Mozart’s Journey in the Footsteps of Bach

When the name, “Bach,” was mentioned in the late eighteenth century, the first composer to come to mind would probably have been Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, the second son of Johann Sebastian. Mozart was referencing CPE, not J.S Bach, when he commented to his Vienna patron, Gottfried van Swieten, “Bach is the father. We are the children!” At the time, the dense complexity of baroque music was viewed as outdated, while the galant style of CPE and JC Bach offered simple, elegant, pared-down phrases and an emphasis on melody rather than polyphony.

But it was in Vienna at the musical salon gatherings of van Swieten that Mozart became increasingly fascinated with the “old music” of J.S Bach and Handel. In an April 10, 1782 letter to his father, Leopold, Mozart wrote,

“I go to the house of Baron Van Suiten [sic] every Sunday at 10 o’clock and nothing is played there but Händel and Bach. I am making a collection of Bach’s fugues, those of Sebastian as well as Emanuel and Friedman [sic].—Also of Händel’s, and I don’t have those. I expect that you know that the ‘English Bach’ is dead? What a loss to the musical world!”

The influence of Bach and Handel can be heard in Mozart’s 1782 “Great” Mass in C minor, the subject of Monday’s post. Here are some additional pieces in which Mozart seems to be walking in the footsteps of the “great teacher,” J.S. Bach:

String Quartet Transcriptions from The Well-Tempered Clavier

Mozart’s study of Bach’s counterpoint included string trio and quartet transcriptions. Here are 5 Fugues for string quartet, K. 405, transcribed from Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier, Book 2:

Prelude and Fugue for piano in C Major, K. 394

Regarding the Prelude (Fantasie) and Fugue in C Major, Mozart wrote to his sister, Maria-Anna (Nannerl) in a letter dated April 20, 1782:

I composed the fugue first and wrote it down while I was thinking out the prelude. I only hope that you will be able to read it, for it is written so very small; and I hope further that you will like it. Another time I shall send you something better for the clavier. My dear Constanze is really the cause of this fugue’s coming into the world. Baron van Swieten, to whom I go every Sunday, gave me all the works of Händel and Sebastian Bach to take home with me (after I had played them to him). When Constanze heard the fugues, she absolutely fell in love with them. Now she will listen to nothing but fugues, and particularly (in this kind of composition) the works of Händel and Bach.

Well, as she has often heard me play fugues out of my head, she asked me if I had ever written any down, and when I said I had not, she scolded me roundly for not recording some of my compositions in this most artistically beautiful of all musical forms and never ceased to entreat me until I wrote down a fugue for her. So this is its origin.

I have purposely written above it, Andante Maestoso, as it must not be played too fast. For if a fugue is not played slowly, the ear cannot clearly distinguish the theme when it comes in, and consequently, the effect is entirely missed. When I get the time and opportunity, I will make another five and deliver them to Baron van Suiten; because I have to say, he really owns, while admittedly very small in quantity, but in regard to quality, a very great treasure of good music.

And therefore, I ask you to promise me not to take back your promise, and let no man see them. Learn them by heart and play them. A fugue is not so easy to play after only hearing it. — If father has not yet had the works of Eberlin copied, then I would be very pleased — I have gotten hold of them and — because I could no longer remember that, with a closer look, they are of too low a quality, and truthfully, do not deserve a place between Händel and Bach….

At moments, Mozart’s contrapuntal look in the rear view mirror produces music which seems to anticipate Beethoven and Schubert. The harmonic surprises and descending chromaticism in this passage might remind you more of Liszt than Mozart.

Adagio and Fugue in C minor, K. 546

Here is another piece which seems to be looking ahead towards Romanticism. The musicologist Robert D. Levin describes the opening Adagio this way:

Angular outbursts alternate with an unearthly hush; its suggestions of violence and mysticism make the ensuing geometry of the fugue seem a relief.

