JOHANN CHRISTIAN BACH (1735-1782)
Duet for two pianofortes in G major Op. 15
Performed by Christopher Hogwood
Christophe Rousset, pianofortes
*Johann Christian Bach was a composer of the Classical era, the eleventh and youngest son of Johann Sebastian Bach. He is sometimes referred to as 'the London Bach' or 'the English Bach', due to his time spent living there. He is noted for influencing the concerto style of Mozart.
Johann Christian Bach was born on September 5, 1735 to Johann Sebastian and Anna Magdalena Bach in Leipzig, Germany. His distinguished father was already 50 at the time of his birth, which would perhaps contribute to the sharp differences between his music and that of his father. Even so, his father first instructed him in music until he died. After his father's death, when Johann Christian was 15, he worked with his second oldest brother Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, considered at the time to be the most musically gifted of Bach's sons.
He enjoyed a promising career, first as a composer then as a performer playing alongside Carl Friedrich Abel, a notable player of the viola da gamba. He composed cantatas, chamber music, keyboard and orchestral works, operas and symphonies.
Bach lived in Italy for many years starting in 1756, first studying with Padre Martini in Bologna and later with Giovanni Battista Sammartini. He became an organist at a cathedral in Milan in 1760. During his time in Italy he converted from Lutheranism to Catholicism. In 1762, Bach travelled to London to première three operas at King's Theatre, including Orione on 19 February 1763. This established his reputation in England, and he became music master to Queen Charlotte.
He met soprano Cecilia Grassi in 1766 and married her shortly thereafter. Although she was eleven years younger than Bach, they had no children.
Johann Christian Bach died in London on New Year's Day, 1782.
Although Bach's fame declined in the decades following his death, his music still showed up on concert programmes in London with some regularity, often coupled with works by Haydn. In the 19th century, scholarly work on the life and music of Johann Christian's father began, but this often led to the exaltation of J. S. Bach's music at the expense of that of his sons; Phillip Spitta claimed towards the end of his J. S. Bach biography that "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" (Spitta, Vol. 3, p. 278), and J.S.'s first biographer, Johann Nikolaus Forkel, said specifically of Christian that "The original spirit of Bach is . . . not to be found in any of his works" (New Bach Reader, p. 458). It was not until the 20th century that scholars and the musical world began to realize that Bach's sons could legitimately compose in a different style than their father without their musical idioms being inferior or debased, and composers like Johann Christian began to receive renewed appreciation.
Johann Christian Bach is of some historical interest as the first composer who preferred the piano to older keyboard instruments such as the harpsichord. Johann Christians early music shows the influence of his older brother Carl Philipp Emanuel, while his middle period in Italy shows the influence of Sammartini.
Johann Christian Bach's father died when Johann Christian was only fifteen, perhaps one reason why it is difficult to find points of similarity between the music of Johann Sebastian Bach and that of Johann Christian. By contrast, the piano sonatas of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, Johann Christian's much older brother, tend to invoke certain elements of the father at times, especially as regards the use of counterpoint. (C.P.E. was 36 by the time J.S. died.)
Johann Christian's music departs completely from the styles of the elder Bachs in being highly melodic. He composed in the galant style incorporating balanced phrases, emphasis on melody and accompaniment, without too much contrapuntal complexity. The galant movement opposed the intricate lines of Baroque music, and instead placed importance on fluid melodies in periodic phrases. It preceded the classical style, which fused the galant aesthetics with a renewed interest in counterpoint.