We know that Bach comes from a family of musicians.

But who was his teacher in composition?. Who did he study with? Or was he self-taught?

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    Have you already read the encyclopedia overview stuff? de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johann_Sebastian_Bach Oct 31, 2019 at 21:47
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    yes I have, that's why I posted this question. Oct 31, 2019 at 22:00
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    @AlbrechtHügli can you please clarify, what exactly remains unclear after reading that?
    – Arsak
    Oct 31, 2019 at 22:04
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    To me there's nothing unclear. But I ask this question because it won't be known to everybody ... Oct 31, 2019 at 22:21
  • This is actually a very similar question ... but there was no hint to it when I asked mine. I will poste my answer here and later copy it there. Then we can delete this duplicate if necessary ... Nov 1, 2019 at 8:49

3 Answers 3


A few things to note regarding the other answer and C.P.E. Bach's obituary:

First, CPE Bach and a number of Bach's students and admirers (including Forkel, Kirnberger, etc.) basically had an agenda in expanding J.S. Bach's reputation after his death. JSB was not primarily known as a composer during his lifetime, but his students and sons wanted him to be remembered. There is thus undoubtedly a bit of exaggeration in some of the early biographies, as noted by later biographers.

Second, I think before adopting terms like "autodidact" and assuming JSB had no training in "composition," but only training in organ, we should be a bit more clear about what training in "composition" and in "organ" constituted at that time. A skilled organist, like JSB's brother Johann Christoph (who studied with Pachelbel) would likely have a knowledge of music theory and musical structure on par with at least what someone with an undergraduate degree in composition would have today. To be an effective organist around 1700 in this part of Germany would require complex knowledge of musical improvisation. Organists were expected to fill out figured bass when accompanying an ensemble, sometimes completely extemporize accompaniments, and often produce original fantasias and even fugues on subjects from hymn tunes just in the course of an average Sunday church service, to serve as preludes, interludes, etc.

All of this requires a detailed knowledge of musical structure and the basics of putting together music (i.e., what we'd now likely call "composition"), even if it was mostly taught as patterns at the keyboard to fill out various chord progressions, create effective transitions, utilize imitation in melodic subjects, etc.

So when CPEB reports that JSB received only lessons to be an organist from his older brother Johann Christoph, we may assume that there was a lot more going on there than simply reading scores and manual/pedal technique (as we often think of in modern classical keyboard performers). Also, the organ is an instrument that naturally teaches one some principles of orchestration, as one learns how to use various combinations of stops, how to combine manuals and pedals, etc. to create an effective texture. If JSB's brother was at all an effective organist (which we should assume, based on his education from Pachelbel and his position), he could have easily passed on a lot of knowledge in "organ lessons" that today we'd likely consider to be closer to "composition."

There's a lot more analysis possible when we begin to look at the little bits we can glean from JSB's biography. JSB's father, Ambrosius, was not known as a composer. But Ambrosius's cousin, another Johann Christoph Bach, was a noted composer at the church where Ambrosius worked. Johann Christoph was lated cited by JSB and JSB's students with reverence for his compositions. JSB was therefore exposed at an early age to competent relatives who were composers, and it's likely there was at least some influence there. (Note that JSB himself taught at least a half-dozen of his various Bach family relations in composition aside from his sons. The Bach family was so well-known as musicians and composers by around 1700 that the word "Bach" in that part of Germany was almost a synonym for "musician." Older members of the family teacher younger ones in various aspects of music was just assumed to be normal.)

We don't have other details of JSB's musical training, but he clearly was brought up among a family of incredibly skilled musicians and composers. He was trained in organ at least by his brother, and an organist's skills at this time would have prepared him for a lot of tasks that we would now call "composition."

Lastly, we should note that there were definitely strong characteristics to JSB's personality. Some have characterized him as an impossible and argumentative perfectionist (who got himself in trouble on a number of occasions and even thrown into prison when he attempted to leave a position); others as a more generous teacher. But what's clear is that JSB was a perfectionist. He did not tolerate incompetence.

