The life of Johann Sebastian Bach’s youngest son Johann Christian (1735 – 1782) is notably different from those of his brothers and the majority of 18th-century German masters. Like hundreds of their colleagues in various German regions, Wilhelm Friedemann ‘the Gallic Bach’, Johann Christoph Friedrich ‘the Buckeburg Bach’ and ‘the Berlin’ or ‘Hamburg Bach’ Carl Philipp Emanuel sought and found an application for their talents in Germany.
Only a few Germans made a European career for themselves and won wide acclaim. One of them was Johann Christian, called by his contemporaries ‘the Milan’ or ‘London Bach’. After his successes in Italy and later England he gained a reputation as one of the most authoritative musicians of the second half of the 18th century. Any mention in Europe of ‘the famous Bach’ referred to the junior Bach, not his father. It is noteworthy, that his elder brother Carl Philipp Emanuel achieved the same fame in Germany.
Johann Christian was born in Leipzig in 1735, when his father was fifty. He learned to play the harpsichord and organ, as did all his brothers. J.S. Bach was so impressed by his youngest son’s achievements that it was supposedly for Johann Christian that he wrote the second book of Das wohltemperirte Clavier. Moreover Johann Sebastian left him three of his harpsichords. After the death of his father in 1750 Johann Christian moved to Berlin, where Carl Philipp Emanuel served at the court of Frederick the Great. With him Johann Christian continued his study of harpsichord playing and composition. What prompted the young man to leave Germany, and after five years in the Prussian capital to set off for Italy, the first Bach to set foot there in two centuries of family history? There were probably a number of reasons – a yearning for new pastures, a keen interest in opera dating back to his time in Berlin, and the desire to perfect his composition skills.
Settling in Milan, a major centre of opera, he made periodic trips to Bologna to visit the famous scholar and teacher Padre Martini, with whom he studied counterpoint. The year 1760 marked an important landmark for Bach. He received a place as second organist at Milan Cathedral and was thus obliged to alter his confession and become a Roman Catholic. Artaserse, his first experiment in the field of opera, was premiered on December 26 in Turin’s Royal Theatre. Church music and opere serie written for leading Italian artists brought Bach fame not only in Italy, but throughout Europe. Shortly afterwards he received a prestigious commission from the King’s Theatre in London to write two operas for the 1762 – 1763 season.
Johann Christian immediately assumed an important position in the musical life of the English capital. The premiere of his first London opera Orione was a tremendous success. After attending a performance the royal couple offered him a post as court musician. King George III played various instruments and his consort Sophia Charlotte was a quite accomplished harpsichord player. Bach gave harpsichord lessons to the queen and several of the royal children. In London he lived with his countryman, the composer and viola da gamba player Carl Friedrich Abel, whose father once served at Cothen with J.S. Bach. In 1764 the two friends inaugurated a series of public concerts by subscription that continued uninterrupted for the next 18 years. At premises on Soho Square (in the mid-1770s on Hanover Square) they held up to 15 concerts per season (from January to May), more than in any other private concert hall.
Bach was responsible for all their financial affairs (for this purpose he opened a special account with the Drummond Bank), taking turns in administrative concerns and concert management with Abel. Historian Charles Burney, a close friend of Bach, recalls: ‘As their own compositions were new and excellent, and the best performers of all kinds which our capital could supply enlisted under their banners, these concerts were better patronised and longer supported than perhaps any others.’
Who were these ‘best performers’? The solo violinists Wilhelm Cramer (father of the renowned pianist) and Felice de Giardini, also an experienced concert impresario, and the oboist Johann Christian Fischer, while Abel himself played the viola da gamba and cello, and Bach the harpsichord and piano, as well as conducting most of the symphony performances. Precise information about members of the orchestra ‘enlisted under the banners’ of Bach and Abel has not been preserved. But in a city where more than 5000 concerts were held in the second half of the 18th century, it would only be possible to compete if the orchestra as well as the soloists conformed to the very highest standards.
