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Bach & Other Composers

The Bach Family - Family History


The Family
Family History
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Bach Family: Sorted by Name
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The Family

The Bach family lived and worked in central Germany, primarily in Thuringia, with the duchies and principalities of Saxe-Eisenach, Saxe-Gotha, Saxe-Meiningen, Saxe-Weimar, the county of Schwarzburg-Arnstadt and the town of Erfurt, belonging to the Mainz electorate. The region, bitterly split politically though unified denominationally, had its own cultural traditions and, despite the turmoils of war and other vicissitudes, enjoyed a varied and firmly based economic life. In these conditions a lively musical atmosphere flourished, encouraged by the ambitious displays of magnificence of the small courts, by the individual towns' need for prestige, and by the consciousness of a strong musical tradition and post-Reformation zeal in the church in this the home country of Lutheranism. The growth and decline of the Bach family, like that of other families of musicians (for example the Hasses), is closely linked with these social conditions: initially with the rapid expansion of musical practice in courts, towns and churches towards the end of the 16th century, then with the decline in importance of the leading musical institutions such as court orchestras, Stadtpfeifer bands and church choirs in the face of the increasingly popular bourgeois music culture of the later 18th century.

The musical life of Thuringia was small in scale but varied. The region - perhaps in the aftermath of the Thirty Years War - had no important centre, such as a city or court with a large opera company, and hence held no particular attraction for musicians of standing. A sound, ordinary ability served to accord members of the Bach family a pre-eminent position in local musical life; only a few achieved anything extraordinary, and most of those drifted away from their original environmet.

The unusual concentration of musical talent within a single family and territory has long interested scholars concerned with genealogy, heredity and talent. The continual reappearance of musical talent tluring several generations (the singular culmination being Johann Sebastian Bach) within an increasingly large and then sharply declining number of prominent family members remains a unique phenomenon. The prerequisite for the development of such a dynasty of musicians was a general emphasis on craftsmanship in practical musical activities, so that from early childhood a musical career was virtually prescribed for the male members of the family. Musical training was given for the most part within the family group - by fathers, brothers, uncles, cousins or more distant relations. This is typical even of the later generations: for instance, J.S. Bach taught six of his relatives (Johann Lorenz Bach [38], Johann Bernhard Bach [41], Johann Elias Bach [39], Johann Heinrich Bach [43], Samuel Anton Bach [75], Johann Ernst Bach [34]) as well as his own sons; Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach [46] took his youngest brother Johann Christian Bach [50] into his care, and Wilhelm Friedemann Bach [45] taught his relative Johann Christian Bach [77]. Studies outside the region or educational journeys were certainly unusual, though Caspar's sons (3/58-62), Johann Nicolaus Bach [27] and finally Johann Christian Bach [(50] went to Italy. In these circumstances, even Johann Christian Bach's journey to study with Dietrich Buxtehude in Lübeck must be considered out of the ordinary .

In a milieu so self-sufficient and so governed by guild thinking and professional regulations, intermarriage between families of musicians was frequent. This was certainly the case in Thuringia in, for example, the Wilcke, Lämmerhirt, Hoffmann and Bach families. Precisely these families were, in fact, mutually associated. The first wife of Johann(es) [Hans] Bach [4], like that of his brother Heinrich Bach [6], was a Hoffmann, and his second was a Lämmerhirt. J.S. Bach too was typical: his mother was a Lämmerhirt (as, incidentally, was Johann Gottfried Walther's), his first wife a Bach and his second a Wilcke. Common social standing, professional interdependence and musical interests created a close unity within the family, and their social status as 'outsiders' (during the 17th century musicians of lower rank were not normally permitted citizenship) was a significant factor in the family's solidarity. Strict religious attitudes also had an important role, and some members of the family even sIJowed a tendency to sectarian religious behaviour. To deepen the manifold connections, there were regular family gatherings, which must have resembled small music festivals; Forkd wrote:

Since the company consisted of none but Kantors, organists and town musicians, all of whom had to do with the church. . . first of all, when all were assembled, a chorale was sung. From this devotional opening they proceeded to jesting, often in strong contrast to it. For now they would sing folksongs, the contents of which were partly comic and partly indelicate, all together and extempore, but in such a way that the several improvised parts made up a kind of harmony, although the text was different for each voice. They called this kind of extempore harmonizing [Zusammenslimmung] a quodlibet . . . and enjoyed a hearty laugh at it.

J.S. Bach's early Quodlibet (BWV 524), only partly extant, provides a characteristic example of this family speciality.

