Bach 5. The Baroque Age


Next to theology I give to music the highest place and honor. 

– Martin Luther

CHAPTER AIM: Providing a historical and biographical perspective to Bach’s music



Whole Track 


Baroque is a term we use to describe the period of music represented by Bach, and contemporaries like Vivaldi, Scarlatti, Telemann and Handel. 


1650s Baroque

But what does the word actually mean?


It’s actually a rather slippery term. The dictionary defines the word as “ornate” or “decorative”.

As a period of art and architecture it bloomed early in the 17th century, before Bach (1685-1750) was even born. In fact, people didn’t even start calling the music of Bach’s time Baroque until the twentieth century.

And so Baroque is a bit of a catch-all phrase, loosely defining a style and period of art. Not a great help for understanding Bach’s music, but a term that gets equally applied to St Paul’s Cathedral or the Batman movies is probably not going to make the most useful of labels.


So rather than trouble about dictionary definitions, I’d rather journey back through time, to get an impression of the social forces – and they are immense social forces – that helped create Bach’s wonderful music.


There’s two main strands to this story.

One is spiritual, and comes from Bach’s religious background. Bach was a deeply religious composer, specifically a Lutheran. We’ll return to this later this chapter.

The other strand is more intellectual. Bach also sits at the threshold of the modern scientific world, at the height of that immense revolution in thinking we now call ‘The Enlightenment‘.




Newton (according to Blake at least)

The Enlightenment is a pivot-point around which the story of Western civilization turns. It was a new progressive system based on rationality that effected politics, education, public sanitation, really just about everything. It changed the way we ran our societies and our institutions. Its ideals of rationality and objectivity led to a belief system of free thought and fairness to which we continue to aspire.


The background to the Enlightenment was really the explosion of scientific discovery we now call the Scientific Revolution.

Scientific progress had continued apace throughout the Renaissance, but it really took off in the 17th century. This was the time of the Royal Society, and men like Hook and Boyle (who would give their names to laws that children would struggle with in Physics lessons hundreds of years in the future).

The world was becoming comprehensible through observation and experiment, rather than by the acceptance of scripture or dogma.


The figurehead for the Scientific Revolution, was Isaac Newton (1643-1727). Through a process of observation and rational inquiry, Newton made fundamental discoveries into the inner-workings of nature. He realised that white light was in fact composed of an array of colours. He asked questions – supposedly via falling apples – that led to the discovery of Gravity. He revealed laws that explained the movements of objects in time and space.

Nature had become measurable. In space and (more pertinently for Bach) in time.

It was like discovering the inner-workings of the universe, a divine clockwork. Bach is sometimes compared with Newton, who died a few years after this Brandenburg Concerto was composed. Both men looked deep into their respective fields to discover an apparently harmonious universe operating under universal laws.

Well…maybe.  This was undoubtedly a time of experiment and invention. Advances in science meant advances in technology and manufacturing, and that had a considerable impact on music.



Technological Revolution

Vivaldi Concerto for Oboe and Bassoon (excerpt)  

If you sat with a standard Baroque orchestra in let’s say 1650, then the majority of the instruments of your fellow band-members have either been invented or gone through fundemental technological change in the preceding 150 years. The violin, which together with its many-sized relatives was and still is the mainstay of any serious musical ensemble, emerged from Italy in the middle of the 16th century.

Let's invent the Quartet

Anyone fancy inventing the Sonata?

Advances in technology meant advance in metalwork and woodwork, not to mention refinements in tooling and manufacture. That meant innovation and invention in instrument design and construction. Both of the solo instruments in this Vivaldi concerto – Oboe and Bassoon – were developed 1650-1700.

The orchestra was also really born in this period. If the Enlightenment can be said to sing, its voice would be the classical orchestra.


Instrument manufacture was not the only great change of the last 150 years. There was also theoretical advancement. A particular grammar of music also came to be accepted over this period, a system of tuning known as Equal Temperament. The gradual acceptance of this tuning system meant musicians could all play together in a number of different keys (for more on the subject check out  Harmonics). This hugely expanded what composers could harmonically do, and revolutionised music. Its acceptance of a fair and rational system of tuning show how the Scientific Revolution was effecting everything. An early proponent of the system was Vincenzo Galilei, father to the scientist Galileo Galilei.