And he was orphaned at a rather young age, which led to his time living with his elder brother. Although some scholars view the stories where young JSB fought against his elder brother to copy compositions by moonlight (because money was tight, and Johann Christoph apparently thought it a waste) as apocryphal, perhaps there's some nugget of truth there. It's very clear that JSB had very high standards for what constituted a competent keyboardist. This is a man who valued his ability to improvise fugues so strongly that when the King of Prussia embarrassed him by asking him to compose a 6-voice fugue on a difficult subject on the spot, JSB turned around and improvised a 3-voice fugue, then a 6-voice fugue on a different subject, and then sent the King an extended set of the most insane contrapuntal variations, canons, and other musical whimsies on the King's theme just to prove his competence when he wasn't able to fulfill the King's request on the spot.

JSB thought a keyboard player should have such improvisatory skills, and he was one of the last to possess them, as fuguing gradually went out of fashion and improvising in the Galante style and other modern styles became more in fashion for JSB's sons.

To JSB, a competent organist could do a lot of things that only someone with at least an undergraduate degree in music composition or music theory might be able to do today (and in fact, probably couldn't do to JSB's standard). So when CPE Bach says his father only learned to be an "organist" from his brother, it's likely that JSB learned a lot. And maybe, given the stories about the copying of manuscripts by moonlight, JSB did hold a grudge and didn't want to give too much credit to his inferior older brother. He certainly didn't want to give his older brother credit for teaching him to become a composer.

After all, his older brother Johann Christoph may have been a skilled organist, but there's no evidence he ever produced musical compositions. So yes, JSB was likely on his own in developing the more advanced compositional skills. But JSB may have come to that prepared by interactions with his family members with a huge amount of music theoretical and practical improvisatory background that made it easier for him to learn to compose.

Just as a final note: we also know JSB was well-known in his lifetime as an expert on organ repair, maintenance, etc. Where did he acquire such skills? It's reasonable to assume he probably picked some significant background up from his father's cousin Johann Christoph (a skilled organist) and his elder brother Johann Chrisoph (also an organist) in the course of regular maintenance of organs when he was a child. We don't assume he was a complete "autodidact" in organ building too, as he came from a family where knowledge about organs was common, and he was constantly around this stuff as a child. Similarly, there's no reason to suppose he didn't pick up significant background on the skills to be a composer when growing up in these circumstances. This doesn't take away anything from JSB's accomplishments or his own learning -- just noting that he didn't start from "nothing" and in fact likely started with more knowledge than students we'd call "trained composers" often start with today.

  • This is a very careful and critical research and a good summary. I‘d like to add this link where the author seems to doubt about the glorification of the obituary‘s chief author e.g. the 2 points: the death year of JS elder brother and the „myth“ of the moonlight copies all over 6 months: pdfs.semanticscholar.org/08e2/… Nov 3, 2019 at 12:36

No. The term autodidact -- as a distinction from someone who'd earned a diploma -- didn't become well known until two hundred years after Bach died. Even in German.

If Bach considered himself such, so did half the populace.


Actually this was question meant as a Q/A, as I knew Bach arranged a lot of music by other composers like e.g. Vivaldi, but I didn‘t know that he considered himself as an autodidact.

And I thought this might be interesting for all of you.

So the intent of this question was to point out that Bach was autodidact and learned composing by studying, copying and transcription of works by other composers:

Bach studied the works of different composers from childhood, learning from them through listening, reading, transcribing, editing and imitating the music as well as taking over compositional means, forms and genera.


Music creation

Bach - a self-taught composer

Bach's son Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach testifies that Bach considered himself a self-taught composer. There was no guaranteed composition lessons. The instruction with his brother in Ohrdruf "may well have reproached an organist, and so on. nothing else "(C. Ph. E. Bach 1775). Even to Bach's stay at Buxtehude, which lasts several months, there is no evidence that he had received composition lessons on this occasion. Forkel reports Bach's statement: "I must have been diligent; whoever is so diligent, will be able to do so well. "

"The soulful has made his own taste by his own additives. [...] His own contemplation has made him pure in his youth. [...] He has learned the arrangement of the orchestra through the performance of very many [...] starry music, without the systematic study of phonology. "

C. Ph. E. Bach: obituary, 1754 [12]


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