Johann Christian Bach

(b. Leipzig, 5 Sept 1735; d. London, 1 Jan 1782) Johann Christian Bach was the youngest son of Johann Sebastian Bach by his second wife, Anna Magdalena. His first musical instruction was from his father, but as the latter died in 1750 when Johann Christian was only fifteen, the boy was taken into the household of his half-brother Carl Philipp Emanuel, in Berlin, who forwarded the lad's musical education, until such time as Johann Christian found himself in Italy, under the patronage of a certain Count Agostino Litta, in Milan. It is said that he went there in the company of a female Italian opera singer though of this nothing is known for sure, but in 1754, brother Carl noted that Johann Christian had 'gone to Italy'. In Italy he certainly was, by the late 1750s, and there became a pupil (by post, it would seem) of the celebrated Padre Martini of Milan, who came to regard him like a son. Perhaps it was through Martini's influence, or merely to qualify for a job as an Italian church organist, but it is certain that in that country Johann Christian abandoned the Protestantism of his forefathers and became a Roman Catholic convert, which faith he henceforward adhered to, even later on in Protestant England. As a Roman Catholic, he became organist of Milan Cathedral, and even composed some splendid pieces of Latin church music, which are well worthy of revival. But church music was not to absorb him for long: Italy was full of opera houses and invitations to compose operas for them too appealing; Johann Christian's first Italian opera (a setting of Metastasio's Artaserse) was produced at Turin in the Carnival Season of 1761, and later the same year his Catone in Utica was produced very successfully in Naples, to be followed the next year (1762) with a setting of Metastasio's very popular Alessandro in Indie libretto. Young Bach was obviously a rising star in the Italian operatic field. But then a strange thing happened, as it had happened to his great compatriot Handel, some fifty years before. Johann Christian found himself going to London, to compose an opera for the Italian opera house there. So he arrived in the English capital in the summer of 1762, as 'Mr John Bach, a Saxon Master of Musick . ..' At first he was disappointed with the voices placed at his disposal and so only attempted to direct comic operas and pasticcios - operas with music selected from the works of other composers - until he heard that singer Anna de' Amicis, whose voice charmed him, and he then composed for her the opera seria of Orione ossia Diana Vendicata, which took the town by storm, from the first notes of the splendid overture, in which Dr Burney stated that clarinets were used for the first time in the London opera. Actually, there is some doubt about his claim, since they are known to have been used by Handel, and Dr Arne certainly scored for them in some of his operas.

So young Bach was launched upon his English career. In a short time he passed from being a mere 'Saxon Master of Musick' to 'our trusty and well-beloved John Christian Bach, Gent'. He was appointed Music-Master to the young Queen Charlotte Sophia, wife of King George the Third. Both monarchs were fond of music; the King played the flute quite well and could strum a tune on the harpsichord, whilst his Queen was quite a competent keyboard player, who is said to have consoled her suffering fellow-travellers on the stormy seacrossing from Germany to England 'with her executions on the harpsichord'; one can only hope that they were duly appreciative. Her first Music-Master in England had been the rather crotchety old Joseph Kelway, who was soon supplanted by the urbane and polished young Saxon, with whom the Queen could at least converse in her native tongue. John Bach, as he now was, became a great favourite in the Royal Household, dedicating to his royal patroness his own Op. 1, a set of very modern-sounding concertos. In a way, he stepped to some extent into the empty shoes of the dead Handel, who had died only a few years before, leaving a conspicuous void in English musical life, as there was no native composer of sufficient genius to occupy the great man's place. Not even Drs Boyce and Arne, gifted though they were, had sufficient reputation to succeed the Beloved Saxon; it was left to another Saxon, who became 'the English Bach', to take over something of the great man's place, in due course. Young Bach was no great epic composer, like the departed Handel, but his music had something of the same consummate technical mastery as Handel's, albeit in an altogether different and more 'modern' style.

