Johann Christian Bach

The German composer Johann Christian Bach (1735-1782) was a facile and prolific writer of vocal and instrumental works in the prevailing Italianate styles of his time. He played an important role in English musical life of the period 1760-1780.

Johann Christian Bach was the youngest surviving son of Johann Sebastian Bach. On the death of his father in 1750, Johann Christian went to Berlin to continue his musical education with his brother Carl Philipp Emanuel (21 years his senior), then court keyboard performer for Frederick the Great. In 1754 Johann Christian departed for an extended period in Italy, centered in Milan. In private service with a Milanese nobleman, he continued his studies with the renowned contrapuntal teacher Padre Martini, with whom he afterward remained on good terms. Bach's conversion to Catholicism in 1760 opened the way to a secure position as organist at the Cathedral of Milan, the main significance of which, as he himself stated, was that it was not demanding and left him time to devote to composing instrumental music and, especially, Italian operas. In 1762 his opera Alessandro nell'Indie, on a familiar subject for opera seria, was performed in Naples.

Bach's active pursuit of a career as opera composer on the international circuit led to contacts with England, and in 1762 he settled there for good. He was soon appointed music master to the Queen and, together with Karl Friedrich Abel (a former pupil of his father's at Leipzig), he founded the famous Bach-Abel Concerts in London, which lasted from 1764 until 1782 and were among the most important musical events in England during this period. Bach was the leading virtuoso performer and composer of German origin in England at the time; an opera placard billed him as the "Saxon Master of Music."

In 1764 the 8-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart made his famous appearance as keyboard prodigy at the English court, beginning a close and lasting personal relationship with Bach. In 1778 Mozart wrote from Mannheim to his father that he had met Bach there and that "I love him (as you know) and respect him with all my heart… " Mozart also wrote an aria (1778) based on the text Non so d'onde viene, "which has been set so beautifully by J. C. Bach; just because I know Bach's setting so well and admire it so much, and because it is always ringing in my years, I wished to try and see whether in spite of all this I could not write an aria totally unlike his. … " It is essential for an understanding of the music of Mozart and his times to realize that in the 1770s he was thoroughly familiar with the music of Johann Christian Bach and still wholly unacquainted with that of Johann Sebastian Bach.

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Further Reading on Johann Christian Bach

The major study of the life and works of J. C. Bach is C. S. Terry, Johann Christian Bach (1929). His relationship to the other members of the Bach family is best approached through the source material assembled in Hans T. David and Arthur Mendel, eds., The Bach Reader: A Life of Johann Sebastian Bach in Letters and Documents (1945; 2d ed. 1966), and is also discussed in Karl Geiringer, The Bach Family: Seven Generations of Creative Genius (1954). Important too are the references to J. C. Bach in Charles Burney, A General History of Music from the Earliest Ages to the Present Period (4 vols., 1776-1789), and in the letters of Mozart in collections such as that edited and translated by Emily Anderson, The Letters of Mozart and His Family (3 vols., 1938; 2d ed., 2 vols., 1966).

Additional Biography Sources

Géartner, Heinz, John Christian Bach: Mozart's friend and mentor, Portland, Or.: Amadeus Press, 1994.

Terry, Charles Sanford, John Christian Bach/Lando, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1980, 1967.