Sunday, June 25, 2017

Who Was "The Catholic Bach"?

My regular column ("Great Conversion Stories") in MAGNIFICAT this month features the story of a famous composer named Bach.

No, not that Bach (the immortal Johann Sebastian), but his youngest son, Johann Christian Bach, sometimes called "the London Bach" for his many years in England. Obviously, since he made it into my column, there is good reason to call him "the Catholic Bach."

I had to shorten the published version of the story, but I thought it would be worthwhile to present the "uncut" version here, where I could include a few more biographical details. I also want to add a few words about (and give a sample of) the music.

I am rather fond of the music of "the Catholic Bach." If it sounds somewhat conventional for its time (1760s-1770s), that may be because he was one of the architects of the "conventions" as well as one of the innovators who paved the way for the famous composers who came after him.

Thus I can take the opportunity here to share once again my passion for music, which follows a variety of paths ("from Bach to rock" would be a concise but rather corny and inadequate way of putting it). Beauty is a transcendental, with a scope as wide as being itself. In the craftsmanship of sound, beauty is analogously predicated of a vast array of musical "artifacts" in various ways, on various levels... but this subject requires a blog post for another day.

Here below is the extended, deluxe version of the conversion story of Johann Christian Bach:

This is a story about faith, conversion, and 18th century music in Europe. But let’s make clear right from the start that this is not some secret story (or speculation) about the man most people associate with the name “Bach,” i.e. Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), who is ranked among the greatest composers of all time. Certainly all of Christianity has been greatly enriched by Johann Sebastian’s prolific output of sacred music, in which his musical genius and his own deep commitment to Christ (as a Lutheran) are both expressed. It must remain a mystery, however, why Protestantism’s most outstanding sacred artist (he has been called “the Fifth Evangelist”) dedicated the final three years of his life and all the energies of his declining health to composing the epic, sublime Mass in B Minor.

The Great Bach integrated faith and art in such a way that enabled him to discover the "ecumenism of beauty." He also passed on his devotion to Christ and some measure of his musical genius to his large family. Four of Bach’s sons became musicians and composers in their own right, and their works are still performed today. His youngest son, Johann Christian Bach (1735-1782), was the most prolific and important of the four. Johann Christian Bach branched out beyond his father’s accomplishments to stand out as a significant 18th century personage in his own right. He moved from the churches and courts of Saxony to the theaters and concert halls of Italy, France, and above all England, where he lived the final 20 years of his life. He also took another step “beyond” his father and the rest of the Bach family by converting to the fullness of Catholic faith.

The young Johann Christian learned keyboard performance and composition from his father and older brothers, first in Leipzig and then in Berlin at the Prussian court. But in 1754, as Prussia became preoccupied with the buildup to the “Seven Years War,” he made an important decision to travel to Italy to continue his education and begin his career. This would allow him to blend his German mastery of harmony and technique with the more popular Italian melodic style. More importantly, in Italy he met the man who would become both his musical and his spiritual “father”: Padre Giovanni Battista Martini, one of the eminent musical scholars of the time and a Franciscan priest. Johann Christian spent several years under the tutelage of Padre Martini in Bolognia and Milan, and devoted this period of his life to the composition of sacred music. These early works, including two Masses, a Requiem, and hymns, are particularly rich in musical inspiration.

Johann Christian entered into full communion with the Catholic Church around 1760. Most music historians consider his conversion to be merely a matter of professional convenience, and it is true that young Bach’s benefactors had secured a position for him in the Milan cathedral.

But this does not rule out the likelihood that Bach's conversion was sincere. Padre Martini had become a mentor and true friend to Johann Christian. And the young composer encountered something new in his venerable teacher: a man whose faith was integrated into the whole of the artistic life. In Padre Martini, Bach saw that Christian life could be incarnate in a music profession that was in a lively and expansive phase of artistic development, and that was entering the broad sphere of secular entertainment.

With the encouragement of Padre Martini, Johann Christian’s path followed that development as it shaped the “popular music" of the time: Opera. His early operas were a sensation in Milan and Naples, and he soon became the maestro of the 18th century’s greatest multimedia entertainment business. Both Italian Opera and concert music brought Johann Christian Bach to England where he worked under the patronage of King George III and Queen Charlotte.

From then until his death after a brief illness in 1782, Johann Christian remained in contact with his mentor Padre Martino and, though not a candidate for sainthood, he kept his Catholic faith. His overall behavior was honorable, and the financial problems toward the end of his life were not the result of dissolute living but the consequence of failed business ventures and embezzlement by his financial manager. He was not only appreciated for his outstanding music, but was also loved by all who knew him. He was known for his cheerfulness and his willingness to mentor the younger generation of musicians, the most famous of whom—of course—was Mozart. Bach met Mozart when the latter came to London with his family as an eight year old “child prodigy” on an extensive European tour. They became great friends, and Bach—who didn’t have an envious bone in his body—gave greatly of himself and his musical expertise to help Mozart develop and mature his amazing gifts.

Today Johann Christian Bach has a familiar place in the canon of classical composers. One of the reasons why he may seem “underrated” is that history places him between two incomparable giants: His great father and first teacher, Johann Sebastian Bach, and his greatest “student,” Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. In many ways J. C. Bach is a kind of bridge between the two very different composers, just as he is a bridge from northern to southern European music styles, and a bridge from Lutheran Christianity to the Catholic Church. His own life and music have their value too, as a witness to the unity-in-diversity that shines through in all that is beautiful.

Watch and listen to a brief clip of J. C. Bach's music below. This is the third movement from his G minor symphony. It shows one of his forays into a more dramatic sound from a small ensemble in a musical form that was just beginning to take shape.

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