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The Bach Family Business

Features - Classical Music

The Bach Family Business

by Clive Paget on September 6, 2013 (September 6, 2013) filed under Classical Music | Comment Now
How did a Hungarian white-bread baker found the most famous musical dynasty in history?

If the Baroque had an equivalent of TV’s Who do you think you are? there would be no better musical candidate than Johann Sebastian Bach. The 18th-century backroom researchers would have a relatively easy ride, mind you, because Papa Bach, meticulous in all things, wrote out his own genealogy in 1735 at the same time as he preserved some of his ancestors’ music in the 200 or so brittle, yellowed pages that make up his Alt-Bachisches Archiv (Archive of the Elder Bachs).

Thus it is that we come to know about the predecessors of a musical dynasty that lasted over 200 years and spanned six generations producing more than 50 known musicians, many of them composers of merit. Even more remarkable is that so many of them excelled despite a generally insular, non-cosmopolitan outlook. It wouldn’t be until Johann Sebastian’s sons set forth on their various travels that the Bach diaspora would spread across Europe.

In these days where the record companies encourage musical omnivores to indulge in an increasingly varied diet, there can be few more satisfying sections of the catalogues to graze than amongst the output of this most prodigiously talented of families.

Read On...


Veit Bach and sons: The family patriarchs

Our first musical Bach turns out not to be German at all. Veit (or more properly Vitus) Bach (died c1577) was a white-bread baker from Bratislava, then the capital of Hungary, whose Lutheran faith caused him to flee the staunchly Catholic Habsburgs sometime around the middle of the 16th Century. He settled in Wechmar, an unremarkable village between Gotha and Arnstadt, in rugged, forested Thuringia – nowadays central Germany’s Mecca for hiking and winter sports.

According to his great-great-grandson Johann Sebastian, he “found the greatest pleasure in a little cittern which he took with him everywhere, even into the mill”. Whether he brought his family with him isn’t known, but his house and mill still stand, and by 1578 his two sons, Johannes “Hans” and Philippus “Lips”, were in legal possession of the family home suggesting that the “jolly miller” had shuffled off this mortal coil.

Religious disputes were the order of the day – as recently as 1517 Martin Luther had nailed his colours to the door of Wittenberg Cathedral – and if Veit thought that in Thuringia their troubles would be over his children wouldn’t necessarily have agreed. By 1618 they would have seen the outbreak of the Thirty Years War, one of the most grisly conflicts in European history, in which Germany was piggy-in-the-middle for a series of battles and civilian massacres with their attendant miseries: epidemic and famine. Maybe it was such uncertainties as these that caused the miller’s eldest son Johannes (c1550-1626) to add carpetmaking to his CV and also take up music professionally. Taught to play the pipes by the Stadtpfeifer (town piper) of nearby Gotha, he travelled the district in search of gigs to supplement a precarious income, and was successful enough to be identified as Spielmann (minstrel or player) on his death register.

Johannes had three musical sons growing up amidst all that religious conflict, military turmoil and sickness. Johannes (1604-1673) – sorry, there are an awful lot of them in this story – was the eldest and the first to leave us a compositional trace. After a seven-year apprenticeship he settled in the city of Erfurt, Thuringia’s capital, at that time already boasting a population of 18,000. He became“town piper”in 1635 and organist the following year. The role of musicians in this period was of some civic importance since in addition to sounding daily chorales they also had to sound alarms. JSB preserved his eloquent funeral motet Unser Leben ist ein Schatten in his archive which shows a sure hand and a fine sense of musical imagery.

The second son, and JS Bach’s grandfather, Christoph (1613-1661) was a more transient musician, holding posts in Weimar, Erfurt and finally the ancient town of Arnstadt. His famous grandson would become organist at St Boniface’s church here in 1703. The third son, Heinrich (1615-1692) was taught by his father and subsequently by his older brother before settling in Arnstadt as organist at the Liebfrauenkirche, a post he held for over 50 years! His funeral sermon reveals a modest, much-loved musical personality and his vocal concerto, Ich danke dir, Gott, confirms his reputation.


