J. S. Bach 28 July 1750

Johann Sebastian Bach (picture), widely regarded as the greatest of all composers of music for Christian worship, was born in 1685 in Eisenach (note: music on this page starts automatically), Thuringia, Germany, into a family of distinguished musicians.

In 1708, shortly after marrying his cousin, Maria Barbara Bach, he became court organist to the Duke of Weimar, where he wrote his principal compositions for the organ. In 1717 he became music director (Kapellmeister) to Prince Leopold of Coethen. In 1720, his wife died, and in 1721 he married Anna Magdalena Wuelcken, for whom he composed a famous set of keyboard pieces (Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach--see References, right). From 1723 until his death in 1750 he was at Leipzig, where he taught, conducted, sang, played, and composed. He had 20 children, of whom nine survived him, four of whom are also remembered as composers.

In addition to his secular music, Bach wrote a considerable amount of music for worship. He drew on the German tradition of hymn-tunes, and arranged many of them as cantatas, with elaborate choir settings for most stanzas (see Definitions, right), and a plain four-part setting for the final stanza, to be sung by the congregation with the choir. Normally each stanza is unique, using the melody traditional for that hymn, but with variations, particularly in the harmony, that reinforce the meaning of the words of that stanza. He wrote altogether about two hundred cantatas, including at least two for each Sunday and holy day in the Lutheran church year (matching the subject of the cantata with that of the Scripture readings prescribed for that day). Two of the better known are "Christ lag in Todesbanden" (music starts automatically) (Christ lay in the bonds of death"), based on an Easter hymn by Martin Luther; and "Jesu, meine Freude" (music starts automatically) (Jesus, all my gladness).

It is an ancient custom that during Holy Week the Gospel readings shall be from the accounts of the Passion (=suffering and death) of Our Lord, and that, where possible, these accounts shall be read, not by a single reader, but with the speeches of different persons read by different readers (and the crowd by the choir or the the congregation). This may be said, or chanted to a simple tune. Bach wrote, for the St. Matthew Passion (see Audio files, right), and again for the St. John Passion (see Audio files, right), an elaborate musical setting, with the Gospel narrative sung by a soloist, with the dialog by other singers, and commentary by the choir in the form of hymns and more elaborate pieces. He also wrote a setting for the traditional Latin Liturgy, his famous B Minor Mass. The Liturgy (or Order for the Celebration of the Lord's Supper and the Administration of Holy Communion, Commonly Called the Mass) is divided into the Ordinary (the parts that are the same every time) and the Propers (the parts that vary from day to day, such as the Bible readings). The choral parts of the Ordinary include the KYRIE ("Lord, have mercy" or "Hear us, O gracious Lord"), the GLORIA ("Glory to God in the highest," based on Luke 2:14), the CREDO ("I believe in one God, the Father Almighty..."), the SANCTUS-BENEDICTUS ("Holy, Holy, Holy" and "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord", based on Isaiah 6:3 and Matthew 21:9), and the AGNUS DEI ("O Lamb of God," based on John 1:29). Bach wrote choir settings for these (in case anyone is wondering why a devout Lutheran would write choir settings for a Mass, I point out that the language of the Liturgy is ancient, and contains nothing not taught by Lutheran and Methodist and Presbyterian churches), and his work is not simply a matter of supplying pleasant-sounding melody and chords. For example, in the Creed, there occurs the line, "And I believe one holy catholic and apostolic Church." In Bach's setting of this line, there are two melodies sung by the choir simultaneously. One is a traditional plainchant melody, most frequently sung by Roman Catholics. The other is a Lutheran chorale melody. The two melodies are interwoven, and they harmonize perfectly. Bach was not just a musician. He was a Christian, and a preacher of the Gospel.


Almighty God, beautiful in majesty, majestic in holiness, who have shown us the splendor of creation in the work of your servant Johann Sebastian Bach: Teach us to drive from the world the ugliness of chaos and disorder, that our eyes may not be blind to your glory, and that at length everyone may know the inexhaustible richness of your new creation in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

written by James Kiefer

Notes for this article:


(note that page opens with music playing)




Johann Sebastian Bach

Duke of Weimar

Prince Leopold of Coethen

Anna Magdalena Bach (nee Wuelcken)

Bach's children
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Notebook for Anna Magalena Bach
Menuet in G Major
   (midi audio file)
Menuet in G Major
   (sheet music--PDF file,
    requires Acrobat Reader)
Music book for purchase

music by Anna Magdalena herself

German tradition of hymn-tunes


Bach Cantatas Website
discussion and references

Lutheran church year
(a list of cantatas for each Sunday is on this page after the explanation)

Order for the Celebration of the Lord's Supper and the Administration of Holy Communion

Lutheran Church

Methodist Church

Presbyterian Church

Roman Catholics
Vatican website


plainchant melody

Lutheran chorale


a verse of music; for a hymn--a single verse (compare to poetry)

Audio files (all midi):

all the cantatas

Christ lag in Todesbanden
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Jesu, meine Freude
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St. Matthew Passion (selections) BWV244
music starts automatically St. John Passion BWV245 (selections) music starts automatically