Saturday, March 08, 2014

C.P.E. Bach - Ambassador of the Enlightenment and Sensitive Music

Centenary anniversaries invite not only celebrations of an artist’s work but also re-assessments of their creativity. There are few 18th century composers more in need of a radical re-assessment than Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714-1788). Although often defined as a transitional or bridge figure in classical music, CPE Bach was in fact a composer of unique talents, and an equal to two of the most famous composers of the 18th century, Haydn and Mozart, both of whom were in no small measure indebted to his ground-breaking achievements in music.

There are however several factors which have not helped CPE Bach’s cause, simply having a triple initial forename has not assisted first encounters, while a much-needed re-cataloguing of his works has in some ways added to the confusion when referencing his music. But above all else its the enormous shadow cast over him as the second eldest son of the much venerated, ‘father of western classical music’ J.S.Bach (1685-1750) which has hindered an objective appreciation of CPE Bach’s music in its own right.

The basic facts of CPE Bach’s biography consist of his graduating in Law from Leipzig University in 1731. He subsequently served as a musician at the Court of Frederick the Great of Prussia at Berlin. Following his godfather George Telemann’s death in 1767 he became Director of Music in Hamburg, a position he held for twenty years until his death in 1788.

CPE Bach’s life-time witnessed the dawn of the modern, secular age including the Independence of America in 1776. He himself was in the vanguard of the philosophical movement known as the Enlightenment, a cultural movement of intellectuals who emphasized reason, secularism and individualism rather than tradition. He engaged in correspondence with one one of the leading figures of the Enlightenment, the French encyclopedist Denis Diderot (1713–1784) who felt compelled to stop in Hamburg on his way back to France from St. Petersburg to visit the composer. CPE Bach's music with its aesthetic emphasis upon Empfindsamkeit or 'Sensitivity’, epitomizes the aspirations of the Enlightenment and he himself lived in an era of great social and political upheaval to eventually witness the goals of the Enlightenment realized in the French Revolution of 1788-89.

In 1753 CPE Bach placed himself centre-stage in European music with his treatise, Versuch über die wahre Art das Clavier zu spielen (An Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments) which was swiftly recognised as a definitive work on keyboard technique. In this treatise he declares - ‘’A musician cannot move others if he himself is not moved,'’ and “let the fingers speak from the soul or sentience to transfer that passion onto the audience that the composer intended to stir.” In his advocacy of Empfindsamkeit or 'Sensitive style’ as expressed in his treatise and in his music, CPE Bach represents a fundamental shift in musical consciousness - departing from polite, background social music composed in service of the aristocrat and his Court or sacred music for the church, music which occasionally expresses a ‘cosmic awe’ at the Creation, as in the baroque polyphony of his father J.S.Bach’s music - in favour of the secular, reflecting the artist’s own subjective, inner world involving feeling and emotion.

C.P.E. Bach's music was first catalogued by Alfred Wotquenne in 1906 using "WQ" numbers, however in recent times his music has also been referenced by "H" numbers from a catalogue compiled by Eugene Helm (1989) which arranges the composer’s music not in chronological order, but according to genre. The advantage of the new catalogue is that immediately one gains an idea of the sheer volume of music  CPE Bach composed, and also how much in each specific genre. Helm’s catalogue which is numbered from H1-H845 reveals that compositions for solo keyboard comprise almost half of CPE Bach's entire oeuvre, works for either harpsichord or fortepiano are listed from H1 -H420. The "H" catalogue also lists over 50 concertos composed for various instruments and 19 symphonies. It is in his works for solo keyboard, symphonies, concertos for various instruments that CPE Bach’s greatest legacy survives.

Dating from the year of Mozart's birth 1756, CPE Bach’s E minor symphony (Wq. 178 or H. 653) ) is in all probability, the first ever Sturm und Drang (storm and stress) symphony composed. Perhaps inspired from frustration serving in the music-loving, but conservative-minded Court of Frederick the Great, the E minor symphony is wild and unpredictable,  its whole intent seems to be to disorientate and surprise the listener. It as suddenly turns calm in its middle movement before concluding in a lopsided and asymmetrical melody.

