Portrait of JS Bach

An introduction to:

Johann Sebastian Bach

His History, Music, & his Famous Sons.


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Johann Sebastian Bach

His musical style.

J. S. Bach's seal Bach's seal contains the letters
J S B superimposed over their
mirror image topped with a crown.

Bach's musical style arose from his extraordinary fluency in contrapuntal invention and motivic control, his flair for improvisation at the keyboard, his exposure to South German, North German, Italian and French music, and his apparent devotion to the Lutheran liturgy. His access to musicians, scores and instruments as a child and a young man, combined with his emerging talent for writing tightly woven music of powerful sonority, appear to have set him on course to develop an eclectic, energetic musical style in which foreign influences were injected into an intensified version of the pre-existing German musical language. Throughout his teens and 20s, his output showed increasing skill in the large-scale organisation of musical ideas. The period 1713–14, when a large repertoire of Italian music became available to the Weimar court orchestra, was a turning point.

Although practices' varied considerably between the schools of European music, Bach was regarded in his time as being on one extreme end of the spectrum, notating most or all of the details of his melodic lines - particularly in his fast movements - thus leaving little for performers to interpolate. This may have assisted his control over the dense contrapuntal textures that he favoured, which allow less leeway for the spontaneous variation of musical lines. Bach's harmony is marked by a tendency to employ brief tonicisation - subtle references to another key that lasts for only a few beats at the longest - particularly of the supertonic, to add colour to his textures.

At the same time, Bach, unlike later composers, left the instrumentation of major works including The Art of Fugue and The Musical Offering open. It is likely that his detailed notation was less an absolute demand on the performer and more a response to a 17th-century culture in which the boundary between what the performer could embellish and what the composer demanded to be authentic was being negotiated.

Related to his cherished role as teacher was his drive to encompass whole genres by producing collections of movements that thoroughly explore the range of artistic and technical possibilities inherent in those genres. The most famous examples are the two books of the Well Tempered Clavier, each of which presents a prelude and fugue in every major and minor key, in which a variety of contrapuntal and fugal techniques are displayed. This urge to manifest structures is evident throughout his life: the Goldberg Variations include a sequence of canons at increasing intervals and The Art of Fugue can be seen as a compendium of fugal techniques.

The final work Bach completed was a chorale prelude for organ, dictated to his son-in-law, Johann Altnikol, from his deathbed. Entitled Vor deinen Thron tret ich hiermit (Before thy throne I now appear), when the notes on the three staves of the final cadence are counted and mapped onto the Roman alphabet, the initials "JSB" are found. The chorale is often played after the unfinished 14th fugue to conclude performances of The Art of Fugue.

JS Bach signature

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I want to thank all of the many authors of the content that has gone into these webpages, without their efforts this site would not have been possible. It is important to me to give praise and acknowledgment, and to provide attribution and referral for their works and efforts in creating the content that is replicated in this website. Thanks to:
Jan Koster, Professor of Linguistics, University of Groningen, The Netherlands. (Email)
Jan Hanford, Fine Artist and Musician, San Francisco, California. (Email)
Tim Smith, Professor of Music Studies, Northern Arizona University. (Email)
Xinh Lee, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, California. (Email)
And many thanks to all of the contributing authors at the Wikipedia website; Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, Wikipedia® is a registered trademark of the Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., a non-profit organization. (Email)

 

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