And all the while, instrument development was dancing step-by-step with the development of musical genres. Across Europe, new forms for making music were emerging.

From France came the influence of highly stylized dance and music, in the court of Louis IX (as explored in Bach 2).

From Italy came a new musical form hot of the press: the Concerto. The new blueprint was realised by Vivaldi in Italy, who wrote hundreds, literally hundreds of them (Stravinsky: “Vivaldi did not write 400 concertos; he wrote one concerto 400 times“). It was simple really. A three movement form, with a central slow movement and a fast final ‘dance’ movement. But it served an ideal vehicle for all this new instrumental and compositional design that was turning music into a dominant art-force, and creating stars of composers like Handel or Telemann.


Different composers from around Europe were beginning to crystallize music into a European art-form. They worked in Spain, Italy, Germany, France England. But they all felt like they belonged to a community, speaking the same language of music.

And you can hear in their music the joy of exploring the new forms of musical ideas. Their music sounds fresh, inventive and filled with newly-discovered pleasure. It’s busy, confident music.

These early fisherman were casting their lines into waters teeming with life.




Bach’s Enlightenment 

Bach 6th Brandenburg Concerto (excerpt)  




Bach himself, even though he led a relatively parochial life, was keenly attuned to developments in his field. Like any self-respecting specialist of his day, he subscribed to the many musical journals and publications that now poured off the printing presses across Europe. He also avidly collected scores whenever he could. He hungrily devoured Vivaldi’s music, including the new Concerto form.

This was the Enlightenment: knowledge was on the move, and Bach took every advantage.


You can hear the excitement of The Enlightenment in Bach’s music. And you can its ideals as well.

Bach presents us with a world of order. We’ve already discussed that regular beat, the pulse of a consistent universe ( Bach 2).

There’s the orderly introduction of instruments, each making its entrance at its expected time and place ( Bach 3).

Reason and order defines the world, everything and everyone have their place: the peasant, the Kapellmeister, the Princes and Kings, all the way to Him…the great metronome in the sky.

Harmony and balance rule the universe, as they do the orchestra. Each instrument has its place, no single voice holds sway over the others. All contribute to a total unity.


1705 Orrery

Don’t, however, mistake this unity for uniformity. Baroque music is rregular, but it is also lively and vibrant. Confidant.

Bach’s world was bristling with discovery and new-found confidence. The thaw that was the Renaissance was now heating up.

The roads beyond the church doors are busy. Trade is bringing in new goods and ideas from all directions. Time keeping has become a financial as well as scientific business. The Age of the Enlightenment is an age that is appropriately represented by the image of the clock.


It’s a clockwork you in Bach’s music. But that’s not all you hear.

There’s precision and regularity, but there’s also deep passion and emotion. There is a deep spiritual aspect to his work, that belongs to traditions older than the Scientific Revolution or the Enlightenment.

This is the second great cultural strand you find woven into Bach’s music. To learn more about this, we need to travel to Wittenberg, where we will find Germany’s most famous set of church doors…





Bach Actus Tragicus (excerpt)  

Martin Luther

Martin Luther 1483-1546

When the German priest Martin Luther (1483-1546) hammered his list of grievances to the Wittenberg church door in 1517, he set off a set of events that would lead to the birth of Protestantism and that great schism of the Western European church known as The Reformation.

Luther was protesting against the selling of indulgences, which essentially meant the pardoning of sin by cash payment. But it wasn’t just any indulgences: these were indulgences raised by a Medici Pope to pay for an extravagant renovation of St Peter’s Basilica, as designed by Michelangelo. History affects Art, of course, but sometimes Art also effects History.


The flamboyance of the Renaissance in Southern Europe was breeding resentment in the more austere North. Such grievances, proliferated by the newly invented printing-press, spread Luther’s ideas like wildfire across Europe, particularly at its extremes, where the influence of Rome was weaker.