Symphony No. 41 “Jupiter,” K.551 (Finale)

The influence of J.S. Bach can be heard in Mozart’s later string quartets. It’s also there in the spectacular counterpoint of the “Jupiter” Symphony’s Finale, where, at the end of the coda, five independent themes weave together, simultaneously.

In 1789, a year after completing the “Jupiter” Symphony, Mozart visited Leipzig and played Bach’s organ at St. Thomas Church. Johann Friedrich Doles, who had been a student of Bach, occupied the church’s music director post:

Mozart played without previous announcement and without compensation on the organ of the church of St. Thomas. He played beautifully and artistically before a large audience for about an hour…. Doles was utterly delighted with his playing and thought that old Sebastian Bach … had been resurrected. With good taste and with the greatest ease Mozart employed all the arts of harmony and gloriously improvised upon the themes, among others of the chorale ‘Jesu, meine Zuversicht’


  • Bach (arranged by Mozart): 5 Fugues for string quartet, K. 405, Emerson String Quartet iTunes
  • Mozart: Prelude (Fantasie) and Fugue in C Major, K. 394, Dejan Lazic iTunes
  • Mozart: Adagio and Fugue in C minor, K. 546 Hagen String Quartet iTunes
  • Mozart: Symphony No. 41 “Jupiter,” Leonard Bernstein, Vienna Philharmonic iTunes

About Timothy Judd

A native of Upstate New York, Timothy Judd has been a member of the Richmond Symphony violin section since 2001. He is a graduate of the Eastman School of Music where he earned the degrees Bachelor of Music and Master of Music, studying with world renowned Ukrainian-American violinist Oleh Krysa.

The son of public school music educators, Timothy Judd began violin lessons at the age of four through Eastman’s Community Education Division. He was a student of Anastasia Jempelis, one of the earliest champions of the Suzuki method in the United States.

A passionate teacher, Mr. Judd has maintained a private violin studio in the Richmond area since 2002 and has been active coaching chamber music and numerous youth orchestra sectionals.

In his free time, Timothy Judd enjoys working out with Richmond’s popular SEAL Team Physical Training program.

6 thoughts on “Mozart’s Journey in the Footsteps of Bach”

  1. I think in K 394 Adagio and Fugue in C there is an error in the fugue: Measure 3 the second exposition starts on a C with a dotted quarter note, but really shouldn’t it start on a D so that it matches the other expositions? Did Mozart or a copyist make a mistake here?

  2. There is an important omission in the above article.

    K574, the Gigue in G major, was clearly based on Bach, and, given that it is only 38 bars long, has had a very large number of words written about it. It’s an amazing piece of Mozart and can easily be mistaken for 20th century music – it reminds me of Prokofiev. It was written in Leipzig, on 17th May 1789, on one of only two visits to the city my Mozart, en route between Vienna and Berlin. It was written into the family album of Leipzig Court organist Karl Engel, as a mark of appreciation for Engel’s hospitality to Mozart. Mozart had also spent an evening improvising on the Thomaskirche organ.

    The subject of the gigue is a transcription of the subject of the B minor fugue from Book 1 of WTC. I first noticed this when I began learning the fugue some 3 years ago. I had played the gigue for my Associated Board grade 7 exam in 1971. So far as I can ascertain, there are no other references on the internet to the link between the B minor fugue and K574,, yet I am 100% certain of this link.

    • Many thanks for pointing out K. 574.
      There is an interesting YouTube video by “The Music Professor”, giving a history and tutorial performance of the K. 574 Gigue. The good professor draws parallels to BWV 869 (as you suggest) and Handel’s Gigue in HWV 433.

      I think Baron Von Swieten’s love of Bach and Handel contributed to Mozart’s appreciation of Bach and the “English Bach”.

  3. Mozart’s works from k394 to k405 constitute his Bach-experimentation period. Including even the brilliant fantasies k396 and k397, the most Mozartean of this series yet still with a Baroque edge to them.


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