The secular cantata Pygmalion belongs to a genre that is peculiar to the 18th century – that of the melodrama. Meaning a musical drama, either in the sense of opera or of spoken drama interspersed with music, it became a hybrid form in the late 18th century to mean sung and/or spoken text accompanied by music, often of a programmatic nature. Short lived in popularity, the genre is dominated by the work of Georg Benda. J. C. F. Bach’s Pygmalion, while sung, belongs to a specific genre of melodrama called monodrama, in which only one person carries the speaking voice. Jean Jacques Rousseau’s Pygmalion (1770), labeled scène lyrique, is generally viewed as the prototype of the melodrama.
The story goes that Pygmalion was a Cypriot sculptor who carved a woman out of ivory. According to Ovid, after seeing the daughters of Propœtus - who dared to deny that Aphrodite was a goddess and for this became first to prostitute their bodies and their reputations in public, and, losing all sense of shame, lost the power to blush - he was not interested in women. But his statue was so fair and realistic that he fell in love with it.
In time, Aphrodite's festival day came, and Pygmalion made offerings at her altar. There - too scared to admit his desire - he quietly wished for a bride who would be "the living likeness of my ivory girl". When he returned home, he kissed his ivory statue, and found that its lips felt warm. He kissed it again, and found that the ivory had lost its hardness. Aphrodite had granted Pygmalion's wish. Pygmalion married the ivory sculpture changed to a woman under Aphrodite's blessing.
The story of Pygmalion has been used in Germany for musical purposes before Rousseau. Johann Elias Schlegel wrote a cantata on Pygmalion myth in 1744, however, it was never set to music. And a later version, a Pygmalion cantata written by Karl Wilhelm Ramler from 1768 was set to music twice: by Christian Gottfried Krause, and a second one by J.C.F. Bach, the latter performed in Bückeburg in 1772.
Born in Leipzig in the Electorate of Saxony, Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach was taught music by his father, of whom he was the ninth son, and tutored by his distant cousin, Johann Elias Bach. He studied at the St. Thomas School, and some believe he studied law at the university there, although there is no evidence of his study there. In 1750, William, Count of Schaumburg-Lippe appointed Johann Christoph harpsichordist at Bückeburg, and in 1759, he became concertmaster. While there, Bach collaborated with Johann Gottfried Herder, who provided the texts for six vocal works; the music survives for only four of these. He married the singer Lucia Elisabeth Münchhausen in 1755 and the Count stood as godfather to his son Wilhelm Friedrich Ernst Bach. J.C.F. educated his son in music as his own father had, and Wilhelm Friedrich Ernst went on to become music director to Frederick William II of Prussia. In April 1778 he and Wilhelm travelled to England to visit Johann Christian Bach. J. C. F. Bach died 1795 in Bückeburg, aged 62.