Johann Sebastian Bach

JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH, the most eminent of the world’s organ-players and contrapuntists, was born at Eisenach, March 21, 1685, and was the most illustrious member of a long line of musicians, the Bach family having been famous almost from time immemorial for its skill in music. He first studied the piano with his brother, Johann Christoph, and the organ with Reinecke in Hamburg, and Buxtehude in Lubeck. In 1703 he was court musician in Weimar, and afterwards was engaged as organist in Arnstadt and Mühlhausen. In 1708 he was court organist, and in 1714 concert-master in Weimar. In 1718 he was chapel-master to the Prince von Köthen, and in 1723 was appointed music-director and cantor at the St. Thomas School in Leipsic, — a position which he held during the remainder of his life. He has left for the admiration of posterity an almost endless list of vocal and instrumental works, including chorales, motets, magnificats, masses, fugues, and fantasies, especially for organ and piano, the ” Christmas Oratorio,” and several settings of the passion, of which the most famous are the “St. John ” and ” St. Matthew,” the latter of which Mendelssohn introduced to the world in 1829, after. it had slumbered an entire century. His most famous instrumental work is the “Well-tempered Clavichord,” — a collection of forty-eight fugues and preludes, which was written for his second wife, Anna Magdalena Bach, to whom also he dedicated a large number of piano pieces and songs. His first wife was his cousin, Maria Barbara Bach, the youngest daughter of Johann Michael Bach, a composer of no common ability. By these two wives he had twenty-one children, of whom the most celebrated were Carl Phillipp Emanuel, born in 1714, known as the “Berlin Bach;” Johann Christoph Friedrich, born in 1732, the “‘Riche-burger Bach; and Johann Christian, born 1735, who became famous as the ” London Bach.” Large as the family was, it is now extinct. Bach was industrious, simple, honest, and God-fearing, like all his family. He was an incessant and laborious writer from necessity, as his compensation was hardly sufficient to maintain his large family, and nearly all his music was prepared for the service of the church by contract. The prominent characteristics of his work are profound knowledge, the clearest statements of form, strength of logical sequences, imposing breadth, and deep religious sentiment. He was a favorite of Frederick the Great, who upon one occasion made all his courtiers stand on one side and do homage to the illustreus composer. ” There is but one Bach,” said the monarch. With all Bach’s amiable qualities, it is said that he had a hasty temper. While playing one day, Görner, the organist at St. Thomas, struck a false chord; whereupon Bach flew at him in a passion, tore off his wig and threw it at him, ex-claiming : “You ought to have been a cobbler, instead of an organist!” Notwithstanding this infirmity of temper, he was a deeply religious man, and inscribed upon every one of his principal compositions “S. D. G.,” “to the glory of God alone.” He died July 28,1750, and was buried at Leipsic ; but no cross or stone marks the spot where he lies. His last composition was the beautiful chorale, “Wenn wir in höchsten Nöthen sein,” freely translated, “When my last hour is close at hand,” as it was written in his last illness. The only record of his death is contained in the official register: “A man, aged 67, M. Johann Sebastian Bach, musical director and singing-master at the St. Thomas School, was carried to his grave in the hearse, July 30, 1750.”


The “Christmas Oratorio” was written by Bach in 1734, the subject being taken from texts in Luke and Matthew pertaining to the nativity. It is not, as its name would suggest, a work to be performed at a single hearing, but a composition divided into six parts of divine service, arranged for the three days of Christmas,. New Year’s Day, New Year’s Sunday, and the Epiphany, each part being a complete cantata for each day, and all linked together by chorales which give it a unity of subject and design. Like Wagner’s “Ring der Nibelungen,” it was given in instalments, each part separate and complete in itself, and yet combining to illustrate a given subject in its entirety. It is not an oratorio in the modern sense ; but the justification of its appellation as such is to be found in Bach’s own title, “Oratorium Tempore Navitatis Christi.”

