About this Recording
8.570474 - BACH, J.C.: Keyboard Concertos, Op. 13, Nos. 2, 4 / BACH, J.C.F.: Keyboard Concertos, B. C29, C30 (attrib. to J.C. Bach) (The Music Collection)
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Johann Christian Bach (1735–1782)
Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach (1732–1795)
Keyboard Concertos


The youngest surviving son of Johann Sebastian Bach, Johann Christian represents the link between the baroque and the classical worlds. His early training was with his father, Johann Sebastian, and his elder half brother, Carl Philipp Emanuel, before deciding to leave for Italy where he studied with Padre Martini. In Italy he converted to Catholicism, and became organist of Milan Cathedral. It was during this period that he composed a good deal of sacred music. In 1762 Johann Christian travelled to England, where he quickly turned to composing opera and soon became a leading figure in London’s musical world. It was not long before he was invited to become composer to the King’s Theatre in London and also music master to the Queen. Together with his colleague and fellow composer Carl Friedrich Abel he established the famous Bach-Abel concerts.

In 1764 he met the very young Mozart, who was travelling with his father in England. Johann Christian became Mozart’s mentor and lifelong friend. Mozart thought so highly of Johann Christian’s piano sonatas that he arranged some of these pieces as concertos. He was also known to have quoted him in several other of his own works, in symphonies, for example, and in The Magic Flute.

Charles Burney writes of him in his General History of Music: Mr. Bach’s first opera in England, called ‘Orione, O sia Diana vendicata,’ was honoured with the presence of their Majesties on the first night, February the 19th, 1763, and extremely applauded. Every judge of Music perceived the emanations of genius throughout the whole performance; but were chiefly struck with the richness of the harmony, the ingenious texture of the parts, and, above all, with the new and happy use he had made of wind-instruments: this being the first time that clarinets had admission in our opera orchestra. Their Majesties honoured the second representation likewise with their presence, and no other serious opera was wanting for near three months.

Johann Christian’s music was widely heard in London and his position as the English Bach won increasing recognition, ensuring him the greatest success of the musical Bach family during his lifetime. Greatly influenced by his studies in Italy and in Italian style, he became known as the master of the galant. This was a term applied to the style that developed in the latter half of the eighteenth century, suggesting a return to classical simplicity after the complexity of the late Baroque era. In very simple terms, it meant simpler music, with less ornamentation, more importance placed on the melody, and less on the bass line. The phrases tended to be of regular length, and the harmonic vocabulary emphasized principally the tonic and dominant. It was, in many ways, a reaction against the more elaborate and pretentious Baroque style.

Johann Christian’s ability to make the new fortepiano his own won even more favour in public circles. Indeed, whilst Clementi was still performing on the old harpsichord in London, Johann Christian was charming his audiences with the new keyboard. Composed in the 1770s, his keyboard concertos represent some of the best examples of all his keyboard works and incorporate all that was admired in their day. All in three movements, the traditional fast – slow – fast, they are stylish and elegant, graceful and galant. Johann Christian wooed his audiences using the grace and charm of the Italian style whilst involving and intertwining the folk elements of his adoptive country. How better to please the Queen!

The Concerto in D major, Op.13, No.2, is the second of a set of six piano concertos published in 1777, under the title: “A Third Sett of Six Concertos for the Harpsichord, or PianoForte. With Accompaniments for two Violins and a Bass, two Hautboys and two French Horns ad Libitum. Humbly Dedicated to Mrs. Pelham and composed by John Christian Bach Music Master to Her Majesty the Queen of Great Britain”. It was the custom in all of his concertos for the pianoforte to play the figured bass in orchestral pasages. This means that the piano is playing throughout: it plays the figured bass to accompany the orchestra as well as its own solo part.

The Concerto in B flat, Op.13, No.4, is the fourth of the same group. In its time it was the favourite one of the set and was made all the more special when Haydn arranged it for solo piano, ten years after Bach’s death. This piece had great public appeal; it was not only the charm of the galant and the song-like tenderness of the slow movement, but the set of variations that Johann Christian composed for the third movement which he based on the Scottish song, The Yellow-haired Laddie.

The other two concertos on this disc have been attributed to Johann Christian Bach and were always believed to have been composed by him about the years 1770/1771 as part of the Opus 7 set of keyboard concertos. They are both very different in character to the concertos of Opus 13, and while rehearsing these pieces, we took it in turns to try to decide who the composer might be, because they did not feel or sound like Johann Christian. Both concertos sound like the work of C.P.E. Bach or like Johann Christoph Friedrich’s Sinfonias, with a brilliance and a melodic buoyancy that prevails. Straightforward, if not a little old-fashioned, they are certainly entertaining concertos. It made me realise that, whilst, by today’s modern piano standards, the work of Johann Christian may seem over-simple, it was, in its day, quite forward looking. The differences between Opus 13 and these concertos became more and more distinct. One other difference that springs to mind is the scoring. These concertos include a viola as part of the orchestra, whereas Opus 13 is scored only for two violins and cello, with optional wind. After a little research, I discovered that it is now thought that both these concertos are considered to have been composed by Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach, who made his career at the cultured court of Count Wilhelm of Schaumburg-Lippe in Bückeburg, thus unravelling the mystery for us (see Collected Works of J.C. Bach, ed. Ernest Warburton). These concertos were published by Hartknoch of Riga in the 1770s. In his catalogue Warburton informs us that “Ulrich Leisinger has now shown beyond reasonable doubt that the Concerto in E flat’s true composer is J.C.F. Bach”, and the Concerto in A, the second of the two Hartknoch concertos, is also now known to be by Johann Christoph Friedrich.

What evolved from the exercise was just how innovative Johann Christian’s music was, and how clearly one could see why he continued to gain favour as a composer. His music marked the liaison between baroque and classical; it established the foundation upon which classicism would flourish, and, of notable importance was that it was music that was especially suited for its social purpose. This, in the eighteenth century, was a recipe for success.

© 2008 Susan Alexander-Max

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