The family was keenly aware of its position as bearers of a musical tradition. It was with that consciousness that J.S. Bach, in a letter to G. Erdmann (October 28, 1730), described his children as 'born music;'; and as early as 1732 Johann Gottfried Walther's Musicalisches Lexicon, in which the first brief biography of J.S. Bach appeared, referred expressly to the great master's roots in an unusual family of ~usicians. His obituary notice of 1754 made the point more fully. And it was J.S. Bach himsself who systematically investigated the family's history and musical heritage. His genealogy of the family, written down in 1735, is still the most reliable documenevidence of the family history, above all in respect to the early generations. (The original manuscript of the Ursprung is lost, but several copies are extant, among them a particularly important one of 1774-1775 written for Forkel by Anna Carolina Philippina Bach, with additions by her father, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach.) Further, J.S. Bach's estate contained a manuscript collection of compositions by the most important earlier members of the family, under the title 'Alt-Bachisches Archiv' (when acquired by the Berlin Singakademie in the 19th century it contained 20 works; that collection was lost in World War II, but other manuscripts originally in the 'Archiv' survived individually - ed. in EDM, 1st ser., i-ii, 1935). A number of entries are in the hand of Johann Ambrosius Bach [11], suggesting that it was he who initiated the collection; J.S. Bach later reordered it, adding some new title-pages, and put it to practical use (he prepared some instrumental parts).


Family History

The Ursprung traces the family as far back as Veit Bach [1] in the mid-16th century. Up to the generation of Veit's grandsons, however, much remains unclear, and the lack of available archival documents in church records and elsewhere makes it impossible to clarify this period in the family's history. The supposition, found in some Bach literature, that Veit was a son of Hans [54] is untenable; this Hans, who can be traced in Wechmar in 1561, must have been a brother, cousin or other relative. Nothing is known of his prof~ssion. Although Hans is the earliest bearer of the name of Bach to be found in Wechmar, no further conclusion can be drawn from that. By this time the name of Bach (also often spelt 'Baach', hinting at the phonetic value of a long 'a', as in 'father'; see Bach-Dokumente, ii, nos.l and 6) was widespread in the Thuringian region, and it can be traced back to the 14th century, though there is no evidence that any of these earlier members of the family were involved in musical activity. The Ursprung says of Veit Bach, who was a baker by trade, that his hobby was playing the 'cythringen' (a small cittern). There is an explicit additional sentence - 'this was, as it were, the beginning of music in his descendants' - which probably indicates that none of Veit Bach's ancestors was a professional musician. Neither was Veit Bach himself. He had most likely been driven from Moravia or Slovakia about 1545 as a result of the expulsion of Protestants in the Counter- Reformation, at the time of the Schmalkaldian War (1545-1547). The reference to 'Hungary' in the Ursprung is not to be taken literally and in accordance with the terminology of the time must signify in general terms the central lands of the Habsburg Empire (including present-day Austria and Czechoslovakia). Veit took up residence in Wechmar - a small town located between Gotha and Ohrdruf - and must have died by 1577 as for that year his sons Johann(es) [Hans] Bach [2] and Lips [3/57] are recorded as house-owners in Wechmar. Contrary to current opinion (which is based on the assumption that Hans was Veit Bach's father), Veit Bach did not migrate from Wechmar or Thuringia but (according to Korabinsky, 1784) was born in Moravia or Slovakia, as the son of an earlier migrant, possibly in or near Pressburg (now Bratislava). There, and elsewhere in the Habsburg lands, various people by the name of Bach can be traced in the 16th and 17th centuries, among them musicians such as the Spielmann (violinist) and jester Johann or Hans I Bach (see chapter 1). It seems noteworthy that Count \ Questenberg, with whom J.S. Bach had connections, employed a certain Maria Rosina Bach in 1721 as a j maid at his Moravian castle Jaromĕřice.

Another Veit Bach [55] died in Wechmar in 1619; nothing further is known of him. He should not be confused with Veit Bach [1], the head of the Wechmar line of the Bach family; he may have been a son of Veit or Hans. In the 16th and early 17th centuries there were in Thuringia branches of the family which may have been connected either directly or indirectly with the Wechmar line and in which musicians are occasionally found (for example Eberhard Heinrich Bach, son of a Heinrich Bach, a trumpeter from Rohrborn near Erfurt who went to the Netherlands and emigrated to Indonesia about 1598). However, the Ursprung wisely limits itself to the smaller circle which can strictly be considered the musical family of Bachs.

Johann(es) [Hans] Bach [2], Veit Bach's son, was the first member of the family to receive a thorough musical training and to pursue a musical career, even though he also pursued other activities. His sons were the first to follow music exclusively. By accepting salaried positions they became sedentary and distinct from non-organized musicians (or 'beer-fiddlers'), thereby taking the first step towards citizenship and breaking with the tradition of the Spielmann - although in their varied occupations as instrumentalists their background continued to have its effect.

