Father & Son: The Two Bachs

Performing the Magnificats of the two Bachs, father and son, is an unusual adventure both musically and psychologically. Johann Sebastian Bach (JS) is generally considered one of the greatest composers of all time, but we know less about Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (CPE), JS Bach’s second son, and we certainly hear his music less often. During their lifetimes, though, the son was judged the more important musician, and he blazed his own creative path as composer, innovator, and musical scholar.

JS was born in 1685 into a large and noisy household. In addition to his parents, there were four brothers, two sisters, and some four assistants and apprentices, all committed to the learning and practice of music. The Bach family, already a presence in the world of music for at least 200 years, was mostly all professional musicians, and any gathering of the Bach clan usually centered on singing and playing the music they composed for one another and the popular pieces of the day — accompanied by much food and merriment.

JS became acquainted with death at an early age. One of his brothers died when JS was six, and both his parents when he was ten. His older brother took charge and continued JS’s musical training. (His father had taught him the violin.) He seems to have been a musical prodigy, and it is said that his brother, envious of JS’s greater talent, forbade him access to a manuscript volume of works by great organists. Undeterred, young JS would copy the music by moonlight. His blindness in his final years, probably due to cataracts secondary to diabetes, was attributed at the time to his childhood nighttime studies. Incidentally, his eyes were unsuccessfully operated on by the same surgeon who had failed to restore Handel’s eyesight.

JS was neither as formally educated nor as politically sophisticated as his gifted son CPE. JS’s most important job as a young performer and composer was as Kapellmeister to Prince Leopold of Cöthen from 1717 to 1723. He wrote the bulk of his secular works during those years. He was paid well, lived at court, and was a valued musician there. The prince, who loved music, was close to JS in age, and they became good friends. But this relationship was broken when the prince married. His wife, described at the time by some as a “prig,” considered music frivolous and was probably jealous of the friendship. She pressured her husband to end JS’s contract. Reading the handwriting on the wall, JS sought an appointment as musical director of the five main churches in Hamburg but was rejected. Ironically, it was his son CPE who was given the much coveted position in Hamburg some years later. Instead, JS was appointed Kantor of the Thomasschule and musical director of the four main churches in Leipzig.

When JS was just 35, his first, much loved wife died, leaving him with seven children to raise alone (only three of them survived to adulthood). Fifteen months later, JS married a young soprano soloist in his choir. He wrote many of his most inspired arias for her. A cheerful and devoted wife, Anna Magdalena Wilcke left her own successful career to bring up his children. They had 13 more children together but lost eight of them by age five. Although childhood death was commonplace at the time, the psychological impact on JS of those deaths and the early deaths of his parents must have been very great. Not surprisingly, the theme of death permeates his compositions and is a central theme of many of his cantatas.

JS wrote his Magnificat in 1723, the first Christmas he spent in Leipzig. We can speculate that when he composed this work, he was still enthusiastic about his new job though undoubtedly mourning the loss of his halcyon time at Cöthen. He was to spend the rest of his life in Leipzig, but, despite the extraordinary musical productivity of those years, he became more and more unhappy with his situation there. Many of the angry and dissatisfied letters he wrote criticizing the rapacious demands of his job survive. One historian has noted that, in 18th-century Germany, as far as musicians were concerned, slavery was never officially abolished!

A look at what JS had to face each week gives us an amazing glimpse into why he complained and also illustrates the incredible energy, brilliance, and creative capacity of the man. Every week he had to compose one or two cantatas for Sunday performance. Cantatas, a central part of the Lutheran liturgy, draw their text from the Bible and base their musical material on the featured chorale for each week. JS would write the equivalent of one or two small operas on Monday and Tuesday. On Wednesday his wife and children would transpose what he had composed to the many musical scores needed by the orchestra, soloists, and boy choristers. On Thursday the scores were distributed to the performers for rehearsal on Friday and performance on Sunday. Many musicologists consider the cantata output of JS’s first decade in Leipzig to be one of the most creative explosions in all of western music.

In addition to these regular duties, Bach taught music and Latin to Leipzig schoolboys (until he could afford to pay a replacement teacher) and prepared the boys’ choirs at the city’s churches. He also performed many civic and religious musical duties to supplement his small salary, including writing music for weddings and funeral services. All the while, JS continued to compose secular music (much of which is now lost to us) and large choral works such as the Passion According to Saint Matthew, the Passion According to Saint John, and the Mass in B Minor.

Today, JS’s incredible creative energy defines his music, but since he was very unhappy with the professional demands placed on him, it is interesting to speculate what his musical output might have been had he been given more artistic leeway. He certainly wanted that opportunity. Late in his life and two years before his sight began to fail, he was summoned by Frederick the Great, King of Prussia, to compose and play music at the court. JS considered this event the culmination of his career.

CPE was the second son from JS’s first marriage. He was born in 1714, when his father was 29. As a child he was always pictured next to his mother, and, although he never accepted his stepmother, he remained a loyal son and treasured his father’s manuscripts. It is thanks to him that much of JS’s music has survived.

CPE learned the basics of music from his father and produced his first compositions under his father’s tutelage. After completing his general and musical education, he studied law and then returned to a career in music. He was appointed court musician to Frederick the Great, who would later become King of Prussia. This was a choice post for CPE both politically and musically. Frederick, an avid flutist, assembled at his court some of the greatest performers and composers of the time. After 28 years at the court of Frederick, CPE became musical director of the five main churches in Hamburg, succeeding his godfather Georg Philipp Telemann.

CPE was more famous than his father in his lifetime, and his compositions were much in demand. This was a time of rapid change in the musical world, with the transition underway from baroque to classic style, and CPE, determined to go his own compositional way, was an early, gifted, and influential practitioner of the new classicism. He is actually quoted as having characterized baroque music as “dry and despicable pieces of pedantry.” His own style was more personal, emotional, and improvisational than his father’s. He considered the human voice to be the model for all music and felt it should be dealt with simply and without excessive embellishments. His influential article “Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments” helped frame the musical conventions of the classic period.

Faced with such a musically antagonistic son, a musician father might bridle. But JS was committed to his children’s fortunes. As new musical conventions arose, JS encouraged all of his sons to further their knowledge and encouraged them to travel both musically and geographically beyond the small confines of his own world.

JS Bach’s Magnificat is one of the greatest works based on a Latin text. It represents his mastery of the secular Italian style of music he had practiced in Cöthen. We hear this in the lightness and clarity of the music and in the immediacy of the poetic idea. At the same time, though, the work is redolent of German, Protestant, and high baroque influences and is similar in technique, style, and spirit to many of JS’s cantatas. The comparison with CPE Bach’s Magnificat is striking. Even though the son was doubtless inspired by his father’s Magnificat, he cultivated a very different effect. CPE’s piece is more subjective, sensitive, and classic in style, with sudden shifts in dynamics, innovative rhythms, and unexpected modulations that startle the listener.

In our time, Johann Sebastian Bach’s reputation has eclipsed his son’s. JS’s vast influence has touched almost every subsequent composer from Beethoven to Philip Glass. His huge dedication and investment as a father is particularly notable, given the scarcity of time and resources in his life. We can assume that Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach understood the monumental nature of his father’s work better than the critics of the day, and his efforts to further its popularity and preserve it for posterity are a tribute to his character as a son. Not only did CPE manage to do reverence to his immortal father, but he also asserted his own artistic personality and carved his own niche in the history of music.

— Pilar Montero and Arthur Colman