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  • Print publication year: 2019
  • Online publication date: March 2020

11 - Johann Christian Bach and Eros


Much about the life of Johann Sebastian Bach's youngest son remains obscure. Factual lacunae, contradictions, ambiguities, along with insinuations touching on his private life punctuate the biographical record almost from the very beginning.

Uncertainty concerning certain basic facts about Johann Christian Bach begins as early as the testimony of a firsthand source one would have considered unim-peachable, namely, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. Emanuel, it will be recalled, had taken in his fifteen-year-old half-brother to live with him in Berlin following the death of their father in July 1750. Who would know better than Emanuel the year in which Christian left his home? In Emanuel's annotation of the family Genealogy he remarks that Christian “traveled in the year 1754 to Italy” (reiste ao. 1754 nach ltalien). His claim, understandably, was dutifully repeated later by reliable eigh-teenth-century writers such as Ernst Ludwig Gerber.

Along with the question of when Johann Christian left for Italy one can ask the connected question: how did he get there, that is, under what circumstances? Here, again, early commentators have something to say. Johann Nikolaus Forkel provides the intriguing detail that Christian, while living with Emanuel in Berlin, had “made the acquaintance of many female Italian singers, one of whom talked him into going to Italy with her” (er mit vielen italienischen Sängerinnen bekannt wurde, deren eine ihn beredete mit ihr nach ltalien zu gehen). And Gerber's dictionary informs us, like-wise, that “the acquaintance with various female Italian singers awakened in him the desire to see Italy” (in ihm die Bekanntschaften verschiedener ital. Sängerinnen die Lust erweckten, ltalien zu sehen).

Charles Sanford Terry, while citing these early sources, was apparently the first person to question both the dating of Christian's departure and the prevailing explanation behind his decision to head for Italy, an explanation that had evolved in a curiously colorful fashion since the time of Forkel and Gerber. Terry cites a nineteenth-century writer, one Elise Polko, who claimed that Christian, “repelled by the prospect of passing his life as an organist in some obscure German community … found relaxation under the beaux yeux of Benedetta Emilia Molteni (1722–80), prima donna of the Berlin Opera.” Polko reported further that Molteni married Johann Friedrich Agricola (1720–74), Frederick the Great's court composer, but that “the pair were hindered by their coachman's death from starting a honeymoon in Italy.