Joseph Haydn studied in depth the work of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach and he later acknowledged him as an important influence upon his own music. It’s extremely interesting to compare this CPE Bach E minor symphony with Haydn’s own E minor Trauermusicke symphony (No. 44) dating from 1768. If Haydn can be said to be 'the father of the symphony’, then C.P.E.Bach is surely the grandfather of the symphony. Although only nineteen in number, each of CPE Bach’s symphonies holds a special place in musical history, in particular the set of six for string orchestra, which includes no. 5 in B minor (H 661) with characteristic abruptness and complex emotions, and the set of four symphonies scored for full orchestra (WQ 183) written during CPE Bach’s Hamburg years, of which the musicologist Adelaide de Place writes-

’The continuous flow of striking ideas, harmonic coups, wide dynamic range and sudden pauses to engineer distant key changes, create the impression of orchestral fantasias, yet there is an underlying unity within these symphonies that make them both challenging and satisfying.

The development of the symphony was considerably advanced in 1788, the year of CPE Bach's death with Mozart's highly-original triptych of symphonies  in E flat major, g minor and C major (nos. 39-41) but its debatable whether these symphonies were ever performed, even less likely, known of  by CPE Bach.  A closer affinity can be discerned between CPE Bach’s Fantasia in C major (Wq 61.6 or H. 291) for fortepiano dating from 1786 to that of Mozart’s own fantasias for piano ( K. 396 in c minor, K. 397 in d minor and K. 475 in c minor).  A casual hearing and juxtaposition between CPE Bach's fantasias and those of Mozart's swiftly reveals that there's little difference in either sophistication or improvisation skills between the two composers. Mozart’s high opinion of CPE Bach is reflected in his declaration, ‘He’s the father, we’re the boys. Everybody who has accomplished something has learned from him.’.

CPE Bach’s influence upon Mozart can most clearly be discerned in his concertos. In the set of six Hamburg concerto’s (WQ 43 ) for harpsichord there’s one which has been favoured in performance upon the piano. The pianist Helen Schnabel first recorded the D major (H. 472) concerto as early as 1952.  In its fluid lyricism and dynamic interplay between soloist and orchestral forces, a clear anticipation of the full range of emotional expression as achieved by Mozart in his piano concertos can clearly be heard. More recently this Concerto has also been recorded by Anastasia Injushina and the Hamburger Camerata (2013) to great effect.

In 1772 the English music historian Charles Burney (1726 –1814) visited C.P.E. Bach in Hamburg, publishing his The Present State of Music in Germany, the Netherlands, and United Provinces in the following year. Burney observed, "Hamburg is not, at present, possessed of any musical professor of great eminence, except M. Carl Philip Emanuel Bach; but he is a legion!" Charles Burney cautioned that the works of CPE Bach were ‘so uncommon, that a little habit is necessary for the enjoyment of [them]’. Burney also noted that many critics faulted CPE Bach for writing works that were ‘fantastical’ and ‘far-fetched’.

CPE Bach's genius was for Burney most evident in - "his productions for his own instruments, the clavichord, and piano forte, in which he stands unrivalled". Visiting Bach at his home, Burney noted,

 “The instant I entered [his house], M. Bach conducted me up stairs, into a large and elegant music room, furnished with pictures, drawings, and prints of more than a hundred and fifty eminent musicians: among whom, there are many Englishmen, and original portraits, in oil, of his father and grandfather".

C.P.E. Bach's collection was the first of its kind in Germany and included almost 400 portraits.  It included images of the Bach family and contemporary composers and singers, as well as scientists, poets, historical musicians, mythological figures and philosophers, including a portrait of Sir Thomas Browne.

Burney continues - “After I had looked at these, M. Bach was so obliging as to sit down to his Silbermann clavichord, and favourite instrument, upon which he played three or four of his choicest and most difficult compositions, with the delicacy, precision, and spirit, for which he is so justly celebrated among his countrymen.......Bach played, with little intermission, till near eleven o'clock at night. During this time, he grew so animated and possessed, that he not only played, but looked like one inspired, His eyes were fixed, his under lip fell, and drops of effervescence distilled from his countenance. He said, if he were to be set to work frequently, in this manner, he should grow young again."

