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Learn about the composer Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach: Overview

  • Born: 1714 - Köthen, Germany
  • Died: 1788 - HamburgGermany
  • Historical Period: Late baroque - Early classical 
  • Musical Media: orchestra, chamber music, keyboards, songs, choral 

CPE Bach, German composer

C. P. E. Bach: The Legacy of an Underrated and Unorthodox composer

A truly proficient German composer who epitomized the magnificence of the baroque - classical style, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach offered a delightful passage into the musical transitions of two celebrated eras in the history of music. However, Junior Bach has sometimes been overlooked, overshadowed by his famous father, Johann Sebastian Bach, despite crafting some ground-breaking sonatas on the keyboard. Due to this fact, his contributions towards Protestant Church music in the later stages of the 18th century are often ignored.     

Early life

C. P. E. Bach was born on March 8, 1714, to Johann Sebastian Bach and Maria Barbara and was subsequently baptized on March 10, 1714. He went on to follow the footsteps of one of his godfathers Georg Philipp Telemann – who also became a qualified lawyer before embarking on a musical career. The Bach family moved to Köthen in 1717, where Johann Sebastian was appointed as Kapellmeister. In 1720, his mother passed away and the Bach’s subsequently settled in Leipzig in 1723. Emmanuel began attending “Thomasschule” where his father was appointed as a Kantor. Johann Sebastian later remarked that his son’s intellectual development was hugely benefited from a university education.

Music

In 1740, C. P. E. Bach moved to Berlin and started performing as a harpsichordist in the royal court of “Frederick the Great.” He was subsequently chosen to perform his very 1st solo flute concert, accompanied by the new monarch. However, he was never offered the role of an official composer. Even Johann Sebastian’s visit to the court in 1747, that resulted in the legendary composition “Musical Offering,” failed to influence his career. He was bogged down by quarrels and constant criticism of his unorthodox playing style.   

Surprisingly, C. P. E. Bach’s best achievement was composing prose, not music. His Essay on the “True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments” is considered the most famous of treatise until today. The book offers a concoction of technical advice regarding importance, improvisation, and ornamentation of “correct fingering.” The present standard practice of utilizing thumbs while playing keyboard can be credited to his work. The text also offers its own philosophy of performance, providing an equal level of importance on emotional expression along with technical proficiency. The essay argues how a musician cannot freely move unless they themselves feel “moved.” A musician must experience all the effects of the emotions they are trying to channelize into the audience.

In 1753, C. P. E. Bach wrote the Fantasia in C Minor, which went on to become one of his most celebrated works. It bears almost no resemblance to either Johann Sebastian’s work or to the “gallant” style prevalent throughout Europe. The amazing fact is, his own half-brother J.C. Bach, was one of the chief protagonists of that style. CPE’s fantasy is full of its own palpitating rhythm and most intriguing harmonic movements and is fully intended to offer successive contrasting emotions oscillating towards the extreme. The Fantasia is the torchbearer of the sentimental style (Empfindsamer). He gave importance to intimacy rather than elegance and chose passion over poise and balance. It oozed of literary aesthetics, forging a direct emotional connection between the composer and listener.

C. P. E. Bach composed the “Magnificat” while residing in Berlin. In this piece, he displayed elevated traces of his father’s influence with – few secular cantatas, 3 volumes of songs, multiple concerted works and symphonies, and an Easter Cantata. However, his main concentration was fixed on the clavier. He composed almost 200 sonatas and solos for the clavier, including “für Kenner und Liebhaber” and “Mit veränderten Reprisen” between the period 1760 to 1768. He further enhanced his reputation through the “Versuch über die wahre Art das Clavier zu spielen,” a systematic treatise which had reached its 3rd edition by 1780.

