Bach in Books!

This spring we’re doing lots of great Bach related activities including Bach in Brandenburg and the online class On Bach’s Time – so we thought we’d give you some recommendations for books to fill your spring with even more Bach.

There’s lots of great books about JS, but these are ones folks at the SSO have read and recommended!


Music in the Castle of Heaven

by John Eliot Gardiner

Lifelong fans of Bach’s music will be thrilled to add this academic and richly illustrated volume to their shelves. Peppered with musical analyses and covering a wide spectrum of Bach’s life as a composer, this text is a deep dive into all things Bach. At times scholarly and at others subtle, this book provides the reader with the opportunity to familiarize themselves more fully with the period in which Bach created. Clocking in at almost seven hundred pages in length, this book is an ideal read for those seeking total immersion in the life and music of this legendary composer.



Harmony & Discord: 

by Julian Shuckburgh

Have you ever wondered what sort of mischief Bach got up to as a youngster? If so, then this book (which was carefully researched over a period of ten years) is definitely for you! One of the more impressive features of this text is its chronology of Bach’s compositions, the first definitive version to see publication. The biography itself has been described as “an impassioned, controversial, and personal portrait of the man who composed some of the most sublime music ever written, in spite of—or perhaps because of—a life blighted by tragedy.”




The Cello Suites: J. S. Bach, Pablo Casals, and the Search for a Baroque Masterpiece

by Eric Siblin

Easily the most unique book on the list, The Cello Suites was written after the author finished a ten-year career as a music journalist for the Montreal Gazette. Eric Siblin creates a narrative described as “part biography, part music history, and part literary mystery.” Chronicling Bach’s cello suites from the disappearance of their manuscript in the 1700s to their eventual reappearance in Barcelona, Spain, The Cello Suites will captivate classical music devotees and historical fiction lovers alike. The author’s passion for Bach’s suites for cello shine through the text’s insightful prose, establishing The Cello Suites as a must-read for anyone who delights in orchestral music and history. 

Bach and the Plague

The spring of 1694 was a time of upheaval for the young Johann Sebastian Bach. His elder cousin, Johann Christoph, had been sent for to repair the organ of St. George’s church near Sebastian’s family home. As J.C. tinkered with the organ and the young Sebastian Bach looked on in wonder, a messenger arrived at the church to deliver news to the two Bachs: Sebastian’s mother had suddenly taken ill and could not be revived.

Johann Christian Bach

Within days, Bach’s father Ambrosius would fall ill in a similar fashion to his wife, without even a hope of recovery. The following weeks were chaos for the orphaned Bach children. Their family’s home was put up for sale, and Sebastian Bach was sent to live with his elder brother of 14 years, (also named Johann Christoph) in Ohrdurf. Although Sebastian would have much preferred to become a music apprentice to the cousin who was with him on that terrible day, Johann Christoph lived in what was quickly becoming a quarantined region of Eisenach.

In those days, the bubonic plague was known to surface in certain Thuringian towns before receding once sanitation precautions were put into effect. A particularly deadly variant was sweeping over J.C.’s home right at the time that Bach’s parents were taken by illness. Had he been old enough to decide for himself, a young Sebastian Bach traveling home with J.C. would have surely run the risk of contracting this variant…and one of the most influential composers of the Baroque era may have succumbed to devastating illness before the greatest musical works of his life were penned.

The memory of losing both parents to illness travelled with Bach as he matured into an outstanding composer. At the age of thirty-eight Bach composed his twenty-fifth cantata, “Es ist nichts Gesundes an meinem Leibe“ (There is Nothing Sound in my Body“) following the dreadful outbreak of plague in Marseilles, France. Conditions had been so poor in the areas hardest hit that an estimated 100,000 people lost their lives to the deadly disease. The text Bach chose for his cantata is particularly moving in light of our world’s current pandemic scenario, as Johann Jacob Rambach’s poetry describes a people stricken with sickness that stubbornly refuses to leave them.

Turning to his music as a fortress of comfort during times of uncertainty throughout Europe, Johann Sebastian Bach marched ever onward in his ambitions as a composer. Giving the beauty of his music back to a world which had unjustly torn him away from his parents far too soon, Bach turned the tragedy of a youth touched by pandemic into endless compositional achievement. Perhaps Bach’s faith in the healing power of music is what inspired him to choose Rambach’s poem for Cantata No. 25, the most poignant line of which reads “My plague cannot be healed by any herb or ointment, other than the balm of Gilead.” In all we have to face as the pandemic rages on, we must remember the cleansing effect that music has for our collective soul.

