Bach and the High Baroque

Course No. 720
Professor Robert Greenberg, Ph.D.
San Francisco Performances
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Course No. 720
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Course Overview

Underappreciated in his own time, Johann Sebastian Bach has ascended to Olympian heights in the estimation of generations of music lovers. But what is it about his music that makes it great? Composer and musicologist Robert Greenberg helps you hear the extraordinary sweep of Bach's music and understand his compositional language—whether you're a devoted admirer or a casual listener.

How Did Bach Become Bach?

Professor Greenberg sets Bach in context by tracing the musical traditions and composers from whom he drew his inspiration, and explaining how Bach absorbed these influences to become the transcendent composer of the High Baroque. According to Professor Greenberg, no other composer is more representative of the period and its aesthetic of emotional extravagance and technical control.

You will also learn how Bach's background—at least 42 of his relatives were professionally involved with music—and his strong German Lutheran heritage shaped his development as an artist.

A Musical Feast

But above all, you will hear music—lots of it. Professor Greenberg devotes extensive discussions to the following Bach pieces, from which he plays major excerpts:

  • Brandenburg Concerto no. 2
  • Cantata no. 140, "Wachet auf, uns ruft die Stimme"
  • Coffee Cantata
  • Fugue in C-sharp Major from The Well Tempered Clavier, Book I
  • Goldberg Variations
  • Partita no. 5 in G Major for Harpsichord
  • St. Matthew Passion
  • Toccata and Fugue in D Minor
  • Violin Concerto in E Major.

You'll hear selections from other Bach works, such as Orchestral Suite in D ("Air on the G String"), B Minor Mass ("Hosanna" from the Sanctus), and Concerto in D Major for Harpsichord.

In addition, you'll be able to compare Bach with musical examples from Bizet, Chopin, Corelli, Couperin, Handel, Haydn, Lully, Palestrina, Pergolesi, Purcell, Rossini, Tchaikovsky, Vivaldi, and other composers both before and after his time.

What Makes Bach Bach?

The music of Bach, especially when compared to what came before, is extravagant and unbridled. Yet every aspect of it—beat, melody, melodic repetition, interaction, and harmony—is also magnificently controlled. His output is encyclopedic, encompassing every form then current in Western music. With Professor Greenberg's instruction, you will understand precisely how Bach's genius raises these forms to their pinnacle, achieving an unprecedented fullness of artistic realization within each of them, and why Bach's death in 1750 also marks the end of the Baroque period.

What You'll Learn

Part I gives an overview of Bach's life and the stylistic trends present in the music of the High Baroque.

  • Lecture 1 lays out the goals of the course and also introduces the truly extraordinary sweep of Bach's music, in terms of compositional genres and expressive content.
  • Lecture 2 introduces Bach the man at a critical juncture in his life, Christmas 1722.
  • Lectures 3 and 4 provide an introduction to the Baroque aesthetic and that most quintessential Baroque musical procedure, fugue.
  • Lecture 5 provides a historical overview of both the Baroque era and the years leading up to it.
  • Lectures 6–8 offer a musical glossary of the style features of High Baroque music.

Part II explores the diverse world of Baroque Europe with an ear for those elements—musical and nonmusical—that together constitute Bach's inheritance. Among the influences in Bach's life, the Lutheran Church must be considered the most important and profound.

  • Lecture 9 deals with the tremendous social upheavals and wars of religion that were the Protestant Reformation.
  • Lecture 10 examines Lutheranism and the new Lutheran liturgy, with particular attention paid to the role of music, especially the Lutheran Church chorale and its role in the Lutheran liturgy. Second only to the influence of Lutheranism on Bach was the Italian musical style, the pre-eminent musical style of the High Baroque. Based in equal measure on the Italian language, vocality, and the dramatic practices of opera, the Italian style powerfully shaped Bach's approach to melody, genre, and musical form.
  • Lectures 11 and 12 explore the development of the Italian style from the Renaissance through the Baroque, and how Bach joins the melodic fluidity and drama of Italian style with the spiritual power and profundity of German Lutheranism in the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor.
  • Lectures 13–16 examine the concerto, the most important orchestral genre of the High Baroque, with special attention paid to the life, times, and concerti of Antonio Vivaldi; Vivaldi's influence on Bach; Baroque concerto types; and Bach's intensification and expansion of the Italian concerto models in his own concerti.

Part III continues with an in-depth examination of the influence on Bach of the French style and Italian opera.