A load of old Johanns: JSB’s father, uncles and cousins

The next generation proved even more musically accomplished, leaving us some very fine works. Christoph’s son Johann Ambrosius Bach (1645-1695) moved his substantial family to the town of Eisenach on becoming court trumpeter in 1671 and it was in the shadow of the famous Wartburg Castle that his youngest son Johann Sebastian was born in 1685. Ambrosius was a sort of one-man-band, singing and playing the organ, violin and kettledrums – a feat, an incredulous town historian noted, the like of which had never been seen before. Four of his children became musicians.

Johann Ambrosius Bach

His twin brother Johann Christoph (1645-1693), who was so similar in looks and manner that “even their wives couldn’t tell them apart”, remained in Arnstadt as a town and court violinist. Although neither were composers, their older brother Georg Christoph (1642-1697) was. Among a handful of extant cantatas his setting of psalm 133 Siehe, wie fein und lieblich (“It is pleasant for brethren to dwell together in unity”) stands out. Written to celebrate his 47th birthday it was evidently performed by the composer and his brothers, the twins Ambrosius and Christoph.

Bach’s two most notable musical ancestors however were his cousins Johann Michael (1648-1694) and Michael’s brother, yet another Johann Christoph (1642-1703). Both were sons of great uncle Heinrich and came up with musical gems bright enough for JSB to polish and perform at services later on during his Leipzig period. J Michael was a triple threat operating as organist, town clerk and instrument maker in the town of Gehren, a modest backwater towards the Bavarian border. A“quiet, withdrawn and artistically well-versed” fellow, he composed modest keyboard works and full- textured motets. He was also Bach’s father-in-law as Maria Barbara Bach was his daughter.

J Christoph on the other hand was undoubtedly the most talented Bach before Johann Sebastian, who called him as“a profound composer”. Their personal relationship would have been close as JSB’s father Ambrosius served for many years as his copyist. A cantankerous chap who quarrelled with his employers, he was the palace organist in Arnstadt before moving to Eisenach to take up the equivalent municipal position there, making a bit extra as harpsichordist in the Ducal orchestra.

There was one other composing Bach worth his salt in the early 1700s and that was Johann Ludwig (1677-1731), a distant cousin descended from good old “Lips” Bach (remember him?), the miller’s second son. Ludwig held the post of Kappelmeister at Meiningen and JSB copied out several of his engaging cantatas for his personal use. His masterpiece remains the ambitious double choir Trauermusik (funeral music), composed on the careful instructions of his literate employer Duke Ernst Ludwig in 1724. In contrast to the line of his more famous cousin, some of Johann Ludwig’s descendants are still alive today.

Where it all began: the village of Eisenach in wildest Thuringia

WF, CPE, JC and JCF: More than just footnotes in the history of music

There’s no doubt that despite much fine music from four generations of Bachs, all were to be eclipsed by the son of the court trumpeter of Eisenach. But modest fame and fortune didn’t translate into international travel for the great organist and composer. Johann Sebastian’s furthest trip “abroad” was his epic 400-kilometre walk to Lübeck to hear the famous Dieterich Buxtehude improvise on the organ and, as he wrote, to “comprehend his art”. After five generations of stay-at-homes, however, JSB’s progeny were at last ready to fly the nest. Of his six musical sons four became notable composers, and one in particular kept the family flag firmly flying well into the classical period.

The eldest, Wilhelm Friedemann (1710-1784), was commonly reputed to be Bach’s most gifted son, but his idle and dissolute ways resulted in a career of unfulfilled promise and wasted opportunity. A first class musical education created a composer of talent (within the stylistic confines of the day) and his father’s influence secured him a post as organist in Halle (birthplace of Handel). The man smiling out from the fur-collared portrait looks like a favourite uncle about to dole out the Christmas presents, but don’t be fooled, the painter’s art conceals a difficult, haughty character. He quarrelled with his superiors in Halle, and in 1764 he quit, failing to hold down any other job. He died in Berlin, a lonely, embittered man in considerable poverty. We shouldn’t dismiss him out of hand, though – he left a fair body of work and his sophisticated keyboard pieces and lively cantatas are worth a listen.

Wilhelm Friedemann

Despite his rather severe, unprepossessing portraits, the second son Carl Philipp Emanuel (1714-1788) was a much better caretaker of the family silver. Not only did he preserve a great deal of his father’s music, he also updated and annotated the family tree. Of all the heirs, his reputation sat highest with his contemporaries. Haydn studied his musical treatises and Beethoven expressed cordial admiration for his genius. At the age of 24 he entered the household of Frederick the Great of Prussia as a harpsichordist, toiling away in Berlin for 22 years in the company of the likes of Graun and Quantz. In 1768 he succeeded his godfather Telemann as Kapellmeister in Hamburg where he remained until his death. Of the musicians whose stars were eclipsed by that of Mozart, Emanuel Bach is the most deserving of investigation. His 200 sonatas, numerous keyboard concertos, symphonies and choral works reveal an inventive musical progressive who pointed the way towards the Romantic period.