In London, Bach found some congenial spirits, some foreign, some British. Foremost among them was Carl Friedrich Abel, a celebrated viola da gamba virtuoso, who had once been a pupil of Bach's father Johann Sebastian. These two very kindred spirits now revived their old acquaintance and became close friends. They both played in the Queen's private chamber band, and actually set up house together and founded a long-popular series of concerts, known as the 'Bach-Abel Concerts' and later as the 'Hanover Square Concerts', devoted very largely to the performance of the 'modern' music of the day - among other things, Haydn's symphonies were played there, long before J. P. Salomon brought that great composer to London from Vienna. Another distinguished foreign musician resident in mid- 18th-century London was Felice de' Giardini, brilliant violinist in the 'modern' style, who played for Bach, led the opera orchestra, and sometimes even tried his hand at the management, always a risky business. Then, later in the 1760s, they were joined by Johann Christian Fischer, the most distinguished oboist of the day, who also played Bach's music, and who later married one of Gainsborough's daughters. Gainsborough himself, of course, was a great musiclover and a close friend of both Bach and Abel, especially when he returned to London from Bath in the mid- 1770s. He painted a remarkably fine portrait of John Christian, which still exists in two versions, one in Bologna, where Bach sent it at the request of his beloved old mentor Padre Martini, and one still in England.

London was a busy musical centre in the mid- 18th century. Besides the Italian opera, there were two major English opera houses, and several smaller ones, as well as several series of indoor concerts, run by clubs and societies, and the open-air concerts at the various Pleasure Gardens, which provided music often of a very high standard in the summer months and were really the ancestors of the modern Promenade Concerts. Chief of these were Vauxhall and Ranelagh, at which some of the finest musicians in London, both native and foreign, did not disdain to perform. Mr Bach's music, both vocal and instrumental, was in high demand there, and among other things he composed some of the very finest and most enchantingly melodious of all the innumerable sets of Vauxhall Songs, which serve to make one wish that he had had more opportunity to compose music to English words.

Although it had been his rising young reputation as a composer of Italian opera which had initially brought him to London, his actual connection with the London opera house became increasingly sporadic as the years went by. He found himself more in demand as a keyboard-player, concert-giver and composer of melodious chamber-music than as an opera-composer. Still, he did maintain a somewhat tenuous connection with the lyric stage. After Orione, came Zanaida (also in 1763 and described as a 'tragic' opera, although its sparkling little B flat symphonyoverture is anything but tragic). But thereafter Bach's London operatic appearances became increasingly irregular, as new fashionable idols came and went. In 1765 he produced his Adriano in Siria (Metastasio again, as librettist); then two years later, in 1767, came the fine Carattaco, an Italian opera on a British subject, which was highly successful, as Orione had been some four years before. Its choral numbers were particularly admired and do indeed make one wish that the London Bach had tackled an English oratorio, after the Handelian fashion. But when, in 1770, he did compose an oratorio, it was to an Italian opera seria type text {Gioas, Re di Giuda) and failed miserably. At his royal patroness's suggestion, the composer played an organ concerto, Handel-fashion, 'between the acts' but it was a light-hearted, 'modern' work and failed to please the English 'organ-hunters', who actually hissed it. But although it failed to please at the oratorio, the John Christian kind of organ concerto was just the thing at Vauxhall and was to prove a lasting success to James Hook, for his own nightly organ concerts there, just as John Christian's other keyboard concertos, were to provide a model for the youthful Mozart, who had met the English Bach in London in 1764 and through him was introduced to English musical society. Mozart never forgot his beloved 'Herr Bach von London', his kindness, or his music. Anyone who knows the music of the two men is constantly being reminded of the younger man's artistic indebtedness to the older. The early 1770s found the English Bach at the height of his career as performer and composer. He had by then established himself thoroughly as a composer of agreeable instrumental music in the modern idiom; his symphonies, concertos, sonatas and chamber pieces were in great demand with every publisher throughout Europe and especially in London. In the late 1760s he had had the acumen to see the future importance of the pianoforte, in place of the older harpsichord. Although he was not the first British performer to play the new instrument (John Burton, Charles Dibdin and even Thomas Gray and the Rev. William Mason had the precedence there) he was the first performer of any real consequence to feature it in a public concert. He bought one of Zumpe's little 'square' forte pianos in April 1768, and a 'Thatch'd House' concert in St James's Street, in June of that year, featured a 'Solo on the Piano Forte, by Mr Bach'. His very popular Op. 5 set of six keyboard sonatas, published that same year, were entitled 'pour le clavecin ou le piano forte', one of the first of many to be so described, right up until the time of early Beethoven.

