In This Article Johann Sebastian Bach

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Modern Editions
  • Documents
  • Conference Proceedings
  • Collections of Essays
  • Festschriften
  • Journals and Serial Publications
  • Biographies
  • Organ Music
  • Harpsichord Music
  • Instrumentation
  • Style
  • Performance Practice
  • Historical and Cultural Contexts
  • Interpretive Studies
  • Theological Studies
  • Reception Histories

Music Johann Sebastian Bach
Stephen A. Crist
  • LAST REVIEWED: 05 May 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 June 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0043


Johann Sebastian Bach is widely regarded as one of the greatest composers in the history of European art music. During his lifetime (b. 1685–d. 1750), Bach ranked among the foremost musicians in Germany; he was active as organist, teacher, director, instrument technician, and composer. Bach’s compositional legacy includes examples in all major genres of the time except opera: nearly two hundred church cantatas; approximately two dozen secular cantatas; a handful of motets; the B-minor Mass and some shorter works with Latin texts; the St. Matthew and St. John Passions; the Christmas, Easter, and Ascension Oratorios; a large body of organ music (both free and based on chorales); many other important harpsichord works (e.g., Two- and Three-Part Inventions, English and French Suites, Well-Tempered Clavier, Italian Concerto, Goldberg Variations); chamber music; concertos (including the popular Brandenburg Concertos); the Musical Offering; and The Art of Fugue. Several of Bach’s contemporaries were equally or even more prolific, but the uniformly high quality of his output is unparalleled. Some of his music was known and esteemed in the latter half of the 18th century and the early decades of the 19th by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and others. In 1850, the centenary of Bach’s death, Robert Schumann and other leading musicians formed the Bach-Gesellschaft, with the goal of making his complete works available in print. Since then, admiration for Bach’s music has remained high, especially among musicians. Many composers have identified Bach’s style as an influential factor in the development of their own musical language. The milestones of Bach research—such as the biographies Forkel (see David and Mendel 1998 in Documents) and Spitta 1951 (see Biographies), the Bach-Jahrbuch (see Journals and Serial Publications), the Bach-Gesellschaft edition (1851–1900), and the Neue Bach-Ausgabe (see Modern Editions)—have mirrored the development of the field of musicology as a whole. The secondary literature on Bach has mushroomed to gigantic proportions. The present article provides some guideposts to assist in steering interested readers through this mass of material.

General Overviews

A broad survey, encompassing Baroque music in England, France, Italy, and Latin America, as well as Germany, is offered by Stauffer 2006; here one can view Bach through the wide-angle lens of 17th- and 18th-century art music. An excellent starting place for Bach in particular is the Wolff and Emery article in the venerable Grove Music Online. A bare-bones but up-to-date survey is found in Glöckner 2008. Küster 1999 touches on all of Bach’s music and is another good, general survey. Emans, et al. 2000– is a huge work in progress, jam-packed with information.

  • Emans, Reinmar, Michael Heinemann, Sven Hiemke, and Siegbert Rampe, eds. Das Bach-Handbuch. Laaber, Germany: Laaber-Verlag, 2000–.

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    A multivolume reference work, projected to encompass seven volumes; four volumes published as of 2010. Substantial articles by many different contributors. Four volumes have appeared to date: a Bach lexicon (2000), Bach’s Latin church music (2007), Bach’s keyboard and organ works (2007–2008), and Bach’s passions, oratorios, and motets (2009). Three others (cantatas, chamber and orchestral music, and Bach’s world) are in preparation.

  • Glöckner, Andreas, ed. Kalendarium zur Lebensgeschichte Johann Sebastian Bachs. Enl. ed. Edition Bach-Archiv Leipzig. Leipzig: Evangelische Verlagsanstalt, 2008.

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    Chronological listing of documented events in Bach’s life and contemporary performances of his music.

  • Küster, Konrad, ed. Bach Handbuch. Stuttgart and Weimar, Germany: Metzler, 1999.

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    A hefty tome, including the editor’s own four-hundred-page survey of Bach’s vocal music, plus in-depth treatment of the organ music, keyboard music, chamber and orchestral music, and several late works (Musical Offering, The Art of Fugue, canons) by other contributors. Includes important introductory essays on politics, reception, performance practice, and theology.

  • Stauffer, George B., ed. The World of Baroque Music: New Perspectives. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2006.

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    An excellent introduction to Baroque music, this collection of a dozen essays includes contributions on Bach’s practice of reusing his own music and on the St. John Passion.

  • Wolff, Christoph, and Walter Emery. “Bach, Johann Sebastian.” In Grove Music Online.

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    A bit dated since its first appearance in 1980, this (Grove Music Online) encyclopedia article nonetheless remains a good overview of Bach’s life and works. Includes a useful tabular list of works. Available by subscription.

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