Baby Bach Will be Heard

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Title page of Johann Christian Bach’s last opera, Amadis (Paris, 1778).

Even frivolous fictional characters have found a convenient whipping boy in the youngest son of J. S. Bach. The late, lamented Dr. Peter Schickele’s send-up biography of P.D.Q. Bach quips that the talentless rogue had the “originality of Johann Christian.” Yet even this stinging Bach-handed compliment has historical precedent. One of J. C. Bach’s most ardent defenders, his friend Charles Burney, had to admit in the fourth and final volume of his massive General History of Music of 1789, that in Bach’s operas, “the richness of the accompaniments perhaps deserve more praise than the originality of his melodies.”

In spite of this qualification, Burney lauded the so-called London Bach as a master musician and allotted him ample space in his General History, claiming it as a “great pleasure … [to] take this opportunity to do justice to his talents and abilities” and noting that “many of the admirable airs [i.e., arias] in the operas he composed for our stage long remained in favor.”

Between 1762 and 1778, this Bach wrote eleven operas for leading theaters across Europe, from Turin to Naples to Milan to London to Mannheim to Paris. Johann Christian was the only member of his huge clan to compose an opera, never mind one shy of a dozen. Also, therefore, he was the only Bach to leave the family heartland and with it, the family’s faith. Johann Christian was a cosmopolitan and—shock horror—a Catholic: he spent seven years in Italy (where he converted from Lutheranism), then two decades in London, with a final operatic foray to Paris four years before his death in his adopted country of England at the age of only forty-six. J. C. Bach was the elegant, enterprising exception that proved the rule of Bachian rootedness in German soil.

Mostly known today as a purveyor of pleasant chamber music, piano sonatas and concertos, J. C. Bach is also remembered as the welcoming mentor of the eight-year-old prodigy Mozart in London in 1764.

Burney’s glowing, if not completely unalloyed praise of Bach’s music notwithstanding, we moderns have had little access to the theatrical work of this major opera composer of the period between Handel and Mozart. There have been occasional revivals and recording projects, such as a sampler from the exquisite French counter-tenor Philippe Jaroussky of some of the arias Burney mentions, but J. C. Bach’s operas still wait mostly in the wings. Here’s hoping that in the coming years, the footlights will be fired up and the London Bach will at last be given the chance to step into the footlights.

Such a Bach Opera Revival will be possible thanks to a group of scholars now being mobilized in a project funded by the Packard Humanities Institute (PHI) to produce reliable, rigorous editions of these works under the editorial leadership of Paul Corneilson. Over the past quarter-century, Corneilson has been at the head of the recently completed campaign to produce some 140 sumptuous volumes containing the Complete Works of Carl Philip Emanuel Bach, Johann Christian’s elder half-brother with whom the fifteen-year-old went to live and study after their father’s death in 1750.

Every eighteenth-century opera must begin with an overture, and Bach’s bolt from the gate with tremendous gusto. In the opener to his final opera, Amadis de Gaule, we hear the truth of Burney’s claim that “Bach seems to have been the first composer who observed the law of contrast, as a principle.” Here is the musician as a Newton-like researcher into sonic properties deployed for exuberant expressive effect.

So too, this epic musicological endeavor of editing all of Bach’s opera scores begins with a vivid, if less rollicking overture in the form a slim book. It is a fascinating and detailed volume, both scholarly and readable, though its title doesn’t exactly leap off the marquee—The Operas of Johann Christian Bach: An Introduction. Published by the Packard Humanities Institute in 2023, this assiduously researched collection of essays proceeds chronologically through the eleven operas after a framing biographical essay by John Rice. Always listening out for the nuances and routines of Bach’s compositional procedures, Rice paints a picture of Bach’s “Life in Opera” that is animated and engrossing, a tableau vivant of dramatic opportunities seized, strokes of luck made possible by labor, competition and collaborations, disappointments and triumphs, fame and fleeting fortune.

