Bach Family

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BACH FAMILY. The Bach family was the most famous musical family of the early modern era. It was, however, only one of many such families that emerged in a specific social and cultural context. The territories of Saxony and Thuringia in central Germany, where the Bachs and other musical dynasties such as the Lämmerhirts and Wilckes emerged, were relatively highly urbanized, with a large number of small and medium-sized and some larger towns. Lutheranism was the official religion of the territories in this area. Music was an important part of the Lutheran liturgy, and there were hundreds of positions as cantor and organist in the region. The numerous towns and (mostly minor) courts provided a further institutional and financial framework, as well as boundless performance and composition opportunities. Saxon and Thuringian towns, courts, boys' schools, and the Universities of Leipzig, Wittenberg, and Jena provided formal and informal training.

The Bachs, who produced over seventy professional musicians, shared many characteristics of other musical families. They emerged in the sixteenth century, when Lutheran, urban, and court liturgical and institutional frameworks were established or overhauled, and declined by the end of the eighteenth, when those institutions also went into a decline. Most of the Bachs were active as instrumentalists rather than as composers. Positions as town or court musician were informally handed down among the various branches of the family, much as artisanal and professional careers were in other families. The Bachs frequently intermarried with other families of musicians. Early musical training in the home made it more likely that talent would develop. Daughters were trained along with sons, often becoming proficient instrumentalists and singers. Most jobs and public performance venues were closed to daughters, however, and after marriage women were expected to devote most of their energies to their families.

Justly the most famous member of the Bach family was Johann Sebastian Bach (16851750). Born in Eisenach, Bach moved to the smaller town of Ohrdruf in 1695 to live with his older brother after the death of their parents. From 1703 to 1708, Bach briefly held positions as junior court musician at Weimar and as organist in the towns of Arnstadt and Mühlhausen. From 1708 to 1717 he was the court organist at Weimar; in 1717, he was appointed kapellmeister at the court of Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen. In 1723 he was appointed cantor of St. Thomas's Church in Leipzig, a position he held until his death. Bach was a multifaceted musician. He was a virtuoso performer on a variety of instruments, most famously the organ. He conducted in church and secular settings, and had a mastery of practical aspects of performance such as tuning instruments and working with the acoustics of a given space. He must also have possessed a great deal of organizational talent: for example, at least sixty people, mostly students at St. Thomas, worked as copyists for Bach in Leipzig alone.

It is for his compositions, of course, that Bach is best known. These fall into several groups, including the sacred vocal works (especially the more than two hundred cantatas, the motets and oratorios, the Mass in B Minor, and the St. John and St. Matthew Passions ); a smaller number of secular vocal works; compositions for the organ; and secular instrumental works for solo instruments (including the partitas for violin, cello, and harpsichord) as well as ensembles (for example, the Brandenburg Concertos ). Working toward the end of the baroque era, he integrated a variety of approaches drawn from past and contemporary masters into his own style and stretched and gave new meaning to established forms. His style was characterized by an intricate interplay among vocal and instrumental lines, complex but formally clear structures, and underlining of textual meaning by way of melodic, instrumental, and harmonic motifs.

On balance, Bach's works represent a culmination more than they do a pointing to the future. In general, his sacred works, especially the cantatas, are now regarded as pulling together and capping previous traditions. This is true to a degree, and Bach largely stopped writing cantatas after 1729, perhaps partly because he felt that he had explored the possibilities of the genre. Still, the high baroque cantata itself had emerged fully only around 1700, was significantly developed by Bach himself, and was regarded as an innovative and even controversial musical form into the 1720s. "Bach the progressive," by contrast, is often regarded as being represented most clearly in his secular instrumental works. In these pieces, Bach most clearly emphasized his incorporation of new styles drawn from Italy and France. The social context of the performance of these pieces was also modern. The collegium musicum he directed from 1729 provided him with an innovative and highly talented amateur ensemble, mostly made up of university students. He led performances of the collegium in Leipzig coffeehouses, a new type of secular venue.

J. S. Bach married twicefirst, in 1707, his cousin Maria Barbara Bach (16841720), and in 1721 Anna Magdalena Wilcke (17011760). Four of his children with Maria Barbara and six with Anna Magdalena, in all three daughters and seven sons, survived infancy and early childhood. Little is known about the daughters. Four of the sons achieved renown as composers in the newly emerging styles of the rococo and Sturm und Drang, even pointing the way to early classical style: Wilhelm Friedemann (17101784), Carl Philipp Emanuel (17141788), Johann Christoph Friedrich (17321795), and Johann Christian (17351782). They became as well as or better known in their time than their father had in his. The sons were also the last generation of the Bach family to achieve prominence as musicians.

See also Baroque ; Buxtehude, Dieterich ; Leipzig ; Music ; Music Criticism .


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Boyd, Malcolm. Bach: The Brandenburg Concertos. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1993.

Butt, John, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Bach. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1997.

Geiringer, Karl, with Irene Geiringer. The Bach Family. Seven Generations of Creative Genius. New York, 1954.

Kevorkian, Tanya. Baroque Piety: Religious Practices and Society in Leipzig, 16501750. Forthcoming.

. "The Reception of the Cantata during Church Services in Leipzig, 17001750." Early Music 30 (2002): 2644.

Ottenberg, Hans-Günther. C. P. E. Bach. Translated by Philip Whitmore. Oxford and New York, 1987.

Stiller, Günther. Johann Sebastian Bach and Liturgical Life in Leipzig. Translated by Herbert J. A. Bouman et al. Edited by Robin A. Leaver. St. Louis, 1984.

Wolff, Christoph, ed. The World of the Bach Cantata s. Vol. 1, New York, 1997.

Wolff, Christoph, et al. The New Grove Bach Family. New York, 1983.

Tanya Kevorkian