Ten Favorites pieces by J.S. Bach

He wrote thousands of pieces, lived for almost seventy years, presumably began writing around the age of fourteen, and was endlessly pursuing perfection within his craft. An organist, keyboardist, violinist, cellist, cantankerous cantor, improviser, coffee-drinker, and authority-hater, he would be a revolutionary figure in musical history. Others overshadowed him in his life, but after his death he would become the one to overshadow other musicians from his era, and become a source of divine inspiration for most Western music which came after him.

So how can I choose just ten pieces? With great difficulty, I admit. I’ve been obsessed with Bach for close to fourteen years now; it all began with E. Power Biggs, Glenn Gould, Andras Schiff, and recordings by Gardiner and the Monteverdi Choir. Youtube too was a giant help!

It depends largely on my mood, as well; some days, all I feel like listening to is his dark, dreary, minor-key works; other days, I am filled with joy and cannot help by listen to his lively, happy pieces. Also, another problem: full pieces (like the whole St. Matthew Passion, BWV 244) or just excerpts?

Onto the music!

I. Passacaglia and fugue in C Minor, BWV 582. A moving piece, with hundreds of interpretations to choose from; the depth of expression and exploration from one single theme is astounding. My first hooked-on Bach moment was with Bigg’s legendary recording at Harvard University. Crisp and articulate but….lacking the sensitivity which Richter displays. I digress–I’m here to share music, not debate recordings!

II. Air in D Major, BWV 1068. An obvious choice, perhaps; is this piece overplayed? It matters not; we hear it more than Bach ever did. Simple music trapped in a binary form, but expressive and beautiful regardless.

III. The aria Der Ewigkeit saphirnes Haus from his funeral cantata, Laß Fürstin, laß noch einen Strahl. The music for this whole piece was completed merely two days before the event; in a pressured hurry, it seems, Bach creates diamonds where such strain would render me useless. This is one of his most sorrowful, expressive, yet achingly beautiful arias (especially with the rendition of Koopman and Agnew). The instrumentation and the weeping of the gamba motif is poignant and programmatic; even before I knew why this music was written, I could guess that it was to express mourning and loss.

IV. The Final Contrapunctus from the Art of Fugue, BWV 1080. The Canadian Brass was my first introduction to this work; I didn’t know what a ‘contrapunctus’ was, nor a ‘fugue’, nor why brass was playing Baroque music. But there is something wonderful about the playing here, and how it is much different from a harpsichord performance, or an organ performance of this piece; as impressive as it is for one musician to play this movement, somehow I feel it was meant for more than one performer. The ‘ending’ of this fugue still has the affect of giving goosebumps.

V. Sarabande in C Minor, BWV 1011. In these suites for solo violin-cello, Bach creates a new world; from the opening in G major to the closing in D major, we are immersed in a realm of sound, expression, and a varying range of emotions. Almost all other movements in all six suites contain multiple-voice writing (giant chords or fugal writing, for example) but in this movement, the piece may not be so much about music but silence. Harmonically tricky, but emotionally sincere and sombre–what is Bach trying to convey here? This is the only solo-voice movement out of all the cello suites, and there must be a reason.

VI. The opening chorus to cantata 41, ‘Jesu, nun Sei Gepreiset. At the time of listening to the cantatas with Leusink, I had not had much experience with Bach’s church music (aside from the great Passions and Christmas Oratorio). This is exciting, exhilarating music, full of such joy; the opening drums and trumpets surpass even the opening of the Christmas Oratorio or Easter Oratorio. Not to mention the lifting, brief repose of the middle section before continuing onto a well-crafted fugue–Bach does it all here!

V. This tenor aria from the St. John Passion, BWV 245: Erwäge, wie sein blutgefärbter Rücken. Gardiner’s was my first introduction to this massive Passion, which tells the story of the trial, crucifixion, and death of Jesus. I did not care, at the time, of the story; what was more important to me was the music. In this aria, I get this feeling of elegance but also something related to trepidation. This is one of Bach’s most difficult arias for tenor.

VI. The opening movement to the sixth Brandenburg Concerto in B Flat, BWV 1051. I find, for some reason, the music in duller keys (in terms of Baroque tuning, like c major/minor, B flat, E flat, F, for example) to be more easily listened to than brighter keys (like D major, E major, G major, etc.). This opening movement is brimming with energy and joy; the call-and- response moments are blissful, and the modulation to minor is simply wonderful. Curious that for someone who loved the strings so much as Bach did that he only wrote two concerti out of this collection for all strings.

VII. The organ prelude Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele BWV 654. Sublime, emotional, moving, and deeply religious–in this piece, Bach presents the motif for the hymn-melody in an ornamented fashion. I’m not sure if it was Schubert or Schumann, but one of those composers heard Felix Mendelssohn perform it at a concert, and they said that if all possessions were to be taken from them in life, then the one they would treasure the most would be this chorale prelude. I’m paraphrasing, of course, but…what a lovely sentiment!

VIII. The Largo in F Minor, BWV 1018. More dreary gloom for your Monday morning; I apologize but this is too beautiful not to share. Upon receiving the Complete Edition of Bach in 2012, this set of accompanied violin sonatas (BWV 1014-1023) astounded me. I am deeply moved by this opening music; the best thing about Bach in the minor key is that when he modulates to the major, it is like the sun appearing–briefly and brilliantly–from behind the storm clouds, from which more rain is meant to fall. The sorrow and grief in this piece is tangible, but of course it is wrapped in Bach’s usual mastery of harmony and counterpoint. I enjoy very much the way it ends on a ‘question chord’ (c major, the dominant of F minor). Another honorable mention for violin music is this spurious sonata in four movements, sometimes attributed to Pisendel–but I disagree.

