Sunday, March 16, 2014

Bach Bagatelles

March 16
            By Linda de Vries

On This date in 1781 Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart returned to Vienna on the occasion of Joseph II becoming sole emperor of the Holy Roman Empire following the death of his co-ruler Maria Theresa.

Although this event was later in Mozart’s life, we will, through a series of interesting connections, find our way to the Bach Bagatelle for today: Bach and Mozart.

Johann Christian Bach was Sebastian’s eighteenth child and youngest son, born in 1735, when his father was 50 years old. His half-brother C.P.E., with whom he studied and often played, was 21 years his senior.


 Although the young “John” (you’ll see why that name in due course) studied with both as a youngster, these differences in age are significant. Sebastian is a Baroque composer. The music of C.P.E forms the transition between Baroque and Classical music. The music of his young brother “John” embodies the 18th century galant style.

“John” left for Italy in 1756 at age 21, where he first studied with Padre Martini in Bologna and then, in 1760, became the organist at the Milan Cathedral. He converted to Catholicism while in Italy and later married an Italian soprano, Cecilia Grassi. They had no children.

In 1763 he traveled to London to premiere three operas at the King’s Theatre. His English reputation established, he became music master to Queen Charlotte, the wife of King George the III of American Colonial fame.

Now known as “John Bach,” and later defined as “the London Bach,” or “the English Bach,” he established himself in London, often playing alongside his countryman, Carl Friedrich Abel, a noted virtuoso on the viola da gamba. John continued composing throughout his life.

As the 18th century approached its conclusion, the popularity of his music waned, his steward embezzled most of his wealth, and died in deep debt in London on New Year’s Day, 1782. Queen Charlotte, though, paid his debts and provided a life pension for his widow, who returned to Italy. John Bach was buried in the graveyard at St. Pancras Church.

Another quaint connection is that St. Pancras, in the Bloomsbury section of London, is virtually just around the corner from the Foundling Museum, where the George Frideric Handel collection resides.

John composed in the galant style, emphasizing accompanied melody with little complex counterpoint and marked musical phrase endings. He also preferred the piano to the harpsichord. The full-blown Classical style that was to follow, exemplified by Haydn and Mozart, fused the galant style with a renewed emphasis on counterpoint.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was eight years old when his father Leopold set out on a grand tour with him and his sister, aiming to win world acclaim (and ultimately fortune) for his two prodigies. They arrived in London in April 23, 1764, just a year after John Bach had amazed the town.


The family first lodged over a barber shop in Cecil Court, hear the church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, now the venue for so much great music. Four days after their arrival the children played before the King and Queen. At a second royal concert on May 19, Amadeus was asked to play pieces by Handel. John Bach, and Friedrich Abel.

Amadeus was billed as “the celebrated and astonishing Master Mozart a Child of Seven Years of age [sic], justly esteemed the most extraordinary Prodigy, and most amazing Genius that has appeared in any Age.” His father arranged additional concerts on June 5, June 29, and July 8.

Leopold fell ill with a throat infection, the family moved to 180 Ebury Street, then the suburban village of Chelsea (a plaque marks it today), and the children were ordered to keep silence throughout the summer while their father healed—no piano playing.

The eight-year old Amadeus took this opportunity to write symphonies! Author Jane Glover writes that his inspiration was the music of John Bach, although the specific pieces are not known. He certainly heard Bach’s opera, Adriano in Siria, at the King’s Theatre the following season, for either Amadeus or his father wrote a set of variations on its aria, Cara, la dolce fiamma.

In the list of Mozart symphonies, No. 2 and No. 3 are now considered to have been written by someone else, perhaps his father. Mozart wrote No. 1 and No. 4 in London, and it is now known that these were played in London at the Little Haymarket Theatre.

Amadeus composed other works in London as well: a piano sonata (K 19d), a motet (K 20), a tenor aria (K 21), and a set of violin sonatas that he dedicated to Queen Charlotte and presented to her in 1765.

In September, Leopold now recovered, they moved to lodgings in Thrift (Frith) Street in Soho, near the residences of John Bach and Carl Friedrich Abel. John became a family friend, and he and Amadeus played sonatas together. The Mozarts visited John Zumph’s music shop, 7 Princess Street, Marylebone, at the sign of the “Golden Guittar,” and Zumph was a close friend of John Bach. The first square piano was built in that shop in 1766.

The Mozarts left London on July 24, 1765, bequeathing Amadeus’ motet to the British Museum.

The musical influence of John Bach can be seen in the later works of Amadeus as well. In his symphony No. 5, he borrowed the opening theme to the finale from the finale to a keyboard concerto by John Bach. The same theme also appears in the Act Two finale of his comic opera Le nozze di Figaro.

Johann Sebastian Bach also had an influence on Mozart. Returning to our event for the day, we note that Amadeus soon took lodgings with his friends the Webers. He had earlier engaged in a flirtation with Aloysia, the eldest of three daughters of this musical family, but now he seriously courted Constanze, also a noted soprano, who became his wife.

During their courtship, Amadeus visited Baron Gottfried van Swieten, where he examined manuscripts by J.S. Bach and Handel. Amadeus later wrote:

"When Constanze heard he fugues, she absolutely fell in love with them. Now she will listen to nothing but fugues, and particularly (in this kind of composition) the works of Handel and Bach. Well, as she has often heard me play fugues out of my head, she asked me if I had ever written any down, and when I said I had not, she scolded me roundly for not recording some of my compositions in this most artistically beautiful of all musical forms and never ceased to entreat me until I wrote down a fugue for her" (letter).

This influence of Baroque style may e seen in Mozart's C Minor Mass, Symphony No. 41, and his opera The Magic Flute.

In conclusion, words from author Douglas Adams: “I don’t think a greater genius [than Bach] has walked the earth. Of the three great composers Mozart tells us what it’s like to be human, Beethoven tells us what it’s like to be Beethoven, and Bach tells us what it’s like to be the universe.”

1 comment:

  1. Another very awesome post. Thank you!

    ReplyDelete