The (Awesome) Music of Bach: 5 Favorites

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Today we’re going to take a look at the music of Bach. If you don’t know who Bach is, be sure to check out the brief history video from last month!

We did a video of Bach’s music last year – Bach in the Movies. This one is a little different, because I’ve picked out what I consider the must-have, essential Bach pieces. Bach wrote over 1000 pieces, so this will inevitably be a biased representation. I’m also going to pick different selections from the ones I chose over on Bach in the Movies.

We’re also going to lean more heavily to the keyboard side of things, since this is, after all, a piano channel. I’m not going to ignore non-keyboard genres – however, I’m making a choice to stick a little closer to our main area of interest.

Music of Bach: Cantatas

A cantata is a rather large vocal work. Usually a choir sings them, with some instrumental accompaniment. Oftentimes, like in the case of Bach, they were written for Church service – but there are secular cantatas as well.

Bach wrote a ton of cantatas – nearly 200. This is an epic amount, given that the average cantata is around 25 minutes long. So I figured, for this list, we absolutely needed to address one of his cantatas, because they were such an important part of his output.

Sleeper’s Wake, BWV 140

Without a doubt, one of Bach’s most well-loved cantatas is his “Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme”, which means “Awake, calls the voice to us”, aka Sleeper’s Wake, BWV 140.

It’s a church cantata, and was first performed in 1731. It was written for three vocal soloists (soprano, tenor, and bass – poor alto got left out of the soloing), a four-part choir, and a Baroque instrumental ensemble. The whole thing, start to finish, is about 30 minutes.

Bach’s BWV 140 Cantata follows this structure:

 

  • Chorale fantasia
  • Recitative
  • Aria
  • Chorale
  • Recitative
  • Aria
  • Chorale

So basically, the beginning, middle and end are full-choir movements.

The text is basically talking about Jesus being the groom, the soul as his bride, and the passionate love that exists between the two. Let’s take a listen to the very joyous clip of the first movement, the Chorale fantasia.

If you want to get more into cantatas, here are some starting points:

Cantata ratings, and an entire website dedicated to the cantatas.

Music of Bach: The Brandenburg Concertos

Doing a list of Bach’s best music just felt wrong without including his very famous Brandenburg concertos. This is a collection of six concertos, written for Baroque orchestra, and are generally considered to be some of the best Baroque orchestra music that exists.

I want to take a look at the fifth concerto, since it heavily features the harpsichord, which was the piano precursor. It requires great virtuosity to perform, and scholars think that Bach would’ve played the harpsichord himself at the premiere of this work.

There is a long solo harpsichord cadenza in the first movement, which is possibly the earliest example of a solo keyboard part in a concerto, so it’s considered to be a precursor to the solo keyboard concerto.

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An analysis of the concerto can be found here.

Also, what’s so great about the Brandenburg concertos?

Music of Bach: Organ

Bach was a great organist, so naturally he wrote a bunch of great organ pieces. By far the most famous is his Toccata and Fugue in D minor, which you’d probably recognize as a Halloween tune, but we already covered that one in Bach in the Movies.

There’s another famous organ work that is just as intense – his Passacaglia in C minor, BWV 582. It was composed in the early years of Bach’s career, somewhere between 1706-1713. The passacaglia is written with a theme, followed by 20 variations on that theme, and then a fugue follows.

Robert Schumann described the variations as,

“intertwined so ingeniously that one can never cease to be amazed.”

Music of Bach: Cello Suites

Bach’s cello suites, written for solo cello, are extremely difficult. But, as we talked about in Bach in the Movies, extremely familiar (particularly Suite no. 1 in G major). They were probably composed between 1717-1723, and are considered to be among the most profound of all classical music works.

Surprisingly, despite how well-loved these suites are now, they were basically unknown until a gifted cellist named Pablo Casals decided to learn them at age 13, when he found the music at a thrift shop. He was the first to record all six suites in 1939, they became very popular, and the rest is history.

I wanted to take a look at another cello suite – one that isn’t quite so saturated in pop culture, that I thought you guys might enjoy.

We’re going to look at his fifth cello suite, particularly the Sarabande. This Sarabande was played by Yo-Yo Ma on the first anniversary of the September 11th attack at the World Trade Centre, while the first names of the dead were read.

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This is a very tragic, very sparse movement – it’s one of the few movements that just involves one melody line (other movements involve more notes and more parts). I just love how a few well-chosen notes can say so much – Bach knew when to hold back.

Music of Bach: Keyboard solo

And finally, we have to talk about his harpsichord works, since they’re awesome, and are often played on pianos (since harpsichords are more or less obsolete).

The Goldberg variations

The Goldberg Variations, up there with Bach’s most famous keyboard works, are definitely worth mentioning. In fact, I recently did an entire video to this large work, so if you missed that and are itching for more Bach, definitely check it out!

Chromatic fantasia and fugue

Instead, I thought we’d talk about one of my other favorite virtuosic keyboard pieces by Bach – his Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue. First of all, it sounds SO GOOD on the piano, which is what we’re going to listen to in a moment. Second of all, it’s really interesting and experimental.

Fantasias were improvised pieces, which makes it even more impressive – and this one in particular is wide open to dramatic, expressive playing. Felix Mendelssohn, Franz Liszt and Johannes Brahms are some of the famous composers who performed it, when Bach was going through a revival in the Romantic era. They used this piece to show off their piano chops.

This Fantasia and Fugue was written between 1717-1723. Let’s listen to a little bit of the intro, since the music speaks for itself. I highly encourage you to check out the full version of this piece, as with all the others!

Conclusion

I hope you enjoyed this tour of Bach’s works! If you enjoyed this video, be sure to check out some of the music we’ve featured from other composers, such as Chopin and Haydn!

xo,
Allysia

Credits:

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1. cantata 140. 1. chorus, performed by: MIT Concert Choir (Cutter)

2. The Al Goldstein collection in the Pandora Music repository at ibiblio.org in the chamber orchestra section.

Advent Chamber Orchestra with Roxana Pavel Goldstein (violin), Constance Schoepflin(flute), and Matthew Ganong (harpsichord).

3. Passacaglia: Accessed at imslp

Performer: Peter van der Zwaag (Organ)

Misc. Notes: Played live at a MIDI console using the virtual pipe organ software Hauptwerk and the sampleset Krzeszów.

4. Cello suite no. 5, accessed at imslp

Performer: Colin Carr, cello

Publisher Info. Boston: Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

5. Chromatic Fantaisie, accessed at imslp

Performer: Stefano Ligoratti (Piano)

Publisher Info.  Milan: Stefano Ligoratti

Allysia has been teaching piano in Canada for nearly a decade, and has her Grade 10 RCM certificate. She especially enjoys nerding out to music history and theory. When she’s not making videos or teaching, she’s reading, writing, and jamming in a rock band.