Those series of protest movements ultimately became known as Protestantism. This, and specifically Lutheranism, is the religious tradition that frames Bach’s music.


As the Reformation spread, its message of reaction to papal opulence spurred a back-to-basics frugality in Northern Europe. What you could call an ascetic aesthetic. Places of worship were emptied of visual splendor, paintings whitewashed and drapes taken down.

It was, frankly, cultrual vandalism. Colour was obliterated from the churches of Northern Europe.

Churches in Amsterdam (left) and Rome (right), very different places by the 18th C.

These empty churches needed something to fill the artistic void, and what better substitute than music, with its power to inspire with abstract splendor?

It was the perfect substitute for Luther, who was a music lover and amateur composer himself.




800px-French_-_Pendant_with_a_Monk_and_Death_-_Walters_71461Luther loved music, and was a keen musician, playing both the lute and flute. He believed ardently that music should transmit the word of God, and to that end wrote and compiled hundreds of hymns. Why should the devil have all the best tunes? he is supposed to have asked.

The great tradition of German classical music owes an important part of its lineage to these momentous events, and Martin Luther’s part in them.

He translated the Bible into the vernacular German, which could now be sung in German churches for the very first time.

And he ensured that for the first time – in contrast to the Catholic church – the entire congregation, not just the choir, would join together in song. The intention was the whole congregation should join together in music to celebrate the word of God. That they would do so together, and in German.



Inevitably, music became promulgated through the churches of Germany. Luther’s chorals provided the musical education for Bach and his predecessors, just as they would some 150 years. Hearing Luther’s chorals in 1839 as a six-year old choirboy was one of Johannes Brahms’ earliest musical influences. They, and the music of J.S.Bach, had a profound effect on his young mind.

This was a heritage and education shared across the centuries by many generations of musicians and composers. Music, from the time of Bach through Beethoven to Brahms, really became the central cultural expression for the German people. And it still stands as one of their greatest achievements.


ScreenShot002Music was entwined with religion, particlarly in Germany and particularly for such a deeply religious man as Bach. Most of his works were composed for the church, and almost every work (including the secular) was signed by Bach S.D.G. (Solo Dei Gloria – for the glory of God alone). I’m not sure if he signed his copy of the Brandenburgs that way. anyone know, let me know.

There was also a particular quality of Lutheranism that infused Bach’s music, and that was the presence of Death. How it should not just be accepted, but even celebrated.

As this Bach cantata tells us: Denn du wirst sterben

For you will die…



Bach’s Life

Bach Organ Pastorale  

The traditions of the Reformation ran deep for Bach. He was born in Eisenach, the quiet provincial town where Luther himself had grown up. He was thorough and hard-working, displaying in his work the quiet diligence and prudence you would naturally associate with a Protestant work ethic.

Bach was a devout Lutheran, and he produced some of the finest church music ever composed. Amongst those somne 300-odd Cantatas Bach wrote on a weekly basis for Sunday service, and also the great Passions. Music that was intoned not in Latin, but in German. Music that was intended to be sung by the local congregation, wherever he worked.


It was a church instrument – the organ – that really made Bach’s fame. Indeed he was regarded by most of his contemporaries principally as a player of the church organ, more than as a composer.

He was also known to be an authority on them (he spent much of his boyhood clambering around the pipes of the organ his uncle played in Eisenach). He was employed as an adviser to their construction and restoration on a number of occasions.

Bach knew his organs.


He lived in a relatively peaceful period of history. His life and career were fairly parochial. His previous jobs at Weimar and Arnstadt had lead him just a few miles from his birthplace, and he would spend most of the rest of his life within the territories of Saxony, undertaking nothing like the travels of contemporaries like Scarlatti (Spain), Handel (Britain), and Vivaldi (everywhere else).


However, it would be wrong to assume that Bach’s life was boring or uneventful. He was orphaned at the age of 10. Coming from a famous musical family of considerable size, he was exposed to a huge number of musical influences, and once walked some 200 miles to hear a famous organist play.

