The Art of Self-Determination

Johann Sebastian Bach
and his sons

Johann Sebastian Bach Statue
(Photo: typo-graphics/iStockphoto)

To be a son of Johann Sebastian Bach and a composer: that was surely an ambivalent situation. One could undoubtedly learn and benefit from the vast expertise of the father. But one must also find one’s own way, especially since new times meant new musical challenges. The members of the younger Bach generation responded to these challenges in very different ways.

Johann Sebastian Bach was the best-known member of the most influential family of musicians of the Western world, which produced numerous town musicians, organists and composers from the second half of the 16th century to the mid-19th century in central Germany.

Bach’s earliest ancestor and the progenitor of the extended family, Veit Bach, was born 130 years before him; his last prominent descendent, the Berlin organist Wilhelm Friedrich Ernst Bach, was born 74 years after him. That Johann Sebastian would later go down in musical history as the most important Bach was by no means certain to begin with, however.

Anyone who mentioned the name “Bach” during the second half of the 18th century was referring to Bach’s second son, Carl Philipp Emanuel. During his lifetime, Johann Sebastian was already regarded as an old-fashioned master of counterpoint, who composed didactic music for the most part. When it came to art, music to listen to, it was his sons Carl Philipp Emanuel and the internationally active Johann Christian whose names were on everyone’s lips.

 

Anyone who mentioned the name “Bach” during the second half of the 18th century was referring to Johann Sebastian Bach’s second son, Carl Philipp Emanuel.

 

Anyone who mentioned the name “Bach” during the second half of the 18th century was referring to Bach’s second son, Carl Philipp Emanuel. During his lifetime, Johann Sebastian was already regarded as an old-fashioned master of counterpoint, who composed didactic music for the most part.

When it came to art, music to listen to, it was his sons Carl Philipp Emanuel and the internationally active Johann Christian whose names were on everyone’s lips.

Johann Sebastian had not really gone “out of fashion”, however. He had simply never been interested in being modern. He was active at a time of musical upheaval, from which he dissociated himself as much as possible.

The origins of what we today call the Baroque lay in Italy around 1600 and began with the discovery of the chord.

What previously in Renaissance polyphony resulted when several individual voices were combined became literally “tangible” with two hands on the keyboard instruments in the Baroque basso continuo and could be realized in direct harmony.

Johann Christian Bach
(Photo: akg-images)

The composers of the early Baroque, such as Claudio Monteverdi and Heinrich Schütz, were still interested in the opus perfectum et absolutum (the consummate and complete work), which thanks to the development of printing would not only be widely distributed but would also be preserved for posterity. During the high and late Baroque, on the other hand, a mass production dominated that could hardly be characterized as timeless.
 

When a series of works was no longer a challenge for Bach, he abandoned it.

Johann Sebastian Bach was not interested in composing such works for popular consumption. By Baroque standards, his catalogue of works is rather slender. Instead of producing a genre in quantity – like Vivaldi, for instance, with his 500 concertos and 50 operas – Bach worked his way through various forms, depending on what was needed for his work and his inclination.

For example, he composed most of his organ works as a young organist, the chamber music during his time as music director in Cöthen, the cantatas and oratorios during his tenure as director of music at St. Thomas’s Church in Leipzig. It is obvious, however, that Bach abandoned series of works when their compositional challenge was exhausted. The most impressive example is his Orgel-Büchlein. Bach had entered the titles of 164 hymns in a bound notebook, all of which he wanted to arrange – but his interest in the task he had undertaken waned after 46 pieces.

The volume of chorale cantatas is incomplete for the same reason. Bach had no interest in satisfying the existing need for further works, and one could thus describe his cantata output – allowing for hypothetical losses – of 300 works at most as concise, compared to the 1750 cantatas of Telemann or the 1400 cantatas of Christoph Graupner.

Bach never devoted himself to the genre of opera, which was developing during the Baroque period, with compositions of his own. He was aware of the musical developments of his day, however, and idioms of the new galant style are found here and there in his works. At the same time, there are also echoes of Renaissance compositions such as those of Palestrina. Thus, Bach’s own personal and wonderfully timeless style developed.

 

Wilhelm Friedemann Bach liked to improvise on the harpsichord and the organ and composed some of the most difficult works for keyboard instruments of his day.

 

In addition to his work as music director and composer, Bach was also a sought-after teacher, but he misjudged his own sons from the perspective of musical history. He thought his first son, Wilhelm Friedemann, was a highly gifted talent but underestimated Carl Philipp Emanuel, on the other hand.

He composed a Clavier-Büchlein for Wilhelm Friedemann and wrote both the Inventions and the Trio Sonatas for organ for him. Wilhelm Friedemann initially became organist in Dresden and in this post composed keyboard music that was extremely difficult and virtuosic for that time. As organist at the Market Church in Halle from 1746, he lived near his father during the last years of his life – whether that was good for him is a different matter.

The fact that Wilhelm Friedemann married one year after the death of his father does not have to mean anything but could indicate that Johann Sebastian made demands on him which hindered his development. That is also suggested by the fact that he was said to have a “gloomy, harsh and strange character” – whereas he strived for a lighter, brighter style in his music.

Wilhelm Friedemann Bach
(Photo: akg-images)

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach had a great influence on both the masters of Viennese Classicism and individual Romantic genres.

 

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach
(Photo: akg-images)

Carl Philipp Emanuel was much less burdened by his father’s expectations.

He also dispensed with the contrapuntal demands of his father’s lessons, but he dared more subjective statements with the expressive resources thus freed than his brother. 

In his symphonies, themes are precipitously juxtaposed, developments are unexpectedly cut short and harmonically interesting transitions occur.

His published Freie Fantasien made him a protagonist of Empfindsamkeit (sensitivity).

As a result of this aesthetic orientation, Carl Philipp Emanuel was in contact with prominent intellectual figures of his time beyond the music scene: he knew Lessing, Klopstock, Matthias Claudius and the Homer translator Johann Heinrich Voß.

Johann Christoph Friedrich was overshadowed by his three composer brothers during his lifetime.

Approximately 20 years after these brothers, two more composer sons of Bach were born from their father’s second marriage. Johann Christoph Friedrich stayed in one place longer than any of his brothers: he became a court musician in Bückeburg at the age of 18 and remained there all his life.

As concertmaster, he made the court orchestra one of the best in Germany. He was a friend of Johann Gottfried Herder, and the two collaborated on oratorios. His compositions, which were not widely disseminated beyond Bückeburg during his lifetime, still await discovery. Like his brother Johann Christian Bach, who was three years younger, he did not struggle as much as his older brothers for artistic and stylistic self-determination in the shadow of their father.

He was apparently a favourite son of his father. When Johann Sebastian died, Johann Christian was not yet 15 years old and was sent to Carl Philipp Emanuel in Berlin.

There he was introduced to the opera, which became one of his most important genres. He went to Italy, converted to Catholicism, became an organist at the Milan Cathedral, but composed operas at the same time.

Peter Uehling

Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach
(Photo: Georg David Matthieu, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

As a result of his light, flowing style, he became famous throughout Europe and eventually moved to London, where he became friendly with the young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

His influence on Mozart is clearly audible – and so it is a lovely irony that Wolfgang Amadeus thus indirectly became a pupil of the great Johann Sebastian Bach.

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