And what would a life in opera be without amorous adventures? These pages reveal that Bach had an ear for singers, and an eye for them too—and also for at least one ballerina. We learn from Lucio Tufano’s lively chapter on Bach’s two Neapolitan operas, Catone and Alessandro nell’Indie, from late 1761 and early 1762 respectively, that the powers-that-were admonished the up-and-coming composer to desist from his rampant flirtations. Love did not scuttle his operatic ascent. Bach may have met the soprano Cecilia Grassi in Naples, though he began collaborating with her in chamber music in his famous London concerts only in the later 1760s and married her at some point after that.

Before his emigration to England, while still the second organist at the Milan Cathedral, Bach demonstrated great theatrical promise with his hugely successful substitute aria written in 1759 for the castrato Filippo Elisi on one of the most celebrated texts of the time, “Misero pargoletto” by the leading lyric poet of the Age, Pietro Metastasio. This was a touchingly fitting operatic entrance exam for a young man who carried the Bach name across Europe, but unlike his brothers had been deprived of his father’s guidance in his teenage years.

Unhappy child,
you do not know your fate.
Ah, never tell him
who his father was.

Soon after that, in the Carnival Season of 1761, when Bach was still just twenty-six years old, he got his real chance, not knowing that he had just two more decades left to him on this world’s stage. This initiation test was to scale the mightiest of operatic monuments, Artaserse whose libretto was also by the ubiquitous Metastasio. By the time the young German tackled Artaserse, it was more than thirty years old and had been set to music by dozens of other composers. Novelty was at a premium. We learn from Margaret Butler’s lively and illuminating essay on this first Bach opera that he succeeded in the endeavor against what she calls, conjuring an appropriately operatic scenario, “a perfect storm of calamities.” Bach got a fee of just 130 zecchini gigliati for five months of work; the leading man, Gaetano Guadagni, got twice that for just seven performances.

Within a year Bach was composing his second opera, now for one of the most storied houses on the continent—the Teatro di San Carlo in Naples. Butler’s colleagues in the volume go on with panache and precision to take us behind the scenes of Bach’s further efforts on the Italian peninsula and then across the Alps and the English Channel.

The volume is expertly edited by Jason Grant, a long-time member of the team until recently laboring on C. P. E. Bach’s music. His preface takes up a scant two-thirds of a page, and comes off rather like one of those announcements made before an opera performance in which the audience is reminded to switch off their devices and informed that the soprano has a head cold. But Grant does set an admirable goal for the book: “to promote admiration and understanding of these works.” I rise from my seat to give his words a sincere and hearty: “Bravo!” The essays’ generous cultivation of our admiration and understanding spark my ardent desire for future productions in opera houses of our time.

Grant judiciously allows the authors to lay out the genesis of each work, the byzantine (if also conventional) opera plots, the often rocky and rushed push to opening night, the sometimes chaotic state of the musical sources that will allow for a reconstruction of viable editions, before finally turning to later revivals. The dangers of excessive repetition lurk round every page turn given the overlapping network of musical theatre-makers encountered—composers, librettists (who were often essentially script doctors), choreographers, scenic designers, and patrons. But Grant deftly avoids these pitfalls, not an easy feat since the business of international opera seria (noble subjects sung in Italian) was built on a star system dominated by fabulously well-paid singers, first among them the castrato headliners: Bach worked with Guadagni, Guarducci, Tenducci and select others, including the intact tenor Anton Raaff. For singing the leading heroic parts they received far more than the composers for their services. Like Bach, they took their musical wares to where the money was. There was lots of it in London.

Primed by Grant & Company’s Introduction, and once the opera editions are out in the world, our present and future musical-theatrical culture will welcome back this master of contrast and cantilena, his antique heroes and heroines, along with the necessary villains forgiven their crimes. Here’s predicting, that in the hands of imaginative musicians and producers, the youngest Bach son will prove that uplift should often be prized above originality.


DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at