Although his London operatic fame had faded a little before the advent of newer idols, such as Sacchini, and perhaps because of a rather mangled version he himself had mounted of Gluck's Orpheus, flattering invitations came from abroad to compose operas for important foreign theatres, such as that at Mannheim, where his Temistocle was a triumphant success in November 1772; some years later came the rather less successful, although still very beautiful Lucio Silla of 1776, best known nowadays for its overture, the first of his orchestral works to be revived in modern times, as 'Sinfonia in B flat, Op. 18, No. 2'. The 1772 Mannheim visit had been a fateful one for John Christian, by then in his late thirties and still unmarried. According to the Mozarts (who were great purveyors of musical gossip) Bach fell in love in Mannheim with the very beautiful teen-age daughter of his friend the flute-player J. B. Wendling. If so, nothing came of the affair and she later became the mistress of the Elector Carl Theodor. Bach, back home in London, married an old friend, Cecilia Grassi, the opera singer, who, although no great beauty, made him a very congenial wife, if contemporary accounts are to be believed.

Although his connection with the London Italian opera house had become very tenuous, by the late 1770s, nevertheless he did compose one more splendid opera seria for the London stage. This was La Clemenza di Scipione, described as a 'new Serious Opera with Grand Chorusses' when it was first performed at the Haymarket on the 4th April 1778. In this work there is no hint of failing powers on the part of the composer; rather it contains many signs that his style was broadening towards the coming Classical Viennese style. It had a fair success and was revived many years later, long after Bach's death, as a vehicle for the talents of the famous singer Mrs Billington.

One more flattering invitation for an operatic composition came from Paris, a most unexpected quarter, although Bach's instrumental music was well known and popular there. For the Paris opera, he composed his splendid Amadis des Gaules, to a modified version of an old text written nearly a century before by the famous poet Quinault, for Lully. Bach went over to Paris, to hear the singers, in the summer of 1778, and there met his young friend Mozart, who wrote back to his father in Salzburg, saying that 'Mr Bach von London' had been in Paris for a fortnight and how pleased they had been to see each other again, adding 'he is an honest man and treats people fairly; I love him . . . with all my heart, and respect him . ..'

Unfortunately, Amadis des Gaules, for all its great melodic beauty, subtle orchestration and some of the most enchanting ballet music of the whole period, not even excepting that of Rameau and Gluck, was a comparative failure, pleasing neither the Gluckists nor the Piccinnists. Bach went home to London a worried man. Any hope that he was going to repair his foundering fortunes with a great French success had evaporated; his receipts were falling, and his own appearances drew less acclaim than they had even a few short years before. Newer piano-players such as Muzio Clementi and J. S. Schroeter were attracting the crowds (and the pupils!) and Bach's falling revenues were rendered even more serious by the depredations of a dishonest housekeeper who took Bach's money, but omitted to pay his bills. He still had his royal connections, of course, and moved to Richmond, partly to be near the court at Kew, partly for the sake of the more salubrious air. But it was in vain. His health gradually worsened, and although it is very difficult to discover from contemporary accounts exactly what was the cause of his ill-health, it seems that he may have died from worry, more than anything else, for he left debts amounting to ?4,000, a very large sum in those days. A handful of friends followed his coffin to the grave, in St Pancras' Churchyard, and the event itself roused little comment at the time, except that when young Mozart heard the news, some time later, for news travelled slowly in those days, he wrote home to Papa Leopold 'You will no doubt have heard that the English Bach is dead - what a loss for the musical world!'

Tags: USA, Actress, 1950-59