"In the pathetic and slow movements, whenever he had a long note to express, he absolutely contrived to produce, from his instrument, a cry of sorrow and complaint, such as can only be effected upon the clavichord, and perhaps by himself". The experience for Burney - confirmed that Bach was, "one of the greatest composers that ever existed, for keyed instruments".

Today it is repeatedly asked - How did we, in the 20th century, lose CPE Bach as the link between the Baroque and the Romantic musical mind ?  Charles Burney was among the earliest music critics to recognise CPE Bach's genius declaring-

‘His flights are not the wild ravings of ignorance or madness, but the effusions of cultivated genius. His pieces … will be found, upon a close examination, to be so rich in invention, taste, and learning, that … each line of them, if wire-drawn, would furnish more new ideas than can be discovered in a whole page of many other compositions.

It was not however until the 1980's that serious attention, performance and recording of CPE Bach's music occurred. With a revival of interest in authentic music-making on instruments of the period, CPE Bach's music has gathered a growing interest and in the best of his music, often in a minor key, there is a turbulence and joy, a veritas true to life itself with its fusion of some uncertainty but also with some structure. According to the musicologist Leta Miler writing in 2010-

‘CPE Bach’s approach to musical expressiveness found voice in frequent mood changes, wide melodic leaps, abundant rests and ‘sighing’ motifs, irregular phrase structures, the juxtaposition of contrasting rhythmic figures, deceptive cadences, and dramatic, rhetorical harmonic interjections. Bach became particularly renowned for his ability to improvise fantasias—seemingly free-form, stream-of-consciousness flights of fancy characterized by unmeasured rhythm and distant harmonic excursions.... His compositions mark one of the first—and among the most inspired—repudiations of the Baroque aesthetic, in which a single unified mood dominates each movement’.

Far more than a mere transitional of bridge figure in the history of music, CPE Bach was a gifted and highly original composer in his own right. Without his pioneering aesthetic, in particular in the genres of the symphony and the concerto, neither Haydn’s development of the symphony, nor the fluid lyricism and passion of Mozart’s piano concertos would have been achievable. Hopefully in 2014, the tercentenary of CPE Bach’s birth, a greater awareness and appreciation of this much neglected composer's music will grow and blossom.


* C.P.E. Bach Edition - Deutsche Harmonia Mundi (10 Disc Box-set) (Jan 27 2014)
* C.P.E. Bach - String Symphonies Wq.182 - English Consort/Pinnock -Archive 1980
* 4 Symphonies Wq.183 + 3 Cello concertos (2 Discs)  Age of Enlightenment/Leonhardt-Virgin 1990
* Symphonies & Concertos -Akademie for Alte Musik Berlin -Deutsche Harmonia Mundi 2001
* Bach family Piano concertos Anastasia Injushina/ Hamburger Camerata - Virgin 2013
* Piano concerto D minor Wq.22  Michael Rische Rainer Maria Klass  Leipzig Chamber Orchestra 2011
* C. P. E. Bach: The Keyboard Concertos (2 discs) Andreas Staier, Freiburger Barockorchester / Müllejans  Deutsche Harmonia Mundi 2011
* C.P.E. Bach - Harpsichord Concertos  (2 Discs)  Asperen/Melante Amsterdam - EMI 1983
* C.P.E. Bach -Keyboard sonatas Francois Chaplin Pf. Naxos 1996
* C.P.E.Bach - Orgel Konzert - Kammerorchester CPE Bach Roland Munch -Capriccio 1987
* C.P.E.Bach - Die Orgel Sonaten -Roland Munch - Christophorus 1983
* C.P.E. Bach Cantatas -Rheinische Kantorei/Max   Brilliant (Jan 27 2014)

Saturday, March 01, 2014

Merivel: A Man of his Time

Returning some twenty plus years from  Restoration (1989) novelist Rose Tremain continues her tale of Sir Robert Merivel's life with an equally spellbinding sequel,  Merivel: A Man of his Time (2013).

Set primarily in 17th century Norfolk, with excursions to the glamour of the Court of Versailles and the French Alps,  the cares of the world now crowd around both King Charles II and his friend, the courtier and reluctant physician, Sir Robert Merivel, who is once more resident at the Norfolk manor of Bidnold.  Merivel's daughter Margaret, is now a young woman and securing her future is a primary concern of her at turns, frivolous and pleasure-seeking, self-analytical and serious-minded father. When King Charles leaves London and unexpectedly visits the Norfolk manor of Bidnold, consequences develop for both Sir Robert and his daughter Margaret.

