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A Miraculous Family

by Leon Botstein

Written for Sons of Bach, which will be performed on December 19, 2019 at Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center.

There are probably enough members of tonight’s audience who will readily recognize—with a smile–the name P.D.Q. Bach—whose music does not appear on the program. P.D.Q.’s creator, the American composer Peter Schickele (whose aptitude for musical jokes was unparalleled) described him as “the last and unquestionably the least of the great Johann Sebastian Bach’s many children.” Schickele’s invention of a son whose dates were “(1807-1742)?” was a resounding success for decades, in part because it was a brilliant parody of two simple and widely known facts: that J.S. Bach was arguably the greatest composer in the history of Western “classical” music and that he was notorious for having very many children, and among them an improbably large group of four who went on to have distinguished careers of their own as composers. These twin feats were as astonishing as they were legendary. Mozart had a son who became a composer, but he is long forgotten, even more than Mozart’s quite admirable and respectable father, Leopold. There are other parent-child phenomena—Ernest Boulanger and his two daughters, Nadia and Lili, the two Oistrakh violinists David and Igor, Rudolf and Peter Serkin—but nothing approaches the case of the Bach family. There are three composers with the surname Tchaikovsky, but they are not related.

J.S. Bach’s lot as a parent was directly opposite of that of the father of Felix Mendelssohn, Abraham Mendelssohn, who once quipped “I grew up being the son of my father [the great philosopher Moses Mendelssohn] only to become the father of my son.” Bach’s sons may never quite have eclipsed the fame and achievement of their father, but they came quite close to doing so. Of the four sons of Bach on this program, Johann Christian Bach, the youngest, and Carl Phillip Emmanuel Bach, his older half-brother, were prolific, inspired, famous and eminent composers in their lifetimes. When Johann Christian Bach, who impressed and influenced the young Mozart, died in London in 1782, Mozart reported the death to his own father as a “loss to the musical world.”

Myths that masquerade as history die hard, especially alluring myths, and especially in music history. Among the most enduring myth that won’t die under the weight of evidence is the notion that J.S. Bach and his music were entirely forgotten in the decades following J.S. Bach’s death in 1750. A Bach revival is said to have begun with Felix Mendelssohn’s legendary 1829 Berlin performance of the St. Matthew Passion. In fact, Bach had never been forgotten. Rather his large-scale works, particularly sacred choral works, had not yet entered the repertoire of a rapidly emerging world of public concert life on the continent after the fall of Napoleon. Bach remained a revered figure among musicians and connoisseurs. Sara Levy, Mendelssohn’s great aunt, actually studied with Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, the eldest of Bach’s sons on today’s program, and amassed a collection of J.S. Bach manuscripts.

Bach’s sons not only benefitted from the fame of their father but, through their careers and their advocacy also helped sustain his memory. No one who encountered them was oblivious to who their father was. The mix of ambivalence, pride, anxiety, and rivalry involved in being a son of J.S. Bach and a musician is daunting to contemplate. Nonetheless, taken together, these four sons of Bach and their father constituted a dynasty without peer in the history of music. Wilhelm Friedemann was twenty-five years older than Johann Christian. He kept in close contact during the 1740s with his father J.S. Bach and his music owes the most to his father’s example. Wilhelm Friedemann’s life was quite colorful, marked by intrigues and financial instability and the subject of fictional accounts. Towards the end of his career he focused less on composition than on performance. He became famous as an organ virtuoso and a master of improvisation.

Carl Philip Emmanuel Bach, just four years younger than Wilhelm Friedemann, became most famous as a composer for the keyboard, primarily for the clavichord. My colleague at Bard, Peter Serkin, is in the midst of recording a host of C.P.E. Bach’s keyboard music. C.P.E Bach also wrote a treatise, the Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments, published in 1753 that became a standard text for teachers. C.P.E’s music became a defining part of the repertoire for the burgeoning community throughout nineteenth century Europe of amateur keyboard enthusiasts. One single example, a Solfegietto, or Solfeggio in c minor, from 1766, entered the piano teaching repertoire as a staple and has remained there ever since, as millions of veterans of piano instruction all over the world can testify.

But as the 100 volumes now in existence in the massive new complete critical edition of C.P.E. Bach’s works testify, C.P.E. Bach was a versatile composer with a range that extended to chamber music, orchestral music, sacred oratorios and passions, cantatas, secular vocal and choral music, and arrangements of his father’s music. The Magnificat on this program is among his most enduring and powerful works and is, at one and the same time homage to, commentary on, and departure from his father’s famous setting of the same text. C.P.E. Bach earned legitimately a reputation as an innovator and a leader in fashioning a new style in music in Germany during the second half of the 18th century. He influenced the direction taken by the Viennese classicism of Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven and he was widely considered, at the end of his life, as one of the great composers of the age.

Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach, one of the two sons of Anna Magdalena Bach on this program, never quite achieved the prominence of his younger brother or older half-brothers. Attached to court of Count Wilhelm of Schaumburg-Lippe in Bückeburg for a good part of his career, he sought to adapt to the shifting tastes of the court in secular music while maintaining an output of sacred Protestant oratorios and cantatas. He produced fewer works but among the most successful and prominent were his secular vocal compositions, some of which were to texts by the writer, philologist, theologian, and philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803), who had an enormous influence on modern ideas of history and culture and was Bach’s colleague during his tenure as court preacher in the 1770s.

Not surprisingly, the youngest of Bach’s sons, whose fame and reputation rivaled that of C.P.E Bach and J.S. Bach, wrote music with the least evident debt to his father. Central to J.C. Bach was the genre of Italian opera. He composed at least 11 operas for the London stage, one masque, and an opera in French for Paris. He contributed to pastiche stage productions that combined the work of more than one composer. But J.C. Bach also composed a large body of liturgical music, setting Latin and English texts. Some of his oratorios resemble operas, and the influence of Handel is audible. Indeed, unlike his brothers, J.C. Bach’s career flourished in London, and not on the continent. Apart from opera and vocal music, J.C. Bach was as well a prolific and inventive composer of symphonies, the multi-movement instrumental form for orchestra that came to dominate the nineteenth century.

These four remarkable sons of J.S. Bach represent an astonishing bridge, constructed out of one single family. It spanned the North German Protestant Baroque tradition of the early 18th century, the world of Italian opera seria, and the classicism of the late 18th century. Their achievement is a testament to the idea of music as a craft, and as an artisan tradition, handed from one generation to the next—a family business, so to speak, much like the Stradivari family. That might make the continuity of creativity between J.S. Bach and his sons appear to be just one example of a widespread phenomenon. In fact, it was not.  The imagination, beauty, consistency, and scale of the output of the sons of Bach remain unique as a miracle in the history of family traditions. There may indeed be many examples of how one offspring continues in a path set by a parent, in both science and art, but four supremely gifted children?

If any figure in the history of music deserved such a legacy it was J.S. Bach.