Genealogical difficulties arise over a series of family members who were in some way connected with the main Wechmar line but whose precise extraction remains unclear. Indeed, the Ursprung has a lacuna concerning the brother of Johann(es) [Hans] Bach [2]. His name is not given, but his trade (carpetmaker) is mentioned and his sons are briefly described. This has led to a confusion between two family members, Caspar Bach [3/56] and Lips [3/57]. According to the Ursprung, the sons of Johann's brother visited Italy; that can refer only to Caspar's sons who, it has been established, were encouraged to go there by the Count of Schwarzburg-Arnstadt. Further, Caspar had a blind son Heinrich Bach [3/62], who must surely be the 'blind Jonas' mentioned in the Ursprung; and the ancestors of Johann Ludwig Bach [3/72], connected with Johann's brother, can be related only to Lips. Thus either Johann had two brothers, or Caspar and Lips must at least have been so closely related that family tradition could plausibly merge them into one. It appears that Lips's descendants were farmers. The connection between Andreas [64] and Lips remains unclear: Andreas was an alderman in Themar, and his son Johann Bach [67] was Kantor and later vicar, as were several of his descendants. In the Ursprung Johannes Poppo [3/69], brother of Johann Stephan Bach [3/70], is listed as a priest, and the presence of George Michael Bach [74] at his funeral in 1738 implies that they came from closely related branches of the family. Most probably the two lines had a common origin in Lips.

Almost all the Bachs were first and foremost instrumentalists; they were mainly keyboard players, but virtually all other instruments werepresented, and in the true Stadtpfeifer tradition most of them learnt to play several instruments. Several of them were also active in instrument manufacture, for example Johann Michael Bach [14], Johann Günther Bach [15], Johann Nicolaus Bach [27] and Johann Michael Bach [30]. This interest in the quality and functioning of instruments, alongside his skill as a performer, is marked in J.S. Bach, who was a considerable expert on the organ, stimulated the development of the viola pomposa and the Lautenklavier, and offered constructive criticism of Silbermann's early pianoforte. Most of the earlier Bachs concentrated on learning and playing instruments; composition ordinarily remained in the background, and was reserved for those who had the necessary training and from whom a supply of music was expected. Almost without exception among the 17th-century Bachs, that meant the organists; so it is hardly surpnsing that no compositions by even such eminent family members as Johann Ambrosius Bach [11] were handed down. At all events, composing must have been a peripheral activity for the court trumpeter, if indeed he composed at all, whereas his two cousins, the organists Johann Christoph Bach [13] and Johann Michael Bach [14], were avid composers. Their vocal works were not primarily for liturgical use - the supply of music for the liturgy was the Kantors' responsibility - so they wrote mostly funeral motets, doubtless a well-paid side activity.

By the turn of the 17th century the musical family was so widespread in the Thuringian region that the name 'Bach' had come to be regarded as synonymous with 'musician'. In many places, particularly Erfurt and Arnstadt, they held the principal positions, and it was typical thal the successor to a position vacated by a Bach would be another Bach. When Johann Michael Bach [13] left Arnstadt, his younger brother Johann Michael Bach [14] replaced him; J.S. Bach's position in Mühlhausen went to his cousin Johann Ernst Bach [25]; and the post held by Johann Christoph Bach [22] was even passed down through two generations [41, 79]. Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach's application for his father's post as Kantor of the Thomaskirche in 1750 may be seen as in the same tradition. This almost automatic succession of musical positions, however, grew ever more difficult: the institutions which had given rise to a musician class organized by guilds - and thus the very means of existence to a family like the Bachs - began to crumble.

Having risen from simple Spielmann beginnings, the Bachs had gradually reached every level of the musical hierarchy, in the three spheres of contemporary musical activity (court, town, church): court musician, court Konzertmeister or Kapellmeister; Stadtpfeifer or director of the town music; organist or Kantor. By the middle of the 18th century, social change had affected the structure of each of these areas, and broke the patterns that for so long had governed the lives of the Bach family. Further, the sons of the thenceforth middle-class Bachs had quite different professional opportunities because of their new educational prospects (almost all the members of the generation of J.S. Bach's sons attended university); formerly they had had little alternative but to become musicians. It is natural that fewer took up music as a profession. Several members of the family turned to another artistic field, painting: the descendants of Johann Ludwig Bach [3/72] were court painters, and J.S. Bach (1748-1778), the son of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, studied with Goethe's friend Adam F. Oeser and was a highly respected landscape painter (he went to Italy and died in Rome at the age of 30: for his works see BJb, xxxvii, 1940-1948, p.163fI). Considering the proliferation of musical gifts over more than six generations of the Bach family it may appear surprising, though understandable in the light of historical developments, that in 1843, at the ceremonial unveiling in front of the Thomaskirche of the Leipzig Bach monument, donated by Felix Mendelssohn, Wilhelm Friedrich Ernst Bach [84] was the solitary representative of a musical family with a tradition of more than 250 years.