  • Lectures 17 and 18 focus on the preeminence of dance and opera in French Baroque music and the birth and development of the French overture and the orchestral suite.
  • Lectures 19 and 20 continue to focus on music born of the French Baroque, examining first the keyboard suite in France and then in Germany.
  • Lectures 21–22 discuss the Lutheran Church Cantata No. 140, Wachet Auf ("Sleepers, Wake!"), as a Lutheran religious composition permeated with the compositional techniques and human drama of secular opera.
  • Lectures 23–24 deal with Bach's Coffee Cantata. These lectures introduce and discuss the work as a forward-looking comic opera (opera buffa), firmly within the same Italian comic operatic tradition as the Italian-language operas of Pergolesi, Mozart, and Rossini.

Part IV features two of Bach's greatest masterpieces: the St. Matthew Passion and the Goldberg Variations. No works by Bach are more transcendent.

  • Lectures 25–28 examine the St. Matthew Passion, a massive and deeply moving work that has no model, no precedent, and no equal in the Baroque era. Matthew's dark and very human telling of the trials and crucifixion of Jesus is brilliantly realized by Bach in a work set for two full choruses, two full orchestras, and two sets of vocal soloists. It is a work at once magnificent and intimate, despairing and filled with faith.
  • Lectures 29–32 deal with the Goldberg Variations, probably the most singularly unified, most spiritually esoteric work created during the Baroque. In this intimate keyboard work, consisting of a theme, 30 variations, and a reprise of the theme, worlds of numerical, religious, and metaphysical symbolism have been found. The Goldberg Variations is a work of almost unbelievable substance, a whole infinitely greater than its 32 constituent parts.
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32 lectures
 |  Average 46 minutes each
  • 1
    The goals of this course are to learn something of the life and personality of J. S. Bach, to learn something of the musical traditions and composers from whom he drew his inspiration, to understand Bach as a man of his time who was influenced by trends and traditions, and to get to know a good sampling of Bach's music. x
  • 2
    Christmas, 1722
    This lecture provides background on Bach's early career, the death of his first wife and his remarriage, and his decision to go to Leipzig. x
  • 3
    Introduction to the Baroque Aesthetic
    The Baroque era, from 1600, the birth of opera, to the death of J. S. Bach in 1750, was a diverse period that saw great change, characterized in vocal terms by opera, and in instrumental terms by fugue. These two genres epitomize the dichotomy of emotional extravagance (opera) and technical control (fugue) that formed the Baroque aesthetic. x
  • 4
    Fugue, from the Latin fuga, meaning flight, is a polyphonic work for a fixed number of parts combining statements of one or more subjects with countersubjects derived from the subject material, in imitative patterns that follow established procedures. The Bach fugues combine overwhelming compositional technique with profound emotional and spiritual depth to a degree that is transcendent, making Bach without peer in this genre. x
  • 5
    Historical Overview from Constantine through the Great Thinkers of the Baroque
    We learn more on the background and history of the Baroque era, and political, religious, scientific, and philosophical developments contributing to the Renaissance. x
  • 6
    Style Features of High Baroque Music, Part I—A Musical Glossary
    J. S. Bach was born into an age when the materials and syntax of music were already developed and codified to a high degree. Six important elements were rhythm and meter, instruments and instrumental style, Baroque-style melody, musical texture, tuning systems, and functional harmony. x
  • 7
    Style Features of High Baroque Music, Part II—A Musical Glossary
    Bach did not so much evolve new styles as perfect existing ones, fusing and synthesizing national styles in both vocal and instrumental genres. In the Baroque era, beat became more regular; rhythms tended to be well-defined and were often based on dances. Instrumental music appeared, even as the vocal genre of opera was developed. x
  • 8
    Style Features of High Baroque Music, Part III—A Musical Glossary
    The demand for a more expressive musical system gave rise to more scale pitches from the Pythagorean model, and new tuning systems arose to handle this, including meantone, equal temperament, and well-temperament. Functional harmony was developed and codified, and it was supported by the convention of basso continuo or thorough-bass as both a rhythmic and a chordal device. x
  • 9
    Bach's Inheritance, Part I—The Protestant Reformation and the Rise of Lutheranism