As the entire six parts are very rarely given, a general review of their character will better suit the reader’s purpose than a detailed review of each. When it has been performed in this country, only the first two parts have been given while in England, though it has been presented entire, the performance is usually confined to the first three, which contain a complete story. The entire vocal score embraces no less than sixty-four numbers, — which in itself constitutes a sufficient reason for abridgment. In the first three parts the connecting narratives, recited by the evangelist, are assigned to tenor and bass, and declare the events associated with the birth of our Lord, – the journey to Bethlehem, the birth in the manger, the joy of Mary, and the thanks-giving over the advent of the Lord, — the choral parts being sung by the shepherds. The fourth part, that for New Year’s Day, relates the naming of Jesus, and follows his career in a grand expression of faith and hope. The fifth part illustrates the visit of the three kings, the anxiety of Herod when he hears of the advent of the Lord, and the assurances given him to allay his fears. In the sixth section the visitors depart to frustrate Herod’s designs, and choruses of rejoicing over the final triumph of the Lord close the work. In his voluminous life of Bach, Spitta makes an exhaustive analysis of the various parts, an abridgment of which will be of interest in this connection.

The only variation from the particular character of each section is to be found in the introduction of the first chorale in Part I. at the close of Part VI., in the form of a brilliant choral fantasia.

“In the first three the Christmas feeling prevails most vividly this is effected in great measure by the chorales which are interspersed in far greater numbers than in the last three, and. which are almost all familiar Christmas hymns. Most of them are simply set in four parts, with highly ingenious applications of the church modes.”

The first and second parts close with chorales, but in the third the opening chorus is repeated at the close.

“Part IV. has least of the character of church festival music. The Biblical matter consists of a single verse from the Gospel of Saint Luke, ii. 21, which relates the circumcision and naming of Jesus. Not much material could be worked out of this, and Bach has almost entirely set aside all adjuncts from the liturgy. No Christmas hymn, indeed no true chorale, is introduced in it. . This section, therefore, bears more strongly the stamp merely of a religious composition; it is full of grace and sweetness, and can only have derived its full significance for congregational use from its position in context with the rest of the work.”

Parts V. and VI., devoted to the history of the three kings, are in no respect inferior to the first three.

” The lyrical choruses are full of artistic beauty and swing. The cantata character is more conspicuous here than in the first three sections, and the specially Christmas feeling resides more in the general tone of the music than in the chorales.”

Bitter, in his life of Bach, gives the following interesting sketch of the origin of some of the numbers contained in the work ; — ” In some parts of this music Bach borrowed from former compositions of his own, especially from a Drama per Musica,’ dedicated to the Queen of Po-land, and a drama entitled `The Choice of Hercules,’ composed in 1733 for a Saxon prince. The old hymn-tune, ` O Haupt voll Blut and Wunden,’ composed A. D. 1600 (by Hans Geo. Hassler to a secular tune), and used by Bach five times to different words in the ‘ Matthäus-Passion,’ is again used in this oratorio to the words of Paul Gerhard’s Advent hymn, ‘ Wie soil ich dich empfangen,’ and to the hymn of triumph, ‘Nun seid ihr wohl gerochen,’ at the end of the last part. As this tune was familiar to the bearers in connection with a hymn for Passion Week, its adaptation to Advent and Christmas hymns seems intended to ex-press a presentiment at the time of Christ’s birth of his future sufferings. The same tune is now used in the German Church to a number of different hymns, especially to ‘ Herzlich thut mich verlangen’ and ‘Befiehl du deine Wege,’and is in, some tune-books called by one or other of these names. ‘ Befiehl du deine Wege’ is one of the hymns to which Bach has set it in the ‘Matthaus Passion’ In the first part of the oratorio we find two verses of Luther’s Christ-mas hymn, ‘ Gelobet seist du Jesu Christ;’ first, the verse beginning ‘ Er ist auf Erden kommen arm,’ to the tune Luther composed for it, and the verse ‘ Ach, mein herzliebes Jesulein,’ to the tune (also of Luther’s composition), ‘Von Himmel hoch da komm ich her.’ This last-mentioned tune is also used twice in the second part, to the words ‘ Schaut hin, dort liegt un finstern Stalle,’ and ‘ Wir singen dir in deinem Heer,’ arranged differently each time. The chorales, Jesus, richte mein Beginnen,’ in the fourth part, and ‘ Dein Glanz all Finsterniss verzehrt,’ in the fifth part, are probably Bach’s own compositions.”

