Johann Christoph Friedrich, known as the »Bückeburg Bach«, was born in Leipzig on 21 June 1732 and baptized two days later. The sixteenth of Johann Sebastian Bach’s twenty children, he was the ninth child from J. S. Bach’s marriage to Anna Magdalena. He attended St Thomas’s School and was taught composition as well as how to play the organ and other keyboard instruments by his father. He also owed part of his musical education to his distant cousin Johann Elias Bach (1705–1755) from Schweinfurt, who lived in the Bachs’ home from 1737 until 1742 and acted as J. S. Bach’s personal assistant.
In autumn 1749, Johann Christoph Friedrich began studying law at the University of Leipzig but dropped out when he needed to find paid employment shortly before his father’s death. Without having completed his musical education, at the end of 1749 or in early 1750 he was appointed harpsichordist at the court of William, Count of Schaumburg-Lippe (1724–1777) in Bückeburg. A great admirer of Frederick the Great, on succeeding his father as count in 1748, William began reorganizing his household, including the court orchestra. When he visited the Prussian court in 1749, he must have met Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach and decided to also employ one of J. S. Bach’s sons. Before the year was out, he therefore wrote a letter of enquiry to J. S. Bach. No doubt delighted that his second-youngest son would for the foreseeable future be well provided for and apparently not requiring any further particulars, Johann Sebastian Bach sent his seventeen-year-old boy off to the 6000-strong provincial town. Although the Bach family lived a long way away from William, he may also have heard about them from his stepmother – for his father, Count Albrecht Wolfgang, had in 1730 taken as his second wife Princess Charlotte Friederike Amalia of Anhalt-Köthen, the widow of J. S. Bach’s former employer, Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Köthen.
Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach first appeared in the Bückeburg registers on 3 January 1750, when he received his quarterly salary of 25 thalers for the first time. In August 1750, he travelled to Leipzig following his father’s death, and on his return he was appointed »Cammer-Musicus« to the Count of Schaumburg-Lippe. Since during his first few years at court he was employed not as a composer but as a harpsichordist, he initially only held a modest rank in Bückeburg’s musical hierarchy. At that time, Angelo Colonna from Italy was the concertmaster there while his compatriot Giovanni Battista Serini was employed as kapellmeister and composer. It was from them that Johann Christoph Friedrich learned about the style of Italian opera and cantatas, which he went on to adapt. From this strong Italianate phase of his work, which spanned the period 1750–71, it is mostly his instrumental compositions which have survived.
On 8 January 1755, J. C. F. Bach married Lucia Elisabeth Münchhausen, daughter of the court organist and a singing student of Serini’s. The alto parts in her husband’s cantatas and oratorios may have been written with her in mind. The Count gave the couple a garden near Minden Gate. By 1772 the couple had had eight children, although only three daughters and one son survived infancy. They included Anna Philippina Friederike (1755–1804), whose direct descendants still survive to this day, and Wilhelm Friedrich Ernst (1759–1845), the only one of Johann Sebastian Bach’s grandsons to choose a career in music.
For unknown reasons, Serini and Colonna asked to be relieved of their duties in 1756, their wish being granted on 15 May. The administration of employment matters at the court was rather sluggish owing to the Seven Years War, in which the Count had sided with Prussia and England. Accordingly, Johann Christoph Friedrich was only appointed concertmaster on 18 February 1759, despite having performed the related tasks since the two Italians’ departure. Bach was now in charge of the court orchestra, albeit without the rank or salary of a kapellmeister. Even though his annual salary was raised to 416 thalers in 1768, this was still far less than Serini and Colonna had been paid. And although this was supplemented by 100 thalers which was earned by his wife as a singer, he continually had to struggle for an adequate living.
Therefore, it’s no surprise that Johann Christoph Friedrich occasionally looked around for alternative employment. In 1757, when the French invaded Bückeburg, Count William had to withdraw to Niensteden on the Elbe for a while; he was accompanied by Bach, enabling the latter to explore the Hamburg area for the first time. Back in Bückeburg, he successfully applied for the vacant post of organist at the principal church in the then-Danish town of Altona. In the end, however, Bach had second thoughts – partly because the position may not have been particularly attractive after all, and also because William offered him a raise and at the same time threatened to dissolve the court orchestra.
