Biographies of Johann Sebastian Bach

Title page of Johann Nikolaus Forkel's 1802 biography of Johann Sebastian Bach

The first major biographies of Johann Sebastian Bach, including those by Johann Nikolaus Forkel and Philipp Spitta, were published in the 19th century. Many more were published in the 20th century by, among others, Albert Schweitzer, Charles Sanford Terry, Christoph Wolff and Klaus Eidam.

18th century

Title page of the first volume of Mizler's Musikalische Bibliothek (1739). Its fourth part (first published in April 1738) contained an article defending Bach's art against the criticism Johann Adolph Scheibe had published in May 1737. The 1754 last volume of the Musikalische Bibliothek (IV, 1) contained Bach's obituary.

Little was published about Bach's life in the 18th century, his "Nekrolog" (obituary) being the most extended biographical note about the composer's life.

Contemporary biographical sources

No writings by Johann Sebastian Bach were published during his lifetime. He declined Johann Mattheson's invitation to write an autobiographical sketch for inclusion in the Ehrenpforte.[1] There is little biographical material to be found in the compositions published during his lifetime: the glimpse perceived from the dedication of The Musical Offering to Frederick the Great being a small exception. There are however some letters by the composer in which he gives autobiographical detail, including the letter he wrote in 1730 to Georg Erdmann, and the letter he had joined to the score of his Mass for the Dresden court in 1733.[2] Other contemporary sources include archived reports, like those of the decisions of the Leipzig city council.[3]

Contemporary publications, like Johann Mattheson's Beschützte Orchestre, Johann Adolph Scheibe's Critischer Musicus and Lorenz Christoph Mizler's Musikalische Bibliothek, rather write about Bach's music than about his life.[4][5][6] Bach's entry in Johann Gottfried Walther's 1732 Lexikon is a rare exception in giving biographical information on the composer.[7]

Bach's obituary

For more details on this topic, see Bach's Nekrolog.

Bach's "Nekrolog" was published in 1754 in the fourth volume of Mizler's Musikalische Bibliothek.[8] With less than 20 pages it is the most comprehensive 18th-century publication on the composer's life.

Other 18th century biographical material

For the remainder of the century short biographies of the composer appeared in reference works like Johann Adam Hiller's Lebensbeschreibungen berühmter Musikgelehrten und Tonkünstler neurer Zeit,[9] Ernst Ludwig Gerber's Historisch-biographisches Lexikon der Tonkünstler[10] and Friedrich Carl Gottlieb Hirsching's Historisch-literarisches Handbuch.[11] The descriptions in such biographical articles were nearly exclusively based on the "Nekrolog", often copied with errors.[12]

Occasionally Bach appears in other writings, like Johann Friedrich Köhler's 1776 manuscript on the history of schools in Leipzig, which gives a short account of Bach falling out with Johann August Ernesti, conrector of the St. Thomas School.[13] In print Bach is mentioned as teacher of some musicians of the next generation, for instance Christoph Nichelmann.[14]

19th century

Forkel's biography was published shortly after the 50th anniversary of the composer's death, and concentrated mostly on an analysis of his compositions. The first biography based on an extensive research of primary sources was published by Spitta in the second half of the 19th century.

Forkel's biography

For more details on this topic, see Johann Sebastian Bach: His Life, Art, and Work.

Johann Nikolaus Forkel's Ueber Johann Sebastian Bachs Leben, Kunst und Kunstwerke (Johann Sebastian Bach: His Life, Art, and Work) appeared in Leipzig in 1802. Its biographical material expands what is already in the "Nekrolog" with details Forkel collected from Bach's eldest sons. An English translation, expanded with updates in footnotes and appendices, was published in 1920 by Charles Sanford Terry.[15]

Centennial biographies

A century after the composer's death two short biographies were published. Joh. Carl Schauer published Joh. Seb. Bach's Lebensbild : Eine Denkschrift auf seinem 100 jährigen Todestag, den 28. Jul. 1850, aus Thüringen, seinem Vaterlande,[16] and Carl L. Hilgenfeldt published Johann Sebastian Bach's Leben, Wirken und Werke: ein Beitrag zur Kunstgeschichte des achtzehnten Jahrhunderts (Johann Sebastian Bach's life, influence and works: a contribution to the art history of the 18th century) "als Programm zu dem am 28. Julius 1850 eintretenden Säculartage des Todes von Johann Sebastian Bach" (as a program for the centennial days of Johann Sebastian Bach's death, starting 28 July 1850).[17]

Bitter's multi-volume biography

In 1865 Karl Hermann Bitter published a two-volume Bach biography. The biography contains some documents from Bach's time that hadn't been published before, presented with a wealth of historical inferences and personal reflections.[18] An abridged English translation of the biography appeared in 1873. Shortly after becoming Prussian minister of finance in 1879, Bitter published an enlarged reworking in four volumes of the biography.[19]

Spitta's comprehensive biography

For more details on this topic, see Spitta's Johann Sebastian Bach.

