Johann Bahr (ca 1610−1670)


Johann (Johan) Bahr is believed to have been born between 1610 and 1615 in the region of Schleswig in northern Germany. Presumably he studied in Hamburg. From around 1630 until his death in 1670 (he was buried on 3 June), Bahr worked in the town of Visby on the Swedish island of Gotland. Beginning in 1638 he was the regular organist at the cathedral of St Mary. As a composer he was part of the northern German baroque era and his four preserved compositions are included in the collection ‘Visby (Petri) tablature’ as well as the ‘Källunge Codex’. Bahr performed an important role as an intermediary between the north German music tradition and Gotland’s music life during the island’s first years as a part of Sweden.


Information about Johann Bahr’s earlier life is rather scant, however one can draw some conclusions about his initial years based on his later activities in the Swedish town of Visby on the island of Gotland. It is clear that his brother Eric came to Visby from Schleswig in 1620 and worked there as a shoemaker. Existing sources indicate that Johann Bahr arrived in Visby around 1630 as a student in order to establish himself, with his brother’s support. The family seal shows a bear and some members of the family, including brother Eric − but not Johann − wrote their name as ‘Bähr’, as in the German word Bär, meaning bear.

When Bahr came to Gotland he already had a reputation as a skilful musician, and at least as early as 1633 he began to assist the German organist David Herlicius at Vår Frus kyrka (today the cathedral of St Mary). He succeeded Herlicius as the regular organist in 1638, an appointment that was made public with an announcement on one of the doors of the organ housing. Bahr married Elsa Munck, the widow of a merchant and sister to an assistant town chaplain, and together they had a son, Peder Munck Bahr (1642−1724). The son would later become Bahr’s successor as the church organist.

Johann Bahr was not a Swedish composer in the modern sense of the word. His years on Gotland were marked by much political uncertainty, not least since the island in 1645, through the Treaty of Brömsebro, was ceded to Sweden from Denmark (although Sweden did not gain full control until 1679). The town of Visby was ravaged during the conflicts but began to be rebuilt in the late 1600s, with Peder Munck Bahr playing an important role for both musical and church life. Existing sources reveal that during this period, there were limited financial resources available for the church’s music life − information indicates that during the 1650s four schoolboys were paid to be the church singers.

Intermediary for a north German tradition

During the 20th century Johann Bahr’s name became associated internationally with the important manuscript, the ‘Visby (Petri) tablature’ (also domestically known as the ‘Johann Bahr tablature book’). This collection is a major source for the important north German organ tradition around the year 1600 − specifically music from Hamburg by Hieronymus Praetorius (1560−1629) and his son Jacob Praetorius (1586−1651). Berendt Petri began the collection during the first decades of the 17th century, but it later came into the hands of Johann Bahr who then brought it with him to Visby.

It is reasonable to believe that both Petri and Bahr were part of the circle of students surrounding Jacob Praetorius in Hamburg, and were therefore situated in the centre of the development of church music in northern Germany. Bahr entered two of his own organ works in the manuscript as well as two vocal works. In addition to the Visbytabulaturen, Bahr’s name is also associated with Källungeboken (the Källunge codex), a collection from the early 17th century that could possibly have been brought to Gotland by either David Herlicius, or by Bahr himself. In the manuscript’s table of contents there are over 160 vocal pieces from the time of the Reformation and church music from the early baroque period, including two of Bahr’s works that are now lost: Adora me in die and Dic nobis Maria.


Johann Bahr’s preserved work of variations based on the Magnificat has three verses in which the cantus firmus is presented phrase-by-phrase and imitated throughout the movement’s four vocal parts. As in the common style of the time, the contrapuntal complexities are consistently decreased in favour of coloratura embellishments. If this form is powerfully reminiscent of similar variations by Hieronymus Praetorius, then O Lux Beata Trinitas is a typical example of music from the generation following the Dutch master Sweelinck. Virtuosic scale passagework and echo effects between two separate organ manuals are a couple of particular characteristics of this fantasy.

So ziehet hin is a shorter work in concerto style that builds upon the exchange between solo motifs in the tenor part − accompanied by basso continuo – and a simpler response from the three other vocal parts. Befiehle dem Herren deine Wege is a simple solo motet with an accompanying basso continuo.

As a whole Bahr’s work lacks any great originality in relationship to its stylistic role models. The pieces are harmonically limited and repeatedly show an awkwardness in the voice leading and the textual declamation. Both Bahr’s works and his destiny are, however, interesting within the context of music history as intermediaries for the north German tradition and as a source of knowledge about musical life throughout the 17th century in the provinces during Sweden’s time as a major European power. Johann Bahr’s son, Peder Munck Bahr, would come to play an important role in the development of music on Gotland.

Jonas Lundblad © 2015
Trans. Jill Ann Johnson


Anrep-Nordin, Birger: Johan Bahr. En gotländsk kompositör och organist, in Musiktidningen nos 11−12, 14−15, 1914.
Apel, Willi
: The History of Keyboard Music to 1700, trans. and rev. Hans Tischler, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1972.
Kite-Powell, Jeffery T.
: The Visby (Petri) Organ Tablature. Investigation and Critical Edition, Wilhelmshaven; Heinrichshofen. 1979.
Johann Bahr, in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, London: Macmillan, 2001.
Lindgren, Adolf: En tabulaturbok i Visby, in Svensk Musiktidning, no. 13, 1891, p. 100.
Norlind, Tobias: Från Tyska kyrkans glansdagar. Bilder ur svenska musikens historia från Vasaregenterna till karolinska tidens slut, vol. 2, Stockholm: Musikhistoriska museet, 1944. 
Pontvik, Peter: [Liner notes] The Källunge Codex 1622 − a Discovery from the Island of Gotland, Sjelvar Records SJECD 19, 2005.
Sjögren, Anna
: Johann Bahr − gotländsk tonsättare. Till 300-årsminnet av hans död, in De hundra kyrkornas ö, årsbok, Visby: Visby stiftsråd 1970.

Summary list of works

Organ music (Magnificat, O Lux Beata Trinitas), vocal music (So ziehet hin, Befiehle dem Herren deine Wege).

Collected works

Vocal music
Concert a 4 voc: So ziehet hin.
Concert a sola voce; Befiehle dem Herren deine Wege, 1666.

Organ music

Magnificat Octavi Toni a 4 voc.
O Lux Beata Trinitas, 1655.

Works by Johann Bahr

There are no works by the composer registered