The first two parts of the work are the only ones which need special notice for the purposes of the oratorio-goer. The first part opens with a brilliant prelude, introduced by the drum, which Bach, like Beethoven, sometimes treated as a solo instrument. It preludes the narrative bidding Zion prepare to meet her Lord, a simple, touching melody, followed by the chorale,” How shall 1 fitly meet Thee and give Thee welcome due,” set to the old passion-hymn, ” O Haupt, voll Blut und 1 solemn and even mournful melody appears incongruous in the midst of tion. It is the same melody which uses in different harmonic forms it thew Passion.” It is introduced h, of the Christmas festivity for a special purpose.

Bitter gives it the following significa:—

“We see the Angel of Death urn bend over the cradle of the Lord, sorrows. The Child hears the song sung to other words, will be his death-song.

The second part opens with on, delightful instances of Bach’s arche tora symphony, with which the Thomas orchestra have made audiences familiar in this country. Like the symphony of the same style in Handel’s “,Messiah,” it is simple, graceful, and idyllic in character, and pictures the shepherds watching their flocks by night on the plains of Bethlehem. At its conclusion the evangelist resumes his narrative, followed by the chorale: ” Break forth, O beauteous, heavenly Light,” preluding the announcement of the angel, ” Behold, I bring you Good Tidings.” It is followed by the bass recitative, “What God to Abraham revealed, He to the Shepherds doth accord to see fulfilled,” and a brilliant aria for tenor, ” Haste, ye ‘Shepherds, haste to meet Him.” The evangelist gives them the sign, followed by the chorale which closed the first part, in another form, ” Within yon Gloomy Manger lies.” The bass recitative, ” O haste ye then,” preludes the exquisite cradle-song for alto,” Sleep, my Beloved, and take Thy Repose,” —a number which can hardly be excelled in the sweetness and purity of its melody or in the exquisiteness of its instrumentation. This lovely song brings us to the close, which is an exultant shout from the multitude of the heavenly host, singing, “Glory to God in the highest.”


The passion-music of Bach’s time, as we have already seen, was the complement of the mysteries of Mediaeval days. It portrays the sufferings of Christ, and was performed at church festivals, the congregation taking part in the singing of the chorales, which were mostly familiar religious folk-songs. It was a revival of the sacred drama in musical form, and the immediate precursor of the modern oratorio. Bach wrote five passions, — the “St. John,” probably written in 1723, and first per-formed in the following year ; another, which has been lost, in 1725; the “St. Matthew,” in 1729 the ” St. Mark,” in 1731 ; and the “St. Luke,” in 1734. Of these only two are now known, — the ” St. John?’ and ° St. Matthew ; ” of which the latter is incomparably the greatest.

Macfarren, in his sketch of the ” Matthew Passion,” says that the idea of this form of composition was first suggested to Bach by Solomon Deyling, who filled an important church position in Leipsic when the composer went there to assume his duties as cantor of the St. Thomas School, his purpose being to introduce into the Reformed Church a service which should be a counter attraction to the Mass as performed in the Roman Church. It was produced for the first time at the afternoon service on Good Friday, 1729, but was not heard again until the young Mendelssohn revived it in Berlin, March 12, 1829. It was frequently repeated in Germany and aroused extraordinary enthusiasm, and still keeps its place in the festival oratorio repertory, the necessary additional accompaniments having been furnished by Robert Franz.

The passion is written in two parts, between which the sermon intervened in old times. It includes portions of chapters xxvi. and xxvii. of the Gospel according to Saint Matthew, the remainder of the text being composed of hymns furnished to Bach by Christian Friedrich Henrici, who wrote under the pseudonym of ” Picander,” and, it is said, was assisted in the compilation by the composer himself. The dramatis personee are Jesus, Judas, Peter, Pilate, the Apostles, and the People, or Turbae, and the narrative is interpreted by reflections addressed to Jesus, forming two choruses, ” The Daughter of Zion” and ” The Faithful,” as Picander calls them. They are sometimes given by the chorus, and sometimes by single voices. The chorales are selected from those which were in common use in the Lutheran Church, and were familiar therefore to the congregations which sang the melody, the harmony being sustained by the chorus and instruments. The Gospel text is in recitative form throughout, the part of the evangelist, or narrator, being assigned to a tenor voice, while those of the persons incidentally introduced are given to other singers. In the dialogue, wherever the words of Jesus occur, the accompaniment is furnished by a string quartette, which serves to distinguish them from the others, and invests them with a peculiar gentleness and grace. The incidental choruses, sung by the People and the Apostles, are short and vivacious in character, many of them being in madrigal form. The chorales, fifteen sorrowful strains of the first. Interwoven with these is an independent instrumental melody, the whole crowned with a magnificent chorale sung by the sopranos, ” O Lamb of God all blameless !” followed by still another, ” Say, sweetest Jesus,” which reappears in other parts of the work variously harmonized. The double chorus and chorales form the introduction, and are followed by recitative and a chorale, ” Thou dear Redeemer,” and a pathetic aria for contralto, “Grief and Pain,” relating the incident of the woman anointing the feet of Jesus.