Alt-Bachisches Archiv aus Johann Sebastian Bachs Sammlung von Werken seiner Vorfohren, ed. M. Schneider, EDM, 1st ser., i-ii (1935)
Music of the Bach Family: an Anthology, ed. K. Geiringer (Cambridge, MA, USA, 1955)
Orgelwerke der Familie Bach, ed. O. Hellmann (Leipzig, 1967)
Stuttgarter Bach-Ausgaben (Stuttgart, 1968-) [and other works publishedd by Hiinssler-Verlag (1950-); for catalogue see M. Jödt, ed.: Johann Sebastian Bach und die Bach-Familie in Ausgaben des Hänssler-Verlages (Stuttgart, 1980; English Edition, 1981)] [SBA]



M. Schneider: 'Thematisches Verzeichnis der musikalischen Werke der Familie Bach (I. Teil)', BJb, iv (1907), 103-77 [continuations never appeared]
W.Schmieder, ed.: 'Das Bachschrifttum 1945-1952', BJb, xl (1953), 119-68; for 1953-7, BJb, xlv (1958), 127; for 1958-62, ed. E. Francke, BJb, liii (1967),121-69; for 1963-7, ed. R. Nestle, BJb, lix (1973),91-150; for 1968-72, ed. R. Nestle, Bib, lxii (1976), 95; for 1973-7, ed. R. Nestle, BJb, lxvi (1980), 87-152
K. Geiringer: The Bach Family: Seven Generations of Creative Genius (London, 1954; German translation, enlarged, 1958) [bibliography, 490ff; German edition, 542ff]
P. Kast: Die Bach-Handschriften der Berliner Staatsbihliothek, Tübinger Bach-Studien, ii-iii (Trossingen, 1958)
J.F. Richter: 'Johann Sebastian Bach und seine Familie in Thüringen', Bach-Festbuch Weimar 1964, 50



[J.S. Bach]: Ursprung der musicalisch-Bachischen Familie, 1735 [original MS lost]; ed. W. Neumann and H.-J. Schulze in Bach-Dokumente, i (Kassel, 1963), no.184
M. Korabinsky: Beschreibung der königlichen ungarischen Haupt- Frey und Krönungsstadt Pressburg, i (Pressburg, 1784), 110ff
M. Schneider: Bach-Urkunden: Ursprung der musikalisch-Bachischen Familie (Leipzig, 1917) [facsimile of copy by C.P.E. Bach. and A.C.P. Bach]
C.S. Terry: The Origin of the Family of Bach Musicians (London, 1929)
J. Miiller-Blattau: Genealogie der musikalisch-Bachischen Familie (Kassel, 1950)


Source: The New Grove Bach Family (by Christoph Wolff , MacMillan London, 1983)


External Links

Bach family

Ancestors of J.S. Bach; Descendants of J.S. Bach; Others born before 1685; Family tree; References; External links.


Bach, Johann Sebastian: Family

Table of contents for their history with family tree and links to other resources plus glossary.


The Bach Family

Chronological and alphabetical categorizing of principal members of the fam, spanning Johann's birth in 1604 through Wilhelm Friedrich Ernst's death in 1845. Includes links and commentary from the Here Of a Sunday Morning radio program.


The Bach Musicians' Family in Erfurt

Background on earlier generations in the town of Erfurt. Includes portrait of Johann Sebastian's father, Johann Ambrosius.

Erfurt Guide

Bach Notes

Short article.

David Gordon

Composers (Bach)

Numerical chart showing the relationships among more than 75 members of the family who bore the name with their dates. Includes some who were musicians but not composers.

Absolute beginners

Tracing Bach's Steps - The Bach Family

Short article.


Summary biographies of many of the known composers and musicians among several generations of the family in alphabetical order with noted genealogical number. From the Grove Concise Dictionary of Music entry at WQXR radio.


Bach Family Genealogy Forum

Discussion Forum.

Geneology Forum

The Bach Family of Musicians

Short article

Suite 101


Bach Family: Sorted by Name | Sorted by Number | Family Tree | Family History | Discussions: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

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