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Apollo's Fire and the Bach family generation gap

A parent's conviction that kids these days don't know what good music is and the kids' certainty that their parents' musical tastes are hopelessly tired are nothing new. That dynamic played out in the 18th-century German household of prodigious composer and sire Johann Sebastian Bach.

The father of 20 offspring, 10 of whom survived infancy, Bach wrote in a letter to a friend, "My children are all born musicians, and I can already make up both a choir and an instrumental ensemble within my family." But there was no shortage of turmoil in that family, including disagreement about what constituted good music. Music director Jeannette Sorrell takes a look at that musical generation gap in Apollo's Fire's program Bach Family Fireworks.

While Bach was very successful and his music generally well liked during his lifetime, his children thought his music was old-fashioned, academic and stodgy.

"There were probably no critics so zealous as his children," says Sorrell. "I imagine the highest level of criticism was in the household because there was a high level of talent among those young people."

The Apollo's Fire program is informed by The Bach Reader, a collection of letters, documents and anecdotes compiled from original sources by the musicologist Christoph Wolff. Among other gems of insight, Sorrell found a letter in which Bach's composer son Carl Philip Emanuel refers to his father as "an old powdered wig."

In the 25 years that passed between the birth of J.S. Bach and his oldest son, Sorrell says that fashionable music lost its use of dissonance, and that was a key difference in the musical tastes of Bach Senior and his sons. Bach wrote critically about the smooth and, to his ear, boring style known as "gallant."

"He complains that it lacks any tension because there is almost no dissonance," says Sorrell. "It's what we'd think of as happy elevator music today. He's saying if it doesn't have that tension, it doesn't touch the spirit or fulfill the purpose of music."

C.P.E. is the best known of Bach's musical sons now, and Sorrell says he was probably the only one who would be known now had it not been for the coattails of his father. Not only was he good at combining his father's high baroque style with newer influences, he was also the most responsible and polite.

But in their lifetime, his oldest brother Wilhelm Friedeman was the most famous and seems to have been the most gifted. Known as a great organist and improviser, he was also his father's favorite. But he was the most troublesome, a talented delinquent. Sorrell says W.F. was the subject of some "very sad letters" in which his father apologizes for his son's indebtedness and disappearance from church-organist jobs — which his father's clout helped to secure.

Sorrell built a program that — by alternating works by Bach and three of his sons — pits these musical and lifestyle differences against each other. A bit of theater will add to the musical tension: In dramatic interludes between musical works, actor George Roth will play the elder Bach, while Tom White will play several of his sons. Sorrell says the script is mostly about what's going on in their lives, which puts the music and theater in a kind of dialogue.

"I think it helps people understand music when they have social or theatrical or historical context as entry point," Sorrell says.

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