Sunday, September 25, 2011

Bach Family Values

In Will and Ariel Durant's massive history there is a fascinating passage on Bach in volume viii, The Age of Louis XIV:
The Bach family was now entering upon the musical scene in bewildering profusion. We know of some four hundred Bachs between 1550 and 1850: all musicians, sixty of them holding important posts in the musical world of their time. They formed a kind of family guild, meeting periodically at their headquarters in Eisenach, Arnstadt or Erfurt. They constitute unquestionably the most extensive and remarkable dynasty in cultural history, impressive not merely by their number, but by devotion to their art, by a typically Germanic steadiness of purpose, and by their productivity and influence.
Jackson Five, eat your hearts out! The idea of a musical dynasty seems to have disappeared almost entirely since, with the possible exception of the Romero family of guitarists, now well into their third generation. A smaller musical family existed in France at the same time as the Bachs with the Couperins of whom the most famous are Louis and François, known as "le grand". But it is hard to imagine how thoroughly Bach's family penetrated the musical life of the day. In Erfurt, even when no Bachs remained, musicians were still referred to as "bachs". When he came to look for employment, J. S. Bach had uncles and great-uncles everywhere to consult. Three of Bach's sons were leading composers in the next generation: Carl Philipp Emanuel, Johann Christian, and Wilhelm Friedemann, known respectively as the 'Berlin' Bach, the 'London' Bach and the 'Dresden' Bach from their places of employment. C. P. E. Bach was the most renowned as court musician to Frederick the Great of Prussia and for his treatise on keyboard playing which laid out the basic principles of fingering followed to this day. J. C. Bach was organist in Milan before settling in London where he became music master to Queen Charlotte. W. F. Bach, the eldest, was renowned for his organ improvisation--he had a difficult personality and died in poverty.

Here is the first movement of a cello concerto by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach:

And here is the first movement of a harpsichord concerto by Johann Christian Bach:

And finally a sinfonia by Wilhelm Friedemann Bach:

How about something by the father, J. S. Bach? Here is the Double Concerto in D minor for two violins:


Anonymous said...

Even a backwater place like 18c Leipzig had a plethora of professional musicians -- people who, like Bach, could play keyboard, violin, and trumpet. How many of today's musicians can play 3 instruments fluently? Music mattered much more in those days, partly because that was the major source of entertainment and, unlike theater (the other form) it was needed for "serious" functions (funerals, weddings, ceremonies, etc).

The irony is that today's classical performers are probably better trained and more virtuosic than in Bach's era, but if Bach woke up in America today I bet he would be shocked by how unprofessional our popular music is. He'd probably called radiohead's music "baby tunes" and would advise them to learn a thing or two about harmony.

Music in Bach's days was indispensable. It served crucial functions in society. I used to be a big believer in the romantic view of art for its own sake, but I have revised my judgment. I have come to realize that Bach's music's purposefulness has a lot to do with its greatness. Bach not only didn't care about Art, but he mostly likely had no idea of the concept itself. I think he saw himself as the music equivalent of a Persian rug weaver or the builder of Gothic cathedrals, professionals endowed with unparalleled craftsmanship. It's a humble view of art, but a more lasting, genuine, universal one. The great non-Western music traditions are very much in the Bach mold of sublime, purposeful craftsmanship. The Romantic tradition is very much a Western aberration.

Bryan Townsend said...

My mother could play several instruments, but she was a natural talent!
Yes, the virtuosos are more virtuoso than ever today. The professionalism in pop music seems mostly to do with things other than the musical content.

That's a very sage observation about Bach's attitude to music being pre-romantic.

Anonymous said...

I assume then that you inherited your musical talents from your mother. Whether you did or not, it's a beautiful thing this idea of carrying the legacy of one's parents in one's own talents and practices.

Bryan Townsend said...

Music really does seem to run in some families. You have got me thinking about where musical talent comes from so I think I will make a new post...