The next number is an aria for soprano, “Only bleed, Thou dearest Heart,” which follows the acceptance by Judas of the thirty pieces of silver; and which serves to intensify the grief in the aria preceding it. The scene of the Last Supper ensues, and to this number Bach has given a character of sweetness and gentleness, though its coloring is sad. As the disciples ask, “Lord, is it I ? ” another chorale is sung, “‘IT is I ! my Sins betray me.”

Recitative of very impressive character, conveying the divine injunctions, leads up to a graceful and tender aria for soprano, “Never will my Heart refuse Thee,” one of the simplest and clearest, and yet one of the richest and most expressive, melodies ever conceived. After further recitative and the chorale, “I will stay here beside Thee, we are introduced to the scene in the Garden of Gethsemane, which is characterized by a number of extraordinary beauty and strength in its construction. It is introduced by a short instrumental prelude, Zion, represented by the tenor voice, and the Believers by the chorus, coming in after a few bars and alternating with extraordinary vocal effect. It calls for the highest dramatic power, and in its musical development is a web of wonderful harmonies such as we may look for only in the works of the mighty master of counterpoint. It fitly prepares the way for the two great movements which close the first part, an aria for soprano and alto, ” Alas l my Jesus now is taken,” and a doable chorus, “Ye Lightnings, ye Thunders 1 ” The two solo voices join in a lament of a most touching nature, accompanied by the chorus exclaiming in short, hurried phrases, ” Let Him go ! Hold ! Bind Him not ! ” until at last the double chorus bursts in like a tempest, accompanied with the full power of the instruments, expressing the world’s indignation at the deed which is to be committed, in the words

“Ye lightnings, ye thunders, in clouds are ye ished ! Burst open, O fierce flaming caverns of hell ! Ingulf them, destroy them in wrathfullest mood! Oh, blast the betrayer, the murderous brood ! ”

and the first part concludes, with a chorale, “0 Man, bewail thy great Sin !”

The second part, originally sung after the sermon, opens with an aria for contralto, full of the deepest feeling, “Alas! now is my Jesus gone, and one of the most beautiful numbers in the oratorio, wherein Zion, or the Church, mourns her great loss. The trial scene before Caiaphas and the threefold denial of Peter follow, leading up to the beautiful aria for alto, with violin obligato, ” Oh, pardon me, my God ! ” Madmen, in his admirable analysis, says of this aria, —

” The deep, deep grief of a tormented conscience finds here an utterance which fulfils the purport and far transcends the expression of the words. One might suppose the power of the artist to have been concentrated upon this one incident, so infinite is its beauty,— one might suppose Bach to have regarded the situation it illustrates as more significant than others of man’s relation to Deity in his sense of sin and need for mercy, and as requiring, therefore, peculiar prominence in the total impression the oratorio should convey. If this was his aim, it is all accomplished. The penitential feeling embodied in the song is that which will longest linger in a remembrance-of the work. The soft tone of the contralto voice, and the keenness of that of the violin, are accessories to the effect which the master well knew how to handle ; but these judicious means are little to be considered in comparison with the musical idea of which they are the adjuncts.”

