Hearing the names J.S. Bach, J.C. Bach, C.P.E. Bach, and more can sound like alphabet soup - read on for the story of the Bach family and how so many of them became well-known composers.
It’s hard to listen to classical music, or any music at all, and not come across the name “Bach” at some point. It would have been even harder to escape that name if you lived in 17th- and 18th-century Germany. The extended Bach family was full of musicians, and you wouldn’t have had to look hard to find one sitting behind a church organ or playing in a noble’s court. Most were competent musicians who were well-regarded in their lifetimes but faded into obscurity afterwards. Some, though, wrote music that is still with us today.
There’s a problem, though. When we say “Beethoven” or “Brahms,” it’s pretty easy to pinpoint which composer we’re talking about. At most, there may be two or three with the same last name (e.g. Robert and Clara Schumann). Talk about “Bach,” though, and you could be referencing one of at least a few dozen composers who were active at around the same time. Even more confusingly, they all seem to be named “Johann!”
Don’t worry, though! Here’s a handy guide to the most prominent Bachs in music history, with a few details about their lives, their various nicknames, and how they relate to the most famous member of the family, Johann Sebastian. Speaking of which, about that name...
Why are they all named Johann?
Five of Johann Sebastian Bach’s eleven sons carried the first name “Johann,” and he even gave two of his daughters the name “Johanna.” Both of his brothers were named Johann, as was his father and his father’s twin brother. In fact, of the seven Bach family members we’re going to look at in this guide, five were named Johann. Was J.S. Bach the baroque equivalent of the Dr. Seuss character Mrs. McCave (who had twenty-three sons, and she named them all Dave)?
Sort of, but not really. German naming conventions at the time didn’t place as much emphasis on the first name as we do today, and people often went by a middle name. Carl Philip Emanuel Bach, for example, was known as “Emanuel Bach” to his friends and colleagues, not “Carl.” If you heard J.S. Bach calling his kids to dinner, he’d be using their middle names or a nickname, not just calling out “Johann!” until they all came home. Nowadays, we usually refer to the various Bachs by their initials. This can still lead to some confusion (“J.C.” vs “J.C.F.”), but it’s better than just saying “Johann Bach.”
Now that the “Johann” issue is cleared up, it’s time to take a look at the most prominent members of the family. And we have to start with the guy most people mean when they say “Bach.”
The Big Fella
Johann Sebastian Bach, AKA “J.S. Bach” or simply “Bach” (1685-1750) - When you hear someone say the name “Bach” without any modifiers, this is who they’re referring to. Born in 1685, J.S. Bach spent his life as an accomplished but not world-famous church organist and composer. He showed a passion and talent for music from an early age, and once walked 250 miles just to hear the great organist Dietrich Buxtehude play.
Unlike other prominent composers, though, he never went much further from home than that. While Handel (born in the same year, 80 miles away) was writing music in London for the King of England, Bach was working a series of well-paid but relatively low-profile jobs, composing for aristocrats and churchgoers.
Bach was well-respected in musical circles in his lifetime and shortly thereafter, but his fame among the public didn’t travel much further than he did. In the middle of the 19th century, though, his music experienced a revival.
He’s stayed on top ever since, known as one of the most brilliantly inventive musical minds not only of his time, but in all of classical music. In fact, in 2011, he topped the list of the Top Ten Greatest Composers Ever, put together by New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini. Not bad for an organist who never went more than a few hundred miles from home!
The Bach Boys
Johann Sebastian had 20 children, many of whom became musicians themselves. Four of them are particularly notable; here they are in order of their modern-day notability:
Carl Philip Emanuel Bach, AKA “C.P.E.,” “Emanuel,” or “The Berlin Bach” (1714-1788) - If you said the name “Bach” in the late 18th century, most people would probably assume you were talking about J.S.’s fifth son. C.P.E. Bach’s fame and prestige far outstripped his father’s in his lifetime.
Beethoven, Haydn (Franz Josef - not his brother Johann Michael), and Mozart all admired him and his work, with Mozart writing that “[C.P.E.] Bach is the father, and we are the children.” C.P.E. Bach’s signature sound featured sudden changes in mood and a wide range of emotions, known as the Empfindsamer Stil or “sensitive style.”
C.P.E. was also an innovator when it came to keyboard technique, literally writing the book on how to play. He was one of the earliest prominent advocates of using the thumb while playing a keyboard, a trick he learned from his father. He spent much of his life in the court of King Frederick the Great, which is why he’s sometimes called the “Berlin Bach.”
Johann Christian Bach, AKA “J.C.,” “John Bach,” or “The London/English Bach” (1735-1782) - C.P.E. wasn’t the only Bach brother with a royal employer. J.C. Bach took his talents to England (hence his nickname), where he became Queen Charlotte’s music master. J.C. also had a huge influence on Mozart (Wolfgang Amadeus, not his father, Leopold, or his sister, Maria Anna Walburga Ignatia, who was called "Marianne" and nicknamed Nannerl, both of whom were also respected musicians).
