Bach’s Top 10 Works


Share this Post

blue portrait of Bach with a 10 and text "top ten" superimposedIt's time for WFMT's latest Composer Top 10! Previously, we asked the expert hosts and producers at WFMT to vote for the top works of Beethoven and Mozart, and now we are back with a Top 10 for Johann Sebastian Bach!

Few can reasonably claim to define an entire era of music, but Bach's astonishingly varied output simultaneously epitomizes the Baroque era while also setting the stage for subsequent chapters of classical music history.

We think Tad Hassa, WFMT's music database assistant, said it best: "It all starts with Bach, it's the beginning and the end, laughter and sorrow. When in doubt listen to some Bach, the music will explain everything there is, because everything is in this music."

10. The Art of the Fugue, BWV 1080

9. Concerto for Two Violins in D minor, BWV 1043 — (tie)

9. Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin, BWV 1001–1006 — (tie)

7. Mass in B minor, BWV 232 — (tie)


Oliver Camacho, Music Director: ​​My first choice, not because it is the work I want to listen to the most, but because of its comprehensive inclusion of every musical device and every skill, it seems to be the final say on the Baroque period as a whole, as if Bach was saying: "That's it. We're done. Let's move on to the next chapter in music."

Daniel Hautzinger, Digital Content Producer for WTTW: Monumental, moving, and lasting.

Essential Recordings

Daniel Hautzinger: John Eliot Gardiner leading any choral music (and writing about it) is always a delight (or a downer, if that's the music!)

Oliver Camacho: My taste always changes, Gardiner is home base for Bach, in general, but I also like Philippe Herreweghe and his Collegium Vocale, Ghent.

7. Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565 — (tie)

Essential Recordings

Tad Hassa, Music Database Assistant: Olivier Latry's Bach to the Future

5. St Matthew Passion, BWV 244


Cydne Gillard, Producer for Exploring Music: My favorite works of Bach's are inside these bigger works — "Erbarme dich, mein Gott" from St Matthew Passion, "Dona Nobis Pacem" from the B Minor Mass, and the second movement of the Double Violin Concerto in D minor.

4. Goldberg Variations, BWV 988

Essential Recordings

Tad Hassa, Music Database Assistant: Wanda Landowska's recordings of the Goldberg Variations on RCA Victor Red Seal

Keegan Morris, Multimedia Producer: It's hard to pick anything other than Glenn Gould's iconoclastic, polarizing recordings. He recorded the full variations twice: first at the beginning of his career and then shortly before his death. What a contrast!

Gould's career-launching 1955 release, his debut recording, is rip-roaring and impetuous. The bookend 1981 release is at times slow — some criticize it as ponderous — and almost mournful. Even for those who don't appreciate Gould's idiosyncratic playing, his career is inextricably linked to the work. In fact, the 1993 film Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould lifts the structure of the 32-part Goldberg Variations to depict the life of its most famous interpreter.

The 1955 Recording

The 1981 Re-Recording

3. The Well-Tempered Clavier, BWV 846–893


Adela Skowronski, Production Assistant & Digital Contributor: The Well-Tempered Clavier is not only one of Bach's most enjoyable works, but it's also one of the most important works in Western Music History...  at least, for pianists! Preludes and Fugues in all major and minor keys? While teaching you about fugues? Come on now. So fantastic. 

Daniel Goldberg, Producer: Bach's clever manual on keyboard performance. Without this work, Mozart, Chopin, and Beethoven wouldn't be the same.  

Daniel Hautzinger, Digital Content Producer for WTTW: I have to put The Well-Tempered Clavier first, both because I love it and continually return to it and because so much later piano repertoire flows from it. Stravinsky used to start his day by playing from the Well-Tempered Clavier every morning… I think that's a wonderful practice.

Essential Recordings

Daniel Goldberg: Wendy Carlos (Switched-On Bach) or Andras Schiff

2. Six Cello Suites, BWV 1007-1012


Robbie Ellis, Producer & Host: The Cello Suites are number one for me, as odd a choice as it seems. Not only are they the foundation for all cello technique, I honestly think those suites are in the DNA of basically every piece for (non-keyboard) solo instrument that came after it. Paganini's caprices, Arban's etudes, Ysaÿe's sonatas, Hailstork's Flute Set... all of them owe a debt to Bach. Plus basically, every instrument has given the cello suites a go.

Daniel Goldberg, Producer: Meditative bliss. I find myself going to these works when I need to escape for a bit.

Essential Recordings

Candice Agree, Program Host & Producer; Daniel Goldberg: János Starker’s recordings for Mercury Living Presence

Daniel Hautzinger, Digital Content Producer for WTTW: Paolo Pandolfo playing the cello suites on viola da gamba was revelatory to me in how absolutely musical and natural Bach's music can be despite its complications and intense craft. And it's a great example of how Bach is one of the few composers whose works translate extraordinarily well to instruments they weren't written for, not that he doesn't occasionally utilize instrumental colors to great effect, especially in the cantatas.

Tad Hassa, Music Database Assistant: Pablo Casals' recordings

1. Brandenburg Concertos, BWV 1046-1051


Robbie Ellis, Producer and Host: They've permeated into our consciousness about as prominently as Vivaldi's Four Seasons.

Daniel Goldberg, Producer: To me, it's hard to imagine classical music without this work. The rhythm, melody, and mathematical formula of this work make it perfect for both the new and experienced listener.

Oliver Camacho, Music Director: The Brandenburg Concertos are another "Best Of Era" collection, giving listeners a tour of the best solo instruments of the 18th century, and providing thrills and inspiration throughout. Who can forget the first time they hear the extended harpsichord solo in No. 5, or the edge-of-your-seat trumpet solo in the finale of No. 2? These concertos individually are welcome listening any time of day, any time of the year. If you are in the audience when they are performed collectively, it means that you have a few hours of feeling very lucky and may leave the concert hall inspired to be better at your skill.

Essential Recordings

Jan Weller, Announcer: The Brandenburgs played by the Berlin Academy for Ancient Music (they’ve recorded them twice!)

Daniel Goldberg: Trevor Pinnock and the English Concert

Oliver Camacho: There are so many! I would shout out Apollo’s Fire because of their showmanship and sense of fun. I saw them perform No. 5 live and Jeannette Sorrell [the ensemble’s founder and artistic director] really made a meal out of the extended harpsichord solo.

Also receiving votes: Actus tragicus, BWV 106; French Suites, BWV 812-817; Harpsichord Concerto in D minor, BWV 1052

What do you think about our list? Let us know your picks by filling out this listener-only survey!