Johann Christian Bach

1735 1782

Johann Christian Bach

Composer

Biography

Johann Christian Bach was a 16th-century Classical composer, best remembered for being the eleventh and youngest son of the great composerJohann Sebastian Bach. To differentiate JC Bach from his father and brothers, he is sometimes referred to as ‘the London Bach’ or ‘the English Bach’ as he spent many years living there. JC Bach’s great accomplishment was in his development of the symphony and concerto, greatly influencingMozart and Haydn.

At the time of Johann Christian’s birth, his father was already 50 years old. Despite his older age, J.S. Bach gladly instructed his youngest son in music and used him as his copyist between 1746 and 1750. When Johann Christian was just 15 years old, his father passed away. Johann Christian’s music is substantially different than that of his father, which is most likely explained by the great age difference and his young age at the time of his father’s death. J.C. then went to Berlin to work with his brotherCarl Philipp Emanuel Bach (the second oldest son of J.S. Bach), who enjoyed a fine reputation as the most gifted of J.S. Bach’s sons.

Johann Christian continued his studies in Italy beginning in 1756. He first studied in Bologna with Padre Martini and later withGiovanni Battista Sammartini . Within several years, he was appointed organist at a cathedral Milan and began composing operas, which were staged in Turin and Naples. While in Italy, Johann Christian converted from Lutheranism to Catholicism.

Johann Christian Bach left Italy in 1762 after accepting an invitation to compose in London for the King’s Theatre. Despite an unstable career in opera, he was appointed to the post of music master for Queen Charlotte and was a gifted teacher. Together with the famous viola da gamba player Carl Friedrich Abel, J.C. Bach took part in a prestigious concert series in London with the goal of bringing the best and the newest music from Europe to London. Bach and the youngMozart met and became friends between 1764 and 1765 when Mozart made a visit to London.

Bach composed a great variety of music, including cantatas, chamber music, keyboard and orchestral works, operas and symphonies. Evidence of his time in Italy is found in his works, along with the German influence of his brother C.P.E. Bach. He was able to seamlessly blend the technique of the German style with the fluency of the Italian style, resulting in a new characteristic sound that attracted the young Mozart.

J.C. Bach’s earliest symphonies are much more Italian in style than his later symphonies, though they are all in the Italian three-movement form. Evidence of a more sophisticated manner of writing was evident by the mid-1760s, with the use of richer textures and more complexity. Perhaps most appealing are the six symphonies of his opus 18, of which half are for double orchestra. With these works, J.C. Bach experiments with space and timbre to create striking contrasts.

His fascination with timbre and orchestral colour and instrumentation continued in his symphonies concertantes, which were composed for soloists and orchestra and often used in his London concerts. Other works that he frequently performed in London were his elegant piano concertos. Other early works, written while in Italy, include much Latin sacred music. At least 48 symphonies can be authentically attributed to J.C. Bach, while another 43 are questionable. His symphonies, while many in number, are much smaller in nature than those of the Classical style. They are actually more closely related to the Italian sinfonia.

Much of J.C. Bach’s chamber music is very pleasant to listen to, especially the quintets from the opus 11 for flute, oboe, strings and continuo. These works feature a conversational style and are very colourful.

Many works were written for the keyboard, both with and without violin accompaniment. Of all his works, these were the most accessible to his students and amateurs and were also used for teaching purposes.

While his instrumental music is light and charming, Bach’s operas were dramatic in nature, giving great contrast to his more successful works. His operas consist ofTemistocle (1772) and Lucio Silla (1774), which were both staged in Mannheim. Several years later, Bach composed the operaAmadis de Gaule for the Paris Opéra. None of his operas were widely successful.

In addition to his instrumental music, a number of J.C. Bach’s songs written for Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens were also published in his lifetime. However, his reputation is built upon his mastery of the galant style, ‘infusing it with vigour and refined sensibility’.

Characteristics of J.C. Bach’s style include a departure from complex counterpoint, more melodic lines and balanced phrases. His style preceded that of the Classical style, which would combine his galant style with counterpoint.

During the 1770s, Bach’s popularity began to fade, leading to financial problems. In addition, his health deteriorated drastically, eventually leading to his death in London in 1782. Shortly after his death, Johann Christian Bach had already been forgotten throughout most of Europe. His music still appeared regularly on concert programmes in London alongside the music of Haydn.

In the 19th century, scholars became increasingly interested in his father’s life and works and also took an interest in his sons, though many were not impressed by the youngest Bach’s vastly different style. J.S. Bach’s biographer, Philipp Spitta wrote, ‘it is especially in Bach's sons that we may mark the decay of that power which had culminated [in Sebastian] after several centuries of growth’. Another biographer, John Nikolaus Forkel claimed that ‘the original spirit of Bach is…not to be found in any of his [J.C. Bach] works’.

Much of this negativity was not justified as scholars in the 20th century pointed out. An appreciation for the newer styles of both C.P.E. and J.C. Bach’s music was found as was an acceptance among scholars that, though J.S. Bach’s sons composed in a different musical idiom, their music was not necessarily inferior to his own music.

J.C. Bach’s music may not have been strongly influenced in a direct manner by his father, but instead through his eldest brother, C.P.E. Bach, whose music did possess many of the traits of his father’s music. J.C.’s early music shows a particularly strong influence from his brother, while his music from his middle period shows a stronger influence from his time in Italy with Sammartini. One very unique trait of J.C. Bach was his preference for the piano as opposed to instruments such as the harpsichord. He was perhaps the first composer to move away from the older keyboard instruments.

While not nearly as popular as his father or Haydn, the number of concerts and recordings which include J.C. Bach’s charming music is steadily increasing.