Those with a passion for the Baroque will be glad to know that there’s a wide range of Baroque-themed performances on Bachtrack At Home, many of which feature period ensembles. But the body of Baroque works that shines most strongly in this section of the site belongs to the master Johann Sebastian Bach. Here, we look at 10 major works by Bach that can be enjoyed on Bachtrack At Home.

August Weger's 19th century engraving of Bach © Public domain | Wikimedia Commons
August Weger's 19th century engraving of Bach
© Public domain | Wikimedia Commons

1. The Brandenburg Concertos

The biggest musical diss of the 18th century occurred in 1721 when Bach sent a freshly-composed set of pieces in the concerto grosso style to Christian Ludwig, the Margrave of Brandenburg, accompanied by a suitably obsequious dedication. Bach got precisely nothing in return – not even thanks. Now, we can see how badly the Margrave was missing out. Bach had used Arcangelo Corelli’s form to explore different combinations of instruments, giving each player the chance to perform a solo part. The sprightly fifth concerto, for example, places the harpsichord front and centre with devilishly complex passages, making for the first major example of a keyboard concerto. On At Home, you can watch Hofkapelle München’s performance of concertos 2 to 5.

2. The Christmas Oratorio

Composing a set of six cantatas to be performed on the feast days of Christmas sounds like a rather holy undertaking, but much of the material in Bach’s Christmas Oratorio of 1734 was actually derived from earlier, non-religious choruses and arias. Given new words, likely by Bach’s frequent collaborator Christian Friedrich Henrici, the cantatas are arranged to relate the story of Jesus from his birth up to the coming of the Magi. In Bach’s time, it was probably never performed as the 3-hour marathon that it is today, but there are compositional features that point to the work’s overarching unity. For example, the same chorale is used in the first and last cantatas, while the tenor Evangelist’s narration of the story binds all the sections together. Christmas may be long gone, but that doesn’t mean you can’t still enjoy this performance of the work by Combattimento Consort Amsterdam and Capella Amsterdam.

3. Mass in B minor

What was Bach, a devout Lutheran, thinking when he decided to compose a setting of a full Roman Catholic Mass? Originally, climbing the social ladder was a major motive. In 1733 he composed a setting of two parts of the liturgy that were still permissible in Lutheranism – the Kyrie and Gloria – for the new Catholic king of Poland and Electorate of Saxony Augustus III. It was a shrewd move, with Bach eventually being appointed court composer by Augustus in 1736, but his interest in composing a full setting of Catholic liturgy, a Missa tota, was by now piqued. As with the Christmas Oratorio, Bach went on to rework sections of earlier works –some dating back as far as 1714 – into a unified whole, finishing the complete Mass in around 1748. With its wide range of compositional styles, Bach toward the end of his career likely wanted to create a grand testament to his achievements. You can watch Vox Luminis perform the work in 2017, or Capella Amsterdam perform it in 2012.

Vox Luminis © Jozsef Wagner Csapo
Vox Luminis
© Jozsef Wagner Csapo

4. Orchestral Suite no. 3

Sometimes economic imperatives can create great art. The orchestral suite, with its lightweight form and roots in French ballet music, was far from Bach’s preferred medium, but he was petitioning the city council in Leipzig for extra funding in 1731, when he most likely wrote the piece. By working in this popular form, he hoped to put himself in good stead with the local authorities and public. That didn’t stop him from experimenting, though, adding trumpets, timpani and oboe to the generally accepted string and continuo ensemble. This makes itself felt from the very outset in the blaring fanfare of the opening movement, propelling the later dance sections onward. The Italian-influenced Air movement, meanwhile, is much more tender, and many will recognise the theme cribbed by Procol Harum in the proto-prog rock classic “Whiter Shade of Pale”. Check out the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic’s performance of the Orchestral Suite no. 3.

5. Cello Suite no. 1

Holding the listener’s attention through a whole suite featuring just one unaccompanied instrument is a tall order, but in his Cello Suites, composed between 1717 and 1723, Bach achieved an absorbing exploration of the instrument’s potential, creating what the critic Wilfrid Mellers praised as “Monophonic music wherein a man has created a dance of God”. By necessity, harmonies are suggested rather than stated, with Bach repeating certain notes to keep them in the listener’s mind. The most famous of all these suites is the First, largely by virtue of the piece’s serene prelude, which glides along on a progression of arpeggios. Check out Job ter Haar’s interesting interpretation of the suite.  

