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C.P.E. Bach Turns Three Hundred


Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach
Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach

Musical anniversaries provide a convenient way of recognizing and reflecting on composers who may or may not receive the attention due them at other times. This year is the 300th after the birth of two major figures in European music: Christoph Willibald Gluck and Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. Both German speakers and recognized today as major figures in the period between the Baroque and Classical eras of music history, they otherwise had little in common, personally or musically. C.P.E. Bach’s birthday comes first, on March 8th, and in anticipation of that it is fitting to consider his life and works and to preview some related musical events coming up in the area.

Today we think of J. S. Bach’s sons as fairly minor figures, but during their lifetimes C.P.E. Bach, or Emanuel as I will call him, was far better known than his father. The “Berlin” or “Hamburg” Bach was famous not only for his keyboard playing and for his keyboard sonatas and concertos, but for songs (lieder), chamber music, and, during the latter part of his long career, several oratorios and related works. Although most of these passed into obscurity within a few decades of his death, he continued to be known for his “Essay on the True Manner of Playing Keyboard Instruments,” a two-volume manual that Beethoven and even Brahms studied; today it is an important source of information on historical performance practice. Haydn and Mozart both doubtless read it; they certainly knew Emanuel’s music. Mozart performed his Resurrection Cantata (Die Auferstehung) at Vienna in 1788; before that, Gluck had directed a performance of The Israelites in the Desert.

Emanuel’s active career was longer than Haydn’s; we have dated pieces from as early as 1731, when he was 17, to as late as 1788, the year of his death at 74. In an era when professions were handed down from parent to child, the extended Bach family was the largest and most accomplished musical family in Europe. Six generations provided dozens of towns, cities, churches, and aristocratic courts with organists and composers (and even a few painters), not merely in central and northern Germany but in Sweden, Italy, and England. Johann Sebastian Bach was of course the greatest member of the family, but almost as extraordinary as his own accomplishment is the fact that five of his sons became significant musicians. Four were composers, and two, born two decades apart, were among the most important European musicians of their respective generations.

Johann Christian Bach, the youngest son, was born only in 1735—three years after Haydn. But Emanuel already belonged to a post-Baroque age today known variously as the galant, the rococo, or the pre-Classical. I had occasion to write in these pages [here] about the oldest Bach son, Wilhelm Friedemann, who wrote some extraordinary music but puzzlingly failed to meet the high expectations that some, at least, have held for him. Four years after his birth in Weimar, Carl Philipp Emanuel was born in the same town, which already in 1714 was a significant cultural center. He would prove far more productive and materially far more successful than his older brother.

We know essentially nothing about Emanuel’s early childhood. His mother, Maria Barbara Bach, died in 1720, three years after the family had moved to Cöthen. But years later Emanuel would note that her father Johann Michael Bach had been one of the most important of the earlier composers in the family. Emanuel’s godfather was also important: Georg Philipp Telemann, from whom he took his second name, was at the time the most prominent and influential German composer of his father’s generation.

Although Emanuel reported that his father was his sole teacher, he modeled his style more on Telemann’s than that of J. S. Bach. His father must have encouraged him in this respect, knowing that his own music was increasingly outmoded due to its reliance on counterpoint. Nevertheless, as a student at Leipzig, where the family moved in 1723, Emanuel absorbed his father’s mastery of expressive chromatic harmony and modulation, as well as his sensitive treatment of German poetry in both sacred and secular music. These things would all be important in his own works, although from this early period we have only a few keyboard pieces and chamber sonatas, one concerto, and a recently discovered church cantata.

By the age of 20, when he left home for university studies at Frankfurt-on-the-Oder, Emanuel was a fully-fledged professional musician. At Frankfurt, while pursuing a program in law, he directed a collegium musicum, thereby coming to the attention of members of the Prussian aristocracy (many of whom studied there as well). By 1741 he was named chamber musician to the newly crowned King Frederick II, known as “the Great.” As a member of Frederick’s court at Berlin and Potsdam, Emanuel merged his already distinctive style with that of his older colleagues: Quantz, the Graun brothers, and King Frederick himself, who was an accomplished flute player and probably the best amateur composer who has also happened to be a head of state. Emanuel served him until 1767, accompanying him in his famous palace concerts and participating in numerous other musical events in Berlin, which only during this period became a major European capital, politically as well as culturally.

