Johann Sebastian Bach is widely regarded as one of the greatest composers in the history of Western music. Although many are familiar with his most celebrated works, such as the Brandenburg Concertos and the Mass in B Minor, there is a wealth of information and stories surrounding his life and compositions that are lesser known. Here, we delve into ten of those lesser-known facts about Bach’s music.
1. Coffee Cantata: A Unique Secular Work
One might not immediately associate the solemn figure of Bach with a lively coffee house, but he did indeed compose a piece about coffee. The “Coffee Cantata” (BWV 211) is a miniature comic opera that tells the story of a young woman’s love for coffee and her father’s disapproval.
This work stands out because most of Bach’s compositions were religious in nature. The Coffee Cantata offers a rare glimpse into Bach’s lighter side and the social norms of his time.
2. Bach’s Foray into the French Style: The French Overture
While Bach is renowned for his compositions in the German tradition, he also had a deep admiration for French music. This appreciation is evident in his “Orchestral Suite No. 2 in B minor” (BWV 1067), which opens with a French overture.
The suite demonstrates Bach’s knack for absorbing different musical styles, blending them, and elevating them into a cohesive masterpiece.
3. Bach the Transcriber
Bach was known to transcribe many of his own works for different instruments. For instance, many of his violin concertos have corresponding versions for harpsichord.
Bach’s transcriptions are not just simple conversions. They provide insights into his understanding of each instrument’s unique qualities and demonstrate his ability to rethink and re-imagine his own creations.
4. The Musical Offering: A Royal Challenge
King Frederick II of Prussia, a keen musician, once gave Bach a complex musical theme, challenging him to improvise a three-part fugue on it. Bach complied, and later expanded upon this by composing “The Musical Offering” (BWV 1079).
This collection, built around the king’s theme, showcases Bach’s genius in counterpoint and his respect for the musical capabilities of Frederick II.
5. Calov Bible: Bach’s Personal Annotations
The Personal Touch
Bach owned a three-volume Bible commentary by Abraham Calov, in which he made numerous annotations, highlighting his deep engagement with theology.
Relating Music and Faith
These annotations provide a unique window into how Bach’s faith intertwined with his music, suggesting that for him, music was not just an art form but a spiritual act of worship.
6. A Musical Puzzle: The Six Little Preludes
Unveiling the Pieces
The “Six Little Preludes” (BWV 933-938) are a collection of short keyboard compositions. While they may seem simple at first glance, each piece offers a unique technical challenge, making them valuable teaching tools.
Scholars believe that these pieces were part of a larger pedagogical method devised by Bach, though the exact nature and scope of this method remain uncertain.
7. The Goldberg Variations’ Origin
A Tale of Insomnia
A popular story suggests that Bach composed the “Goldberg Variations” (BWV 988) for Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, a young harpsichordist, to play for his employer, Count Keyserlingk, during the latter’s sleepless nights.
Beyond the Tale
While the story’s veracity is debated, what’s undeniable is the piece’s brilliance, showcasing Bach’s command over variation form.
8. The Keyboard Mastery: The Little Organ Book
A Liturgical Teaching Tool
The “Little Organ Book” (Orgelbüchlein, BWV 599–644) is a collection of chorale preludes composed by Bach for the liturgical year. It was intended as a teaching tool for young organists.
The Genius Within Brevity
Despite its name and the short length of its individual pieces, this collection showcases Bach’s ability to condense profound musical and theological statements into concise formats. Each prelude offers not only a reflection on its associated chorale but also an exploration of intricate contrapuntal techniques, making it a testament to Bach’s genius.
9. The Missing Works
The Vastness of His Compositions
It is believed that many of Bach’s compositions have been lost to time. Estimates suggest that only around 10% of his cantatas survive to this day.
Although the sheer volume of Bach’s existing work is overwhelming, the loss of potential masterpieces is a somber reminder of the impermanence of art and the importance of preservation.
10. Bach’s Influence on Future Composers
Beyond His Era
Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms, among other great composers, studied Bach’s works to improve their own craft. This was especially evident during the 19th century Bach renaissance, where his influence was profoundly rediscovered and celebrated.
The Depth of Influence
Mozart, upon studying Bach’s motets, exclaimed, “Now, here is something one can learn from!” This reverence illustrates how Bach’s techniques in counterpoint and harmony were foundational for generations to come.
Bach’s lesser-known works and anecdotes give us a broader perspective on his vast and varied contributions to music. Through these glimpses, we see a composer constantly pushing boundaries, exploring new territories, and leaving an indelible mark on the world of classical music.