Let’s Get to Know Johann Sebastian Bach and His Family

In this blog you will get to know Johann Sebastian Bach as the living, breathing musician, father, husband, and sometimes imperfect human being that he was.

You’ll also get to know his family:  Elisabeth and Ambrosius–the parents;  Maria Salome–the sister;  Maria Barbara and Anna Magdalena–the wives;  Catharina Dorothea–the eldest child;  Wilhelm Friedemann, Carl Philipp Emanuel, Johann Gottfried Bernhard, Johann Christoph Friedrich, and Johann Christian–the surviving sons; and Sara Levy–a patron of the arts.

While doing the research and writing the story for our organ and media event, Bach and Sons, I found, as I know you will, the story of Bach and his family intriguing, engaging, and full of surprises.  Read on…

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More Children for the JS Bach Family

My husband, Johann, recently heard the music of some Italian composers and he was most impressed. In fact, just the other day he played for Dorothea and me, a piece he arranged for his “King of Instruments” (that’s the organ, you know) which he cleverly based on a violin concerto by a Mr. Vivaldi. It is amazing how he was able to play all the parts of the orchestra and the part of the violin soloist on the organ by himself!

Our little family continues to grow. Dorothea is now 2 years old, and we have a new baby we have named Wilhelm Friedemann. You do remember our Duke’s name is Wilhelm don’t you? Their father is wonderful with them when he has time. Johann Sebastian is so busy with all his activities from tuning harpsichords, repairing and maintaining organs, playing his violin in the Duke’s orchestra, and of course composing, a lot of which is for the organ right now.

Our twins, Johann Christoph and Maria Sophia, were born this year, but alas, they were so tiny and sickly, they did not survive more than a day. I was heartbroken of course and Johann Sebastian was especially sad. He has already had too much death in his life.

Even through this tragedy, Johann Sebastian has continued with all his work and has even continued to compose. He composes his glorious music not just as an employee of the Duke but to the glory of God! Always to the glory of God.

(This story above is one of many vignettes from the organ and multi-media and event, Bach and Sons, presented by Dr. Jeannine Jordan, concert organist with media artist, David Jordan.)

Music for Wilhelm Friedemann Bach

(Johann Sebastian Bach composes music for Wilhelm Friedemann, as told by his first wife, Maria Barbara.)

When Johann Sebastian is not traveling to test organs or playing in the Duke’s traveling orchestra, he is busy at the court working with his tremendous choir. Why they sing like professionals and JS gets so much pleasure from hearing his cantatas performed so beautifully.

My husband strives for perfection in all his works whether they are sacred or secular. He regularly inscribes his scores with the letters J.J. (Jesu, Juva: “Jesus, help”) at the beginning and S.D.G. (Soli Deo Gloria: “to God alone the glory”) at the end.

Why, even in a little volume of pieces Johann Sebastian wrote for teaching Wilhelm Friedemann, our oldest son, how to play the clavier, the “Clavierbuchlein”, he wrote the letters I.N.J. (In Nomine Jesu: “in the Name of Jesus”) on the first page of music. My Bach never sheds his religion when he composes for instruction or other secular purposes. He knows that his secular and sacred music are used with different texts and in different surroundings, but he simply does not recognize a difference in principle between the two.

(The story above is one of many vignettes from the multi-media and organ program, Bach and Sons, presented by Dr. Jeannine Jordan, concert organist with David Jordan, media artist.)

Realities of Life for the Bach Family in Cothen

(Catharina Dorothea, Johann Sebastian and Maria Barbara Bach’s eldest child, recounts the realities of life in Weimar for the Bach family.)

Weimar Castle area

It has been a year since my baby brother, the one who was named for Prince Leopold of Cothen, died. It is difficult to know that we have already buried three of my six siblings. Sometimes I can hardly bear it! Yet, I must go on. Even though I am only 12 years old, my mother needs my help with the boys, Wilhelm, Carl Phillip and Gottfreid Bernhard. She needs me to be strong. There is so much work and the burden of caring for our home is heavy.

My father has started working with Wilhelm Friedemann, my oldest brother in his music training. He told my mother that Wilhelm Friedemann possess a precocious musical talent and that we must do everything we can to encourage this little boy. Papa has even composed a Little Clavier Book just for Wilhelm Friedemann and he just loves to play his favorite harpsichord pieces for all of us! It is such a joy. Sometimes Papa even asks me to sing with him. What a joy!

Papa has told us he will be leaving again with the Prince. The Prince wants to “take the waters” in Carlsbad and has asked my father to put together a little band of musicians to go along on the trip. So, Papa will go away again. He does not know how long he will be gone. It may be for many months, but I will be here to help my Mother care for the home and my little brothers.

(This story above is one of many vignettes from the organ and multi-media and event, Bach and Sons, presented by Dr. Jeannine Jordan, concert organist with media artist, David Jordan.)

