Today, Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) is revered as one of the greatest composers of all time whose multitudinous compositions, with their combination of intellectual rigor and transcendent beauty, are among the foundational documents of Western art music. In his day, J.S. Bach was seen as a church musician who dazzled his contemporaries with his organ playing and churned out new compositions with almost alarming speed and frequency. Though he was well-known and widely respected, he was not revered as he is now. His reputation received a facelift in the early 19th century (long after his death) with the publication of a biography in 1802, the revival of his Saint Matthew’s Passion by the composer Felix Mendelssohn in 1829, and ultimately the creation of the Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis (Bach Works Catalog) in 1850. Since then, Bach’s legacy has only grown. Among his famous compositions are the Brandenburg Concertos, the Cello Suites, the Well-Tempered Clavier, the Art of Fugue, hundreds of cantatas and oratorios, and dozens of short chorales. And that is but the tip of the iceberg. Bach has over 1000 known compositions, and perhaps as many that have been lost forever.
Other interesting Bach facts:
- He was a genuine patriarch, fathering 20 children (10 of whom survived to adulthood) with 2 successive wives. See the family tree.
- Several of his children became famous composers in their own right, most notably Johann Christian Bach and Carl Philip Emanuel Bach.
- There are streets all over Germany named for Bach, although he never left the country and never lived more than 250 miles from his birthplace in Eisenach. See the map.
- He was once put in prison by an employer who didn’t want to let him move jobs.
- He wrote a cantata about coffee addiction. Read about it here.
- Finally, Anthony Tommasini recently named Bach the greatest composer of all time.
Carter Pann is a celebrated composer in his own right who has written music from solo works to large orchestra and wind ensemble pieces. He is on the faculty of the University of Colorado at Boulder, where he continues to write distinctly original music. He is also a practiced arranger. He assembled the 18 transcriptions that form the Bach Buch in 2010 for a unique ensemble: it is essentially a harmoniemusik ensemble with saxophones instead of horns. He describes the collection in its score:
The music of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) is a gift. Nearly every piece that poured out of this man is as inspired and perfected as the next. His body of work has cut a deep incision in the recorded history of music and set a benchmark to which all the contrapuntal masters who followed have aspired to meet.
The transcriptions found within this volume add to the thousands upon thousands of versions of his music already re-worked for different groups and media. The music here does not, however, embellish Bach’s own scores (save but for a couple of instances in which it was felt necessary to add an inner voice to serve the expansive range of the ten woodwinds). The selections are ordered (loosely) to assume a smooth, inclined trajectory of both difficulty and musical breadth. The first piece is a small and simple minuet, the last is a long interior movement of one of the most beloved and advanced violin concertos in the whole repertoire.
As a keyboard player I grew up learning and falling in love with much of Bach’s music at the piano. For this very reason, much of this volume consists of the composer’s keyboard works. One cannot, however, deny many of the most cherished works from Bach’s oeuvre when compiling a set of transcriptions, and many of those “hits” are included here as well.
Departing from the traditional harmoniemusik ensemble, I have replaced the horns here with saxophones. There are two reasons: 1) the nature of much of this music requires instruments with an ease of agility not executable so readily on the horn; and 2) the opportunity for saxophone players to be included in such an ensemble was very attractive, pedagogically.
I hope you enjoy these gems from such a great genius.
With the full collection clocking in at 48 minutes, the set is ideal for excerpting. Below, I will present brief descriptions of each piece along with one representative video of the original version. Since this collection is relatively new, no recordings of it have made their way onto the internet just yet. Perhaps that will eventually change. For now, you can view the entire score here.
(1). The set opens with Menuet II from keyboard Partita no. 1 (BWV 825). This was part of a suite for harpsichord written around 1725. Here it is on piano:
(2). The second piece is one of the two-part inventions, the sixth of the set, written between 1717 and 1723. Originally in E major, Pann transposed it to F major. Here is Glenn Gould playing it on the piano:
(3). Prelude no. 9 from the Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1 (BWV 854), written in 1722. Several of the other movements come from either of the two WTC books as well. Again, Pann transposes this one from E major into E-flat major.
(4). The fourth miniature uses the second prelude from WTC, Book 2 (BWV 871), written in 1742. It is in C minor. Here it is, with a little history lesson in front:
(5). Prelude no. 18 from WTC, Book 1 (BWV 863), transposed from G-sharp minor to G minor:
(6). Praeludium from Keyboard Partita no. 1 (BWV 825):
(7). Prelude no. 12 in F minor from WTC, Book 2 (BWV 881):
(8). Prelude no. 22 in B-flat minor from WTC, Book 1 (BWV 867):
(9). Fugue no. 7 in E-flat major from WTC, Book 2 (BWV 876). The video in no way uses authentic Bach-era instruments, but it does powerfully and clearly demonstrate the line of each voice in the fugue:
(10). Fugue no. 21 in B-flat major from WTC, Book 1 (BWV 866). This video follows Bach’s original manuscript as the fugue unfolds:
(11). Variation 18 (Canon at the Sixth) from the Goldberg Variations (BWV 988), written in 1741. Here it is in a live harpsichord performance (without repeats):
(12). Sarabande from Overture in the French Manner (BWV 831), written in 1735. There are many different ideas about the tempo for this one, so please do not accept the following video as the one and only solution:
(13). Badinerie (which, like Scherzo, translates as “jesting”) from Orchestral Suite no. 2 (BWV 1067), written from 1738-9. This piece has been a central part of the flute repertoire for centuries. As the title makes clear, it was originally written for orchestra. Here is a performance on period instruments:
(14). Chorale: “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” from Cantata (BWV 147), written in 1723. In German, the title is “Jesus, bleibet meine Freude”, which translates less poetically as “Jesus remains my joy.” The video features a fairly authentic sounding orchestra with a large chorus singing in German:
(15). Chorale Prelude: “Nun fruet euch, lieben Christen g’mein” (BWV 734), originally written for organ in 1708:
(16). Air (on the G String) from Orchestral Suite no. 3 (BWV 1068), from 1730:
(17). Chorale: “Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme” from Cantata (BWV 140), also known as “Sleepers Wake”, from 1731. This is a “gap chorale”, with the actual chorale melody interrupted separated by other material, which dominates the work:
(18). Concerto for Two Violins, II. Largo ma non tanto (BWV 1043), written sometime between 1717 and 1723: