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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

The Musicians Called Bach

To the music lover, the name Bach needs no introduction. Johann Sebastian Bach and three of his sons (Wilhelm Friedemann, Carl Philipp Emanuel and Johann Christian) are familiar to many of us.

One of the astounding things about JS Bach, though, is the fact that he was part of the most amazing musical dynasty the world has ever known, a family of Bach musicians spanning some seven generations and nearly three and a half centuries, from the early 16th century to the mid-19th century. The family was based in and around the area of the German states of Saxony and Thuringia, and Bach was himself aware of his rich heritage. In 1735 he drew up a detailed family tree of his ancestors and living relatives. This document he called Ursprung der musicalisch-Bachischen Familie - literally the “Origins of the musical Bach family” - and it lists no less than 53 Bach musicians, all carefully numbered, in which Johann Sebastian himself is number 24. It’s an incredible document of which the original is now lost, but it’s known to us from contemporary copies.

It shows that JS Bach could look back to his father’s, grandfather’s, and great-grandfather’s generations with accuracy, and beyond that a little more vaguely to another generation to the Bach who seemed to have started it all. This was Veit (or Vitus) Bach, who lived in the German town of Wechmar (after apparently moving from there from Hungary). He was born about 1555 and died in 1619. In this article we’ll look at some of the other Bachs, members of an astounding family which produced at least 77 musicians in all.

The Veit Bach mill, Wechmar

Veit Bach was not a professional musician. A miller and baker by trade, he is known to have played music as an amateur and was regarded by all the Bachs as the founder of the musical dynasty. Veit had two or possibly three sons, all of whom were musicians. (In fact, it can be taken for granted that every person mentioned here was a musician; very few Bachs weren’t!) The two sons we know about definitely were Hans (or Johannes) (born around 1580) and Caspar (born around 1600). Hans Bach was a carpet maker as well as a musician, but he was definitely a professional musician who trained in music and who played in various towns in Thuringia.

Hans had three sons. The eldest was Johann Bach, sometimes also known as Johannes. He was born in 1604 and had a distinguished career as a church musician in Erfurt, among other towns. Two works have been ascribed to Johann, one of which is almost certainly by him, an exquisite funeral motet which begins, “Our days upon earth are a shadow”. Scored for a six part choir, with a separate, hidden choir of three parts, this restrained and moving work expresses the transience of earthly life simply and effectively. [listen]

Johann’s younger brother - the youngest of Hans Bach’s three sons - was Heinrich, who lived from 1615 to 1692. He held positions in various German towns and was described in the sermon at his funeral as an “organist who touched the heart”. Some of Heinrich’s music survives, including this beautiful cantata for the 17th Sunday after Trinity. It’s a vocal concerto in a style we know from the music of Heinrich Schütz (who lived at the same time). It sets a verse from Psalm 139 which starts, “I thank thee, O God, that I am wondrously created.” [listen]

To put the composer of that music in context, Heinrich Bach was Johann Sebastian’s great uncle. Heinrich’s brother, Christoph, had three sons. Two were twins, Johann Christoph and Johann Ambrosius, who were born in 1645. (Johann Ambrosius was Johann Sebastian’s father.) The twins had an older brother, Georg Christoph, who lived from 1642 to 1697. He was academically gifted and highly respected in the towns in which he held musical posts. Various vocal works by him are known by their titles from documents of the time, but only one seems to have survived, a setting of Psalm 133 which is thought to have been written for a family gathering to mark the composer’s 47th birthday in 1689. The text starts, “Behold, how good and pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together in unity”. It’s scored for three male voices and it was probably sung by Georg Christoph and his twin brothers. Imagine having a family which, at a birthday party, could routinely perform music like this! [listen]

Georg Christoph Bach (Johann Sebastian's uncle)
Johann Christoph Bach (Johann Sebastian's uncle)
Johann Ambrosius Bach (Johann Sebastian's father)

That gorgeous music by Johann Sebastian’s uncle makes it doubly sad that none by his father survives. Heinrich Bach, Johann Sebastian’s great uncle from whom we heard earlier, also had three sons, Bach’s father’s cousins. The eldest was another Johann Christoph Bach (one of no less than eight Bachs called Johann Christoph). This particular Johann Christoph lived from 1642 to 1703 and he was a really fine composer, probably the most important Bach before Johann Sebastian. He was described in one source as being “as good at inventing beautiful thoughts as he was at expressing words.” In his family tree, Johann Sebastian described him as being “profound”. This dazzling cantata in 22 parts by Johann Christoph uses double choir, soloists and a large instrumental ensemble to set a text drawn from the Book of Revelation. [listen]

Johann Christoph had a younger brother, Johann Michael Bach, who lived from 1648 to 1694. As well as being an organist and all-round musician (as it seems all the Bachs were), Johann Michael was one of a number of the clan who were also instrument makers. His surviving music contains a large number of organ chorales which seem to have clearly influenced Johann Sebastian. His vocal works are intense and beautiful. This strophic cantata of Johann Michael’s sets a chorale text which begins “Abide with us, Lord Jesus Christ”. Some of the effects in the instrumental sonata at the start are reminiscent of the flamboyant style of the Venetian masters which influenced Heinrich Schütz so much. [listen]

Johann Michael Bach memorial, Gehren

It’s worth mentioning, and perhaps not surprising given the ethos of the times, that all the musicians in the Bach dynasty were male. However Johann Christoph and Johann Michael had a sister who might otherwise have been forgotten but for one vital fact. Maria Barbara Bach, who was born in 1684, was a distant cousin of Johann Sebastian. In 1707 she became his first wife.

Johann Sebastian Bach (1746)

We now come to Johann Sebastian’s own generation. The nine grandsons of Hans Bach (one of whom was Johann Sebastian’s father) produced this generation, which contained no less than nineteen musicians. A distant cousin of Johann Sebastian was Johann Bernhard Bach, who lived from 1676 to 1749. He was the son of Johann Aegidius Bach, the son of Johannes Bach, the eldest son of Hans Bach. While he held church and court positions, Johann Bernhard’s only surviving compositions are instrumental works. He’s known to have worked with the famous Georg Philipp Telemann, and his own instrumental suites were clearly influenced by the great master of suite writing. Johann Sebastian (among other composers) thought highly of Johann Bernhard’s music, and Johann Sebastian had five of his cousin’s suites copied for his own collection. [listen]

A very distant cousin to both Johann Bernhard and Johann Sebastian was Johann Ludwig Bach, who lived from 1677 to 1731. He was the son of one Johann Jacob Bach, whose lineage is uncertain, but he may have been descended from a brother or son of Veit Bach. While Johann Ludwig is known to have written both vocal and instrumental works, almost none of his instrumental works survive. The large number of cantatas and motets which survive is almost single-handedly due to the fact Johann Sebastian copied many of them for his own use. Johann Ludwig’s orchestral suite in G was for many years his only known instrumental work. [listen]

Johann Ludwig Bach (Johann Sebastian's distant cousin)

The music I’ve mentioned to this point must be the smallest tip of a gigantic iceberg when one considers the amount of music which was written but which has been lost. And it’s an incredible thought to think that this all came from the same family.

Now we move into the generation after Johann Sebastian. The fact that JS Bach had twenty children is well-known, and three of these - Wilhelm Friedemann, Carl Philipp Emanuel and Johann Christian - are composers whose music is still heard with varying degrees of regularity today. Some of Bach’s other sons also became musicians, and we’ll discuss the talent from that branch of the family in a moment. However in the generation of Bach’s sons - counting all the various cousins - there were no less than 23 musicians. Johann Lorenz Bach was the grandson of Johann Christoph Bach - the brother of Bach’s father - and he lived from 1695 to 1773. Johann Lorenz was, from 1718, organist in the town of Lahm, and he studied with Johann Sebastian, one of the many Bach relatives to be taught by the family’s most famous son. During Johann Lorenz’s time as Cantor in Lahm, a new organ was installed, and a single work by him is preserved in the church archives. Here is that work - a Prelude and Fugue in D major. [listen]

Another member of the post-JS Bach generation was Johann Ernst Bach, a distant cousin to both Johann Sebastian and Johann Lorenz, who was born in 1722. Johann Ernst’s father was Johann Bernhard Bach, some of whose music we heard earlier. Johann Ernst was a respected church and town musician, primarily in the city of his birth, Eisenach (the same city in which JS Bach was born in 1685 and in which much activity of the Bach generations was based). He was in close contact with CPE Bach, probably the most famous of JS Bach’s sons, and kept abreast of the latest styles in music and the arts generally in the mid 18th century.

Johann Ernst wrote a number of songs which are settings of fables. In a time when Lieder were usually more elevated, serious and noble, these sometimes humorous works are regarded as revolutionary. This is one of them, The Ape and the Shepherdess. [listen]

Lest it be thought Johann Ernst was a frivolous composer, it should be said that he was publicly critical of what he saw as a decline in standards of church composition during his day, and he (like some of Bach’s sons) maintained an interest in counterpoint despite its waning popularity among composers in the newer styles of the Rococo. This Fantasia and Fugue for organ by Johann Ernst shows the skill he had in learned styles of composition. Amazingly it dates from 1770; such writing would have been regarded as very old-fashioned indeed by that time. However it seems to justify Johann Sebastian’s prophecy on the 1735 family tree that JE Bach would “apply himself to music alongside his other studies”. Considering Johann Ernst was only 13 years old when that comment was written, it showed a lot of insight. [listen]

Three of JS Bach’s own sons are remembered today as composers, but they weren’t the only members of the family to take up the musical mantle. Six of the sons were noted for musical abilities of various sorts and I’ll treat them in order of birth.

The eldest was Wilhelm Freidemann Bach, who was born in 1710. JS Bach took particular care in the training of his eldest son, and it was evident that WF Bach had real musical gifts. His early promise was expressed in his abilities as a keyboard player during his years in Leipzig and Dresden, and throughout his life he composed a great deal of music for harpsichord and for organ. In 1746 he was appointed organist at the Liebfrauenkrche in Halle, one of the most prestigious organist appointments in Germany at the time, but within a few years he was desperately trying to leave, so dissatisfied was he with the conditions under which he had to work. His later life is a sad tale of unsuccessful job applications and deteriorating finances, but his reputation as Germany’s leading organ virtuoso was in tact at the time of his death in 1784. Better-known in his life as a performer rather than a composer, WF Bach’s keyboard works are supplemented by chamber music, symphonies, concertos, cantatas and teaching works. This concerto for two harpsichords was probably written in Dresden around 1740. [listen]

Wilhelm Friedemann Bach

Four years younger than Wilhelm Friedemann was his brother Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, one of the most famous, influential, radical and important composers and theoreticians of the mid 18th century. CPE Bach’s career was based initially at the court of Frederick the Great in Berlin, but despite the fact that CPE was the finest of all the fine musicians Frederick employed [see an earlier post in this blog about the musicians Frederick employed], his radical and ground-breaking style seems not have endeared him to the music loving King. CPE eventually took up a post in Hamburg which required him to produce sacred music. About 100 works by him survive, spanning orchestral choral, chamber and solo keyboard works, in addition to his various theoretical writings (of which his Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments is the most important).

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach

CPE Bach’s amazingly radical symphonies for strings are well-known; perhaps more typical of his style and the period in general are his other symphonies which include other instruments in addition to the strings. This dazzling D major symphony was written in 1756 as a work for strings, to which the composer later added parts for winds, brass and timpani. [listen]

Born the year after CPE Bach was another of JS Bach’s sons, Johann Gottfreid Bernhard Bach. Born in 1715, Gottfried Bernhard briefly held two organist posts in Mühlhausen and Sangerhausen before he left the latter post in 1738. In that year, JS Bach described Gottfried Bernhard as his “undutiful son”; the young man apparently was unstable and in debt. In 1739 he matriculated as a law student in Jena but he died only a few months later of a fever, aged only 24.

After the death of his wife Maria Barbara in July 1720, Johann Sebastian remarried. His second wife was Anna Magdalena Wilcke, 16 years his junior, and they married in December 1721. Anna Magdalena was a professional musician in her own right, a singer with facility in keyboard playing which her husband encouraged by composing works for her development and training.

Their eldest son was someone who is almost never mentioned in the Bach story, Gottfried Heinrich Bach, who was born in 1724. His elder half brother Carl Philipp Emanuel described him as someone who showed “a great genius but who failed to develop”. Gottfried Bernhard was intellectually disabled but all indications are that he was given nothing but love and support from his family, and he is said to have been a good keyboard player.

The next son has likewise been almost completely forgotten today, Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach, who was born in 1732 (the same year as Haydn). Because of his almost life-long association with the town of Bückeburg, he is known as the “Bückeburg Bach”. Like all the Bach sons, Christoph Friedrich had a solid grounding in keyboard technique and harmony from his father, but he also showed a willingness to experiment with the latest trends of his day. His concertos and symphonies - particularly those written near the end of his life - are delightful works. As an example of Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach’s music, though, I’ve decided to include part of a secular melodrama for mezzo soprano and strings called The American Woman which he wrote in 1773. It sets a text dealing with erotic love which was published in 1759. Following a long history of such poetry, the poet expresses the desire to “die” with the beloved, where “death” means sexual ecstasy and not literal death. JCF Bach’s setting of the text is very evocative indeed. [listen]

Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach

The last of JS Bach’s sons to consider in this program is again one of the major composers of the mid 18th century, Johann Christian Bach, born in 1735. JS Bach’s youngest son studied with both his father and, on his father’s death, his half brother CPE Bach in Berlin. In his early 20s though he took up residence in Italy and - perhaps most radical of all - abandoned the Lutheran faith which had been the mainstay of his family for centuries and converted to Catholicism. He lived in London for almost all of the last 20 years of his life, and died there in New Year’s day 1782.

Johann Christian Bach

JC Bach was the first Bach to compose Italian operas, and in addition to his orchestral, choral and chamber works, his operas made him enormously famous. Here’s an example of JC Bach’s concerto writing, part of a bassoon concerto. The date of this work is not known, but some scholars date it to the mid-1770s. It’s typical of the sunny and engaging style of this wonderful composer. [listen]

So much for JS Bach’s sons and their cousins. Where there composer Bachs after them? Well, yes, but the line really starts to peter in the first half of the 19th century, almost exactly in parallel with the decline in the widespread presence of church-supported Cantor posts in Saxony and Thuringia. A Johann Michael Bach was born in 1745 and lived until 1820, but he is from a completely different branch of the family; no lineage back to Veit Bach can be shown for him although such a connection is assumed in some sources.

As for the main line of the family, there were more Bach composers to the mid-19th century, the longest-lived of these being Wilhelm Friedrich Ernst Bach, son of Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach (who wrote The American Woman), and therefore Johann Sebastian’s grandson. Wilhelm Friedrich Ernst was born in Bückeburg in 1759 and died in Berlin in 1845, three centuries after the birth of Veit Bach. After spending time with his uncle JC Bach in London he returned to Germany and eventually worked in Berlin until his retirement in 1811. Grove Online describes him as “a stylish if not outstandingly talented composer” but many of his works have been lost, making it difficult to properly assess his skill. His surviving music includes keyboard works, chamber music, a handful of orchestral works and quite a few vocal and choral works. Among this last category is a setting of the Lord’s Prayer for solo voices, choir and orchestra, in which the choir sings the words of the familiar prayer while the soloists sing free texts illuminating the various petitions. It was written some time before 1799 and is reminiscent of Haydn or Schubert. [listen]

Wilhelm Friedrich Ernst Bach (JS Bach's grandson)

The story of the Bachs is an amazing one, and in researching these musicians I’ve discovered wonderful music I never knew existed. I’m just in awe of what this dynasty achieved. So much music, so little time…

This article is based on a pair of Keys To Music programs first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in September and October, 2006.

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