Posts for:  July 2015

J.S. Bach: What happened to his DNA?

Johann Sebastian Bach, the father of many offspring, biological and musical

As social animals, we human beings can’t help our intense curiosity about other people.  Faced with a member of the species who behaves outside the norm, we wonder, “How did so-and-so get that way?” This is especially true in the case of remarkable talent, and has led me to the subject for my next lecture-recital. Why does musical giftedness awaken in some people, and not in others who have, purportedly, the same DNA?

Famous, curious example: the Bach family. For five generations, the descendants of bread baker Veit Bach dominated their musical corner of Germany, producing an astonishing line of professional musicians, many of whom achieved creative greatness. The zenith of this familial dominance culminated in Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750,) whom many consider the greatest composer of all time. Yet after the generation of J.S. Bach’s sons, it all seemed to fizzle out.

What happened? Why did the genetic code that found such marvelous expression for so many generations suddenly go dormant?

The relatively new science of epigenetics studies what factors affecting a cell can change the shape of its underlying DNA, allowing certain genes to be expressed, or to be kept under wraps. It’s not only at the level of the genome, the double-helix, that causes certain traits to be expressed and even inherited, it’s what happens on the surface of the genome, or the epigenome, that can affect genetic expression. Quantifiable, scientific work is being done at the micro-cellular level. But it’s tempting to extrapolate to a larger platform and consider what factors in an organism’s (or person’s) environment affect the expression of certain genes, behaviors, and even talents.

Musicologists offer clues, through their exhaustive study of biographical data, primary sources, and historical records. Mining these musicological resources has proved fascinating. It turns out that of J.S. Bach’s twenty children, only half survived past childhood. Of these, only one grandchild chose a musical career. Only three of Johann Sebastian’s grandchildren had children of their own. And curiously, the line, without professional musicians of note, ended up in Oklahoma.

In an essay for the American Bach Society, Christoph Wolff tracks down a great-grandson of J.S. Bach who eventually settled in Stillwater, Oklahoma, amongst a large German-Ukrainian community, and whose own granddaughter possessed personal items belonging to her forebear, Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, J.S. Bach’s eldest son. This American descendant of J.S. apologized to Wolff for the family not being more forthcoming about their connection to the great musician. Devout Lutherans, they were for years embarrassed that they had sprung from a somewhat wild branch of the family, and had originated from an illegitimate birth.

Fortunately for us, not all secrets remain hidden — a persistent scholar will dig up evidence, and a persistent offspring with a modern sensibility will want to claim the truth.

Which brings me to the conclusion that all this curiosity, and all this pursuit, musical, genealogical, or scholarly, is just a quest to know the truth about ourselves. Who are we? Gifted or not, that is the question worth digging for.


The essay by Christoph Wolff, called “Descendants of Wilhelm Friedemann Bach in the United States,” appears in Volume 5 of Bach Perspectives, edited by Stephen Crist, and published by University of Illinois Press, 2003, produced by the American Bach Society.