Philipp Spitta's Johann Sebastian Bach was published in Leipzig in two volumes, in 1873 and 1880 respectively. Its English translation was published by Novello in three volumes.

In his introduction Spitta dismisses all previous biographies apart from the "Nekrolog", Forkel, and part of Gerber.[20] He is particularly harsh on Bitter.[21] Spitta's biography went down in history as "... the most ... comprehensive and important single work on Johann Sebastian Bach".[22] It eclipsed the previous biographies and laid down premises and methodology for future Bach scholarship.[23]

Bach-biography in English

In the United Kingdom the 19th-century Bach Revival was inscribed in existing traditions respecting baroque music.[24] The Bach-biographies that were published in English were throughout the century largely based on German examples. An amateurish[25] translation of Forkel had appeared in London in 1820.[26] Edward Francis Rimbault had published his Hilgenfeldt/Forkel adaptation in 1869.[27] An abridged version of Bitter's first edition had appeared in 1873.[28] In 1882 the first original English biography appeared, Reginald Lane Poole's Sebastian Bach.[29] Lane Poole bases the biographical data entirely on Spitta, and adds a chronological list of 200 church cantatas by Bach.[30] By the mid-1880s the translation of Spitta's volumes was complete.[31]

20th century

New biographies were written by Schweitzer and Terry in the first half of the 20th century. Only by the end of the century, quarter of a millennium after the composer's death, new major biographies appeared by Eidam and Wolff.

First Decade

By the end of the 19th century the Bach Gesellschaft had completed its task of publishing all known works by Bach. The first decade of the new century brought new significant biographies of the composer.


Albert Schweitzer's Johann Sebastian Bach, le musicien-poète appeared in 1905. It analyses Bach's works primarily from a religious perspective.[32] Its 1908 German edition was enlarged, and more content was added to the 1911 English version.[33]


In 1906 André Pirro published a Bach-biography in France. The biography became available in English in 1957, based on the 1949 enlarged French edition.[34]


In 1909 a new English-language biography of Bach appeared, written by Hubert Parry.[35] In its preface the author pays his homage to Spitta and excuses him for his specialised technicalities: for his new biography Parry proposes a more condensed survey of the topic.[36] Parry shows Bach chauvinism by designating everything what was composed in the 17th century as immature.[37]

Biographical fiction

In 1925 Esther Meynell published The Little Chronicle of Magdalena Bach, fictitiously telling the story of Bach's life through the eyes of his second wife Anna Magdalena Bach.[38] The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach, a 1968 film featuring Gustav Leonhardt as Johann Sebastian Bach, took the same perspective.[39]


Charles Sanford Terry's Bach biography of 1928 focusses on the places where Bach lived.[32] It is the first biography that contains biographical documents not yet included in Spitta's.[40]


Bach's 250th birthday was remembered with a short biography by Wilibald Gurlitt, "Niederschrift des Jubiläumsvortrages bei der Bach-Feier des Ev. Studentenpfarramtes der Universität Freiburg i.Br. im Sommersemester 1935" (written out version of the jubilee speech at the Bach feast of the evangelical student community of the university of Freiburg im Breisgau, in the summer semester of 1935). Published in 1936, it was translated in English in 1957. An enlarged German edition was published in 1980.[41]

From 1945 to the 1970s

In 1950, two centuries after the composer's death, Wolfgang Schmieder published the BWV catalogue. The decades following World War II also saw the publication of a number of biographical works.

Bach Reader

Hans Theodor David and Arthur Mendel published The Bach Reader: A Life of Johann Sebastian Bach in Letters and Documents in 1945. It was revised as The New Bach Reader by Christoph Wolff in 1998.[42]


Swiss musicologist Antoine-Elisée Cherbuliez (1888–1964)[43] derives the biographical material for his 1946 Bach biography essentially from the "Nekrolog", and the biographies by Forkel, Spitta and Terry.[44]


Werner Neumann, from 1951 director of the East-German section of the Neue Bach-Ausgabe (NBA), published several biographies of the composer. In 1953 Auf den Lebenswegen Johann Sebastian Bachs, acclaimed by Alfred Dürr, the director of the West-German section of the NBA.[45] An enlarged German edition was issued in 1962.[46] In 1960 Bach: eine Bildbiographie was published, translated as Bach and his world and Bach: A Pictorial Biography[47]

Under Neumann's direction, from its founding in 1950 until he retired in 1973, the Bach-Archiv in Leipzig published biographical material about Bach, for instance in 1970 the Kalendarium zur Lebensgeschichte Johann Sebastian Bachs (time table to the history of Johann Sebastian Bach's life).[48] This Kalendarium was republished in 2008 in an edition revised by Andreas Glöckner.[49]