In 1768, he became Kapellmeister at Hamburg, succeeding Georg Philipp Telemann and slowly turning his attention towards crafting church music. In 1769, he crafted “Die Israeliten in der Wüste,” his remarkable oratorio. The period between 1769-1788 was one his most productive, as he composed over 70 liturgical pieces, motets, litanies, and cantatas. He also crafted more than 20 settings of the passion.       

He remained quite productive when approaching the last years of his life. He continued crafting new compositions even after his health started deteriorating post-1788. In 1789, he produced a collection of songs (H.700–760) and 3 quartets for viola, flute, cello and harp (H.537–539). He finally passed away on the 14th of December 1788 after suffering from a “chest ailment”. 

His Best Works

Heilig

This wonderful composition was one of C. P. E. Bach’s most celebrated works. It consisted of an orchestra and double chorus, praising God’s majesty. At its premiere in 1776, JH Voss famously declared it to be one of the most overpowering, noble and daring works by Bach. He specifically praised Angels and the People, where two contrasting choruses answer one another continuously via remote keys. 

Cello Concerto in A minor

C. P. E. Bach offers his aggressive side in this piece. The palpable energy exuded at the opening of the swinging sequences is almost unstoppable. However, at “00.50”, the music comes to an abrupt halt, albeit temporarily. At “1:08”, the cello comes into play, with a rather ingenious lyrical melody.

Morgengesang am Schöpfungsfeste

This cantata is adapted from a text by German poet Klopstock, glorifying the sunrise as an emblem of resurrection. It’s a sublime mixture of music and poetry. The majestic opening sunrise anticipates the dawn in Haydn’s “Creation” by fifteen years.

Württemburg Sonata in A flat

This piece is a perfect example of how C. P. E. Bach’s creations often begin with an innocent movement before taking an odd turn. The slow movement of this A flat “piano sonata” is full of oddities which offer an unusual color to Rococo’s charming tune, without causing any serious distractions.    

Magnificat

This is one of his early works. Crafted in 1747, C. P. E. Bach used it as his calling card when performing as a church musician. It was performed in Leipzig, where Johann Sebastian Bach worked at the St. Thomas Church. The music follows a conservative style without affecting its quality. 

Solfeggietto in C Minor

C. P. E. Bach composed “Solfeggietto” in 1766, which is often recognized as his best work. This short piece is unusual in its own way, and being a solo segment, it is prevalently used for reoccurring practice by piano students. The most efficient pianists can play this piece by only utilizing their left hand. 

Forward Thinker

C. P. E. Bach’s widespread cultural influence is key to apprehend his music. He isn’t strictly theological, unlike his father. His music is more aligned with philosophers, painters, and poets, reflecting the burgeoning secular debate of that time. His music is very different from the balance and elegance usually associated with his era. His timelines are jumbled up, starting and stopping, making his listener’s guess. It is, very much postmodern.   

His paramount concern regarding the future generations and his place within the history of music is another important aspect that aligns him with the more modern figures. He frequently mentioned in his letters how he will be remembered. In 1773, he created a distinct division between the music he created for himself and the ones crafted for commercial purpose in his autobiography. He had collected over four hundred portraits of musicians, thinkers, and artists he admired. To put it simply, he never hesitated to recognize himself as a prominent personality. 

“Bach is the father. We are the children!”

This famous remark was made by none other than Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, directed towards the influential Vietnamese patron and aristocrat Gottfried van Swieten. Mozart’s adoration of Bach is well known, but the most amazing fact is the Bach Wolfgang idolized was “C. P. E.,” the second son of the legendary Johann Sebastian. 

With time, C. P. E Bach’s reputation has diminished, overshadowed by his father. However, there remains ample proof that his influence on contemporary and subsequent musicians like Mozart, Beethoven and Haydn was much more prominent than Johann Sebastian’s. A tireless promoter of aesthetics, he constantly aimed to liberate instrumental music. He is, and remains, the most significant originator of “absolute music,” which dominated art throughout the 19th century, and remains predominant over our concert halls.     

 

 

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