Robert Merivel is at times a kind of 17th century Bertie Wooster figure whose primary preoccupations are fine food and wine and pleasure in general. Through the discovery under his mattress of  'the wedge' a long forgotten and crumbling autobiography, Merivel recounts past events in which he lived a life of pleasure before falling from grace with King Charles II. Eventually Merivel restores himself in the eyes of his royal friend through application of his medical skills in service to humanity in the crucible of horrors, the Plague and Great Fire of London.

There's almost an element of Fawlty Towers farce in some of the antics engaged upon by the two longest serving servants of Sir Robert's Bignold Manor, the temperamental and wall-eyed cook, Cattlebury and the doddery but loyal and devoted butler Will Gates, However, the dominant tone throughout Merivel is one of a muted valedictory farewell to life and its pleasures. Prone to melancholy and inexplicable weeping at the beauty of life, Sir Robert now in his maturity, muses upon life’s sadness, not only discovering he enjoys pleasures such as wine, food and sex less, but also reconciling himself to life’s inevitabilities, growing older, illness, and reconciling oneself to seeing those one loves departing from life. Loving life, often directionless, and paying heavily for the consequences of his follies, Robert Merivel is not without a serious and self-analytical side to his complex nature.

'And then I thought how Life itself is the greatest Theft of Time, and how all we can do is to watch as the days and months and years slip away from us and make off into the Darkness'.

Not wanting to post spoilers, suffice to say events in Merivel include Sir Robert's acquiring of a bear named Clarendon who has an influence upon him when later writing a philosophical treatise on whether or not animals possess souls, and Merivel's finding true love for the first time in the unhappily married Frenchwoman Louise, a serious student of the new science of chemistry.

With its medical theme (Merivel possesses a set of surgical instruments, a gift from King Charles II with the words, Merivel, Do not Sleep inscribed upon them) its location of Norfolk, and seventeenth century setting, Rose Tremain, in my humble view, may have let slip an opportunity to join literary figures such as Virginia Woolf, E.M.Forster, Jorge Luis Borges and W.G. Sebald, to express admiration, albeit through a casual nod, to one of the foremost literary figures of seventeenth century England, the Norwich-based physician Sir Thomas Browne (1605-82).

Several other leading figures of seventeenth century intellectual history are however alluded to in Merivel. Sir Robert fondly recalls his attending lectures by the famous anatomist Fabrius with rowdy German students and his close friend, the austere Quaker John Pearce cherishs a book by William Harvey. Self-analysis, not unlike that of the popular essayist Montaigne runs through Merivel's narrative. Although its regrettable that Sir Robert doesn't allude to either Browne's best-selling Religio Medici or his vanguard promotion of the English scientific revolution, Pseudodoxia Epidemica one likes to imagine these titles were once in the library of Merivel's Norfolk manor.

It has been said that "the single best adjective to describe Western Civilization at the opening of the seventeenth century was the word “Christian.” By the century’s end the single word that rightly characterized the West was “scientific.” Merivel attributes his own loss of religious Faith from the death of his parents through house-fire. Increasingly, as his life progresses, he places greater faith in his surgical instruments than in prayer when facing matters of life and death. The one and only time Merivel does speak with any semblance of religious conviction occurs in Restoration when addressing his Quaker fellow-workers at an asylum for the insane, when he advocates on the healing properties of music upon the minds of its inmates.

Digressing slightly, no small mention of Opium occurs in Merivel. First introduced into western medicine by Paracelsus as a pain-killer and anaesthetic, by the seventeenth century Thomas Sydenham (1624-89) the ‘father of English medicine' declared, "Among the remedies which it has pleased Almighty God to give to man to relieve his sufferings, none is so universal and so efficacious as opium". Throughout the seventeenth century opium became increasingly used in medicine. Sir Robert when performing a surgical operation on a cancer patient resorts to using the drug. In despondent mood, he also attempts to escape his miseries by repeatedly sending his servant to a Norwich apothecary for its purchase.

