Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Bach and the Kids: A Father's Day Tribute

Books on classical music are full of references to fathers and fatherhood. Joseph Hadyn is the "father of the string quartet," for example, and Monteverdi is the "father of opera." But in the case of Johann Sebastian Bach, he literally fathered twenty children, including four of sons who became prominent musicians and composers in their own right. In honor of Father's Day, let's consider J.S. Bach's role, not only as one of the greatest composers in history, but as a father.

J.S. Bach cared deeply about the education of his children. He later said that one of the reasons he took the position as a Cantor in Leipzig was for its educational opportunities--he enrolled all his sons in the St. Thomas School, which was associated with the church where he worked. Bach taught each of his children music himself. Evidence for his teaching survives in a book for his eldest son, the Klavierbuchlein (little keyboard book) for Wilhelm Friedemann Bach. In the book, Bach wrote out an explanation of musical clefs and ornaments, then father and son copied pieces for the boy to play. Wilhelm Friedemann grew up to be a brilliant organist known for his improvisation skills. In fact, some historians think that J.S. Bach wrote the famous "Goldberg" variations as a showpiece for his son's keyboard skills. 

J.S. Bach's second surviving son, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, became perhaps the most respected musician in the family after his prominent father. Mozart and Brahms admired his music, and Felix Mendelssohn may have used one of C.P.E's pieces (The Israelites in the Desert) as a model for his Elijah. Two of Bach's other sons had musical careers as well. Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach became a harpsichordist and concertmaster in Buckberg. He composed extensively, but unfortunately most of his music was lost during WWII, which might explain his obscurity. 

Johann Christian Bach was the youngest of J.S. Bach's sons. He travelled to London where he became a successful composer and music master to Queen Charlotte. Though his music eventually fell out of fashion, he did have a powerful influence on Mozart, who visited London at the height of Johann Christian's influence. Mozart adopted many elements of Johann Christian's galant style and his concerto forms, and there is evidence that the two became close. Mozart's sister recalled them playing a sonata together, each taking turns for a few bars, but so closely imitating each other's playing that it sounded like one man playing (Nannerl Mozart, “The Reminiscences of Nannerl Mozart,” in Mozart Speaks).

Of course, not all of Bach's children had successful musical careers. His eldest daughter, Catharina, was a musical genius who excelled at singing, but at the time women were not encouraged or even allowed to pursue careers in music. His son Gottfried Heinrich excelled at playing the keyboard, but had some kind of mental deficiency or illness that kept him from the success of his brothers. Worse, Bach's family life was marked by tragedy and loss. Of the twenty children he fathered, only ten survived him. Yet Bach's prominent sons helped to cement their father's legacy and left extensive compositions of their own. Their legacy reflects not only J.S. Bach's musical prowess, but his gifts as a beloved father and teacher as well.


  1. Thank you for sharing. We often think of the musician and not the man.

  2. Wow! That is something I really did not know. Thanks for the info. :)

  3. You're welcome :) So many classical composers lead really fascinating lives!