Where is Brandenburg exactly…

You might have heard about Bach’s Brandenburg Concerti, but how much do we know about the city that inspired their namesake? What happened before Bach presented the concerti to the city’s Margrave? What is a “Margrave”, anyway? Let’s delve into the historic past of this great city, from its founding to the 20th century…

In the beginning, Brandenburg was part of a region traditionally inhabited by an ancient people known as the Semnones. They lived there peacefully before being ousted in the 7th century by Slavic peoples who had settled to the East (themselves fleeing the influence of invading Huns and Avars who were in the midst of ransacking their country). These Slavic colonizers (known as Wends) had three hundred years of relative prosperity before a German king (referred to as Henry the Fowler) captured the capitol of Branibor during the 10th century.

In the years following occupation by German forces, the name of the capitol morphed from Branibor into Brennabor, finally becoming Brennaburg. An uprising allowed the Wends to drive the Germans out of Brennaburg, but soon after a new player joined the fight for conquest of the area: Lothar, duke of Saxony. He regained during a fierce thirty year campaign those areas lost by the troops of Henry the Fowler during the uprising. Lothar was eventually named German Emperor, and put a man named Albert the Bear in charge of Brennaburg and the surrounding area (the entirety of which was now referred to as the Northern March).

The descendants of Albert the Bear (known as the Ascanians) assisted in the founding of Berlin (then just a small township) and divided the Northern March into three sections: Old March (Altmark), Middle March (Mittelmark), and New March (Neumark). Each section of the Northern March was ruled by a specific dignitary, known as a margrave. These margraves steadily grew in power until 1356, when their titles received major a boost in influence: they were established as prince-electors, and were allowed to vote in the election of the Holy Roman Emperor. So Brennaburg became the Electorate of Brandenburg, and would hold that title for years afterward.   

The death of the last descendant of Albert the Bear brought about a period of chaos in the 1360s, and King Wenceslas of Luxembourg (yes, the same good king referenced in the winter carol) tried to keep the Northern March together. But the local nobility were growing in power, and the poorer were growing poorer by the day. Perhaps this is why King Wenceslas journeys out on a winter’s evening to bring alms to the poor in the holiday carol which bears his name.   

The year was 1415, and the Hohenzollern clan arrived to join the fray! Frederick of Hohenzollern was appointed elector by Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund to the Electorate of Brandenburg. Frederick’s son, known by his troops as Iron Tooth, got the nobles sorted out and kept peace in the towns while fighting off warring Pomeranians (the people, not the dogs).

Things really started developing in the Electorate of Brandenburg after Iron Tooth’s brother (Albert III Achilles) got the Pomeranians to settle down a bit. Roman law was introduced by Elector Joachim I, and hi son Joachim II made a daring deal with the Duke of Prussia which promised half of Prussia’s resources to Brandenburg if the Duke’s family tree should topple over. The Duke’s daughter Anna married Elector John Sigismund of Brandenburg, and the streets of the Electorate ran with Prussian gold upon Sigismund’s receipt of inheritance in 1618.   

And then it was the Thirty Years War, here to shake things up once again. Elector George William tried for neutrality, but failed. Invading Swedes held Brandenburg for several years before Williams’ son Frederick (who was known as the “Great Elector”) took back control. He then decided to try his hand at gathering as many local territories as possible. Minden, Kammin, Halberstadt, east Pomerania, and Magdeburg all joined the state of Brandenburg in quick succession.

As the leader of one of the most powerful states in Germany (rivalled only by Prussia and Austria), passed quite the legacy on to his son (also named Frederick). A military man from head to toe, young Freddy made quite a career for himself on the field of battle. He allied himself with other German princes to battle Louis XIV of France, and helped William of Orange out in his march on England in 1688.

As the year 1700 loomed, the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I had a major problem on his hands: there was far too much competition for the throne of Spain, competition which was growing nastier by the day. Leopold I couldn’t intervene without more soldiers, so he decided to name Frederick III King of Prussia in exchange for the aid of 8,000 soldiers. Prussia couldn’t refuse this deal, as their dominion wasn’t technically a part of the Empire like Brandenburg was. So 1701 saw Frederick III crowned King in Prussia, and after this event Brandenburg added few territories and turned its attention towards supporting education and developing infrastructure.

Two centuries passed, and Brandenburg continued to flourish as a powerful independent state until being absorbed as a province of German Prussia after World War I. Prussia dissolved after World War II, which meant that every part of Brandenburg to the west of the mighty Oder River became a different part of Germany. When Germany became partitioned into East and West, Brandenburg was fractured into districts (similar to the days of the Northern March). Brandenburg was ultimately able to make a comeback in 1990 just before the toppling of the Berlin Wall. The reunification of East and West signaled a new era of prosperity for the city, which has continued right up to the present day.