In 1966 Karl and Irene Geiringer published Johann Sebastian Bach: The Culmination of An Era.[50]

1970s essay collections

Walter Blankenburg published an essay collection, with contributions by scholars such as Dûrr and David, in 1970.[51] In 1976 Barbara Schwendowius and Wolfgang Dömling published a collection of eleven essays by, among others, Wolff and Dürr under the title Johann Sebastian Bach : Zeit, Leben, Wirken. The next year the book was translated as Johann Sebastian Bach: Life, Times, Influence.[52]


Around 1980 Alberto Basso published the two volumes of his Italian Bach-biography Frau Musika.[53] The biography largely follows Spitta's model, with updates to intermediate research.[54]

Around Bach's 300th birthday

In the years leading up to Bach's 300th birthday in 1985 some new biographies were published. Malcolm Boyd's Bach appeared in 1983.[55] Denis Arnold's Bach appeared the next year,[56] as well as a new French biography by Roland de Candé,[57] and a German one by Werner Felix. That last one was translated in English in 1985.[58] Piero Buscaroli's Italian biography appeared in 1985.[59]

Turn of the century

Around the 250th anniversary of Bach's death (2000) several new biographies were published, along with reprints and revised editions of earlier publications.


John Butt collaborated to several publications on Bach. In 1997 he was the editor of the Cambridge Companion to Bach, with chapters written by Malcolm Boyd, Ulrich Siegele, Robin A. Leaver, Stephen A. Crist, Werner Breig, Richard D. P. Jones, Laurence Dreyfus, Stephen Daw, George B. Stauffer and Martin Zenck.[60]


Klaus Eidam's 1999 Das Wahre Leben des Johann Sebastian Bach (The True Life of Johann Sebastian Bach) tries to correct some misconceptions that crept in the biographical writing on the composer, based on a new perusal of primary sources.[32]


Christoph Wolff, a Bach scholar, wrote his major biographical work on Bach, Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician, in 2000.[61] In 1998 Wolff had revised David and Mendel's Bach Reader into The New Bach Reader.[62] In 1999 a compilation of Bach-related essays Wolff wrote between 1963 and 1988 had its fourth reprint.[63][64]


Also in 2000 Martin Geck published Bach: Leben und Werk, six years later translated as Johann Sebastian Bach: Life and Work.[65] A previous shorter work by Geck, with a focus on illustrative material, was translated as Bach in 2000.[66]

't Hart

Maarten 't Hart's biography, focussing on Bach's cantatas, appeared in Dutch and German in 2000.[67]

21st century

In the 21st century a sizeable portion of biographical material on Johann Sebastian Bach became available on-line, including full scans of older biographies that were no longer copyrighted. New biographies were written by Williams and Gardiner.


In 2004 a new English biography of Bach, written by Peter Williams, was published by the Cambridge University Press.[68] In 2007 Williams published J. S. Bach: A Life in Music.[69]


John Eliot Gardiner's Music in the castle of heaven was published in 2013.[70]

Partial biographies

Apart from the biographies that take the reader from Bach's birth in 1685 to his death in 1750, several studies highlight specific aspects of the composer's life.[71]

Filmed biography

Johann Sebastian Bach's life was the subject of several films.[72]

Original title English title Date Director Actor playing Bach Comments
The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach 1968 Jean-Marie Straub
Danièle Huillet
Gustav Leonhardt Story told from the perspective of Anna Magdalena Bach
NYT: "While this 'Chronicle' ... is a testament to [Bach's] ever-living music, it is, unfortunately, lifeless as biography"[39]
Johann Sebastian Bach 1985 Lothar Bellag Ulrich Thein East-German TV biopic in four parts. Klaus Eidam collaborated to the script.[32]
Bach's Fight for Freedom Bach's Fight for Freedom 1995 Stuart Gillard Ted Dykstra Bach's last year in Weimar (1717)
Mein Name ist Bach My Name Is Bach 2003 Dominique de Rivaz Vadim Glowna Swiss film about Bach's 1747 visit to Potsdam, meeting Frederick the Great.[73][74]


