Following in Father’s Footsteps

I may have mentioned once or twice on this blog that Bach is my favourite composer.

Of course, the Bach I’m referring to is Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750).  He was one, albeit easily the most highly regarded (and talented), of a large family of musicians and composers.  I have recently been exploring the work of some of the other members of the family.

Johann Sebastian Bach was apparently, referred to as Sebastian by family and friends — probably largely because about half the other men in the family also had Johann as their first name.  I will adopt the same practice here.

Almost certainly the next most famous member of the family after Sebastian himself was his son Carl Philipp Emanuel (1714-1788).  He was the fifth child of Sebastian and his first wife, Maria Barbara.  CPE Bach became a very respected composer in his own right (counting Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven and Brahms among his admirers), and produced a large body of work.  He wrote in a more modern style than his father and was a very influential figure in the transition from baroque to classical music (in the narrower sense of the term – the period between baroque and romantic, roughly 1730-1820 – rather than a catch-all term for any post-renaissance “art” music).  The bulk of CPE Bach’s music was catalogued by Alfred Wotquenne in 1906 and is identified by Wq number.  A revised catalogue, featuring many works not in Wotquenne’s catalogue (and possibly dumping a few spurious ones that were?), was produced by Eugene Helm in 1989, so CPE’s works are now also identified by H number and I gather this is the preferred catalogue to use.  For quite a while I have had a recording of his Variations on “Les Folies” on an album of music by the Dolmetsch Ensemble; it is a keyboard piece, played on the clavichord on my copy; the sleeve notes didn’t give much detail but I assume this is H263 (Wq 118:9): 12 Variationen über die Folie d’Espagne. More recently, I have been listening to his cello concertos (Wq 170-172 or H432, 436 and 439), which (although I’m not yet very familiar with them) appear to be fine works in their genre.

At this point I should digress to mention that Sebastian Bach’s works are catalogued in the Bach Werke Verzeichnis – literally “Bach Works Catalogue” – of Wolfgang Schmieder (originally published in 1950 and subsequently revised) and given BWV numbers.  Nicholas Kenyon, in the Faber Pocket Guide to Bach (a very handy little reference book, I might add), remarks that “unlike other more egotistical cataloguers of composers, Schmeider did not want his own name used as an abbreviation”.

Several of Sebastian Bach’s other children were also quite musical and more than one of them became composers.  The only one whose music I’ve so far managed to get to listen to is Bach’s eldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann (1710–1784).  Like his father, he was a renowned improviser at the keyboard (specifically, the organ) and a talented composer, although he seems not to have written nearly so much as his father or younger brother (or at least, a lot less of his work survives) and he did not make such a big impact on posterity.  His works, as far as I can make out, were catalogued by Martin Falck in 1919 and are described by F numbers.  I have been listening to some of his keyboard sonatas (F1-F9), played on a digital piano by Claudo Colombo and available as free downloads from his website (which also has plenty of other freely available classical keyboard music, all played on piano).

It was not only Sebastian and his sons that were musical.  Amongst the many other musical members of the family, I have fairly recently acquired a CD of cantatas by Johann Christoph Bach (1642-1703), who was Sebastian’s first cousin once removed (i.e. he was the cousin of Sebastian’s father, (Johann) Ambrosius).  Apparently Christoph was held in high regard by Sebastian.  As far as I can make out, there is no standard catalogue of his works.  There is liable to be some confusion as there was at least one other Johann Christoph in the Bach family tree (one of Ambrosius’ brothers — to make matters even more confusing, they had another brother called Georg Christoph), not to mention Sebastian’s similarly named son, Johann Christoph Friedrich.

I have enjoyed listening to the music of these other three representatives of the Bach clan and I hope to be able to track down some more of their works, as well as those of some other members of the family, before too long.  Incidentally, if you find the multiplicity of Bachs confusing, the Wikipedia page on the Bach Family has a family tree diagram that might help.

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