Sonata Christian Gottlob Neefe (1748-1798) [PIANO]
Fughetta on "O Morning Star, How Fair and Bright" J. Christoph Bach (1671-1721)
Of course it is best for a child to be raised by both mother and father, but sadly it doesn’t always work out that way. Which was so for two particularly famous composers:
Both of Johann Sebastian Bach’s parents died when he was nine years old, so J. Sebastian and his older brother Johann Jacob went to live with his older brother Johann Christoph – then 23 years old and newly married (five children of their own soon followed). We know that J. Christoph "laid the foundation of Johann Sebastian’s keyboard technique." And we have one anecdote that suggests what a handful J. Sebastian must have been as a student: J. Christoph owned a book containing music by eminent composers of the day, but refused to let J. Sebastian to have access to it, keeping it in a locked book case with a latticed front. However, J. Sebastian’s hands being small he was able to reach through, roll it up and sneak it out, and not daring to light a candle he could only copy it on moonlit nights, taking some six months. The older brother promptly found it and confiscated it.
But J. Sebastian’s school records tell their own story: before his parent’s death J. Sebastian was a troublesome student in school with terrible grades and constantly in the principal’s office. But after moving in with his older brother and his new wife Dorthea, J. Sebastian’s grades soared and he moved to the top of his class. And his musicianship thrived as well — after five years with his new family, Bach was ready for a music and academic scholarship at St. Michael’s Convent school at Lüneburg, first in the boy’s choir, and after his voice changed as a violinist in their orchestra. In other words, Bach’s career was launched. Later, J. Sebastian wrote a piece dedicated to J. Christoph, whom we know copied out some of his younger brother’s music for his own library.
Ludwig Beethoven’s father Johann was abusive and a flaming alcoholic. (Upon Johann’s death, the magistrate remarked "The revenues from the liquor excise [tax] have suffered a loss in the death of [Johann] Beethoven.") Seeing Ludwig as the next lucrative child prodigy since Mozart, he subjected Ludwig to a study regimen that was harsh and intensive, often reducing him to tears. And one of the teachers his father selected was an insomniac, so Ludwig was often dragged from his bed in the middle of the night for lessons. Johann also presented Ludwig as being younger than he really was to promote the ’child prodigy’ story (it didn’t work). When Ludwig was 17 his mother died, which only made his father’s alcoholism worse. When Johann's drinking got so bad he could no longer perform his musical duties, Ludwig intervened with his employer to take over his father’s job to keep food on the table for himself and his two younger brothers.
But at aged nine Ludwig had a new teacher: Christian Gottlob Neefe (1748-1798), the court’s organist. Neefe became Ludwig’s principal piano and composition teacher for some eight years. By the time Ludwig was 13 Neefe had helped him write and publish his first published composition. At age 11 Beethoven began working with Neefe as assistant organist, at first unpaid, and then age 14 as a paid employee of the court chapel. When Beethoven was 23, Ludwig wrote to his former teacher, “I thank you for the counsel which you gave me so often … Should I ever become a great man, you too will have a share in my success." Neefe died when Beethoven was 28 — too young to really see his pupil’s ultimate success.
Neither J. Christoph Bach nor Christian Neefe could have had any idea who the nine year old boy standing before them would become. So as we remember fathers today, I think it is also worth remembering men who saw a child in trouble, and stepped in in a decisive way to help them on their way to adulthood. A man did that for me.