JS Bach Unanimously Elected

(JS Bach elected as Cantor in Leipzig as told by Anna Magdalena Bach, JS Bach’s second wife.)

St. Thomas, Leipzig, Germany

It is June and we have just heard that the post of Cantor at St. Thomas’ in Leipzig is open. My Johann Sebastian will immediately apply for this prestigious post. An added joy to this month is that our first baby was born and we have named her Christiana Sophia Henrietta. Her brothers, Wilhelm Friedemann, Carl Phillip Emmanuel and Gottfried Bernhard and big sister, Catharina Dorothea, are delighted with the baby. Ah, but back to the Leipzig story.

Finally my husband has been asked to come to Leipzig to interview for the post of Cantor at St. Thomas. We have heard that the council is “sorry,” as they say, “that they can’t have the best, and that they will make do with what there is.” Ah, but my Johann Sebastian will show them what a composer and performer he is! Well, that is exactly what JS did! We were told that the entire council, all 32 members, unanimously elected my husband as the new Cantor of St. Thomas in Leipzig.

(One of many vignettes from the organ and media event, Bach and Sons, as performed by Dr. Jeannine Jordan, organist with David Jordan, media artist.)

The Bach Boys

(The lives the eldest Bach sons, Wilhelm Friedemann and Carl Philipp Emmanuelas related by Anna Magdalena, Johann Sebastian Bach‘s second wife.)

We are so proud of our family.  All of our children are born musicians. Why, we can perform as a complete vocal and instrumental consort with just our family. It is such a joy to create glorious music together.

Our two oldest boys, Wilhelm Friedemann and Carl Philipp Emanuel attended the University of Leipzig. Wilhelm Friedemann studied math, philosophy and law and graduated from this prestigious school in 1733. At the same time, Carl Philipp Emmanuel, began his education at the University of Leipzig also studying law. Carl Philipp continued to live at home with us and continued to serve as his father’s musical assistant.

After Wilhelm Friedemann completed his university education at Leipzig, he became the organist at the Dresden Sophienkirche in 1733. Our Wilhelm Friedemann is known as a great improviser and organist. Therefore, he creates incredible music for those who attend the services at the Sophienkirche, but he still does not like putting his music down on paper. Finally, however, he has committed to paper several of his glorious organ chorale preludes.

When Carl Philipp completed his academics in 1738, the Crown Prince, and soon to be King of Prussia, summoned Carl Phillip to Berlin to join his court as the royal harpsichordist. This is a very good position and one that I believe Carl Philipp will keep for many years. In fact, he just finished a set of organ sonatas for Princess Anna Amalia, the King’s sister, who studies the organ with him.

(This vignette is one of a many anecdotes included in the organ and media event, Bach and Sons, performed by Dr. Jeannine Jordan, concert organist with David Jordan, media artist.)

How Long Did the Musical Bach Family Remain Significant?

(Sara Levy, student of Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, Friend of the Carl Phillip Emanuel Bach

Sara Levy

family, collector of Bachiana and great-aunt of Felix Mendelssohn relates how the Bach sons kept the Bach name alive in the world of music after their father’s death.)

I have known the Bach family for years and years. I studied harpsichord with Johann Sebastian Bach’s eldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann. In fact, Wilhelm often told me I was his favorite pupil. Wilhelm Friedemann was a brilliant organist and improviser, but he never lived a happy life and unfortunately died in poverty in Berlin years ago.

Johann Sebastian Bach’s second son, Carl Phillip Emanual, on the other hand, was hugely successful, both in Berlin and later in Hamburg where he had a post very similar to his father’s St. Thomas position.  He has also written a treatise on The True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments which is being used by every famous teacher in the land.

The younger Bach boys were also quite the musicians. Johann Christoph Friedrich ended up in Buckeburg, Germany as a court musician and there he happily stayed all his life. In fact, people call him now the Buckeburg Bach.

Johann Sebastian’s youngest son, Johann Christian, who was only 15 when his father died, lived for a time with his brother, Carl Phillip in Berlin, but soon left Germany. Johann Christian was the first Bach to do such a thing! He studied and worked for a time in Italy and learned to compose in a totally different style than any of the other Bachs. In fact, he composed mostly opera in the Italian style. Eventually he ended up in London where he was a court composer for the Queen.

Wilhelm Friedrich Ernst Bach

With the death of Johann Sebastian Bach’s grandson, Wilhelm Friedrich Ernst Bach, in Berlin on December 25, 1845, the last musically significant descendant of Johann Sebastian Bach was gone. The long line of musical Bachs was extinguished.

(This vignette is one of many anecdotes included in the organ and media event, Bach and Sons, performed by David Jordan, Media Artist and Dr. Jeannine Jordan, concert organist.)