Bach to Bach

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Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach.
Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach.

Many professional musicians claim that their most revered composer is Johann Sebastian Bach. Europeans tend to pronounce the name correctly but those of other nations often run into trouble with the “ch” sound and wrongly pronounce the name as “Bark”. Bach of course was German and his name should be pronounced in the German way in which the “ch” sound is similar to the “ch” in the Scottish word “loch”. In Welsh the word “bach” means “small” and is pronounced in much the same way, though with more guttural emphasis, as though you’re trying to clear a bit of fluff which has got stuck in your throat. This rasping “ch” sound is known to linguists as a voiceless uvular fricative.

The Bach family of musicians was anything but small. In fact, it was enormous. Many of them were involved in music and the family contained over fifty known musicians and several notable composers. It played a significant role in German musical history for nearly two hundred years. There were so many of them that American composer Peter Schickele was inspired to create a fictional Bach of his own who he named P.D.Q. Bach.

Today the most respected of the whole bunch is Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750) and when anyone speaks of Bach today, they’re referring to him. Popular books on musical history often refer to Bach’s twenty children, but his family life was plagued by death. Only ten of his children lived until adulthood, such was the staggering incidence of infant mortality during the early eighteenth century.

History has filtered out the lesser Bachs and today only three of them have international recognition apart from the old boy himself. These are Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach and Johann Christian Bach who became known as the “London Bach” because he lived there for twenty years.

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714-1788): Cello Concerto in A Major. Monika Leskovar (vlc), Zagreb Soloists (Duration: 19:48; Video: 1080p HD)

C.P.E. Bach was known as the “Berlin Bach” during his residence in that city, and later as the “Hamburg Bach” when he succeeded Telemann as Kapellmeister there. He was Bach’s second surviving son, born in Weimar on 8 March. The name “Philipp” was a tribute to the composer Georg Philipp Telemann who was his godfather and one of the most celebrated composers of the day. Carl Philipp eventually became one of the foremost harpsichord players in Europe.

It was the age of royal patronage, and musicians were aware that a university education was essential for those who could afford it. A university background discouraged royal employers from treating their musicians like servants. More importantly, a degree opened doors to other jobs if times got tough. So Carl Philipp went to University and studied law. At the age of twenty-four he acquired his degree, and finally turned his full attention to music.

C.P.E. Bach lived at a time when the traditions of the Baroque were giving way to a newer approach to musical composition. While his early works are rooted in the Baroque, his style gradually moved towards the new classical principles, especially in his ground-breaking symphonies and keyboard sonatas. During the latter half of the 18th century, his reputation in Germany surpassed that of his father. This is his third cello concerto, and dates from 1753. Three years later, in neighboring Austria, Mozart was born.

Wilhelm Friedemann Bach (1710-1784): Sinfonia in D minor. Jeune Orchestre Atlantique, cond. Stéphanie-Marie Degand (Duration: 19:05; Video: 720p HD)

Wilhelm was the eldest son of J.S. Bach and was born on St Cecilia’s Day. She is the patron saint of musicians, so it must have seemed an auspicious day to enter the world. Johann Sebastian took particular pains over Wilhelm’s education and in later life helped him find employment. But despite the initial promise, Wilhelm’s career never really came anywhere near his aspirations, let alone his father’s high hopes. He had problems with employment, possibly due to his eccentric manner and difficult temperament. His lack of income eventually led him to palm off many of his father’s compositions as his own. Things must have been desperate indeed. Although he died in poverty, Wilhelm was a talented composer and had a reputation as the most accomplished improviser-organist of his time.

To German audiences, his music must have sounded distinctly old-fashioned and not that much different to the music which his father was writing thirty years earlier. His reluctance to embrace newer musical styles may even have led to his luckless financial situation. Even so, this is interesting music which probably dates from the early 1740s. This performance makes for fascinating listening, despite some shaky intonation near the beginning. In common with the practice of the eighteenth century, the conductor and leader of the orchestra is one and the same person.