Johann Christian’s legacy is enormous: some 400 works in almost all the popular genres of that period. Of his Berlin pieces only five harpsichord concertos clearly influenced by C.P.E. Bach have been preserved. Instrumental compositions written for the orchestra of Count Litta, Johann Christian’s patron, date from his Italian sojourn. Naturally Bach aimed to please Italian rather than German taste in these works. During this period, too, he made his first ‘march’ over the Alps: in 1761 the Venier printing house in Paris published his overture to Artaserse. And finally it was in London that he wrote the greater part of his instrumental opuses. The six harpsichord concertos op.1 are dedicated to Queen Charlotte, and the finale of the last concerto is a set of variations on the national anthem God Save the King. All the subsequent instrumental works, including almost fifty symphonies, numerous concertos, chamber compositions and sonatas owe their appearance to the Bach-Abel concert enterprise and other public and private musical gatherings. A programme from a benefit performance for the oboist Fischer (dated April 3, 1778) has survived intact. This concert consisted almost entirely of Bach’s compositions: overtures, three songs, a string trio, two solo pieces for cello, three concertos (for violin, piano and oboe) and a sinfonia concertante, the same symphony played in this recording. The programme names the performers as Fischer (oboe), Cramer (violin), Giardini (viola) and Crosdill (cello).
Johann Christian’s manner of instrumental composition had little in common with the style of Johann Sebastian Bach. ‘The London Bach’ belonged to that epoch when new styles of gallantry and sentimentality vigorously replaced the old ‘learned’ style, which was now regarded as archaic and ponderous. The limpid texture and precise motivic construction of the themes, the sharp contrasts in his Allegri and the charming cantilenas of the slow movements, the development controlled by the severe metrical pulse and the clear tonal logic of the classical form – all these are closer to Haydn and Mozart than their fathers’ generation. It was no coincidence that the young Mozart composed his first symphonies under the influence of instrumental music by Johann Christian that he had heard in 1765 in London. Seven years later, in Salzburg, he rewrote Bach’s three keyboard sonatas op.5 as concertos.
Another quality that unites the music of Bach and the Viennese classics is the synthesis of characteristic features from diverse national schools. As the composer and theorist Abbe Vogler observed, no composer prior to Bach had used such a combination – of the Italian use of simple harmonies, the scholarly German approach with its daring inventions, the French style ruled by gentle tonalities and the ‘cold’ English manner. Indeed, Johann Christian Bach’s mode of expression is far more ‘cosmopolitan’ than that of his brothers.
Moreover he achieved equilibrium in another aspect, by finding an exact balance between music that can be appreciated by the demanding scholar and that which can entertain the ordinary enthusiast. Music historian John Hawkins, Bach’s contemporary, believed that like all composers dependent on the favours of their public, both Johann Christian and Abel had two different styles: one for their own private delight, the other for the gratification of the masses. Incidentally, the composer himself mentioned his dependence on public taste, not without a touch of irony: ‘my brother [C. P. E. Bach] lives to compose, I compose to live’. Leopold Mozart disagreed, suggesting that ‘the London Bach’ reached a sensible compromise. He even used Bach as an example for his son, telling him to write music as an accomplished composition, yet at the same time comprehensible to all and fit to interest music publishers. Probably it is no coincidence that Johann Christian’s series of symphonies, concertos and sonatas easily found a publisher in London, Paris, Amsterdam and the Hague.
All the Bach symphonies have three movements, with one exception. The construction of the cycle originates from the Italian operatic overture. German theoreticians reproached the Italians for the harmonic uniformity, monotony, deafening volume and lack of coordination in their operatic ‘sinfonias’. Nonetheless Bach discovered elements he could borrow from his Italian colleagues. For instance, he introduced a second theme in his sonata’s Allegro, adding a very detailed development and full reprise in the main key.