He lost his first wife at the age of thirty and buried ten of his children before his own death. He clearly had a temper, and was involved in at least one physical altercation that needed local authorities intervention. He argued with pretty much every employer he worked under. One such disagreement landed him in prison for a month.

Bach was clearly passionate and intense, qualities that become virtues in his music.





Bach 6th Brandenburg Concerto (excerpt)  

The majority of Bach’s considerable output was religious, but his Brandenburg Concertos are most certainly secular works. But you can’t escape religion, not when it comes to Bach, it turns out the reason we have these very secular works today is to do with religion after all.

Cothen,still sleepy

Cothen,still sleepy


You only need to travel some 30 miles from the church doors where Luther hung his list of grievances to reach another set of church doors in Köthen. This is where Bach was employed as Kapellmeister in 1720, the period when our Brandenburg Concertos were written. Bach’s patron at Köthen, Prince Leopold, was a Calvinist, and that had implications on the music Bach wrote.

Calvinism had developed as a more extreme form of Protestantism, grounded in a  deeply pessimistic view of human nature and a more selective view of who may attain ultimate salvation from God. As a religion, it was even more austere than Lutherism.

Although in private a great lover and player of music, the public Prince Leopold maintained a dry cultural facade. At the time, radical Protestants remained deeply dubious about ornate music being played in a place of worship: ‘Popish Polyphony’ as it was often termed. Which meant no church music for Bach to write while he worked at Köthen.


And so for much of this period of employment at Köthen, Bach left aside the religious material that had made up the majority of his work, and instead composed his greatest secular works.

Which means yes, you can thank music-hating Calvinism for some of music’s greatest secular works, including the Cello Suites, the 48 Preludes and Fugues, and of course our own Brandenburg Concertos!




Bach Actus Tragicus (excerpt)  

Like all great composers, Bach’s music articulates his age. You can hear history in it, like you can hear history in all the music on this course.

His music is full of Enlightenment invention, but there’s a deep spiritual foundation. Bach delineates a fusion of faith and reason with a beauty that approaches perfection.

But history, as ever, was about to paint a different picture.


Martin Luther had already discovered that revolutions in thought lead quickly to real revolutions.

As the German kingdoms drew away from Rome, in the early 16th century, many of their own oppressed and down-trodden rose up against their own masters. A horrified Luther witnessed in 1524 the uprising now known as the Peasant’s Revolt.

The sudden revolution was brutally suppressed in 1525, with Luther’s full support.

Bauzen, Thirty Years War


The Reformation itself proceeded to unleash upon Europe more than a hundred years of discord and war, a battle between Catholics and Protestants which drenched much of Northern Europe in blood. The culmination was the terrible brutality of the Thirty Years War (1618-1648). It was a particularly nasty war, effecting civilians as well as troops, right across Europe, and haunting the continent for more than a generation.

You might even argue the political tranquility of the Enlightenment owed its origins to a desperate need for harmony and reconciliation after a century of argument, turmoil, and death, as much as to the scientific calm of rational reflection.


The Enlightenment had articulated fresh discovery and invention across Europe. But behind the lucid clarity of the Enlightenment’s voice, came another faint whisper, one voiced 200 years earlier during the Peasant’s Revolt. A whisper that will become louder and ever more insistent over the coming years…







Quick quiz before we go. Listen closely to these two clips. Which is Baroque?


Click For Answer
Neither, or both. They’re both composed much later, but both in the Baroque style. Check the Recommendations section at the end of this chapter for more details about the excerpts. 




  • Vivaldi and Handel were other composers working at the same time as Bach. Vivaldi’s use of the concerto was a big influence on Bach, particularly in his Brandenburg concertos.


  • Handel wrote a wealth of music. Amongst the most enduring is his Arrival of the Queen of Sheba, from his Oratorio Solomon.
  • And if we’re going to look at Handel and choral music, we can’t avoid his Hallelujah Chorus. And why would we? Over 70 Hallelujahs, as one conductor put it, in less time than it takes to boil and egg.