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Johann Christian Bach and his Sinfonias Concertante


Johann Christian Bach (September 5, 1735 – January 1, 1782), a galant-style German composer of Italian opera in the pre-Classical era, was the eleventh surviving child and youngest son of Johann Sebastian Bach and is sometimes referred to as “the London Bach” or “the English Bach”, due to his time spent living in the British capital, where he came to be known as John Bach.  Johann Christian Bach was born on September 5, 1735, in Leipzig, Germany, to famed Baroque composer Johann Sebastian Bach and his second wife, Anna Magdalena.  His distinguished father was already fifty at the time of his birth, which would perhaps contribute to the sharp differences between his music and that of his father. Even so, his father first instructed him in music and, probably, his father’s cousin Johann Elias Bach, and that instruction continued until the elder Bach’s death when Johann Christian was fifteen. After this, Johann Christian relocated to Berlin and worked with his second-oldest half brother Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, who was twenty-one years his senior and considered at the time to be the most musically gifted of Bach’s sons.  A keyboardist for Frederick the Great (Frederick II of Prussia), Carl helped Johann hone his clavier-playing skills and also taught him how to compose. By the end of his stay in Berlin, Bach was performing his own compositions to public acclaim.

When he was twenty years old, J. C. Bach moved to Italy and lived there for many years starting in 1756.  He became a private performer for Milanese nobleman Count Litta, a patron of the arts, who funded Bach’s further musical education. Under teacher Padre Martini of Bologna, Bach strove to achieve a greater maturity in his compositions.  During his time in Italy, he converted from Lutheranism to Catholicism in 1760. His family, being Lutheran, strongly objected to his conversion, and stopped speaking to him because of it. But Bach’s conversion also led to a new opportunity, as he afterward became organist at the Milan cathedral later that year   Since his hours at the cathedral were reasonable, Bach had free time to work on other projects, and he began composing Italian operas in his spare time.  His Artaserse made it to the stage in Turin in 1760. Two years later, Bach’s opera Alessandro nell’Indie was produced in Naples.

In 1762, Bach left Italy when Director Signora Mattei offered him an appointment to the King’s Theater in London, England, where here, he succeeded Cocchi as the theater’s newly appointed opera composer. So Bach moved to London  to première three operas, including Orione on February 19, 1763. That same year, Bach’s opera Zanaida was equally well-received.  This  established his reputation in England and resulted in his becoming music master, a lucrative appointment, to Queen Charlotte; he became a social as well as a musical success.. Bach met Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in 1764, when Mozart was just eight years old, following a performance by the child musical prodigy at the English court. The two musicians became fast friends. Also in 1764, he and a friend, Carl Friedrich Abel, the notable player of the viola da gamba, developed the Bach-Abel Concerts, consisting of 10-15 shows performed at the same time every week, which ran until 1782. In addition to writing Italian operas for the King’s Theater, Bach composed chamber and orchestral music, along with the occasional cantata in the galant style of music.   He became one of the most popular composers in England during the 18th century. He met soprano Cecilia Grassi in 1766 and married her shortly thereafter. She was his junior by eleven years. They had no children.

In 1772 J. C. Bach was invited to write an opera for the German elector at Mannheim.  However, by the late 1770s, Bach’s music was no longer popular in London, though he kept performing, mainly for free and at benefit concerts, and his fortunes declined. His steward had embezzled almost all his wealth, and Bach died in considerable debt in London, England, on New Year’s Day, January 1, 1782. Queen Charlotte covered the expenses of the estate and provided a life pension for Bach’s widow. He was buried in the graveyard of St. Pancras Old Church, London.  With more than 90 symphonies to his name, Johann Christian Bach enjoyed a generally successful career, first as a composer then as a performer. He composed a few cantatas, much chamber, keyboard, and orchestral music, and operas, besides his symphonies. J.C. Bach’s music reflects the pleasant melodiousness of the galant, or Rococo, style. Its Italianate grace influenced composers of the Classical period, particularly Mozart, who adopted his concerto style. His symphonies, contemporary with those of Haydn, were among the formative influences on the early Classical symphony; his sonatas and keyboard concerti performed a similar role. Although he never grew to be a profound composer, his music was always sensitive and imaginative, and today, Johann Christian Bach is one of the highest regarded composers in history.

My collection includes the following works by Johann Christian Bach:

Concerto in BbM (for piano), op. 13, No. 4

Sinfonia Concertante in FM for Two Oboes, Cello, and Orchestra, T 287/2

Sinfonia Concertante in CM for Flute, Oboe, Violin, Cello, and Orchestra, T 289/4

Sinfonia Concertante in EbM for Two Violins, Oboe, and Orchestra, T 284/6

Sinfonia Concertante in AM for Violin, Cello, and Orchestra, T 284/4

—material selected, adapted, and edited from several different sources


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