Johann Christian Bach


(born Leipzig 5 September 1735 – died London, 1 January 1782)

Johann Christian was the most cosmopolitan of all the Bach family, arguably the most versatile and certainly in the eighteenth century the most famous. He must have received a thorough grounding in music under the supervision of his father, Johann Sebastian, in whose house he lived for the first fifteen years of his life. Nearly five years in Berlin under the guardianship of Carl Philip Emanuel broadened his horizons and, above all, brought him into regular contact with opera. A further seven years in Italy exposed him to a multitude of new cultural experiences and laid the foundations of a reputation as an opera composer. This, in turn, took him in 1762 to London, which he found a congenial base for his activities as composer, performer and teacher for the rest of his life. His reputation, fostered by the publication of his works in all the main centres of Europe, brought him invitations to compose for the Mannheim court and the Paris Opera, two of the continent’s most important musical institutions. The London public however eventually tired of him and he died in debt at the age of 46 after a period of ill-health, unlamented by the British but mourned by his admirer and friend of nearly 20 years, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Violin Concerto

Violin Concerto in C major (C 76)

1. Allegro vivace

2. Largo
3. Rondo: Allegro assai

The opening of this work has been known to scholars for many years. It appears in the list of the contents of a box of orchestral parts in the Accademio Virgiliana in Mantua. Unfortunately the parts themselves have disappeared. There the work is described as Concerto pieno del Sig’ Bach. Since the identical designation was also given to the same library’s copy of the Symphonie Concertante in E flat major (C 40), there was a strong possibility that the lost work was authentic. And so it turned out to be when I unexpectedly come upon a complete set of parts in the archive of St. Anthony’s Basilica in Padua in the summer of 1997. What authenticated the work was not the beginning of the first movement, which we already know from the source in Mantua, but the remaining movements. The second was clearly an earlier version of the slow movement of the Symphonic Concertante in C major (C 36a), itself (as noted above) until recently thought to have been irretrievably lost. The third was a version of the last movement of the Symphony in C major, Venier no. 46 (C 16a). The cello part of the Padua copy interestingly describes the work as la Sinfonia Concertata a Violino Solo con Orchestra Del Sig. G. Seb. Bach. This is not the only work by Johann Christian to be ascribed to his father, but it is only known work for violin solo and orchestra. And its hybrid format is such as to give musicologists with tidy minds many a sleepless night. It is either a Symphonic concertante with only one soloist, a symphony with violin solos or a violin concerto with for fewer opportunities for the soloist than we have come to expect. It seemed simplest here and elsewhere to call it a violin concerto.

The French style of the first movements of the two previous works is here abandoned in favour of a vigorous Italian, with more than a hint of the old baroque violin concerto. Note especially the unison opening. The solo violin enters after the customary lengthy orchestral ritornello (almost a third of the length of the movement) with new material (beginning with a falling fourth, as in the first solo entry in the previous work). In fact much of the solo part has little to do melodically with the ritornello. The Largo is more evidence that a composer so often accused of superficiality was quite capable of writing solemn, even profound, music when he wanted to. No wonder he chose to revise it as the centrepiece of C 36a. The finale is a garrulous rondo with two episodes: the first in C minor for the orchestral strings and the second in A minor for the soloist, her only solo spot in the entire movement.

Ernest Warburton

(C... *) = Thematic Catalogue of JCB’s works by Ernest Warburton
New York: Garland Publishing Inc, 1999