    Bach's music was a synthesis: of German language and seriousness; of Lutheran spirituality; of the national styles of France, Italy, and Germany; and not least, of the composer's own extraordinary genius. Bach's Lutheran Christianity shaped his entire world view and his work ethic, causing him to see all that he did as an offering to God. x
  • 10
    Lutheranism, the Chorale and the Chorale Prelude
    A central aspect of Lutheran life was the congregational hymn, or chorale, and chorale melodies are central to all Bach's church music. His harmonizations of them, and his chorale preludes for organ, are among the gems of Western music, and they remain the very paradigm of functional harmony in music education to this day. x
  • 11
    Bach's Inheritance, Part II—The Development of the Italian Style
    The music of Arcangelo Corelli is one of the best examples of writing from this period. His music distinguishes the orchestra from the chamber ensemble, with just one instrument per part. The pipe organ reaches a pinnacle of design during the Baroque never again reached until the latter 20th century. x
  • 12
    The Italian Style, The Operatic Ideal and Lutheran Spirituality are Joined
    The madrigal became the dominant Renaissance vocal form, mastered by the Italian composers; one example is Jacopo Peri's and Claudio Monteverdi's monodic settings for the mythological story of Orpheus and Euridice. The pipe organ reaches a pinnacle of design during the Baroque; no one knew organ design better than Bach, and no one has surpassed him in composing for the instrument. x
  • 13
    Vivaldi, Bach and the Concerto, Part I—Vivaldi and the Venetian Opera
    While a court organist in Weimar, Bach encountered the concerti of Antonio Vivaldi. Vivaldi, a fine violinist, wrote 500 concerti, 49 operas, and other sacred works. His style was greatly influenced by Venetian opera and Italian vocalism and language in general, which he transferred to the solo violin, the instrument most like the diva soprano. x
  • 14
    Vivaldi, Bach and the Concerto, Part II—Vivaldi's Model and Bach, Violin Concerto No. 2 in E Major
    The typical Vivaldi concerto had three movements with tempos that were fast-slow-fast respectively. His first movements were usually in ritornello form, his second movements cantabile and expressive, and his third movements either fugal or ritornello, and very upbeat. Bach elevated Vivaldi's model, combining it with his polyphonic processes to create a very rich and varied texture. x
  • 15
    Vivaldi, Bach and the Concerto, Part II—Bach Violin Concerto No. 2 in E Major (cont.)
    Bach's Brandenburg Concerti were six diverse pieces written between 1619 and 1621 for Prince Leopold's virtuoso orchestra at Coethen, and brought together by their dedication to the Margrave of Brandenburg, with whom Bach sought employment in March of 1621. x
  • 16
    Vivaldi, Bach and the Concerto, Part III—The Concerto Grosso and the Brandenburg Concerto No. 2
    Bach was unsuccessful in getting the job; the Margrave's little orchestra was probably overwhelmed by the complexity and difficulty of the pieces, but he left us with some of the very finest examples of the concerto grosso, a form in which a group of soloists, the concertino, is contrasted with the whole group. x
  • 17
    Bach and the French Style, Part I—Dance and the Orchestral Suite
    The popularity of social and courtly dance increased during the Renaissance. Two of the most popular dance types were the Pavanne and the Galliard. At no time was the influence of dance on music stronger or more pervasive than in the Baroque, and nowhere more than in the French court, which eventually became the center for dance music under Louis XIV. x
  • 18
    Dance and the Orchestral Suite (cont.)
    During the middle and late 17th century, the dances written for suites became more stylized, better for listening than dancing. Ballets de Cour, Masques, Balli, and Masqueratas were favorite late Renaissance/early Baroque court entertainments which combined staged and costumed dance performances with group dancing by the nobility, often led by Louis XIV. x
  • 19
    Bach and the French Style, Part II—The Keyboard Suite
    Much keyboard music of the late 17th and early 18th centuries is in the form of suites. French suites were collections of dances to be played in any order, at the performer's discretion. In France, orchestral suites were arranged for private performance, first for lute, and later for harpsichord. x
  • 20
    The Keyboard Suite (cont.)
    Bach wrote three large sets of keyboard suites, six complete suites in each set. They illustrate his genius in creating masterworks within a constrained form, using the harpsichord, an instrument of limited tonal resources. x
  • 21
    Bach and Opera, Part I—Cantata No. 140 Wachet auf, uns ruft die stimme