J.C. Bach met W.A. Mozart when Mozart was just 8 years old. Supposedly, J.C. put him through the ringer, placing the most difficult pieces he could find in front of the young boy in an effort to stump him. When Mozart passed with flying colors, J.C. took him on as a student. No other teacher besides Mozart’s father Leopold had a bigger influence on the young composer’s development.
Johann Christoph Friederich Bach, AKA “J.C.F.” or “The Bückeburg Bach” (1732-1795) - Like his brothers and father, J.C.F. Bach was known as a virtuoso keyboard player. In fact, he originally set out to study law as a young man, but found that his employment prospects were even better as a musician. He also served as his father’s copyist for a number of years, no doubt soaking up a lot of musical knowledge.
While he was a prolific composer with plenty of music to his name, he never achieved the same level of success or influence as his brothers C.P.E. and J.C. Even more unfortunately, many of his works were lost during World War II. The ones that survive are firmly in the classical vein, showing a competent and talented composer.
Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, AKA “W.F.” (1710-1784) - Wilhelm Friedemann was J.S.’s eldest son, and inherited much of his father’s talent as a musician. Unfortunately, he was also difficult to work with and unreliable, in large part due to a drinking problem.
While his brothers found steady work in prestigious courts, W.F. bounced around and often found himself in difficult financial straits. He even sold off many of his father’s manuscripts to pay his debts, some of which have been lost forever. Still, he was known as a master improviser, and his surviving compositions show a uniquely free-spirited creativity.
The Extended Family
The Bach family produced hundreds of musicians across multiple generations, many of whom were well-known. While J.S. and his sons are by far the most famous today, plenty of other Bachs have left behind wonderful music.
Johann Bernhard Bach (1676-1749) - To make things really confusing, there are actually two Johann Bernhard Bachs. The one you’re much more likely to hear about is the older one, a second cousin of J.S. Another competent musician and composer, most of his work unfortunately hasn’t survived.
He did, however, keep very good company. He worked alongside Telemann for a while as a conductor and violinist, and was close friends with his much more prominent cousin, Johann Sebastian. Johann Bernhard regularly played compositions of theirs with his orchestra, and both of them influenced his own compositional style.
Johann Ludwig Bach (1677-1731) - A third cousin of J.S. Bach and a prolific composer of vocal music, Johann Ludwig was yet another well-respected court musician in the Bach family. His cousin J.S. evidently loved his cantatas and frequently performed them in his church. In a mix-up that should be taken as a big compliment, one of Johann Ludwig’s cantatas was even mistaken for a long time as a J.S. original.
The Not-That-Kind-Of-Bach Bachs
The “Bach” last name is not unique to the famous Bach family of musicians. In fact, a few other notable people have been known by that moniker. Though none of them have been named by the New York Times as history’s greatest composer, they do have some serious musical accomplishments to their names.
Sebastian Bach - Born Sebastian Bierk, he is the lead singer of the heavy metal band Skid Row and winner of the second season of Country Music Television’s hit reality show Gone Country. He is not related to the Bach family.
Barbara Bach - Known for playing KGB agent Anya Amasova in the James Bond film The Spy Who Loved Me, Barbara Bach was born Barbara Goldbach, and also has no relation to the Bach family. However, she does have a strong connection to music through her marriage to former Beatle Ringo Starr.
Pamela Bach - Born Pamela Weissenbach, Pamela Bach has had a long career on TV in both scripted and reality shows. She makes the musical cut because of her 17-year marriage to a musician who, like the Bachs, had a lot of success in Germany: David Hasselhoff. While they were dating, Hasselhoff scored a #1 single in Germany with “Looking For Freedom.” As of 2020, J.S. Bach has yet to match that feat.
P.D.Q. Bach - Though J.S. Bach only had 20 children, comedian and composer Peter Schickele has been championing the forgotten works of his fictional 21st son, P.D.Q. As “P.D.Q. Bach,” Schickele skewers various tropes and clichés in classical music while still managing to write some nice music. “Highlights” of his catalog include The Short-Tempered Clavier, A Little Nightmare Music, and The O.K. Chorale.
There are countless other Bachs out there in music and other fields, too many to list here. To go through all of the musicians on J.S. Bach’s family tree alone would take a book or three. With this guide, though, you should be good to go the next time you’re in a concert hall or listening to the radio. More than likely, you’ll be hearing from one of the Bachs above. Oh, and if your last name is Bach, it’s probably best not to name your son Johann (or at least give him a good middle name!).
If you'd like to know more about any of this, the aptly named Bach Cantatas Website is a great source for information about the Bach family.
Who’s your favorite Bach? Let me know on Twitter! I’m @TylerOnTheAir.