Bach at the Keyboard


For the past two centuries, the world has admired Johann Sebastian Bach as a great composer – perhaps the greatest of all. But in his day, he was known and respected for his amazing skills on the organ, as he traveled from town to town, installing and tuning new instruments and displaying his remarkable talent for improvising. But Bach also excelled at the harpsichord (the favored keyboard instrument before the piano came along), composing exercises for his students, and concertos for himself. Today, musicians can choose either the harpsichord or piano to play Bach's wondrous music. In this Active Minds program, we'll explore his brilliant keyboard works.


We've all become used to the grand piano as the concert keyboard instrument of choice. But in Bach's day, it didn't exist. Instead, two more modest instruments were found in homes and royal courts: the quiet-sounding clavichord and the somewhat louder harpsichord. The latter gained the most attention from composers and players because of its volume and larger range of notes. But it had its limits. A small quill was moved by pressing a key, resulting in a plucking of the string. Alas, the sound stopped once the string was struck. In addition, there was no way to make the resulting note louder or softer. Finally, the music emerged as tinny and limited in color (compared to the modern piano). That would change late in Bach's life, when an Italian named Cristofari invented a keyboard instrument that utilized a series of hammers to hit the string with force (“Forte”) or with gentleness (“Piano”). It was a revelation, and it quickly drove the harpsichord to near-extinction in the mid- to late-1700s. Bach actually tried out this new invention, dubbed the fortepiano or pianoforte (since it could play loud and soft). But it needed more work – something that would occupy builders and inventors for decades to follow. Finally, in the 1820s, the piano as we know it began to dominate musical life in Europe. Mozart, Beethoven and all the great 19th-Century composers who followed recognized the wondrous possibilities of the piano. But where does that leave the music of Bach? Right there at the top. His music for harpsichord was so brilliant that it was easily adapted to the newly developed piano. Beethoven and Mozart had studied Bach's two books of preludes and fugues, known as the Well-Tempered Clavier. Today, piano students learn their chops by conquering the two- and three-part Inventions, the Partitas and Suites and other works Bach wrote for study and performance. But there was more: Concertos for 1, 2, 3 and even 4 keyboards (some adapted from other Bach works, some from pieces by Vivaldi and others). Many are heard today on harpsichord, as well as piano. Beyond those keyboard works sit the greatest of Bach's keyboard works: the huge number of pieces for organ. Here, Bach was in a class by himself as organist – in his day, he was known as a fabulous player more than a remarkable composer. Employed at several churches and cathedrals during his lengthy career, he composed organ works for services and for church performance, including some massive preludes and fugues, chorale preludes and numerous smaller pieces. His Toccata and Fugue in D minor is perhaps his most familiar organ composition, but there are dozens of other masterpieces, all reminding us of the unequaled greatness of Johann Sebastian Bach.

Exploration Questions

  • What is a “manual” and how does it apply to harpsichords and organs?
  • Which of Bach's church organs are still around and still playable?
  • What is meant by “Well-Tempered”?
  • Which composers' music did Bach adapt for his own use?

Reflective Questions

  • When you listen to one of his two-part organ works (prelude and fugue, toccata and fugue, etc.), which part do you enjoy more?
  • Do you prefer hearing Bach on the harpsichord or the piano?

More to Explore

Books For Further Reading

  • Wolff, Christoph. Johann Sebastian Bach – The Learned Musician. W.W. Norton and Company. 2001. 599 pages. Of the numerous books on Bach, this one comes closest to presenting a picture of the composer as human being, rather than as musical god. Highly readable and enlightening.
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  • Gordon, David J. The Little Bach Book. Lucky Valley Press. 2017. 160 pages. A charming collection of biographical tidbits, valuable facts and some delicious anecdotes. A fun read.
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