Bach’s first series of six symphonies op.3 was published in London in 1765. The Symphony in G minor completes the second cycle op.6, written no later than early 1770 and published in Amsterdam and Paris. Bach’s only minor-key symphony is filled with the typical mood of that decade, referred to after 1776 as ‘Sturm und Drang’ (Friedrich Maximilian von Klinger’s play Sturm und Drang, or Storm and Stress, was written that year). The musical firmament erupted with a succession of emotionally charged and rather disturbing G minor symphonies, among them Haydn’s 39th (1768) and Mozart’s 25th (1773). Later, in the 1780s, the series was continued by Leopold Kozeluch’s Symphony No.5 and culminated in Mozart’s Symphony No.40. The Bach opus most precisely corresponds to the style typified by Sturm und Drang, since it includes major-key ‘islets’ only as fragments, and the G minor of the first and last movements frames the funereal C minor of the central movement (this, according to C.F.D. Schubart, is the key of unhappy love). A swift vortex of movement and sharp accents and fervent utterances from the string section as well as the menacing unisons of the horns seem to echo the famous scene at the gates of Hades from Gluck’s Orfeo. Bach was well aware of Gluck’s score, since in early 1770 he had prepared for the London premiere of a pasticcio based on Orfeo together with Pietro Alessandro Guglielmi, adding several numbers of his own.
The Sinfonia Concertante in G minor (C 45, T 286/4) composed in 1776 was first performed in the concert hall on Hanover Square. This work was highly acclaimed in London, as was the genre to which it belonged. An orchestra consisting of strings and pairs of flutes and horns was supplemented by a quartet of obligato instruments – oboe, violin, viola and cello. The effective succession of tutti and solo, the brilliant virtuosity and energy of the initial Allegro, the exquisite ensemble of interwoven voices in the Larghetto, and the delightful levity of the Rondo in the style of a contredanse with the only minor-key episode in the cycle make this symphony one of Bach’s most festive works.
The score is listed as missing by all existing indexes and encyclopaedias. Until the Second World War the manuscript was kept in the Prussian Royal Library. Then, during work on the trophy fund inventory in 2004, it was discovered in the manuscript section of the Glinka Central Museum of Musical Culture (Moscow), and subsequently identified by Moscow music scholar Pavel Lutsker. This recording is a world premiere.
Bach’s ensembles are composed of various combinations of string and wind instruments, harpsichord or piano. The only Sextet in C Major op.3 (B 78, T 302/1) for oboe, two horns, violin, cello and keyboard was evidently written in the last years of Bach’s life and published after his death. Undoubtedly this work is a chamber piece, given the presence of the keyboard instrument, while the inclusion of horns likens it to serenades performed in the open air. The most developed part of the concerto is for the oboe: both in the opening and closing movements, where this instrument plays a solo more frequently than any other, and in the central movement, where the oboe’s melody now hovers above the strings, now joins them in a dialogue.
The two-movement Quartet in G minor op.2 (B 66,T 310/9) is a later work, like the sextet, with a similarly ‘experimental’ scoring for violin, two cellos and harpsichord. In this recording the keyboard part is played on a fortepiano instead of a harpsichord. This corresponds to the practice commonly followed in the second half of the 18th century, when keyboard instruments were freely substituted for one another and the heading ‘Sonata for harpsichord or fortepiano’ on the title pages of published scores was a quite frequent occurrence. Johann Christian was one of the first composers to acquaint Londoners with the piano, and his sonatas op.5 (1766) were written for this instrument. We know for certain that two years later Bach played a piano solo and also accompanied Fischer in one of the concertos.
After the death of Johann Christian Bach his music very soon lost its popularity with the public and for a long time lay forgotten. Interest was revived in the second half of the 20th century. His collected works published between 1984 and 1999 in New York included many that had previously existed only in rare ancient editions and manuscripts, but now they became accessible to a wide circle of musicians for the first time. In the growing tide of historical performances over the last fifteen years all the Bach symphonies and most of the concertos and chamber opuses have been recorded. For a long time Johann Christian was seen as the forerunner of Mozart and his works as a lighter, less refined version of the Viennese classics. Nowadays ‘the London Bach’ is viewed in a different light. ‘This Bach could be whatever he wanted to be, and he is rightly compared with the mythical Proteus. He could spout like water or blaze like fire.’ Schubart’s verdict on Johann Christian no longer seems an exaggerated metaphor.
Irina Susidko, Olga Puzko, translation by Patricia Donegan