Opium is invariably associated with Oblivion in the densely-packed symbolism of Browne's Urn-Burial. A succinct and perceptive observation of its psychological effects in a typical fusion of philosophical stoicism, medical imagery and empirical observation can be found in the Discourse -

'There is no antidote against the Opium of Time, which temporally considereth all things'.

Browne’s commonplace notebooks includes observations upon dosage and effects of opium, while a fuller knowledge of the drug and even its recreational usage with sex can be found in Pseudodoxia Epidemica -

 '.....since Poppy hath obtained the Epithet of fruitful, and that fertility was Hieroglyphically described by Venus with an head of Poppy in her hand; the reason hereof was the multitude of seed within it self, and no such multiplying in human generation. And lastly, whereas they may seem to have this quality, since Opium it self is conceived to extimulate unto venery, and for that intent is sometimes used by Turks, Persians, and most oriental Nations; although Winclerus doth seem to favour the conceit, yet Amatus Lustanus, and Rodericus a Castro are against it; Garcias ab Horto refutes it from experiment; and they speak probably who affirm the intent and effect of eating Opium, is not so much to invigorate themselves in coition, as to prolong the Act, and spin out the motions of carnality'.

Its even been proposed that one reason why Browne’s prose reads unlike any other may have been due to an empirical familiarity with opium. During the decade of the Protectorate of Cromwell and the highly uncertain days which engendered an Endzeit Psychosis upon much of English society, it may have been tempting for Royalist supporters such as Browne to reach into the medicine cabinet.  Its also a curious coincidence that two of the leading figures of English Romanticism, the essayist De Quincey and the poet Coleridge, both of whom were great admirers of Browne’s baroque and labyrinthine literary style were also notorious for their recreational usage of opium.

Sir Thomas Browne’s literary diptych Urn-Burial and The Garden of Cyrus - each of which consists of five chapters, are respectively- a philosophical meditation upon a descending into darkness and death and a coming into light and life. They are intriguingly echoed in theme to the opening chapter of Restoration in which Merivel considers five differing ways his story can be said to begin, while the opening of Merivel-A Man of his Time has Sir Robert meditating upon five differing possibilities of how his life may leave the world.

Like Restoration, the first-person narrative throughout Merivel is fluid and utterly engaging. Rose Tremain has created a character who will be well-loved with a familiarity of his life and times. I won't be alone in discovering myself to identify with Sir Robert's all-too-human faults or having an empathy with him, reinforced in my case by Merivel's birthday falling on the 27th of January, mine also. Merivel muses upon the Zodiac sign of Aquarius thus -

'I was born under the constellation of Aquarius, the eleventh sign of the Zodiac, the sign of the water-butler, that humble but indispensable slave who fetches from wells and rivers the elements so vital to the human tissue. I imagine this Aquarius as an old, stooped man, his spine warped by the weight of a wooden yoke from which hang a pair of briming pails. On he staggers, day after day, year after year, with his precious burden, but as his strength is waning, he totters and stumbles and, as he moves through time, more and more water is spilled, thereby engendering in the bellies of the ancient gods an irritation stronger than thirst'.

I cannot recommend this novel enough, but to get the most out of Merivel its best to read the early life of Sir Robert Merivel in Rose Tremain’s Restoration first.

The novel Restoration was made into a film in 1995 with the one-time Hollywood bad-boy Robert Downey Jr. acting to the Manor born the role of Sir Robert Merivel (top and bottom photo). Rose Tremain however said of the film that while it had a beautiful texture to it she was disappointed with the film's storytelling. She also said that the film had no logic and so fails to move the audience. Her disappointment led her to take up scriptwriting. One can’t help thinking a more sensitive filming of the novel could have been made by a British direction and production, perhaps of the calibre of Merchant and Ivory. Rose Tremain herself has recently been appointed Chancellor of the University of East Anglia. She was among the University's earliest students in the 60's, reading English literature.

Finally, and I may be among the first to notice this - Sir Robert Merivel resides at the fictitiously named Bidnold Manor, he occasionally romps in the bed of a Lady Bathurst and has a bear named Clarendon. Those familiar with the geography of the so-called ‘golden Triangle' area of Norwich will know that near to Bignold school and adjacent to each other there is a Clarendon and a Bathurst road.

See Also

Rose Tremain

Restoration (novel)

Restoration (1995 film)