In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Johann Sebastian Bach

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Music Editions
  • Historical and Biographical Documents
  • Collections of Essays
  • Festschriften
  • Journals and Serial Publications
  • Biographies
  • Instrumentation and Organology
  • Style and Compositional Process
  • Interpretive Studies
  • Performance Practice
  • Historical and Cultural Contexts
  • Religious Contexts
  • Reception Histories

Music Johann Sebastian Bach
Stephen A. Crist, Derek Stauff
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 March 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 March 2018
  • 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 (including works based on chorales); many 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, cited under Historical and Biographical Documents) and Spitta 1951 (cited under Biographies), the Bach-Jahrbuch (see Journals and Serial Publications), the Bach-Gesellschaft edition (1851–1900), and the Neue Bach-Ausgabe (cited under Music 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

For general background on Bach and his time, see the separate Oxford Bibliographies article Baroque Music. An excellent starting place for Bach’s life and works is Wolff and Emery’s article in the venerable Grove Music Online. The German language equivalent is Breig 1999. Boyd 1999, cited under Reference Works, also has entries succinctly overviewing Bach’s life and music. Butt 1997 and Leaver 2017 offer broader essays surveying Bach’s most important genres, his historical context, and reception of his music. Küster 1999 touches on all of Bach’s music and is another good, general survey. Emans, et al. 2000–2015, is a huge multivolume project, jam-packed with information.

  • Breig, Werner. “Johann Sebastian Bach.” In Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart, Personenteil. Edited by Friedrich Blume and Ludwig Finscher, col. 1397–1535. Vol. 1. Kassel, Germany: Bärenreiter, 1999.

    An extensive encyclopedia entry comparable to Wolff and Emery’s Bach, Johann Sebastian. Lengthy summaries of Bach’s life and works, including helpful tables listing works by genre. Available online by subscription.

  • Butt, John, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Bach. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

    A fascinating compilation of essays surveying Bach’s output (“Profiles of the Music”) with introductory chapters on Bach’s historical context and concluding essays on his influence and reception.

  • Emans, Reinmar, Michael Heinemann, Sven Hiemke, and Siegbert Rampe, eds. Das Bach-Handbuch. 7 vols. Laaber, Germany: Laaber-Verlag, 2000–2015.

    A multi-volume reference work with substantial articles by many different contributors: Vol. 1 (2012): cantatas (2 parts); Vol. 2 (2007): Latin church music; Vol. 3 (2009): passions, oratorios, and motets; Vol. 4 (2007–2008): keyboard and organ works (2 parts); Vol. 5 (2013): orchestra and chamber music; Vol. 6 (2000): Bach-Lexicon; Vol. 7 (2015): Bach’s world.

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

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

  • Leaver, Robin A., ed. The Routledge Research Companion to Johann Sebastian Bach. London and New York: Routledge, 2017.

    A more extensive and advanced collection of essays than Butt 1997, this volume not only has chapters on Bach’s main genres and forms but also includes essays for the would-be researcher on the main primary sources in Bach research (documents, music manuscripts, and printed editions), influences on Bach, and the main contexts for his music (home, school, church, and court). Does not include a bibliography.

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

    A bit dated since its first appearance in 1980, though revised in 2001, this encyclopedia article nonetheless remains a good overview of Bach’s life and works. Includes a useful tabular list of works and extensive, though dated, bibliography. Available by subscription to Oxford Music Online.

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