6. Violin Concerto in A minor

It’s music’s loss that Bach decided his manuscripts were to be split between two of his sons, Wilhelm Friedemann and Carl Philipp Emanuel, after he died. Friedemann was unfortunately a wayward character and lost the manuscripts that were entrusted to him, which included at least three violin concertos. The three that survived had all been in the care of Emanuel. Little is known about the composition of the Violin Concerto in A minor, other than that it was written in around 1729-30, but we can sense Bach was probably in a particularly melancholy mood when he committed the yearning opening movement, with its complex runs, to paper. See how Vesko Eschkenazy navigates them with the Royal Concertgebouw Chamber Orchestra.

7. The Motets

Bach composed at least 6 motets, probably between 1723 and 1730 when he was the cantor at the St Thomas Church in Leipzig. Though the term “motet” has meant slightly different things throughout music history, in Bach’s time it described polyphonic vocal works for one or two choirs, with or without instrumental accompaniment. The lyrical focus, meanwhile, was usually Biblical, and it’s thought that Bach’s motets were largely composed to commemorate the deaths of leading community figures. “Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit auf”, for example, was dedicated to the memory of a local priest, and “Jesu, meine Freude” was supposedly written to commemorate a postmaster’s wife. This doesn’t stop the works being compositionally interesting, however: “Komm, Jesu, Komm”, for example, contains some complex harmonies, expressing a yearning for the next world in its melodic leaps. You can see a selection of motets in this performance by Vocalconsort Berlin, plus these performances by Gesualdo Consort.

Gesualdo Consort © Hans Hijmering
Gesualdo Consort
© Hans Hijmering

8. The Musical Offering

Though it was the last piece Bach composed, written when the composer was in his early 60s, the story behind the piece suggests the fighting spirit of a much younger man. At the time his son Emanuel was harpsichordist at the court of Frederick the Great of Prussia, a monarch who, though musically gifted, could not have been further from Bach in terms of his aesthetic ideals – he viewed music as a diversion and loathed Baroque counterpoint. When he invited Bach to his court, he tasked him with improvising a three-part fugue over a complex theme he’d written. When the older composer achieved this, Frederick tried to catch him out by asking him to improvise a six-part fugue on the theme. This Bach declined, instead returning home to create a two-volume Musical Offering based on Frederick’s theme. Critics have interpreted this gift as a sly dig at the monarch: along with the overblown dedication, there was a stated use of counterpoint, and the style of the central trio sonata would have been particularly offensive to Frederick’s taste. Some have even said that the work contains coded theological references, posing a critique of Frederick’s secular outlook. Take a look for yourself in this performance of the trio sonata by Nevermind.

9. Partita for Violin no. 2 in D minor

Here’s another piece dedicated to a royal. Around the time he wrote the Second Partita for Violin Bach was serving as conductor for the orchestra in the court of Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen, and this work was likely written for him in around 1720. As was traditional for a Baroque suite, the work opens with four dance movements, but it’s the fifth movement, the epic Chaconne, with its broad emotional range, that stands out the most. In 1892 Ferruccio Busoni made a piano transcription and, though he was criticised for some of the alterations made, it’s interesting to hear how he fleshed out the piece. Watch Mariam Batsashvili perform it.

Adolph Menzel's painting showing Frederick the Great playing flute, with CPE Bach at the harpsichord © Public domain | Wikimedia Commons
Adolph Menzel's painting showing Frederick the Great playing flute, with CPE Bach at the harpsichord
© Public domain | Wikimedia Commons

10. The Flute Sonatas

Scattered throughout his career, there is debate as to the authenticity of Bach’s flute sonatas, with critics suggesting that some of them may have been written by his son Emanuel. Whatever their provenance, one can see the composer pushing the limits of what the Baroque flute can do: the Sonata in C, which contains a flurrying figures over of drone-like chord in the first movement, reaches the upper limits of the instrument’s range, while the Sonata in B minor asks the player go above them. The E major Sonata, meanwhile, was written for Bach’s old friend Frederick the Great. You can see these three works performed by Jed Wentz and Music ad Rhenum.