A Story of Two Bachs and a Suite

Flooded by sunlight. © Charles Thibo

Bach – that’s not just a composer’s name. It’s a whole dynasty of excellent musicians! We have already met Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach, one of Johann Sebastian Bach’s sons. Today we will explore a work written by Johann Bernard Bach, a cousin of Johann Sebastian. He was born in Erfurt in 1676 and died just a year before his famous cousin, in 1749. Johann Bernard Bach held the position as organist in Erfurt from 1695 on and moved into a similar position in Eisenach in 1703, where he was appointed as a court harpsichordist and later as the Kapellmeister of the court’s orchestra.

Johann Sebastian held his cousin in Eisenach in high esteem and made copies of certain of his organ works and for of his overtures (orchestral suites). His obituary notice of 1754 says that Johann Bernhard “composed many beautiful overtures in the manner of Telemann”. Johann Bernard was in touch with Georg Philipp Telemann, and a writer who heard Bach and Telemann performing at the court of Eisenach noted that they were much “celebrated and very experienced in their art”. Both Telemann and Johann Bernhard composed overtures in the French and Italian style – they competed in an unofficial, friendly way in this genre.

French and Italian models

By systematically searching for works from the Bach dynasty, I found and was much delighted by Johann Bernard Bach’ Overture in G Major (catalogue number IJB 10), one of four overtures that have been reconstructed from different parts and recorded by the ensemble “L’Achéron” under François Joubert-Caillet.  As the French and Italian tradition would postulate, they are marked by solemn beginnings and vibrant middle sections. The Overture in G major has seven movements: Introduction, Gavotte, Sarabande, Bourée, Air, Minuet, Gigue. Gavotte, Sarabande, Bourée, Minuet and Gigue denote Baroque walking or slow step dances, the kind of music popular at court, while Air stands for a short, song-like orchestral piece.

The magazine “Gramophone” writes that “while there is no evidence that the two [Johann Sebastian and Johann Bernhard Bach] ever met, it seems inconceivable that they did not, and we know that Sebastian performed three of Bernhard’s four surviving suites at his Collegium Musicum concerts in Leipzig in the 1730s”. As a matter of fact the Bachs are known to have done the impossible to gather as many family members as possible on festive occasions – the birth of a child, a wedding, the death of a family member – and perform together and it would be indeed very bizarre if these two accomplished musicians would not have met. Leipzig and Eisenach are some 170 km apart; on foot the journey would have taken five days, in a coach half of it.

The critics’ applause

I immediately rallied to the “Gramophone’s” assessment of the recording: “Expanding from their usual guise as a viol consort, L’Achéron perform stylishly and gracefully, adding well-chosen and effective wind doublings to Bach’s basic string texture […] If not in the JSB league when all is said and done, these suites are still a pleasant encounter.” And guess what? Even the financial magazine “Forbes” wrote about the recording released in 2016: “Even just the first notes of Johann Bernhard Bach’s overture in G open the heart and flood it with a gentle sunlight. Uplifting and played with a joyous, supple touch […] a distinctly French flair.” Now talk about a recommendation!

I  immensely enjoy these works as they fill a spring day with joy and luminosity, as on the one hand they reflect the positive energy  that Johann Bernard Bach has felt while he wrote these pieces and on the other hand illustrate the importance that listening to uplifting music had at the time, one of the few ways to entertain oneself in the later half of the 18th century. Aren’t we fortunate to be able to listen to these works some 300 years later? We are.

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

Writer, photographer, piano student, music enthusiast. And a lot more. You are welcome to follow my blog.