EXPLORING MUSIC

The London Bach--Johann Christian Bach, the Six Symphonies Op3

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There were only four mourners at his funeral, yet this was the man who established the piano as a concert instru­ment in Britain, who introduced sonata form to his adopted nation, and who taught the child Mozart how to write symphonies and concerti. His is a curious story.


As the youngest son of Johann Sebas­tian and Anna Magdalena Bach, Christian was one of his father's last pupils. Three harpsichords were his legacy. At 15, the boy was absorbed into the household of his brother, Carl Philipp Emanuel, who was in the service of Frederick the Great. The tutelage Christian received in Prussia was carried even further in Ita­ly, where he studied in Bologna under the famed Padre Martini.


Christian's considerable skill at the keyboard was soon eclipsed by his suc­cess as a composer. His operas at Naples and Milan, even more than his church music, took the Italians by storm and led to lucrative employment far away in London. Thus, Christian became the most traveled member of his distinguish­ed family.


When the English enthusiasm for Italian opera waned, Christian promoted the then-novel institution of public con­certs, in a hall with special murals by his artist friends Thomas Gainsborough, Benjamin West, and Giovanni Cipriani. On his musical taste, London's concert life developed greatly, and stabilized at a high level. Bach's social contacts helped, of course. He was music master to Queen Charlotte (who also was German-born), so he had access to the whole court. He knew such theatrical figures as David Garrick and Richard Brinsley Sheridan, and frequented their circles. The patrons of his concerts thus included many prominent figures. They loved his music.


One-tenth of the symphonies which Bach composed for these concerts makes up his op. 3, written in 1765. Us­ing strings, oboes, horns, and, of course, harpsichord continuo (flutes appear just once), these six jolly (and important) masterpieces have three movements apiece. The first movements always bus­tle with energy and high spirits in their abundant dynamics and free use of the new sonata form. The second movements--Andantes and Andantinos­--offer ineffably sweet, little melodies as felicitous as anything written on the Con­tinent at that time. The finales arc dance­like in form and mood--Menucts, Gigues, Cotillions--and instantly set our toes to tapping.


Being, in the words of his era's most indefatigable commentator Dr. Charles Burney, "the first composer who observed the law of contrast, as a prin­ciple," Bach never fails to hold our 20th­-century attention through the contrast of themes, keys, textures, tempos, and forms. No wonder his music was in great vogue two centuries ago. A dozen years after his death, Bach and his adorable lit­tle symphonies were eclipsed by the huge symphonies of a newcomer to Lon­don, Joseph Haydn. Even in the last year of his life, Bach found himself taken for granted and his light waning. His warm friendship, ebullient works, and historical significance soon were forgot­ten, but are known again through the miracle of recording and such splendid performances as these.

The London Bach--Johann Christian Bach, the Six Symphonies Op3

Author

Publication

Listen


There were only four mourners at his funeral, yet this was the man who established the piano as a concert instru­ment in Britain, who introduced sonata form to his adopted nation, and who taught the child Mozart how to write symphonies and concerti. His is a curious story.


As the youngest son of Johann Sebas­tian and Anna Magdalena Bach, Christian was one of his father's last pupils. Three harpsichords were his legacy. At 15, the boy was absorbed into the household of his brother, Carl Philipp Emanuel, who was in the service of Frederick the Great. The tutelage Christian received in Prussia was carried even further in Ita­ly, where he studied in Bologna under the famed Padre Martini.


Christian's considerable skill at the keyboard was soon eclipsed by his suc­cess as a composer. His operas at Naples and Milan, even more than his church music, took the Italians by storm and led to lucrative employment far away in London. Thus, Christian became the most traveled member of his distinguish­ed family.


When the English enthusiasm for Italian opera waned, Christian promoted the then-novel institution of public con­certs, in a hall with special murals by his artist friends Thomas Gainsborough, Benjamin West, and Giovanni Cipriani. On his musical taste, London's concert life developed greatly, and stabilized at a high level. Bach's social contacts helped, of course. He was music master to Queen Charlotte (who also was German-born), so he had access to the whole court. He knew such theatrical figures as David Garrick and Richard Brinsley Sheridan, and frequented their circles. The patrons of his concerts thus included many prominent figures. They loved his music.


One-tenth of the symphonies which Bach composed for these concerts makes up his op. 3, written in 1765. Us­ing strings, oboes, horns, and, of course, harpsichord continuo (flutes appear just once), these six jolly (and important) masterpieces have three movements apiece. The first movements always bus­tle with energy and high spirits in their abundant dynamics and free use of the new sonata form. The second movements--Andantes and Andantinos­--offer ineffably sweet, little melodies as felicitous as anything written on the Con­tinent at that time. The finales arc dance­like in form and mood--Menucts, Gigues, Cotillions--and instantly set our toes to tapping.


Being, in the words of his era's most indefatigable commentator Dr. Charles Burney, "the first composer who observed the law of contrast, as a prin­ciple," Bach never fails to hold our 20th­-century attention through the contrast of themes, keys, textures, tempos, and forms. No wonder his music was in great vogue two centuries ago. A dozen years after his death, Bach and his adorable lit­tle symphonies were eclipsed by the huge symphonies of a newcomer to Lon­don, Joseph Haydn. Even in the last year of his life, Bach found himself taken for granted and his light waning. His warm friendship, ebullient works, and historical significance soon were forgot­ten, but are known again through the miracle of recording and such splendid performances as these.

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