Johann Sebastian Bach: His Life, Art, and Work

Title page of the first edition of Forkel's Ueber Johann Sebastian Bachs Leben, Kunst und Kunstwerke
Dedication to Freiherr van Swieten

Johann Sebastian Bach: His Life, Art, and Work is an early 19th century biography of Johann Sebastian Bach, written in German by Johann Nikolaus Forkel, and later translated by, among others, Charles Sanford Terry.

When Forkel published his Ueber Johann Sebastian Bachs Leben, Kunst und Kunstwerke: Für patriotische Verehrer echter musikalischer Kunst in 1802 it was the first biography on the composer published as a separate book. Forkel dedicated the work to Gottfried van Swieten. Van Swieten was an early Bach adept, for instance making Mozart familiar with the baroque composer.

Bach biography before Forkel

The best known predecessor of Forkel's biography was Bach's Obituary, the "Nekrolog", an article of less than 20 pages published a few years after the composer's death in 1750.[1] Short biographies in reference works that appeared before Forkel's biography mostly derived from the "Nekrolog".[2][3]


For the content of his biography, Forkel relied on the "Nekrolog", and on material he had obtained from Bach's sons Carl Philipp Emanuel and Wilhelm Friedemann. To that Forkel added his own interpretations and evaluations of Bach's art. Forkel saw his biography also as a vehicle for German nationalist feelings.[3]

Forkel gives most attention to Bach's keyboard music. The biographical description of Bach's last tenure in Leipzig is almost entirely neglected, and no attention is given to the church music Bach wrote in the first two decades of that period.[4]

Editions and translations

The first edition of Forkel's biography on Johann Sebastian Bach was published by Hoffmeister and Kühnel. An early English translation of Forkel's work, published in 1820, had many deficiencies.[3]

A second edition of Forkel's biography was issued by Peters in 1855. By the early 20th century, when Charles Sanford Terry produced his translation of the biography, scholarship on Bach had progressed, so Terry supplemented his translation with extensive footnotes, clarifications and appendices, and even expanded the text of some of the chapters.[3]

In the second quarter of the 20th century new German editions with updated clarifications were produced.[5] A new English translation was included in the New Bach Reader.[6]


Forkel's biography was instrumental in making Bach known to a broad public.[3] Many inaccuracies were pointed out in Forkel's biography,[3] but nonetheless later biographers relied on it.[7]


  1. "Nekrolog", 1754
  2. Philipp Spitta. Johann Sebastian Bach: His Work and Influence on the Music of Germany, 1685–1750. Novello & Co. 1899, I, pp. ii–iii
  3. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Forkel/Terry 1920, Introduction
  4. Forkel/Terry 1920, footnote 1 p. 22
  5. Forkel 1925, 1946
  6. Forkel 1999
  7. A.-E. Cherbuliez. Johann Sebastian Bach: Sein Leben und sein Werk. Olten: Otto Walter, 1946, p. 13


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