were written for church use. To be found among these alone are five complete yearly sets, each set including one piece for each Sunday plus those for special days, for a total of 295 original compositions.

The colossal Mass in B Minor Mass in B Minor (Bach) (not a Catholic mass) and the two passions, the St. Matthew Passion and the St. John Passion, were only 3 of several monumental works, together with 3 oratorios (Ascension, Christmas, and Easter), 6 motets, 1 magnificat, nearly 200 cantatas, 143 chorale Choral music preludes for organ, Organ music and numerous other works. Bach’s position as cantor made it necessary for him to write instrumental music for teaching, as none existed at the time. The rest of his instrumental work, which is not confined to the church, needs a catalog for itself alone. The keyboard music includes such monuments as the Goldberg Variations and the two volumes of preludes and fugues making up The Well-Tempered Clavier. The partitas, concertos, suites, many miscellaneous works, and about three hundred compositions for solo organ, some of them in substantial multiple forms, swell the list. Evidently, there was much more material than this, but it has been lost. It is known, for instance, that Bach’s death left his wife and younger children nearly destitute. Many of his compositions were sold to provide basic necessities.

Begun in 1748—two years before he died, arguably crowning his body of work, and left unfinished—is Art of the Fugue, The (Bach)
The Art of the Fugue. Every kind of fugue Fugues imaginable can be found in this work, all consummate in their mastery. Many of them are built on the letters of his own name, and there is not a measure that does not bear the imprint of that name. Bach left no clear indication as to the medium for performance of the fugues, although the harpsichord seems to be the most satisfactory one. They are sometimes performed on the organ or by a string quartet, as well as being arranged for four hands at the keyboard or even for an orchestra. The work was published in its unfinished state in 1751.

It should be pointed out that Bach was never dry or dull. His credo of composition demanded that every strand of sound have its indispensable part in the whole structure, intellectually and emotionally. This fundamental principle is evident in all his works.

At a time in history when the average life expectancy was thirty years, Bach died at the age of sixty-five, leaving behind Anna Magdalena Bach, the second of his two wives. By these wives, he had a total of either twenty or twenty-one children—sources disagree on the number—of whom ten survived to adulthood. Whether an overflow of his genius or his mastery of teaching was responsible, at least three of his sons, Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, Bach, Wilhelm Friedemann Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, Bach, Carl Philipp Emanuel and Johann Christian Bach, Bach, Johann Christian became well-known composers and performers in their own right. Here the resemblance ends. Bach’s sons never really understood their father and tended to be patronizing toward him and his music, which they considered old-fashioned. This opinion was shared by their contemporaries as well, and as a result the voice of Johann Sebastian Bach was silenced publicly for about one hundred years.


From a historical standpoint, it would be difficult to overstate the influence of Bach on modern music. For example, one spring morning in 1789, a young man in his early thirties visited the celebrated choir school at St. Thomas’s Church in Leipzig. The choir started a Bach motet, one of many unpublished works in existence only at this church in the form of the composer’s own separate voice parts. Immediately, the visitor jumped up and asked excitedly, “What is that?” He later added, “This is indeed something from which we can learn.”

The visitor called for all the voice parts available and, laying them out all around him, managed somehow to piece the music together in his mind while others present drew back respectfully. This respect was well placed, for the man so engrossed in those dusty old voice parts was Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and when he left that day he carried with him a small piece of that manuscript as a treasured possession. He also carried much more: striking new insights into musical composition, Music;composition resulting at last in his own sublime use of complex contrapuntal textures inspired by Bach’s trailblazing techniques.

When only eleven years old, Beethoven, Ludwig van Ludwig van Beethoven had recognized the essential value of Bach and had already mastered The Well-Tempered Clavier, a set of compositions that intrigued him all his life. Beethoven’s late works, especially the quartets, bear the unmistakable Bach trademark. Franz Liszt, Joseph Haydn, Felix Mendelssohn, Robert Schumann, Johannes Brahms, and to a lesser degree Richard Wagner all came under the influence of the great master who failed to recognize his own worth and whose basic contribution to music was so poorly regarded by his contemporaries that almost a century was to pass before the full measure of his genius would begin to enrich the world. In addition to being a musician’s musician and a composer’s composer, Bach influenced such diverse musical forms as jazz, folk, rock, synthesizer, and other electronic music.

Further Reading

  • Forkel, Johann N. Über J. S. Bachs Leb, Kunst und Kunstwerke. Translated by C. S. Terry. Reprinted in The Bach Reader: A Life of Johann Sebastian Bach in Letters and Documents, edited by Hans T. David and Arthur Mendel. Rev. ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 1966. The only firsthand account of Bach’s life and work, with information provided from his sole appreciative son, Carl Philipp Emanuel.
  • Hindemith, Paul. J. S. Bach: Heritage and Obligation. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1952. An important evaluation by a leading twentieth century composer.
  • Kupferberg, Herbert. Basically Bach: A Three Hundredth Birthday Celebration. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1985. Written by a well-regarded music critic, this work is an informative, well-researched, but decidedly lighthearted collection of anecdotal information about Bach, his music, and his place in music history.
  • Marshall, Robert L. The Music of Johann Sebastian Bach: The Sources, the Style, the Significance. New York: Schirmer Books, 1989. An essay collection, with subjects ranging from Bach’s life to his impact on modern music, by Marshall, author of a definitive two-volume work on Bach.
  • Schweitzer, Albert. J. S. Bach. Rev. ed. Translated by Ernest Newman. London: A. & C. Black, 1952. A highly acclaimed biography written by the famous Bach specialist and organist.
  • Terry, Charles Sanford. Bach: A Biography. 2d ed. London: Oxford University Press, 1933. One of the oldest “modern” biographies of Bach. Terry, one of the best-known musical scholars and translators of his day, provides a scholarly account that explores different aspects of Bach’s personality and music. Illustrated with seventy-six photographs of places associated with Bach’s life.
  • Williams, Peter. The Life of Bach. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004. An examination of Bach the man and the composer. Williams questions whether centuries of acclaim for Bach’s music have made it impossible to evaluate the composer’s work objectively.
  • Wolff, Christoph. Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician. New York: W. W. Norton, 2000. Biography by a noted Bach scholar focusing on Bach’s performing and composing. Wolff analyzes Bach’s innovations in harmony and counterpoint within the context of European musical and social history.

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