Full Name: Johann Sebastian Bach
Pronunciation: Baaaahch (Not “Back”)
Years active: 1685-1750
Number of compositions: Around 1100
Number of symphonies: 0 (they didn’t exist yet)
Number of concertos: Loads
Number of string quartets: 0 (they didn’t exist yet)
Style: Layered, precise, mathematical. Bach was the archetypal composer of Baroque music, cleverly overlaying and layering multiple melodies using the limited set of instruments available during his lifetime. He is probably the most well-known and respected composer that ever lived.
I know this guy! Out of all the composers Bach is without a doubt the most widely known (along with Mozart and Beethoven). Not only do you recognize the name, but likely you’ll recognize at least a couple of his pieces, below.
So why does everyone love him so much? Bach fans admire the amazing intricacy of Bach’s music, and how it all fits so well together, like the gears of a mechanical watch. A typical Bach piece will have a couple of fairly straightforward melodies which are layered, and flipped and stacked up in extremely clever and complex ways. That’s why people talk about his music as being “mathematical”, and why it particularly appeals to people who like numbers and science and stuff.
Is that why it’s called baroque? Exactly. Baroque, in the vaguest sense, means “elaborate ornamentation” — which is a pretty good description of Bach’s technique. Because of its complexity it can be extra-hard to appreciate if you aren’t actually performing the music, so don’t feel like you are supposed to understand all the layering and cleverness straight away.
Alright, let’s hear it then…
Cello Suite no. 1 – Prelude
This is one of the most famous Bach pieces. It’s got mechanical simplicity (that same little melody repeating over and over) but at the same time it’s tinged with this heavenly, otherworldly aura.
Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, 1st movement
One of the trendy types of composition in Bach’s era was the concerto grosso. Instead of a regular concerto — which is where one particular instrument leads, with the orchestra acting as backup — a concerto grosso lets groups of instruments in the orchestra show off, one at a time. Everybody gets to be the soloist for a bit.
Toccata and Fugue in D Minor
Bach wrote tonnes of organ music, including this very famous one. The complete organ works box-set has 17 CDs in it, and a lot of them contain fugues. A fugue is where a melody is played, and then the same melody is progressively layered over itself again and again. You might be able to hear that in this piece, but it can take some practice!