Bach’s The 21st Son Most People Don’t Know About: P.D.Q. Bach

Byvu lita

Aug 12, 2023

Records tell us that Johann Sebastian Bach had 20 children over the course of his life (he did have two wives). But what most people don’t know is that he actually had a 21st child:

His name was P.D.Q. Bach.


Born in Leipzig, Germany, on April 1, 1742, P.D.Q. was called a “pimple on the face of music,” “the worst musician ever to have trod organ pedals,” and more horrible things. There were even rumors that P.D.Q. was not actually Bach’s son because of how different he was from the rest of his family.

P.D.Q.’s only biography tells us his tragic story:

P.D.Q. Bach once said that his illustrious father gave him no training in music whatsoever, and it is one of the few things he said that we can believe without reservation.  His rebelliousness was such, in fact, that he avoided music as much as possible until he was well into his thirties (as a teenager he did assist in the construction of the loudest instrument ever created, the pandemonium, but he wisely skipped town before the instrument’s completion, having sensed with uncanny accuracy, that the Pavilion of Glass was perhaps not the most felicitous location for the inaugural concert).  But by the mid 1770s he realized that, given his last name, writing music was the easiest thing he could do, and he began composing the works that were to catapult him into obscurity.

This most mini musical life has been divided into three creative periods:  the Initial Plunge, the Soused Period, and Contrition.  The middle period was by far the longest of the three, and was characterized by a multiplicity of contrapuntal lines and a greater richness of harmony due to almost constant double vision.  It was during this period that he emulated (i.e., stole from) the music of Haydn and Mozart, but his pathetic attempts to be au courant were no more successful than his pathetic attempts to be passé had been during the Initial Plunge;  having to cope with the problems that accompany immense popularity was something P.D.Q. Bach managed to avoid.  It has been said that the only original places in his music are those places where he forgot what he was stealing.  And, since his memory was even shorter than his sightedness, he was in point of fact one of the most original composers ever to stumble along the musical pike.


As you can see, P.D.Q. was not much appreciated during his lifetime. Let’s look at some of his music and see if this report of him is justified:

Here are the lyrics to this delightful madrigal (a song written for multiple, contrapuntal, and unaccompanied voices):

My bonnie lass she smelleth,
Making the flowers Jealouth:
Fa la la (etc.)

My bonnie lass dismayeth
Me;  all that she doth say ith:
Fa la la (etc.)

My bonnie lass she looketh like a jewel
And soundeth like a mule.
My bonnie lass she walketh like a doe
And talketh like a crow.
Fa la la (etc.)

My bonnie lass liketh to dance a lot;
She’s Guinevere and I’m Sir Lancelot.1
Fa la la (etc.)

My bonnie lass I need not flatter;
What she doth not have doth not matter.
Oo la la (etc.)

My bonnie lass is so fine;
Oh, if only she were mine.
Fa la la (etc.)

Remember how it was said P.D.Q often stole musical ideas from other composers? Check out this ballett (a light, homophonic song for three or more singers distinguished by dance-like rhythms and “fa-la-la” refrains – very similar to madrigals) written in 1595 by Thomas Morley:

I don’t know about you, but the two pieces seem very similar to me. They have similar melodic lines, and P.D.Q. also uses the “fa-la-la” refrain in his madrigal. The words also sound alike, yet P.D.Q.’s piece is missing a certain level of class and sophistication found in Morley’s ballet.

P.D.Q. also wrote instrumental music:

I’m wondering why he thought this was a good idea. I have to give him points for experimenting with a four-hands viola piece, though. Nobody else would ever try doing that.

If that’s not enough for you, check out his arrangement of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony (which is a miracle in itself, considering P.D.Q. died in 1807 and Beethoven composed the symphony in 1808):

*Side note: baseball as we know it wasn’t invented until the mid-1800s. I think P.D.Q. was a time traveler.

To close out this post, here is P.D.Q. Bach’s foremost authority Professor Schickele introducing The Seasonings, Bach’s only oratorio (a large-scale work for choir and orchestra):

List of pieces:

  • Chorus: “Tarragon of virtue is full”
  • Recitative: “And there were in the same country”
  • Duet: “Bide thy thyme”
  • Fugue: Orchestra
  • Recitative: “Then asked he”
  • Chorale: “By the leeks of Babylon, There we sat down, yea, we wept”
  • Recitative: “Then she gave in”
  • Aria: “Open sesame seeds”
  • Recitative: “So saying”
  • Duet: “Summer is a cumin seed”
  • Chorus with soloists: “To curry favor, favor curry”

I hope you enjoyed this introduction to Bach’s 21st son. Do you think he was as horrible a composer as his family made him out to be?

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