What’s the score, Bach?

Collections / music - Posted 26-10-2020

While idly browsing the National Library of Wales digitised printed collections, I was intrigued to see an entry entitled ‘Six Concertos for Keyboard’. Upon opening the catalogue record, I was presented with images of a musical score by ‘Jean Bach’, tentatively dated 177[u].

The very name ‘Bach’ in the same context as ‘composer’ instantly alerted me to the possible significance of the item. The dedication on the flyleaf to ‘Votre Majesté’ reinforced my conviction that it warranted further investigation. A Google search swiftly confirmed my suspicion that the composer was Johann Christian Bach.



The title of the full work [missing from the National Library of Wales score] is Six concerti pour le clavecin, deux violons & une violoncelle, oevre [sic] premier / composées par Jean Bach (Six concertos for harpsichord, two violins and violincello, first opus, composed by Jean Bach) published by Peter Welcker in London, 1763. The score held by the National Library of Wales apparently comprises only the part for the harpsichord. The catalogue currently gives no indication of its provenance.

Johann Christian Bach, the youngest son of the great Johann Sebastian Bach, was born in Leipzig in 1735. He received musical training from his father until the latter’s death in 1750. He spent several years in Italy, composing mainly church music, and in 1760 he was appointed organist at Milan cathedral. In 1762 he moved to London where he quickly established himself in the contemporary musical scene. His reputation gained him an important appointment, as music master to Queen Charlotte, the young wife of George III.



Bach appears to have enjoyed considerable rapport with the German-born Queen, who was a passionate music lover. In the course of his professional career he also taught her children, including the future kings George IV and William IV. It therefore seems natural that he would dedicate his Opus I, the six harpsichord concertos, to his royal patroness. The graceful dedication is in French, the language of diplomacy and culture. The wording is conventional and may be translated roughly as follows:

Having been most graciously admitted to render my services to your majesty in the art of singing, I make it my duty to apply myself assiduously to her studies and amusement. It is in this view that I have taken the liberty of offering to Your Majesty this feeble endeavour. The indulgence and kindness with which Your Majesty has deigned to hear this music performed has encouraged me to publish it; and the very gracious permission which Your Majesty has given to me to print it under her glorious protection assures me that she would like to receive this testimony of my zeal with the same kindness and royal benevolence which generate the admiration of this kingdom, the delights of the court, the felicity of its servants and subjects, and the happiness of one who has the honour of being, with the most respectful veneration, Madame your Majesty, your most humble, obedient, submissive servant, Jean Bach.

WorldCat lists several examples of the same work, including a full printed score held by the British Library. The score at the National Library of Wales is not mentioned, presumably because hitherto it has not been recognised. Although the music is well-known, the comparative rarity of this early score would make it a worthwhile addition to the record.

You can listen to samples of the music on the Presto Classical website. The last movement of Concerto No. 6 reflects the association of Johann Christian Bach with the royal family, consisting of dazzling variations on a rather familiar tune!

Music for the keyboard by other eighteenth century composers, Johann Christian Fischer, Johann Samuel Schroeter and Johann Anton Filtz, may be found among the digitised music at this Library under ‘Other Printed Material available to view’.

Thanks to Heini Davies and Menna Morgan for their assistance and for updating the relevant catalogue records.

Hilary Peters
Assistant Archivist


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