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Qwiz5 Quizbowl Essentials – Johann Sebastian Bach

Johann Sebastian Bach is regarded by some as the greatest composer of all time. Predating Mozart and Beethoven, Bach created intricate, baroque compositions renowned for their musical virtuosity and harmonic complexity. As the scion of a musical family, Bach was known in his time as an organist first and a composer second. However, his image was burnished by praise from those who followed in his footsteps, including Mozart, Beethoven, and Mendelssohn. There’s no turning Bach now--it’s time for this week’s Qwiz5!

By analyzing questions, you can see patterns emerge, patterns that will help you answer questions. Qwiz5 is all about those patterns. In each installment of Qwiz5, we take an answer line and look at its five most common clues. Here we explore five clues that will help you answer a tossup on Johann Sebastian Bach.


Bach had been composing for years by the time he composed the Brandenburg Concertos between 1708-1721, but they were among his most famous early pieces. These six concertos were only later given their famous name. Bach composed them while working as the music director of Cöthen in an (unsuccessful) attempt to secure the patronage of the Margrave of Brandenburg. The concertos are written in a concerto grosso style, showcasing several different musical instruments rather than just one. Each concerto has unique features. For instance, the 6th features violas and viola de gambas, but lacks violins. The 5th contains a notable harpsichord cadenza.


The Well-Tempered Clavier consists of 48 pieces composed by Bach: 24 preludes and 24 fugues. The collection was revolutionary in its time for its usage of a tuning system that would work equally across all keys, known as “well-tempered” tuning. “Clavier” refers to the fact that the pieces could be played on any keyboard instrument, including harpsichord, organ, or clavichord. The Well-Tempered Clavier is designed in part to instruct musicians, and thus explores arpeggios and chords in all keys. The collection’s opening piece, Prelude in C Major, was later placed below the vocal line of Charles Gounod’s Ave Maria.


The Goldberg Variations, in addition to being one of Bach’s most-beloved works, also have an interesting (if not entirely confirmed) story behind their origin. According to some accounts, the insomniac Count Kaiserling sent his personal musician, Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, to Bach to commission a piece that would send the restless Count to sleep. Doubts have emerged about this narrative, but the piece does seem ripe to be used as a lullaby. In it, Bach begins with a simple aria which he then subjects to 30 different variations. Although written for harpsichord, the piece has been performed on piano as well.


Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion is one of the most celebrated oratorios of all time. The oratorio tells the story of the final days of Jesus Christ as related in the Gospel of Matthew. Lyrics for the oratorio were compiled by Christian Friedrich Henrici, known by the pseudonym Picander. Picander introduces two groups in dialogue with each other: the daughters of Zion and the faithful souls. Bach reinforces this division by creating music for two distinct ensembles, known as coro I and coro II. The Passion was notably conducted by Felix Mendelssohn in 1829, an act which helped introduce Bach to a new generation of composers.


The Musical Offering is one of Bach’s greatest contrapuntal masterpieces. In the collection Bach explores a chromatic theme created by Frederick the Great. The Musical Offering runs the gamut of musical styles, from canons and ricercari (an antiquated form of the fugue) for three and six voices to the relatively modern trio sonata. Bach demonstrates his compositional mastery throughout, sometimes playing the royal theme at different speeds, upside down, or even backwards (“crab” canon).


Quizbowl is about learning, not rote memorization, so we encourage you to use this as a springboard for further reading rather than as an endpoint. Here are a few things to check out:

  • Bach was an expert at counterpoint. OK, well, what exactly IS counterpoint?

  • Bach had many musical descendants. PDQ Bach is not among them.

  • Bach wasn’t immediately well-known after his death. Other composers, however, recognized his genius.

  • For those of you who are more interested in the technical aspects of tuning systems, and why equal temperament was so revolutionary, check out this video!

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