The work now rapidly progresses to its beautiful finale. The soprano recitative in response to Pi late’s question, “He hath done only good to all,” the aria -for soprano, “From love unbounded,” the powerful contralto recitative, ” Look down, O God,” the chorale, ” O Head all bruised and wounded ! ” the contralto aria with chorus, ” Look where Jesus beckoning stands,” and the peaceful, soothing recitative for bass, ” At Eventide, cool Hour of Rest,” are the principal numbers that occur as we approach the last sad but beautiful double chorus of the Apostles, “Around Thy Tomb here sit we weeping,” – a close as peaceful as the setting of the sun ; for the tomb is but the couch on which Jesus is reposing, and the music dies away in a slumber-song of most exalted beauty. This brief sketch could not better close than with the beautiful description which Mr. Dwight gives of this scene in the notes which he prepared when the work was performed at the Triennial Festival of the Handel and Haydn Society of Boston : –

” How full of grief, of tender, spiritual love, of faith and peace, of the heart’s heaven smiling through tears, is this tone-elegy ! So should the passion-music close, and not with fugue of praise and triumph like an oratorio. How sweetly, evenly, the harmony flows on, — a broad, rich, deep, pellucid river, swollen as by countless rills from all the loving, bleeding, and believing hearts in a redeemed humanity ! How full of a sweet, secret comfort, even triumph, is this heavenly farewell! It is ‘the peace which passeth understanding.’ ‘Rest Thee softly’ is the burden of the song. One chorus sings it, and the other echoes ‘ Softly rest;’ then both together swell the strain. Many times as this recurs, not only in the voices, but in the introduction and frequent interludes of the exceedingly full orchestra, which sounds as human as if it too had breath and conscious feeling, you still crave more of it; for it is as if your soul were bathed in new life inexhaustible. No chorus ever sung is surer to enlist the singers’ hearts.”

The Magnificat in D.

The Magnificat in D-known as the ” Great Magnificat,” t distinguish it from the smaller – is considered one of the grandest illustrations of Bach’s genius. t was composed for Christmas Day, 1723. Spitta say:—

” The performance of the cantata Christen, atzet diesen Ta ,’ with its attendant ‘ Sanctus,’ took place during the morning service, and was sung by the first choir in t e Nikolaikirche. In the evening the can tata was re peated by the same choir in the Thomaskirche ; and after the sermon the Hymn of the Virgin was sung, set in its Latin form, and in an elaborate style. For this purpose Bach wrote his great ‘ Magnificat.’

For th occasion of this festival he expanded the Bibb al text into four vocal numbers but in describing the work it is only necessary to give it as it is n generally sung.

The work is written for a five-part chorus, with organ and orchestral accompaniment. After a concerted introduction, foreshadowing the general character of the music, it opens with the chorus, ” Magnificat a ma mea,” in fugal form, worked up with that wonderful power of construction for which Bach is renowned among all composers. It is followed by an aria for second soprano (” Et exultavit spiritus meus : in Deo salutari meo “), which is in the same key and has the same general feeling as the opening chorus, that of Christmas rejoicing. It in turn is followed by an aria for first soprano (” Quia respexit humilitatem ancillae sum “), of which Spitta says: “Scarcely ever has the idea of virgin purity, simplicity, and humble happiness found more perfect expression than in this German picture of the Madonna, translated as it were into musical language.” It leads directly to the chorus which takes up the unfinished words of the soprano (“Omnes generationes “), each part overlaying the other as it enters, and closing in canon form in grave and colossal harmony. Its next number is an aria for bass (” Quia fecit mihi magna “), of a simple and joyous character. It is followed by a melodious duet for alto and tenor (“Et misericordia “), with violin and flute accompaniment, setting forth the mercy of God, in contrast with which the powerful and energetic chorus (” Fecit potentiam “) which succeeds it, is very striking in its effect. Two beautiful arias for tenor (” Deposuit potentes de cede “) and alto. (” Esurientes implevit bonis “) follow, the latter being exquisitely tender in its expression, and lead to the terzetto (” Suscepit Israel puerum suum : recordatus misericordim sum ” ), arranged in chorale form, and very plaintive and even melancholy in style. Its mourning is soon lost, however, in the stupendous five-part fugue (” Sicut locutus est “) which follows it and which leads to the triumphant” Gloria,” closing the work —a chorus of extraordinary majesty and power. Spitta, in his exhaustive analysis of Bach’s music, says of this ” Magnificat ” :

” It is emphatically distinct from the rest of Bach’s grand church compositions by the compactness and concentrated power of the separate numbers,— particularly of the choruses, — by the lavish use of the means at command, and by its vividly emotional and pet not too agitating variety. It stands at the entrance of a new path and a fresh period of his productivity, – at once full of significance in itself and of promise for the future development of the perennial genius which could always re-create itself from its own elements.”