    The high point of the Lutheran worship service was the sermon, which was preceded by a cantata, which Bach sought to make a sermon in music. Wachet auf, ruft uns die stimme (Sleepers wake, a voice is calling) for the 27th Sunday after Trinity, is based on the parable of the wise and foolish virgins in Matthew's Gospel, chapter 25. x
  • 22
    Cantata No. 140 Wachet auf, uns ruft die stimme (cont.)
    Bach used the chorale tune in three of the movements. A solo bass voice was used to represent Christ in dialogue with the Christian soul (or the Church), represented by a solo soprano. The orchestra was used effectively to evoke the festive pomp of a wedding in which Christ is the bridegroom and the Church is his bride. x
  • 23
    Bach and Opera, Part II—Opera Buffa and the Secular Cantata, The Coffee Cantata
    Coffee drinking was a popular and controversial pastime in Bach's day, illegal in parts of Germany. A 1727 satire on coffee provided a libretto that appealed to Bach, who owned many coffee pots and an expensive coffee-making machine. Bach also had several daughters, and the eldest had just passed through adolescence. The conflict between father and daughter portrayed in the libretto would have seemed familiar! x
  • 24
    Opera Buffa and the Secular Cantata, The Coffee Cantata (cont.)
    The important comic opera La Serva Padrona was then being written by Pergolesi. It used the same Italian opera buffa conventions, and it dealt with the same basic idea of a teenage girl outwitting a pedantic father character. x
  • 25
    Bach Transcendent—The Saint Matthew Passion, Part I
    The Saint Matthew Passion was a surpassing work unlike anything of its time. Written to be performed on Good Friday in Holy Week, 1727, the Passion followed a long tradition of musical devotions in preparation for Easter. Bach expanded the form of the work and the performing forces, using two choirs (each with its own orchestra), a boy choir, and continuo. x
  • 26
    Bach Transcendent—The Saint Matthew Passion, Part II
    In the course of the four-hour Passion, Bach uses every style and compositional device known in his time. His use of the Passion Chorale five times in the work, each time with a different text and harmonization, helps to unify the vast structure musically, while at the same time providing a vehicle for expressing his personal faith and the five wounds of Christ. x
  • 27
    Bach Transcendent—The Saint Matthew Passion, Part III
    Bach embedded much musical and numerological symbolism into the Passion. For example, the key of E minor which opens the work has one sharp; in German the sharp was called a Kreuz, the same word for cross, making E minor the key of crucifixion. The libretto divided the events into two prologues and 15 "actions" but Bach further divides them into 27 actions. The number 27 was one of his favorite symbolic numbers, being a Trinitarian symbol (three to the third power). x
  • 28
    Bach Transcendent—The Saint Matthew Passion, Part IV
    At the end of the Passion, Bach brings the soloists together in opera chorus fashion to comment on the completed action and deliver the moral of the story. As in the opening, a throbbing, grieving chorus mourns the sacrificed Christ, yet hidden within it is a tender lullaby that looks forward to the Savior's awakening from the sleep of death. x
  • 29
    Bach Transcendent—The Goldberg Variations, Part I
    Bach's Goldberg Variations towers above every other work of this genre; certainly the 18th century produced nothing like it. So carefully and symmetrically constructed are the Variations, and so filled with numerical concepts, that they have stimulated a great body of discourse and analysis that ranges from the sober to the bizarre. They were written for a nobleman to be played during bouts of insomnia by his harpsichordist. x
  • 30
    Bach Transcendent—The Goldberg Variations, Part II
    The work contains 32 movements; the first and last are the same. The remaining 30 variations are built on the same ground bass or its harmonies. They divide at Variation 15, which ends the first half, after which the second half begins with a French overture. The variations display the full range of Baroque compositional techniques and forms, including dance, canon, fugue, invention, toccata, overture, and quodlibet. x
  • 31
    Bach Transcendent—The Goldberg Variations, Part III
    Bach organized the variations into trinities consisting of a character piece, a toccata, and a canon. These marvelous canons form the heart and soul of the Goldberg Variations. They are all canons for two voices, in strict imitation, and all are elaborated over a third voice, the thematic ground bass, except for the Canon at the Ninth, which is for the two canonic voices alone. x
  • 32
    Bach Transcendent—The Goldberg Variations, Part IV
    Some of the canons are mirrors, in which the follower voice does the opposite of the leader. Most of the variations are in a major key, but those in minor keys are placed at crucial points in the cycle, and they are deeply affecting and profound. x

