Bach's Sons


Johann Sebastian was not the first of the Bachs to pursue a career in music. Nor would he be the last. Earlier generations of his family served as composers, music teachers, choral directors, organists, etc. And, among his 20 or so children, three who reached adulthood wrote music that was not only well-received, but proved hugely influential to future composers such as Mozart. This Active Minds program will introduce you to the “other” Bachs.


If there's a dynasty in the music world, it certainly can be claimed by the Bach clan. A glance at the family tree shows that ancestors of Johann Sebastian (1685-1750) go back to the 1500s, leading to a host of Bachs before and years after J.S. Incredibly, the generations include no less than guys 50 named Johann! They had middle names, of course, such as Bernhard, Christoph, Nicolaus, Valentin and Ambrosius (the latter was the father of J.S.). To a man, all of them were involved in music, one way or another. They were instrumentalists, composers, organ builders, organ repairmen, music teachers, choir directors, kantors, etc. And all lived in what is now central Germany – back then is was known as Thuringia. So, it's no surprise that Johann Sebastian would seek to earn a living as a musician, just as we would have expected his children to end up doing the same. It's well-known that J.S. fathered some 20 offspring, most of whom never made it to adulthood. But of the five who lived full lives, three carved careers that, in at least two cases, caused music-lovers to all but forget about their father. Yes, in his lifetime – and for nearly a century after his death – Johann Sebastian was not known as a composer, but as a brilliant organist. A small group of music lovers in Vienna during the late-1700s did quietly play and admire his works, a group that included Haydn, Mozart and the young Beethoven, all of whom were heavily influenced through their acquaintship with the music of J.S. But it was the singular accomplishments of Wilhelm Friedemann (1710-84), Carl Philipp Emanuel (1714-88) and Johann Christian (1735-82) that captured the attention of their contemporary audiences and musicians. The period between the death of J.S. in 1750 and the emergence of Mozart at the end of the 1700s would prove a time of transition in music's development. The strict, formal world of the Baroque, paying more attention to structure and virtuosity, was now giving way to a “new” music. Leading the charge away from the stuffy musical sounds of their father, the three sons explored new languages of melody, orchestral colors and daring harmonies. At the same time, the tinkly harpsichord was being displaced by the newly invented fortepiano (which evolved into the piano). That instrument could play loud and soft notes, allowing new avenues of expression. What remained as a hold-over from the olden days was the concept of musicians as servants of the court or the church. And so, C.P.E., as we'll call him, served for decades under the employ of Frederick the Great. W.F. happily worked in various churches, while J.C. left the stifling world of central Europe, settling in London for the duration of his life, where he provided operas for the King's theaters. It was there that the respected musician befriended 10-year-old Mozart, visiting the city with his father Leopold and sister Nanerl. She wrote home to Mama of how little Wolfgang sat with J.C. at the keyboard, happily playing duets with the elder Bach. The two remained friends, and Mozart clearly gained much from his time spent with the “London Bach.” We can hear a fresh new energy in the music of the sons of J.S., as they explored the new sound of the symphony, a genre born in this time between the Baroque and the Classical Era of Haydn and Mozart. They may not be as well-known today as their father, but those three fine composers can be heard in concerts and on recordings. Safe to say their contributions would have made their Papa proud.

Exploration Questions

  • Who invented the pianoforte, and how was it different from the harpsichord?
  • In what ways was Frederick the Great a great fan of music?
  • Who was Baron von Sweiten and what role did he play in keeping Baroque music alive?

Reflective Questions

  • What can you hear in the music of Bach's sons that reminds you of J.S.?
  • If you had to choose, who would you name as your favorite Bach son?

More to Explore

Books For Further Reading

  • Wolff, Christoff, others. The New Grove Bach Family. W.W. Norton & Company. 1997. 372 pages. Drawn from the irreplaceable Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, this volume offers chapters on 14 members of the Bach dynasty, focusing, naturally on J.S., but giving in-depth coverage to his sons and relatives.
    Click here to order
  • Geiringer, Karl. The Bach Family: Seven Generations of Creative Genius. Oxford University Press. 1954. 472 pages. Here is a serious examination of Bachs both known and little-known, written by one of the most-admired of Bach scholars.
    Click here to order