Composer Johann Christian Bach played a significant role in shaping the musical landscape of the 18th century, influencing many of our greatest composers.

When was JC Bach born?

Early autumn is a pleasant time in Leipzig, and it was probably warm and sunny on 5 September 1735 when JS Bach’s youngest son, Johann Christian, was born. He seems to have been, accordingly, an amiable personality. But he was an adventurous one too. Bach Snr never travelled further than 250 miles from his birthplace, and never left Germany. JC, in contrast, would go on to become the most travelled of all the Bachs.

Johann Christian was 15 when JS died and, with three harpsichords bequeathed to him by his father, went to live in Berlin with his step-brother, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, King Friedrich Wilhelm’s harpsichordist. There he continued his studies, played some of his works in public for the first time, and must surely have taken part in the concerts at court and learnt the aristocratic graces.

From Berlin in 1756 he took himself off to Italy – rumour has it that an Italian lady singer was involved – and, surprisingly for the son of the greatest contrapuntist who ever lived, began a further study of counterpoint with the famous Padre Martini. Travel, they say, broadens the mind, and within a year, Bach had jettisoned his family’s stolid Lutheranism and become a Catholic. A Mass he wrote under Martini’s tutelage made a great mark, and he was soon appointed as an organist at Milan Cathedral.

When did JC Bach start composing opera?

Bach’s eyes and ears were elsewhere, though – on the stage, to be precise, attracted by both its music and its denizens (around this time he seems to have become involved with a ballerina, Colomba Beccari). In Italy he learnt a lyricism that, through opera and through the shifting of tastes away from the serious ecclesiastically based counterpoint, was to become the style of the future: the stile galant.

He became possibly its greatest exponent. He scored a great success with his first opera, Artaserse, in Turin, and then Cato in Utica and Alexander in India at the San Carlo in Naples.

When did JS Bach move to London?

All this opera was getting Milan worried. His patron Count Litta, in a letter to Martini, refers to Bach’s ‘frivolous character’, but the Cathedral granted him a year’s leave when in 1762 he was invited to London, commissioned for an opera, by the lady impresario of the King’s Theatre.

This was no chance invitation. Bach had already had his eye on London, and the year before had written an Ode on the Auspicious Arrival of the Nuptials of Queen Charlotte. His opera, Orion, was a great success. On the first two evenings King George III and Queen Charlotte attended, and it ran for three months.

Bach was appointed Music Master to Queen Charlotte, putting him right at the centre of London society and music-making, and justifying historical references to him as ‘the London Bach’. He never returned to Italy and was based for the rest of his life in England. Mozart would later refer to him as ‘the English Bach’.

It’s fascinating to imagine what the part of London south of Oxford Street and across to Green Park was like when people such as Handel and, later, JC Bach and visitors including the Mozarts were there. This was Bach’s world. Having at first lodged with Colomba Mattei, the lady impresario in question, in 1764 he moved in to 80 Newman Street with Carl Friedrich Abel, a fellow composer and ex-pupil of his father’s.

In 1764, at Spring Gardens, Bach and Abel established a series of concerts. They transferred them to Carlisle House, Soho Square the following year, then to King Street, and finally, from 1774, to the specially built Hanover Square Rooms.

The concerts, which ran until 1781, were enormously influential within the city and beyond. Bach’s use of instruments was forward-looking: Orion, for instance, had been the first opera in London to use clarinets, while in 1766 his Op. 5 sonatas were the first to be published for the piano. In 1768, he himself was the first to perform in public at the piano.

When did JC Bach meet Mozart?

Also in 1764, the Mozarts visited London. John Christian (as he was now known) took to the eight-year-old Wolfgang, who already admired his music. He now got to hear a lot more. Mozart’s sister recalled how Bach put Mozart in front of him at the keyboard, where one would play a bar, the other would carry on, ‘and in this way they played a whole sonata, and someone not seeing it would have thought that only one man was playing’.

They improvised fugues like that too – Johann Sebastian Bach had probably written the second book of the Well-Tempered Clavier for JC, who was not averse to including fugal movements in his own sonatas.

How did JC Bach influence Mozart?

Mozart, the great musical parrot, already had Bach’s style, was profoundly influenced by him and had a deep affection for him throughout his life – Haydn and JC Bach are the only composers in his vast correspondence with his father for whom only kind words are to be read.

When the Mozarts left London, they took more music by JC with them, including the Sonatas Op. 17 No. 2, whose finale looks forward to Mozart’s own C minor Sonata. Mozart consciously modelled much of his music on specific works by JC Bach.

Bach’s Op. 5 sonatas, for instance, influenced the younger composer’s keyboard style, and three of them form the basis of his first attempts at Piano Concertos, K107. Significantly too, the theme of the slow movement of Mozart’s Concerto K414, written just after Bach’s death, contains a commemorative reference to the overture of JC’s opera, La calamita de cuori. Mozart also used the theme in two other works, including an aria in La finta giardiniera.

Nor does the influence end there. Mozart’s partiality to wind instruments, maybe even his use of clarinets, may well have come from Bach and he modelled his early symphonies – particularly K16 and K19, written in London – on Bach’s, whose own G minor Sinfonia Op. 6 No. 6 in G minor puts one in mind of Mozart’s in that key. Mozart was also struck by Bach’s use of concertante instruments in opera, and Constanze’s great aria from Die Entführung aus dem Serail, ‘Martern aller Arten’, is, with its four concertante parts, directly modelled on one in Bach’s opera La clemenza di Scipione.

Bach’s huge output, though, deserves to be appreciated aside from just its influence on Mozart, not least because it is very pleasant. One orchestral type that he developed, for instance, was the Sinfonia Concertante, of which he composed over 30. Many were written for performance in Paris, where such types were popular.

After his first great successes, however, Bach’s operas failed to maintain his reputation. Perhaps his easy-going tunefulness was not sufficiently dramatic?

His last opera, Amadis de Gaule was premiered in Paris in 1779, but fell short of requirements – quite simply, he wasn’t an Italian, and that wouldn’t do. After nearly 20 years, the Bach-Abel concerts, too, became less and less popular and closed down. With Bach’s decreasing success came ill health. He had been a fine pianist in his prime, but his performing powers declined to the extent that at the premiere of his oratorio Gioas, re di Giuda audience and chorus were reduced to fits of giggles by his playing.

When did JC Bach die?

In a final blow, one of his servants embezzled £1,000. Bach had to sell his house in Richmond, eventually moving to Paddington. When he died on New Year’s Day 1782, he was just 46 years old. Badly in debt, he was buried in a pauper’s grave.

Queen Caroline gave his widow – Cecilia Grassi, whom he married in 1776 – a pension and paid for her return to Italy. She was older than JC, and they had no children. Other Bach family members continued the line for a few more generations, but all that is left now of the ‘London Bach’ is a stone in St Pancras churchyard which hints at the fact that he was buried there in a mass grave. His name is inscribed in the parish register as ‘John Back’.

Main image © Matt Herring


Chris de SouzaWriter, BBC Music Magazine