The Top 13 Bach Pieces: His Essential Works

ByQuyen Anne

Oct 10, 2023

When you think of classical music, Johann Sebastian Bach is one of the first names to come to mind. A legendary German composer and one of the quintessential figures of the Baroque period, his influence on music was as massive as his catalog of work. Some of the most complex pieces and boundary-pushing masterpieces have been attributed to him, and much of his work is still performed in concerts and used to teach today.

While he was a master keyboardist, he could also play and compose numerous other instruments. In this article, we’ll go over the 13 best Bach pieces.

1. Brandenburg Concertos BWV 1046-1051

Bach – Brandenburg Concertos BWV 1046-1051 (Ct.rc.: Szymon Goldberg, Netherlands Chamber Orchestra)

In 1721, Bach compiled six instrumental works to present to Christian Ludwig, Margrave of Brandenburg-Schwedt. While we now know them as the Brandenburg Concertos, the original French name translates to “Six Concertos For Several Instruments.” Each of the since-set precedents in composing requires a wide variety of instruments and no fewer than 17 players.

They’re widely considered one of the best orchestral compositions of the Baroque period, for good reason. They’re some of the most complex and beautiful works he ever put together, with some of the most enduring legacies of any of his music.

Each concerto features dizzying lineups of different solo instruments, pushing them to their limits at incredible difficulties. Many clips of the concertos became the epitome of the Baroque period, and have since been continually used to set the theme in television and film.

2. St. Mathew Passion BWV 244

Bach – St Matthew Passion BWV 244 – Van Veldhoven | Netherlands Bach Society

Like many of his peers during the Baroque period, Bach composed several works meant to be performed in church services. St. Mathew Passion was one of two sacred oratorios written by him to frame the final period of Jesus Christ’s life. The 1727 work features solo voices, double orchestras, and double choirs, with supportive writing from Christian Friedrich Henrici. It’s widely considered one of the greatest masterpieces in Baroque sacred music and was likely first played on Good Friday of 1727.

Interestingly enough, Bach revised this song numerous times, and the words for the work changed depending on where it was performed. For example, some countries wouldn’t allow the words of the Bible to be paraphrased, so the exact scriptural quotes needed to be used. It contains some of the most beautiful choral moments you’ll find in Baroque music.

3. Cantata BWV 147: Jesu, Joy Of Man’s Desiring

Daniil Trifonov – Bach: Cantata BWV 147: Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring (Transcr. Hess for Piano)

Among Bach’s sacral works of music, Cantata BWV 147 or Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring was one of the most popular and often performed works of his time. It’s a four-part setting for a two-verse hymn that’s been transcribed to several other instruments like the classical guitar. Today, the music is commonly performed at weddings, at Christmas, and on Easter. It’s an interesting work that can be played as an orchestra, or piano as both a solo or duet.

4. Toccata And Fugue In D Minor, BWV 565

Toccata & Fugue D Minor, BWV 565

For this one, there is some debate regarding whether or not Bach was the composer behind the piece. The earliest copy we have is a copy by Johannes Ringk who attributes the work to Bach. The most recognizable place you’ll have heard this one is in Disney’s Fantasia, which is why it’s also referred to as Fantasia And Fugue In D Minor. But either way, it’s been used in numerous films to illustrate horror and villainy, appearing in movies like The Phantom Of The Opera, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.

Toccata And Fugue In D Minor wasn’t the typical Bach piece meant for the piano, it was a work dedicated to the organ. While still beautiful, this gave it a much deeper, darker kind of tone that inspired its use in film as an indicator of something evil and scary.

5. Goldberg Variations BWV 988

Goldberg Variations Complete (J.S. Bach BWV 988), with score, Kimiko Ishizaka piano

This is among the most challenging pieces to play in all of the classical piano works. The Goldberg Variations are named after Johann Gottlieb Goldberg who was likely the first to play the piece. It consisted of a single aria and 30 variations and was one of the few pieces of Bach’s music to be officially published during his lifetime. Each variation delves further into the emotion of the music, continually evolving and melding into each other to press the listener deeper into a state of peace.

Even virtuoso pianists have a hard time playing the work as it was intended and have to learn each of the variations in part rather than working on the piece as a whole. While it is commonly played on the piano, the Goldberg Variations are specifically designed for the harpsichord, as specified in the manuals written by Bach to accompany the work and instruct the musician how they should play it.

Next: The top pianists of all time (full featured list)

6. Well-Tempered Clavier

Well-Tempered Clavier (J.S. Bach), Book 1, Kimiko Ishizaka, piano

The Well-Tempered Clavier is actually two sets of preludes and fugues by Bach in all 24 minor and major keys. Dated from 1722, the collection was meant to be used by anyone wanting to learn to play the piano, no matter if they were a young beginner, a veteran, or just a hobbyist. Generally, the work is considered one of the most important pieces of classical music because of how widely they were circulated and how accessible the publication of the books made classical keyboard instruments.

There are many beautiful works in the books, and if you’re interested in learning to play the piano or another keyboard instrument, you can work your way through them from beginning to end. There’s a reason these are often used as audition pieces for music schools, while accessible, they’re also challenging, making them perfect choices to show the range and level of the musician’s ability.

