Johann Christian Bach was the eighteenth child and the eleventh son of the legendary Johann Sebastian Bach. He was born on the 5th of September, 1735, in Leipzig, Germany. He subsequently moved to London and became famous as “The English Bach,” or “the London Bach.” Although other classical composers gradually overshadowed him, he is universally revered for influencing the “concerto music” of Joseph Haydn and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. He also holds a special stature for contributing significantly to the development of the modern “sonata principle.”
Johann Christian was the youngest child of Johann Sebastian Bach and Anna Magdalena Bach. His father had already crossed 50 during his birth, while their age gap is exemplified by their distinct musical styles. Initially, Johann Sebastian acted as his mentor. After his demise in 1750, he collaborated with Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, his second-oldest brother, and the one considered to be the most talented among Bach's sons.
Johann Christian Bach’s career started as a composer until he collaborated with the famous viola player Carl Friedrich Abel and started performing on stage. In 1750, Bach moved to Bologna, Italy to study under Padre Martini. In 1760, he was appointed as the organist at the famous Milan Cathedral. During this time, he also converted and became a Catholic, devoting his time to compose church and chamber music. He also crafted music for a classic Christian hymn “Te Deum” and a “Requiem Mass.” In 1757, his church works garnered critical acclaim. In 1762, he finally traveled to London for the premiere of his operas. In 1763, his opera titled “Orione” was held at “King’s Theatre” in London, which established his name in England. In 1765, his opera titled “Adriano in Siria” was also performed at the “King’s Theatre.” He was eventually appointed as the music teacher of Queen Charlotte.
During his time in London, he composed numerous symphonies, operas, cantatas, keyboard music, and orchestral works. He subsequently started focusing on symphonies and concertos. His contributions successfully cultivated an appetite for instrumental music among the audience. His performances became crucial in London’s cultural and social calendar.
His Best Work
Johann Christian Bach’s symphony in “G minor” was composed somewhere around the 1760s and was performed at London’s Carlisle House by Bach and Friedrich Abel. This composition is proof of Bach’s prowess at developing major symphonic creations. It also offers an explosive outburst of “stress and storm” passions that were completely alien to the musical sense of the 18th century. Bach had successfully laid the foundations for experimentation and radicalism in music, which in turn inspired later composers to entertain new musical feeling and thinking - something that has reached its pinnacle in the 21st century. However, Bach and his contemporaries had already set on a musical journey that exuded a true sense of novelty and adventure. Johann Christian achieved all this during an era when self-sustaining public instrumental music was still carving its niche among the audience and composers.
The Mozart Connection
The English connections of Johann Christian Bach and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart often go under the radar. Mozart’s lifelong adulation for Johann Christian started during his family’s trip to London in 1764. The eight-year-old prodigy was already performing for the Royal Family and crafted his first symphony within a few months. He became exposed to a diverse range of music for which London’s cultural influence definitely deserves credit. The “Theatre Royal” and the “King’s Theatre’ hosted European's crème de la crème of music. Bach’s “Adriano in Siria” was one such opera, considered to be the glamour signing in 1764.
However, “Adriano in Siria” was canceled after only seven shows, as the original Italian cast and audiences were highly prejudiced to allow a non-Italian to compose opera. Everyone else praised and revered the work, especially Wolfgang. Mozart attended one of the performances, was heavily influenced, and went on to craft a set of decorations for “Cara la dolce fiamma,” an important aria from the opera. Despite their age gap, the two became extremely close. Mozart, who seldom praised his contemporaries, later wrote how much he loved and admired Johann Christian.
Mozart realized that Bach was creating new possibilities to utilize the underlining potential of instrumental music. He started playing the keyboard with him and even arranged the latter’s music, an encounter which later transformed his own works. He paid tribute to Johann Christian through his piano concerto in “A major,” just after the demise of his elder friend. It was based on one of Bach’s overtures. In Bach’s symphony in “G minor,” there remains premonitions of Wolfgang’s music, especially in the intense first movement. Mozart later recreated this in his own symphony in “G minor.” The musical connection between the two icons is clearly visible in the central movements of each of their symphonies. The first three notes of Mozart’s piano concerto in “C minor” and his symphony in “C major” are exactly similar to Bach’s symphony in “G minor.” Wolfgang was clearly allured towards the genres Bach excelled in - operas, symphonies, keyboard concertos, and keyboard sonatas. Johann Christian’s suspenseful musical ambiguities, his utilization of expressive motives, the constant thematic contrasts all became enduring characteristics of Mozart’s work.
In 1766, Johann Christian met Cecilia Grassi, a soprano eleven years younger than him. The couple got married shortly thereafter. During the late ’70s, his finances and popularity were in a steady decline. His resources were embezzled by his steward, and he became so indebted that the Royal Family, especially Queen Charlotte, had to step in and cover his expenses. In 1781, he fell seriously ill and passed away on the 1st of January, 1782, in London. He was buried at the St. Pancras Old Church.
The London audience loved and respected Bach, their relationship further nurtured by his compositions that aroused their musical curiosity. Also, the cantabile and simple melodies that were the signature of his sonatas, concertos, and symphonies were particularly appreciated. The second movements of his compositions were particularly expressive and constituted pleasing melodies, which the British admired.
Bach's symphonies don’t just hold a special place because of his influence on a young Mozart, but because they are considered as signature compositions of the 18th century – especially his symphony in “G minor” is arguably the most dramatic and darkest piece he had composed. His music was designed to appease both critics and audiences. His simple yet innovative harmonies offered a distinct orchestral color that enlightened, entertained, and elevated the listeners. His deliberate attempt to signify instrumental music as a manifestation of musical passion, bereft of the contrapuntal complexity and intellectual severity of the earlier eras, deserves plaudits. Johann Christian Bach’s music was more sophisticated than he is given credit for.
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