When Telemann died in Hamburg in 1767, Johann Christoph Friedrich applied to succeed him as director of music. Ultimately, the prestigious position was in fact awarded to his older and more famous half-brother Carl Philipp Emanuel. Fortunately, this decision did not harm their fraternal relations; in fact, contact between them increased and they frequently exchanged ideas and compositions.
In addition to many pieces of chamber music and keyboard compositions, in around 1769 J. C. F. Bach composed his first oratorios: Die Pillgrimme auf Golgatha (»The Pilgrims on Golgotha«) with words by Friedrich Wilhelm Zachariae, and Der Tod Jesu (»The Death of Jesus«) based on the second libretto by Karl Wilhelm Ramler (1760), the first version having been already set to music by Graun (1755) and Telemann (1756). Bach’s first nine symphonies were written between 1765 and about 1771/72; he wrote ten more in a later phase between 1792 and 1794.
For the first two decades, Bach had to tailor his official compositions to his master’s taste for Italian music. From about 1770, however, the music at the court increasingly reflected the Empfindsamer Stil (»sensitive style«). The appointment of Johann Gottfried Herder (1744–1803) as court preacher and consistorial councillor in Bückeburg in 1771 led to friendship and fruitful collaboration between the poet and the composer. Their partnership spawned joint works such as the oratorios Die Kindheit Jesu (»Jesus’ Childhood«) and Die Auferweckung des Lazarus (»The Raising of Lazarus«) as well as a number of cantatas and also two dramatic works (Brutus and Philoctetes). The critical Herder evidently saw his affiliation with Bach as a way of implementing his concept of musical aesthetics. This »sensitive« phase, which was probably Bach’s most spiritually inspiring time in Bückeburg, ended in 1776 when Herder took up an appointment in Weimar which had chiefly come about thanks to Goethe’s instigation.
In early summer 1778, Bach took three months off. After visiting his brother Johann Christian in Hamburg, he travelled on to London with his son Wilhelm Friedrich Ernst, who was due to continue his musical education there. The »Bückeburg Bach« was lastingly inspired by Johann Christian’s music, which had much in common with Italian opera buffa. In fact Johann Christian’s influence is clearly apparent in all of J. C. F. Bach’s compositions (symphonies, chamber music, keyboard concertos and sonatas) written from 1778. Moreover, by attending his brother’s concerts, Johann Christoph Friedrich also discovered the music of Mozart and Gluck, which strongly interested and influenced him thereafter.
The Bückeburg court orchestra became so highly esteemed under Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach that in 1782 Forkel rated it the fourth-best orchestra in Germany. In 1787/88, Bach published a selection of easy compositions for keyboard instruments and pieces of chamber music as well as keyboard reductions of secular cantatas in four small volumes entitled Musikalische Nebenstunden (»Musical Leisure«). However, his endeavours to become as well known as his half-brother Carl Philipp Emanuel through printed editions of his works were unsuccessful.
The final two years of Bach’s life were made particularly difficult by the presence of a young Bohemian musician by the name of Franz Christoph Neubauer (1760–1795), whom Bach regarded as a rival. With his wild, brilliant appearance, Neubauer immediately attracted the attention of Princess Juliane, who since her husband’s death in 1787 had acted as regent for their underage son Georg Wilhelm. She soon allowed Neubauer free rein of the court orchestra in order to perform his own compositions. Neubauer seized this opportunity and became the sensation of the court and the talk of the town. Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach was very hurt to realize that he was no longer indispensable to the royal court, to which he had devoted his life’s work and which he had faithfully served for over four decades. Humiliated, he died on 26 January 1795 after having been struck by »a heated chest fever«, to quote his obituary. He was buried at Jetenburg Cemetery in Bückeburg.
The new catalogue of the works of J. C. F. Bach was published in 2013 by Dr Ulrich Leisinger.