IX. Prelude in D Major, BWV 1012. Need I say more about this joyful, exciting movement? To open the concluding suite in a series of cello suites in this fantastic fashion is a great achievement. One feels in jubilation when listening to this music; those sequences around the three-minute mark seem to soar into the heavens before descending back to the bottom of the instrument; it’s like Bach is pulling out all the stops on an instrument which has no stops (unless we’re talking about double-stops, which is a string technique). Compositional mastery on a single instrument like this is only in competition, I feel, with the d minor chaconne from this second violin partita in D minor, BWV 1004.

X. Finally, one of my favorite pieces (which you can all probably guess at this point!)–the pinnacle of fugal writing, the Mount Everest of counterpoint and Baroque musical literature: the great Fugue in E Minor, BWV 548, the ‘Wedge.’ This is the performance that had me hooked all those years ago, that made me want to be an organist and dedicate mt life, time, and sanity to learning that fugue. And being obsessed with Bach. Maybe I’m biased because I have such a past with the fugue (performing it, yes, but not very well!) and I know it isn’t one of Bach’s more ‘traditional and strict’ fugues (like BWV 542, 541, 546, or 564 to name a few!) but its freedom is what gives it such an attraction, I think. I could listen to this fugue all day and not grow tired of it!

Thank you all so much for reading! I hope you enjoyed this post. More writing will be available in the days to come!

*With your generous support, I may be able to turn writing about Baroque music into a full-time activity! Thank you for allowing me to share my passion with you all.*

3 responses to “Ten Favorites pieces by J.S. Bach”

  1. Hi, Mitch. You mentioned being ‘obsessed’ with the music of Bach. I can relate to that with regards to the Art of Fugue. I was obsessed with this work for way over a year. There was nothing to draw me to the music (with regards to the fugues—I think differently about the cannons) and I think that is what captured my imagination. I have a real appreciation for fugues now! The last fugue is one of your favorites, is that being played without a reconstructed ending to the work, or do you like it just as Bach left it? -Thomas

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    • Hello Thomas,

      The work has been in my mind for many years; it’s helpful to experience many different performances and recordings.

      Hmm…good question. It depends on the reconstruction, I suppose–many composers and keyboardists have presented their completions–I’ve heard quite a few and am conflicted on the matter. Does one try to replicate Bach particularly? What counts as a ‘good reconstruction’ to a fugue which leaves no clues as to how it could be finished? Sometimes I enjoy the haunting ambiguity of the original, unfinished ending…I could be nit-picky and say that recordings are ‘more professional’ for doing so.

      But then again, because Bach admired those who could create music, I think he’d support most reconstructions out there. What do you think? Have you heard many completed fugues? And how do you feel on optional endings?

      For the work as a whole, I enjoy ensemble/chamber recordings over solely piano, organ, or harpsichord renditions. St Martin-in-the-Fields, Canadian Brass, Reinhard Goebel, Musica Antiqua Koln, even string groups have offered splendid performances of the whole Art of Fugue.

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      • Bach has an intensity in his music that penetrates the soul. The intellectual aspect of man is fully engaged, while our emotions are free to move around but retain a respectable purpose. To put it more simply, it’s godly music. This is what Bach’s music represents to me. My above statement expresses my thoughts perfectly about the Art of Fugue. 

        Bach’s music has a very deep spiritual meaning to me also, to help take us away from the wickedness of this world. When God allows us to have a taste of the divine, we are truly blessed. I would say to all men who have tasted the divine in Bach’s music, to also know that there is something much greater to partake of, that is to have the divine within us! “Through these He has given us His precious and magnificent promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, now that you have escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires” (2 Peter 1:4). I do not think we should separate the spiritual from Bach’s music ever. To do so, would show contempt for the One who he claimed inspired it all.  

        When I bought the sheet music for the Art of Fugue and I saw that someone had reconstructed the ending of the Unfinished Fugue, I was somewhat amazed, and then I realized that musc is a craft, not so much pure inspiration. Bach’s music is inspired, but it is on the foundation of great craftsmanship. I’m sharing with you my thoughts as they progressed in music study. I’ve never had real formal training in music, if I had, what I just said would be understood from the start. You can see I have started backwards with my understanding. I am very happy our friendship is off to a good start, perhaps now some of my music can have both of these elements present. I am very free-spirited, for me to always say my works are in the form of a fantasy, has always been fine with me. In a small way I feel that I betray myself to try to learn the craft. 

        I am happy either way with the Unfinished Fugue being reconstructed or left as it is in performance. As you mentioned, I think Bach would delight to hear the many different endings that people have put to it. I prefer the keyboard for this work, perhaps this is for the reason I’ve never given much attention to ensembles performing it. My favorite recording is by Grigory Sokolov on piano. One thing that stands out very prominent in his performance is, Canon alla Duodecima in Contrapunto alla Quinta / Canon in imitation at the twelfth. His performance of this cannon has always surprised me, he plays it slow, which I have never heard done before. This helped to inspire me to learn this canon myself, but the funny thing is, I always wanted to play it fast. I came across an old recording of me playing this piece, If I may, I would like to send it to you through an email. It will help make my reminiscing about the Art of Fugue more complete for me, thank you. 

        Thanks for the recommendations for listening to this work apart from the keyboard. While writing this, I did listen to a little bit of St. Martin in the Fields performance. It definitely adds a weight of volume to the work, but not sure, I think for now, it takes away from the intimate feeling of the keyboard. 

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