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Robert Greenberg

About Your Professor

Robert Greenberg, Ph.D.
San Francisco Performances
Dr. Robert Greenberg is Music Historian-in-Residence with San Francisco Performances. A graduate of Princeton University, Professor Greenberg holds a Ph.D. in Music Composition from the University of California, Berkeley. He has seen his compositions—which include more than 45 works for a wide variety of instrumental and vocal ensembles—performed all over the world, including New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles,...
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Bach and the High Baroque is rated 4.8 out of 5 by 102.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Bach Decoded By now I’ve taken around a dozen and a half of Dr. Greenberg’s courses, including his eye-opening “How to Listen to and Understand Great Music”, which got me started on TGC offerings. Obviously then I am a Greenberg fan, although some of his course are (for me) better than others. This course stands with his (and TTC) very best offerings. For those who love music, run, don’t walk to the keyboard and order this course. This course is for those who don’t like Bach or counterpoint, for those who do, but don’t really know what is going on, for those who are moderately familiar with Bach’s music and (I am not in this category) for those who really know quite a bit about him and his music. For example, I am very familiar with the 2nd Brandenburg, and still really learned quite a bit during the series of lectures devoted to the concerto. In typical Greenberg fashion, he does not plunge right into Bach, but sets that stage (and our understanding) by preceding Bach with some examples of Vivaldi and that is preceded by Monteverdi and Corelli as for an understanding of how the music of the Baroque developed. Greenberg begins before the beginning, but by the time he introduces the Brandenburg Concertos our ears and intellect are prepared to learn quite a great deal. Now I better understand the critic who wrote, “I have done nothing to be worthy of the Second Brandenburg. Dr. Greenberg spends time detailing how fugues work, using the Toccata and Fugue in D minor as a familiar vehicle. He does the same with orchestral and keyboard suites. And he also examines Bach’s cantatas, including the secular “Coffee Cantata”. Dr. Greenberg uses this example to delve into Bach’s personal life, some of it perhaps a bit speculative, but entertaining nonetheless. The two sets of lectures that helped me the most were the ones on “The Saint Mathew Passion” and “The Goldberg Variations”. Primarily I think because I’ve never thought I had the time, energy and undivided attention to get through the 4 plus hours of the Passion, nor really have been able to understand what was going on in the Variations. Each work gets four full lectures and there is plenty of preparatory information in earlier lectures that provide a sound platform for helping to understand and to hear the analysis of Bach’s music. Now I anticipate listening to the St. Mathew Passion. I think that I am now ready to understand a bit better what is going on in the Goldberg Variations, although not with anything approaching an expert ear. Although I mostly listened to this course on audio, I did go through a few of the lectures a second time via video and found parts helpful in following the musical analysis. Although Dr. Greenberg talks up his Wordscores, I’ve never found them particularly helpful in any of his courses, primarily because they don’t work so well on the digital page as they do on the printed one. Still I think that I’ll give the one on the Variations a try as I listen to them the next time. There is so much to like about this course, that it seems there is much more on which to comment. For example the overall structure of the course is rock-solid and within each individual lecture there is plenty done to prepare us for a deeper understanding of the music. Typically, we are given a simple, musical phrase to sharpen our ear for the complexities that are to come, and often much earlier background to prepare us for that simple phrase. His delivery is given from handwritten notes, recorded music, and demonstrations of portions of the music at his piano. It all integrates seamlessly. Get this course. I don’t have a rating high enough for the value I received.
Date published: 2020-09-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A very good addition to Dr Greenberg's oeuvre I have enjoyed a number of Dr Greenberg's courses, spanning perhaps 2 decades, and it is interesting to see the evolution of his style over that time. He is always very informative, and listening to him is enjoyable. This course is somewhat more involved with the mechanics of making the music than many of his other courses, but I find it interesting, even though I am not basically a music scholar.
Date published: 2020-07-29
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Wonderful teaching! We listened to two lectures every second evening plus the related music. Wonderful teaching well laid out and relatively easy to understand. Greatly expanded our understanding of Bach.
Date published: 2020-07-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Enlightening! I played an instrument in school for many years. They taught the "hows" but not so much the "whys". This course (I'm about 1/3 through) is helping me to understand the details so I understand the big picture! I love the pipe organ and thus Bach, and this course is helping me to understand both. Dr. Greenberg is doing a great job! I have not been disappointed with any of the many courses I purchased.
Date published: 2020-05-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Absolutely wonderful! I purchased this course to add substance to my stay-at-home other than a book or newspapers. This is so much more than I hoped for! Challenging yet entertaining, a delight to watch. My plan was to watch one episode a day from Monday through Friday. I will miss it over the weekend unless I decide I just can't wait to experience the next episode! Thank you Dr. Greenberg and the Great Courses!
Date published: 2020-05-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Outstanding professor! I've bought many Great Courses taught by Professor Greenberg, and he's done a fantastic job on every one including this one.
Date published: 2020-03-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great course; some insensitive gender references Greenberg is a great teacher. Integrates musical examples well, blends history with music, and explicated the musical material engagingly. He is prone to gender references that may have been unexceptional in 1995, but are jarring now. Someone should review and revise.
Date published: 2019-11-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Title explained the breadth of the course. The lecturer shared his enthusiasm convincingly, with historical horizon to help explain why Bach was not well known till well after his time.
Date published: 2019-10-01
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