Carl Philip Emanuel Bach

Bach’s child number six, Johann Gottfried Bernhard (1715-1739), was one of his father’s failures. A talented organist but unstable character he struggled to hold down posts and incurred debts. The year before his early death his father wrote bitterly that he was “undutiful”. Gottfried Heinrich (1724-1763) was also unfortunate. The eldest son of Bach’s second marriage to Anna Magdalena, according to his elder brother Emanuel he showed“great genius for the keyboard”which failed to develop due to an unfortunate “feeble-mindedness”. The 18th century was no place for a handicapped musician and he was lucky to find a berth with his sister Elisabeth’s family in rural Silesia. One small work, So Oft Ich Meine Tobackspfeife (Enlightened thoughts of a tobacco-smoker) preserved in his mother’s famous Notebook is all that survives of his compositional output.

Johann Christoph Friedrich (1732-1795) fared better, learning his trade at his father knee and serving as his copyist. Known as the Bückeburg Bach, he served at the court there from the age of 1750, the year of his father’s death, until his own demise. Another virtuoso keyboard player, his industrious musical output, which includes keyboard sonatas, symphonies, oratorios and operas, shows a certain Italianate tendency but lacks the innovative outlook of his brother Emanuel. Sadly a large number of his works were destroyed during WWII.

Bach’s eleventh and youngest, son Johann Christian (1735-1782) was probably the most European in outlook of any of his siblings. Only 15 when his father died he enjoyed successful operatic career in Naples and Turin, leading to a conversion to Catholicism. In 1762 he moved to London where he was appointed music master to Queen Charlotte and accompanied the flute playing of King George III. Becoming known as“John”or“the London Bach”, he enjoyed a profitable business partnership with his friend, fellow composer and gambist Carl Friedrich Abel – their Hanover Square concerts were for many years the height of musical fashion. That Thomas Gainsborough painted his rather affable portrait shows him to have been all the rage at the time. By 1780, however, it had all gone wrong. Musically, JC Bach had fallen behind the times and, worse, most of his money had been embezzled by a duplicitous steward. He died in debt, suffering the ignominy of a pauper’s grave. On the bright side, he left a substantial body of work, which exhibits an appealing melodic quality, very much in the Italian style. In recent years his orchestral output has been accorded the recognition of a complete recorded survey and, if his waters don’t run especially deep, it’s hard not to like music of such easy charm.

Johann Christian

Mozart and the sons of Bach

When Mozart told Gottfried van Swieten: “Bach is the father, we are the children”, he didn’t mean JSB, but his son Carl Philipp Emanuel, a view held by many in the late 18th century.

Johann Christian, “the English Bach”, befriended the eight-year old Mozart during his 1764 London tour, a relationship that flourished. Leopold Mozart wrote that the two were “inseparable”, reporting that Wolfgang would sit on JC’s lap at the organ for hours on end. Leopold urged his son to emulate his “good composition and sound construction – these distinguish the master from the bungler – even in trifles.”

The end of the line...

It may seem surprising, but despite the size of Johann Sebastian’s brood, his dynasty scarcely survived into the 19th century. The last musician of his line, his grandson Wilhelm Friedrich Ernst (1759-1845), son of Johann Christoph Friedrich, spent time in Hamburg with uncle Emanuel and in London with uncle“John”before taking a court position in Berlin. His music however is mostly undistinguished and he himself admitted:“heredity can tend to run out of ideas”. One of his works though shows a certain saucy originality: a six-handed piano concerto written to be performed by a“large man”, who is required to put his arms around two“small ladies”in order to play the outside parts. A relic of past glories, he was able to attend the unveiling of the Bach monument in Leipzig in 1843. Robert Schumann, who met him on that occasion, recalled“a very agile old gentleman of 84 years with show- white hair and expressive features. His death the following year saw music’s most famous family go out with more of a whimper than a bang. But what a family!

Making music the Bach family way