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)