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Bach's Piano Music

Updated on April 26, 2011

Bach's keyboard music is a fantastic source of inspiration and knowledge for pianists, organists and harpsichordists. It has been a cornerstone of piano and keyboard education for several decades. This Hub takes a look at some of the works that are most often played on the modern piano. The pieces appear roughly in order of increasing difficulty - if you are a piano student, looking for piano music by Bach to add to your repertoire, it might be useful to know where to start.

Notebook for Anna Magdalena

Bach presented two manuscript notebooks that were written from 1722 to 1725 to Anna Magdalena, his second wife. The title is usually a reference to the second notebook, which contains compositions written by both Bach as well as other contemporary composers.

There are occasions in which the authorship of a certain piece is uncertain. For instance, there is a possibility that "Bach's"(?) well-known Minuet BWV 114 and its companion composition, Minuet BWV 115, were actually written by an organist by the name of Christian Petzold.

Inventions

In his preface to the first edition, Bach referred to the Inventions as:

“A faithful guide, whereby admirers of the harpsichord are shown a plain method of learning not only to play clean in two Parts, but likewise in further Progress to manage three obbligato Parts well and correctly, and at the same time, not merely how to get good Inventions, but also how to develop the same well; but above all, to obtain a cantabile style of playing, and together with this to get a strong foretaste of composition."

Bach utilized these easy pieces when teaching. The two-part Inventions and the three-part Sinfonias are both arranged in ascending key order, with each of the groups covering fifteen major and minor keys.

French Suites

The French Suites are some of Bach's most easy keyboard compositions. They were not released to the public while Bach was living, and a definitive, original edition of the manuscript does not exist; the composer continually worked and re-edited them during his entire lifetime.
 
After Bach’s 19th-century biographer, Forkel, created an early nineteenth century edition, the suites became available to the general public, and known as the French Suites. This name doesn't appear in any original source. Even though the names of these movements stem from the names of French dances, these suites are, in fact, much more Italian in style than they are French. 

The Well-tempered Clavier

Each of the individual volumes of The Well-Tempered Clavier has a prelude and a fugue that is written in every one of the major and minor keys. Frequently known as "the 48" or the "Old Testament" of piano compositions (the "New Testament" was Beethoven's sonatas), it is possibly the most significant keyboard composition ever written.

The preludes vary widely in their compositional style, and frequently dwell on one particular technical aspect, whereas the fugues are amazing for their vast scope of contrapuntal techniques and various methods of expression.

The title indicates that Bach meant to compose in accordance with a well-tempered tuning system that gave one solo instrument the capacity to play music in all 24 keys.

English Suites

This is the earliest of Bach’s sets of keyboard suites, probably written during his time in Weimar.

The name is somewhat misleading, since the works have no affinity with English keyboard music: they could even be described as more French in style than the French Suites. However, a manuscript copy described the work as “fait pour les Anglais” (made for the English). Bach’s 19th-century biographer Forkel speculated that they were commissioned by an English nobleman, others have contended that Bach was emulating the keyboard suites of Handel or Dieupart, both of whom worked in England.

Partitas

This is the final compilation of keyboard suites written by Bach; they were composed in Leipzig. Each of them was published as a single entity, starting in 1726. A new partita made its appearance every year thereafter until 1731, at which time the entire compilation was published under the pseudonym of Clavierübung I.

In spite of the fact that he had by now written several hundred cantatas, the "Well-Tempered Clavier," the great Passions, and several additional compositions, the Partitas were the first of Bach's works to be  published.

Goldberg Variations

Johann Nicolaus Forkel claimed that the Goldberg Variations had been commissioned by the Russian Ambassador to Saxony Count Kaiserling, who suffered from insomnia. Goldberg was a young musician, who was supposed to play from the Variations during the Count’s sleepless nights to cheer him up a little.

The intricate architecture of the Goldberg Variations still engage scholars after hundreds of years, while the soothing, noble poetry and formidable technical demands of the piece continue to captivate players and listeners.

Glenn Gould, practicing Bach´s second Partita

Johann Sebastian Bach at pianostreet.com

This hub introduces several of the most famous examples of Bach's piano music. For a more complete look at Bach and his many masterworks for the piano, along with sheet music, recordings, video links, useful information and interesting forum discussions, please visit Piano Street's Bach page:

Bach piano music at pianostreet.com

Comments! What's your favourite keyboard work by Bach?

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    • Rose West profile image

      Rose West 6 years ago from Michigan

      Great introduction to the music of Bach! My teachers always thought of Bach as a foundation, and there was always some Bach piece or other for me to practice.

    • John Sarkis profile image

      John Sarkis 5 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

      Great hub about Bach and his music...voted up

    • jamila sahar profile image

      jamila sahar 5 years ago

      fantastic hub ! i love the video with glenn gould ! please check out my hub that discusses what is a fugue and the components that make up a fugue, i absolutely adore the music of js bach. i am currently working on the Toccata in g minor bwv 915 which is quite a finger twister on that final 11 page fugue at the end which i love ! i am also learning bwv 659 of the choral preludes transcribed by Busoni to compliment the Toccata.

      my other favorite is the d minor fantasy and fugue, what a beautiful work of art !

      thanks for sharing, i love your website and refer my students to it many times a day !

    • suzettenaples profile image

      Suzette Walker suzettetaos 5 years ago from Taos, NM

      Wonderful hub! I enjoyed reading this! I love Bach and I studied the piano 40 years ago and played many of his pieces. This is really interesting and I didn't know all this about his works. I studied piano 12 years, but I was not a natural at it, so I am definitely not a pianist. But, I enjoy music anyway and will be reading many more of your hubs!

    • profile image

      Giselle Maine 5 years ago

      Great hub, I love the works of Bach. Thank you for this helpful biographical and practical guide.

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