Loretta Barnard

Sins of the father: The sordid tale of Bach’s boys

Bach

Approx Reading Time-12We’re all familiar with pa, but his kids (all ten of them) didn’t do too badly in their own right. Strap in, because we’re bringing sexy Bach.

 


When Mozart uttered the sentence “Bach is the father; we are the children”, he wasn’t referring to the Bach that comes to modern minds, the mighty Johann Sebastian Bach, but rather his son, Carl Philip Emanuel Bach, one of the foremost composers of his day and whose fame well and truly eclipsed his father’s.

Interestingly, JS Bach’s works – well over 1,000 of them – fell into a kind of obscurity until The St Matthew Passion was performed in 1829 by German composer Felix Mendelssohn, sparking the so-called Bach revival.

But back in the late eighteenth century, it was all about Bach’s boys. It seems that when JS Bach (1685-1750) wasn’t busy creating music, he was busy procreating.


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Twenty children, count ’em, twenty! Nine girls and eleven boys by two wives, Maria Barbara and Anna Magdalena. Only ten of those children made it to adulthood.

Naturally enough, all Bach’s surviving children had a rich musical upbringing, and could sight read proficiently while still very young. Bach’s forebears were musicians so it was expected that his children would be too. The daughters who survived infancy were accomplished singers and musical copyists, but composing wasn’t considered an appropriate avenue for girls, so let’s look at the four sons who became renowned musicians and composers: Bach’s boys.

Wilhelm Friedemann Bach (1710-1784), Bach’s eldest son, was a gifted improviser and organist, but although he was supposedly his father’s favourite and in spite of his own inherent talent, he was an under-achiever and his compositional style is a tad mercurial. He did write some lovely pieces, among them a charming flute duet, and this Fantasia in A minor:

Wilhelm worked as a teacher and soloist in his later years, never having reached anything like his full potential.

Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach (1732-1795), Bach’s ninth son, was a hotshot keyboard performer and highly skilled composer who had quite an extensive output. His early music reflected his father’s influence, but as he grew older, he embraced the Italian style, and ultimately his compositions – like those of his brothers – became more classical, as opposed to baroque. The Bach boys are credited with helping to develop the new classical style of composition.

JCF Bach worked as a court composer until his death. Here’s a nice little clip of his Sonata in A for Four Hands:

Johann Christian Bach (1735-1782), Bach’s eleventh son, lived for a time in England and acquired the nickname “the London Bach”. He adopted a distinctly melodic compositional style and had an effective career as a writer of operas.

Like his older brother Carl Philip Emanuel, Johann Christian enjoyed more fame than their father ever had.

JC Bach worked for the German-born English Queen Charlotte, taught her children, and mentored the young Mozart when he visited London, so his was a very successful career. He is remembered today for operas, concertos, oratorios, symphonies and more. Here’s a clip from his Sinfonia No. 4, the Allegro movement:

By far the most famous of Bach’s boys was his fifth son, Carl Philip Emanuel Bach (1714-1788), whose godfather was the composer Telemann. It’s easy to see why he was so lauded. He was a demon harpsichordist and counted the future Frederick the Great among his employers. His musical style was varied: he could write in the embellished style favoured by the churches, but he also composed symphonies, chamber music, concertos and more. He straddled both the baroque period exemplified by his father and the classical period just developing.

His music is lyrical, sometimes humorous, sometimes majestic. Listen to the soaring Gloria Patri from his Magnificat:

The Allegro from his Flute Sonata in A minor is gentler:

As well as composing music, Carl wrote an important text, Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments, which provided loads of technical advice, how to create an expressive performance by tapping into emotions, and how to be a proficient accompanist. In a sentence that still resounds with piano teachers everywhere, he was adamant about correct fingering, saying that “more is lost by incorrect fingering than can be compensated for by all the art and fine taste in the world”.

This work was one of the most respected pieces of musical pedagogy of the time, influencing composers such as Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. It’s now regarded as one of the definitive texts on eighteenth-century musical practice.

He was a busy chap, our Carl. Another thing he did was to establish musical agents around Europe which meant that his works became more widely known than might be expected. He also wrote an autobiography.

CPE Bach was a composer, performer, writer and teacher. It seems he was something of a philosopher too:

“According to my principles, every master has his true and certain value. Praise and criticism cannot change any of that. Only the work itself praises and criticises the master, and thus I leave everyone to his own value.”

These days Bach’s boys may not enjoy the same universal fame as their legendary father – it’s true that they’re not household names – but their music speaks for itself. If you’ll pardon the pun, we’re going out on a high note. Sit back and enjoy CPE Bach’s charming Solfeggietto in C Minor:

(Postscript: Johann Sebastian Bach’s direct musical dynasty came to an end when his grandson composer Wilhelm Friedrich Ernst Bach – son of JCF Bach – died in 1845 at the age of 86.)

 

Loretta Barnard

Loretta Barnard is a freelance writer and editor who, in a long career, has done almost everything possible in the book publishing industry. These days she actively pursues her love of music, literature and theatre, and is something of a wannabe roving ambassador for the creative and performing arts.

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