Who is ‘The English Bach?’ I’m Going with Bach’s Son

The results of an interesting study came out not long ago that finds people’s brains respond similarly to music no matter how different people are.

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“We’ve shown for the first time that despite our individual differences in musical experiences and preferences . . . music elicits a highly consistent pattern of activity across individuals,” says Vinod Menon, the Stanford University professor who led the study.

Although that’s an interesting finding, what caught my eye was that the research was built around the music of the English Baroque composer William Boyce. The researchers decided on Boyce because his work fits well into the canon of Western music but is little known to modern Americans, said the article, by Bruce Goldman. Goldman also said that the “musical cognoscenti” call Boyce “‘the English Bach’ because his late-Baroque compositions in some respects resembled those of the famed German composer.”

That’s funny, because I always though the musical cognoscenti referred to Johann Christian Bach as “The English Bach.” Does that mean there are two “English Bachs?” That’s awkward.

Johann Christian Bach, also known as J.C. Bach, was the youngest son of Johann Sebastian Bach and wasn’t a Baroque composer; he was a Classical composer who was much admired by Mozart. He was called “The English Bach” because he spent considerable time in London, where he was called John Bach and also sometimes referred to as “The London Bach.”

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You can get all that information on J.C. Bach’s entry on Wikipedia. Encyclopedia Britannica also calls him The English Bach.

By contrast, on William Boyce’s Wikipedia page, there’s no mention of his being called The English Bach. In fact, the only other place I could find him being called The English Bach is in a review of Trevor Pinnock’s William Boyce album, Eight Symphonies: The English Concert. In that review, a mystery person named “A Customer” says “I love the overtures (or symphonies) of William Boyce, the ‘English Bach,’ as I’m sure most lovers of late Baroque music do.”

Well, that sounds authoritative.

The idea that J.C. Bach is called The Englsh Bach is all over the Internet, not just on the Wikipedia and Encyclopedia Britannica pages. So, I have to go with the idea that The English Bach is really J.C. Bach and William Boyce, as much as I like his music, is just an English composer.

Of course, all of this raises another question, which is whether Boyce should even be considered a Baroque composer. He’s sometimes referred to as a composer of the high or late Baroque period. But in some lists of Baroque composers, he’s left out entirely or else identified as an early Galante-era composer, which is the period of transition between the late Baroque and early Classical periods.

I donlt know enough about it to have an informed opinion on the matter, but I can say his music is nothing at all like, say, Corelli or Tartini or other composers who are firmly in Baroque territory. In some ways, Boyce’s music has a quality that seems more fitting in a Classical context than in a Baroque context. Of course, that’s what the Galante period was all about: moving from one period to another.

In any case, Boyce is a striking composer and it’s good to know that, whatever you think of his music, or even of J.C. Bach’s music, our brains respond to their work in the same way. Meanwhile, we’ll leave it to other parts of our brain to debate who The English Bach is.—Nabob, On Baroque

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