At Berlin Bach made his name as a composer and player of instrumental music. Yet in 1768 he left for Hamburg, the great seaport city on Germany’s northwest coast. There he spent his last twenty years as cantor and director of music in the city’s churches, succeeding his godfather Telemann in those positions. Like Telemann—and also like Handel, born in Hamburg and active in not-so-distant London until 1759—Emanuel also offered oratorios and other large vocal works in numerous public concerts. Sometimes, again like Handel, he played keyboard concertos before or between the acts. Today we think of Emanuel as primarily a composer of instrumental music, yet for much his career he was probably best known for his songs and sacred works. His father had been chiefly a composer of vocal music, and it is possible that Emanuel saw himself this way as well. After all, his career roughly paralleled his father’s, taking him from a position at a secular court to that of a city music director responsible for church music.

Emanuel’s works number roughly a thousand. Some 300 of these are for keyboard instruments: harpsichord, clavichord, fortepiano, and even organ (though unlike his father he left very little for the latter instrument). About half of these compositions are sonatas, but he also left many smaller pieces. These include character pieces that serve as musical portraits of his Berlin acquaintances (and possibly himself), as well as teaching pieces published in conjunction with his Essay. Not all these compositions are equally impressive; some were unabashedly commercial in purpose. But players have always singled out the twelve relatively early sonatas dedicated to King Frederick of Prussia and Duke Carl Eugen of Württemberg—the “Prussian” and “Württemberg” Sonatas, respectively—as well as 18 sonatas published late in life in 6 collections “for Kenner und Liebhaber”—experts as well as amateurs, as Emanuel put it on the title page. Those collections also included a number of rondos and fantasias that are as remarkable for their witty harmonic and rhythmic surprises as for their sometimes profound expression. The same combination of humor and expressivity occurs in dozens of other less well-known pieces, many of them unpublished during Emanuel’s own life and still rarely played.

Instrumentalists are often surprised to learn that songs for voice and keyboard make up the second most numerous category of Emanuel’s compositions. He was, however, the leading figure in the history of the eighteenth-century German lied, a friend of major poets whose works he set to music throughout his career. Particularly beautiful, if unfashionable today, are his fifty-four settings composed in a sudden creative outburst in 1758 on texts by Christian Fürchtegott Gellert, whose sacred verses also inspired Quantz, Haydn, and even Beethoven. Later, at Hamburg, he produced annual passion oratorios and other service music. Yet the work that he considered his real masterpiece was the Resurrection Cantata, an oratorio-size setting of a poem by Ramler that had been previously composed by Telemann, among others.

Throughout his life Emanuel also wrote and performed works for various instrumental ensembles. These furnished repertory for concerts both public and private, during a time when something like the modern concert tradition was emerging in the major cities of Europe. Fifty-two concertos for his own instrument, the keyboard, are most important among these. But there are also versions of some of these concertos for flute, oboe, and cello, and he left as well several dozen sonatas for either one or two treble instruments plus basso continuo. Many of the trio sonatas allow alternative instrumentation; thus, in the metaphorical debate depicted in the famous Program Trio, the two characters “Melancholicus” and “Sanguineus” can be represented either by two violins or by one violin and a keyboard player (who also plays the bass line).

Inevitably, C. P. E. Bach will receive the most extensive recognition this year in his native Germany. Notable events are scheduled to take place in Weimar and in the four cities where he spent his career. Here in Boston, the major performing institutions seem to have taken little notice of him (or of Gluck). Yet Boston, or more precisely Cambridge, is second only to Berlin as a center of research and study relating to the composer. Since 2005, the Packard Humanities Institute has been issuing a new edition of the composer’s collected works. With offices in Cambridge, the edition is affiliated with Harvard University, whose libraries contain a remarkable number of eighteenth-century books, images, and musical manuscripts relevant to Emanuel Bach (disclosure: I have contributed to three volumes published in the edition, and an article of mine on C. P. E. Bach is in the current issue of the Harvard Library Bulletin).

Those curious about Emanuel Bach will want to visit the Houghton Library and the Loeb Music Library at Harvard, both of which are currently displaying exhibitions of items relating to the composer. These will remain on view through April 5  [here]. Highlights of the Houghton exhibit include the widely reproduced engraved portrait of the composer by Johann Heinrich Lips, seen here in its original state as an illustration in a curious volume of Physiognomic Fragments by Johann Caspar Lavater. There is also a manuscript score of a cantata by W. F. Bach that Emanuel performed at Hamburg, as well as a recently re-discovered letter written by Emanuel to the artist Adam Friedrich Oeser, who taught Emanuel’s son before the latter’s early death (this letter, from Yale, is one of the few non-Harvard items in the show).

