Johann Sebastian Bach worked hard. He worked hard to be a magnificent composer, he worked hard to be a good teacher and he worked hard to be a good father. Bach was married twice — first to Maria Barbara Bach and, upon her death, to Anna Magdalena Wilcke — and sired 20 children. 10 survived into adulthood — six sons and four daughters. While we're left to wonder what kind of talents their sisters may have harbored, four of those sons went on to become notable composers in their own right.
Wilhelm Friedemann Bach
He was the oldest of the J.S. sons, and had the toughest life. This is partially, at least according to Grove, due to the death of his mother when he was 10 years old and his father’s remarriage less than two years later. However, he did display some legitimately good keyboard skills and a composer. Like many of his brothers he attended the Thomasschule, and after graduation he proved to be a standout student at the University of Leipzig. In 1733, he handily won the organist’s position at St. Sophia’s Church in Dresden, where he also began to associate with the figures of the court. And Dresden’s court partied hard, so hard that it must have been quite the culture shock for someone who grew up under the religious restraints that Leipzig provided. Dresden was also a Catholic city, yet another thing a Lutheran Bach had to get used to. But Wilhelm Friedemann was able to adjust — perhaps too well. By the time he got to Halle (he's also known as the “Halle Bach”) — the liberal organist was at odds with the conservative city. His professional relationships in Halle grew ever contentious, and in 1764 he walked out of the job. Though that may have been his prerogative, it was more than a bit irresponsible considering he had a family at home.
Unfortunately, Wilhelm was a terrible keeper of his father’s work; most of the music he received from Johann Sebastian’s estate is now lost. He sold a lot of it, and passed some off as his own. There’s also a good chance that it was he who lost the St. Mark Passion. Thanks, Will.
Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach
Mozart once said, “Bach is the father, we are the children.” And while Johann Sebastian did have a lot of kids, it wasn’t Jo he was referring to. Mozart was talking about Carl Philipp Emanuel. That makes perfect sense, given C.P.E.’s role during the transition to what we know as the “Classical era” and the sheer volume of music he composed. Carl kept it busy.
|Flute Concert with Frederick the Great in Sanssouci Flute Concert
with Frederick the Great in Sanssouci. That's C.P.E. Bach seated at the
(Adolph Menzel / Wikipedia Commons)
He was a precocious child; J.S. was his primary music teacher and he was a talented sight reader of his father’s music by 11. He attended the University of Leipzig to study law, and like any money-conscious college student he lived at home with his parents and assisted in his father’s musical projects. Like any student out there grinding, he eventually transferred and made money by giving music lessons and directing public concerts. And through all of this, he began to emerge as a composer, balancing a full academic workload with his full creative capabilities. Grove speculates that C.P.E. was such a great student because he wanted to have the path to a “respectable” job if need be — professional musicians of his day weren’t always recognized for their creative contributions and were at the beck and call of their patrons (J.S. knew this all too well). Luckily for us, Carl went with music. But all the obsessive note-taking and meticulous record keeping habits he learned in school served him well — he was the most responsible steward of his father’s music. C.P.E. also counted among his friends Frederick the Great of Prussia. He was a mean flute player, and Carl and the King had many a jam session; C.P.E. even claimed that he accompanied Frederick’s first flute solo.
Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach
Of all of J.S. Bach’s children to make their names as notable composers, J.C.F. and his younger brother Johann Christian got kind of unlucky. Not because of their talent, but because their older siblings got so much more time with their dad. And if you’re a Bach, “time with dad” means “time learning music.” J.C.F. went off to (again) the University of Leipzig, but had to drop out shortly after enrolling, in 1750. J.S. was sick (he died later that year), and the third Bach son needed to find a paying job. He wound up in Bückeberg, and did quite well for himself. While the court there was neither the grandest nor the most famous, it was incredibly cultured, making it a fine place to foster the life of the mind. J.C.F. cranked out vocal work, including some in collaboration with Johann Gottfried Herder.
Here’s something warm: in the late 1770’s J.C.F. and Wilhelm Friedemann went on a road trip to England to see their younger brother Johann Christian in England, stopping along the way to see Carl.
Johann Christian Bach
The youngest Bach boy was only a teenager when his father died. J.C. received a sizable inheritance (including three harpsichords) and eventually moved in with his older brother and music teacher Carl Philipp Emanuel. But in 1754, he moved to Italy where he *gasp* converted to Catholicism and became an organist at Milan Cathedral. It was there that he fell in love with opera; he moved again, this time to London, to compose for the Kings theater. He was popular, and in 1764 he was visited by a prodigious 8-year-old boy named Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. While J.C. was never formally his teacher, they were friendly, and Bach remained a great influence. According to Grove, 1768 saw J.C. give what might have been the first public performance on the piano.
Unfortunately, J.C.’s popularity declined over the years. His debtors were beginning to come around, and the shrinking demand for his new music did not pair well with the revelation that J.C.’s own housekeeper forged receipts and left with much of his money. His debts were never fully repaid. And while much of the public ignored his death, Mozart was sure to give him much deserved praise.