  1. Spitta 1899 III, p. 228
  2. Eidam 2001, chapter XVIII
  3. Eidam 2001, chapter XIV
  4. Johann Mattheson. Das Beschützte Orchestre, oder desselben Zweyte Eröffnung, footnote p. 222 Hamburg: Schiller, 1717.
  5. Johann Adolf Scheibe. pp. 46–47 in Critischer Musicus VI, 14 May 1737. Quoted in Eidam 2001, Chapter XXII.
  6. Lorenz Christoph Mizler. Musikalische Bibliothek. Volume I, Part 4, pp. 61–73. Leipzig, April 1738. Includes a reprint of Johann Abraham Birnbaum's Unpartheyische Anmerckungen über eine bedenckliche stelle in dem Sechsten stück des Critischen Musicus. published early January of the same year.
  7. Johann Gottfried Walther Musicalisches Lexicon oder Musicalische Bibliothec, p. 64. Leipzig, W. Deer. 1732.
  8. "Nekrolog" 1754
  9. Johann Adam Hiller. "Bach (Johann Sebastian)", pp. 9–29 in Lebensbeschreibungen berühmter Musikgelehrten und Tonkünstler neurer Zeit, Vol. 1. Leipzig: Dyk, 1784.
  10. Ernst Ludwig Gerber. "Bach (Joh. Sebastian)", column 86 ff. in Historisch-biographisches Lexikon der Tonkünstler. Leipzig: Breitkopf, 1790.
  11. Friedrich Carl Gottlob Hirsching. "Bach, Johann Sebastian", pp. 77–80 in Historisch-literarisches Handbuch berühmter und denkwürdiger Personen, welche in dem 18. Jahrhunderte gestorben sind: oder kurzgefaßte biographische und historische Nachrichten von berühmten Kaisern, Königen, Fürsten, großen Feldherren ... und andern merkwürdigen Personen beyderley Geschlechts. Erster Band: A - Brindley. Leipzig: Schwickert, 1794.
  12. Spitta 1899, I, pp. ii–iii
  13. Spitta 1899, III, pp. 11–12
  14. "Friedrich Wilhelm Marpurg. Historisch-kritische Beyträge zur Aufnahme der Musik." (in German). 1754. Retrieved 5 December 2012.
  15. Forkel 1920
  16. Schauer 1850
  17. Hilgenfeldt 1850, title page
  18. Spitta 1899, I, pp. iv–v
  19. Bitter
  20. Spitta 1899, I, p. v
  21. Spitta 1992 Vol. I, p. xiii
  22. Spitta 1992 Vol. I, p. xix
  23. Wolff 1991 pp. 4–5
  24. McKay, Cory. "The Bach Reception in the 18th and 19th century" at
  25. Forkel/Terry 1920 pp. xix–xxi
  26. Forkel 1820
  27. Rimbault 1869
  28. Bitter 1873
  29. Spitta 1992 Vol. I, p. xviii
  30. "The Life of Sebastian Bach" in Chicago Tribune. July 29, 1882, p. 9.
  31. Spitta 1884–1885
  32. 1 2 3 4 Eidam 2001, Introduction
  33. Schweitzer
  34. Pirro
  35. Parry 1909
  36. Parry 1909, p. v-vi
  37. Stephen A. Crist. Beyond "Bach-Centrism": Historiographic Perspectives on Johann Sebastian Bach and Seventeenth-Century Music at
  38. Meynell 1925
  39. 1 2 A. H. Weiler. "Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach (1968)" in The New York Times, April 7, 1969
  40. Wolff 1991 p. 4
  41. Gurlitt
  42. David & Mendel
  43. Wolfgang W. Müller. Suche nach dem Unbedingten: spirituelle Spuren in der Kunst, p. 49. Theologischer Verlag Zürich, 2008. ISBN 9783290200466
  44. Cherbuliez 1946, p. 13
  45. Alfred Dürr. Review of Auf den Lebenswegen Johann Sebastian Bachs by Werner Neumann in Die Musikforschung 9/2, 1956, pp. 231-233
  46. Neumann 1953
  47. Neumann 1960
  48. Bach-Archiv 1970
  49. Bach-Archiv 2008
  50. Geiringer 1966
  51. Blankenburg 1970
  52. Schwendowius & Dömling
  53. Basso, 1979 (I) and 1983 (II)
  54. Eleanor Selfridge-Field. Review of Frau Musika: la vita e le opere di J. S. Bach. Vol. 2: (1723-1750) by Alberto Basso in Music & Letters Vol. 66, No. 2. April 1985. pp. 129–131.
  55. OCLC 10139466
  56. Arnold 1984
  57. de Candé 1984
  58. Felix
  59. Buscaroli 1985
  60. OCLC 829742314
  61. OCLC 433700566
  62. David & Mendel 1998
  63. Wolff 1991
  64. Alfred Dürr. Review of Bach: Essays on His Life and Music by Christoph Wolff in Notes Vol. 49, No. 2. December 1992, pp. 508-510
  65. Geck 2006
  66. Geck 1993
  67. OCLC 907016747
  68. Williams 2004
  69. Williams 2007
  70. Gardiner 2013
  71. Biography: Special studies at
  72. Johann Sebastian Bach (Character) at Internet Movie Database website
  73. Mein Name ist Bach at
  74. My Name Is Bach at www.filmaffinity


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