At the Music Library, one can see the first edition of Emanuel’s Heilig for double chorus and orchestra, a masterpiece of 18th-century music printing on huge sheets showing 28 staves per page, as well as original editions of the Essay and the accompanying keyboard pieces. Recorded music piped into the Houghton Library’s Edison and Newman Room did not seem to be identified anywhere, but while I was there it included works whose first editions were on display at the two locations, including the Heilig and the Sinfonia for strings in E minor that the composer Hasse declared the best he had ever heard.

Many of these items are available online, at and on the Music Library’s own website. But seeing them in sometimes blurry electronic scans provides little sense of the physical texture or many details of the actual objects. Anyone curious about how a reliable modern edition of music is created will, moreover, want to study the display in the Loeb Music Library. This details the production process for several different types of composition that have already appeared in the new edition.

A search for upcoming local performances of C. P. E. Bach’s music thus far reveals surprisingly little, but doubtless more will be announced. At least one has already taken place this year: last Thursday, as part of an opening reception for the exhibition at Harvard’s Houghton Library, soprano Amanda Forsythe and Harvard University organist Edward Jones gave a short recital of Emanuel’s songs (lieder). These were sung with exceptionally pure intonation and elegant phrasing. But what really impressed me was the strong characterization and drama that Forsythe infused into even a seemingly light song such as “Die Küsse” (The kisses). The miniature cantata “Selma” became a completely developed operatic scena; Emanuel also wrote an orchestral version, but Jones’s accompaniment (on harpsichord) was sufficiently colorful and impeccably played.

February 1 and 2 will see performances by A Far Cry of Emanuel’s Sinfonia in B-flat for strings, W. 182/2. (Emanuel’s works are most often identified by “W” numbers from the thematic catalog published in 1905 by Alfred Wotquenne; “H” numbers from a 1989 listing by E. Eugene Helm are usually reserved for works missed by Wotquenne.) This sinfonia is from a set of six such works composed in 1773; the one in B-flat is arguably the least unconventional of the bunch. It is therefore disappointing that this same work, and not, for example, the extraordinary B-Minor Sinfonia, will be repeated April 4 and 6 by the Handel and Haydn Society’s Period Instrument Orchestra.

Mezzo-soprano Pamela Dellal will sing a selection of Emanuel’s songs and cantatas on February 25 at Boston Conservatory. She will be joined on that occasion by Peter Sykes, playing Emanuel’s favorite keyboard instrument, the clavichord. Sykes just happens to be president of the Boston Clavichord Society, which will be sponsoring a number of C.P.E. Bach–related works this year, listed here (disclosure no. 2: I am the Society’s vice-president).

The last weekend in March will see several Emanuel Bach events in Cambridge. On March 28 the Harvard University Choir and Baroque Chamber Orchestra will present the composer’s oratorio The Israelites in the Desert, preceded that afternoon by a symposium featuring Christopher Hogwood and the work’s most recent editor, Reginald Sanders, among others (details here). The following evening, at the Friends Meeting House, Sykes will be joined by Dana Maiben in a concert featuring Emanuel’s remarkable B-Minor Violin Sonata (W. 76), among other works. The same program will continue with mezzo-soprano Julia Cavallaro performing songs of Emanuel Bach with fortepianist Sylvia Berry.

Emanuel’s music can be baffling when first heard, especially if one expects to hear anything like that of his father—or like that of his younger contemporaries Haydn and Mozart. His best known works, including some of those programmed on the above-mentioned concerts, are by turns witty and passionate, virtuosic and tender. But those who make an effort to get to know more of his music will find that, as his English contemporary Charles Burney wrote of his clavichord playing, “he possesses every style; though he chiefly confines himself to the expressive.”

David Schulenberg’s book The Music of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach will be published later this year by the University of Rochester Press. He has also written books on the music of W. F. Bach and the keyboard music of J. S. Bach, as well as the textbook Music of the Baroque. A performer on harpsichord, clavichord, and fortepiano, he teaches at Wagner College and at The Juilliard School, both in New York City; his website is here.

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  1. For those of us with long memories of Boston classical radio, WCRB used to sign off, back in the late ’60s, at about 1am every night with the opening movement of C.P.E. Bach’s Magnificat. Regular late-night listeners like me (a student at MIT at the time) had this piece imprinted in memory by constant repetition. It’s one of the most J.S. Bach–like works of C.P.E., and I’m sorry I’ve never (thus far) had an opportunity to sing it.

    Comment by Stephen H. Owades — January 20, 2014 at 1:52 am

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