7. Cantata BWV 21

Bach – Cantata Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis BWV 21 – Sato | Netherlands Bach Society

A cantata is meant to be performed during a church service as a supplemental part of the worship. Cantata BWV 21, also known as Ich Hatte Viel Bekümmernis or I Had Much Grief, was written by Bach to transition from the typical singing style of church music to one that vocalized more like normal speech. The work expresses grief for being a sinner, wonders if God has forsaken them, then realizes he still hasn’t.

It’s regarded as one of his best and most beautiful pieces of sacred music, but it’s also one of the easier ones to play. Because it was composed to be played in church services each week, it had to be within the level of an average church organist. While it isn’t an easy piece of music to play—of course not, why would he make it easy on them?—it’s much more accessible for musicians of lower ability than many of the other works included on this list.

Next: The greatest composers of all time (full featured list)

8. Mass In B Minor BWV 232

Bach – Mass in B minor BWV 232 – Van Veldhoven | Netherlands Bach Society

Completed only a year before the end of Bach’s life and borrowing from a number of his earlier sacred works, Mass In B Minor BWV 232 contained all five parts of the ordinarium—the normal canonical divisions of time in the Christian religion and how they kept time for church services. It contains powerful choral sections to move churchgoers through the worship period, with a few unusual choices for the time it was composed.

Most mass music was not as long as this piece, as it was written as an extended version that lasts for about two hours. It also features more wind instruments than a normal church orchestra and even utilizes natural trumpets. Among his sacred works, it’s hard to find a better example that truly illustrates the power of faith and the awe-inspiring nature of God. This may have not been performed in full until 1859, but recordings of the work have become some of the most popular vocal works he ever produced.

9. Cello Suites

Bach – Complete Cello Suites (Massimiliano Martinelli)

Bach may be one of the most celebrated composers and keyboardists of all time, but his contribution to classical music extends well beyond just the piano. Cello Suites is a set of works composed for an unaccompanied cello by him and are some of the most commonly performed classical works solo compositions ever composed.

Despite it being that way now, the suites were incredibly technical demanding and lacked notation for how they should be played. In the early 20th century, Pablo Casals performed them in their entirety, igniting a passion for the pieces and figuring out the missing annotation. Each suite has six movements, and they’ve been described as some of the most profound works in all of classical music.

Next: The greatest cellists of all time (top cello players)

10. Concerto For Two Violins In D Minor BWV 1043

Bach – Concerto for two violins in D minor BWV 1043 – Sato and Deans | Netherlands Bach Society

One of the best works in history regarding duet composition, Concerto For Two Violins In D Minor BWV 1043 was composed by Bach in 1730 and is one of the quintessential pieces of late Baroque classical music. Also known as the Bach Double, the work—as you may have guessed—features two solo violinists playing together in a duet.

In the first movement, the two solo violinists duel in back-and-forth stabs of happy melodies. When the second movement comes, the music slows to a crawl, evoking feelings of reflection and almost sadness. Finally, the piece closes in a flurry of quick notes with one violin a step behind the other, making it seem as though one is chasing the other. He composed the piece while working in Leipzig as part of a concert series. The music is meant to mimic the relationship between the two violinists and is described as one of his greatest works.

Next: Top violin players of all time (most famous picks)

11. Orchestral Suites No. 1 – No. 4

J.S. Bach: Orchestral Suites No.1 – No.4

Bach’s Orchestral Suites No. 1 – No. 4 are a set of four suites composed between 1724 and 1731. It isn’t likely that Bach composed the four suites as a set, instead, he probably came up with each of them individually and later scholars put them together. With that in mind, it’s easier to understand why each of the four is so different. The first features sequences of dance music, the second a catchy flute section, the third opening with trumpets and drums, and the fourth full of absolute grandeur.

Orchestral Suites No. 4 In D Major is one of his most complex and best works, rivaling any other piece of classical music ever composed. It’s the type of music you would expect when you combine classical music with royalty, richness, and the finer things in life. As a note, there is a fifth suite that some might include alongside the other four, The Orchestral Suite In G Minor. Nearly everyone who would actually know believes that this was not written by him, so it is not going to be included in the Orchestral Suites for the purpose of this article.

12. Violin Partita No. 2 In D Minor BWV 1004

Bach – Violin Partita no. 2 in D minor BWV 1004 – Sato | Netherlands Bach Society

Like most of Bach’s shining achievements, Violin Partita No. 2 In D Minor BWV 1004 is one work in a larger volume of works called Partita In D Minor for solo violin. The Partita No. 2 is the standout work within the volumes, requiring immense talent by the musician and the ability to reach into the depth of your soul and touch something down there with the notes.

While it is a work meant for a solo violin, it’s also been transcribed for several other instruments like the piano, organ, guitar, cello, and full orchestra. There are at least 64 variations in the piece that must be played, leading up to a final and epic chaconne, and highlights every possibility of the violin to the extent that there’s no need for any accompanying instruments.

13. French Suites

J.S. Bach: French Suites

Among the six suites of music written by Bach for the harpsichord and clavichord are some of his most inspired works. The only French things about the works are the way they’re written and the fact that a German music critic lent the suites the name.

French Suite No. 2 in particular is one of his most performed works, as it contains the normal challenge you would expect from a Bach masterpiece while still being accessible for intermediate players. As with most of his secular work, it’s meant to be a dance piece, with seven movements that each accompany a different dance style.

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