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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

The Intimate World of CPE Bach

This music was composed by a young man and copied by his stepmother into a musical scrapbook prepared for her by her husband.

The proud stepmother who copied this work into her musical album was Anna Magdalena Bach (née Wilcke), second wife of Johann Sebastian Bach. This "solo for keyboard", as it's titled, was composed by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, possibly when he was in his late teens. Emanuel Bach was the second surviving son from Bach's first marriage to Maria Barbara Bach (née Bach). Anna Magdalena, a skilled singer and musician in her own right, was intimately involved with the musical development of her children and stepchildren, and the so-called notebooks which JS Bach prepared for his wife's own musical development soon expanded to include the earliest-surviving examples of the Bach children's compositions.

A number of the young Emanuel Bach's pieces are preserved in his stepmother's book, and some of them have been used over the decades as teaching pieces in various collections for young pianists. If you learned piano as a child it's possible that this March by the 16 year old CPE Bach - also preserved by Anna Magdalena - was one of the earliest pieces you played. [listen]

To us, musical performance has, perhaps understandably, an air of public grandeur about it. When we think of "performance" we think of concert halls or opera theatres, audiences, applause, the whole package of public exposure. But there is a whole other side of performance and that's the world of domestic music making. The Bach family may have been extraordinary in one respect - JS Bach was head of the household, for example! - but in many ways they were typical of their time and of many other times. In the years before mass media and recording, music making in the home or among friends at social gatherings was vital to the European social fabric. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, with the expansion of music publishing, large-scale works like symphonies were usually heard in four-hand piano arrangements played at home; actual orchestral performances were rare and even composers like Beethoven or Brahms only heard their symphonies played by an orchestra a handful of times in their whole lives.

As well as music being arranged for domestic performance, works were composed especially for this market. We tend to forget, for example, that Mozart's two piano quartets were expressly commissioned by a publisher for the domestic market, and that the original commission for three such works was curtailed when the two works Mozart presented to the publisher were deemed too difficult for domestic use.

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, who lived from 1714 to 1788, is a vital figure in the history of European music. He is the major link between what we now think of as the Baroque and Classical periods. In this post I want to look at the way in which he understood and capitalised on the domestic market. This is not a discussion of Emanuel Bach's life and work, but rather an examination of some of the ways this very famous and public figure wrote for and worked in rather intimate contexts of music making.

Löhr: Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach

Emanuel Bach was born in Weimar; his godfather was a friend and colleague of Johann Sebastian Bach, the famous composer Georg Philipp Telemann. (It's from Telemann that the "Philipp" in CPE Bach's name derives.) One of the reasons JS Bach wanted the post of Thomaskantor in Leipzig was to make the most of the educational opportunities available there for his sons. Emanuel was nine when his family moved to Leipzig and his early compositions in the family scrapbook were written there.

Emanuel, like his brothers, undertook University studies in Leipzig. Advanced studies there in Jurisprudence were followed by studies in Law in Frankfurt. He graduated with a Law degree in 1738 when he was 24 but these legal studies were never intended to replace his musical ambitions. Sebastian Bach personally trained all his sons in music; they already had the best musical training available. He also knew that in order to have a higher standing in the world, a University education would put them at an advantage. So when Emanuel immediately turned his attention to Music after graduating in law, this was what everybody, his father included, expected him to do.

During his legal studies in Leipzig and Frankfurt, Emanuel Bach developed his skills as a composer and the works he written at this time were nearly all intended for domestic or social contexts. Even concertos, such as this one dating from 1733 (shortly before he started his studies in Frankfurt), would have been intended for small gatherings in homes and salons, and not public concerts. [listen]

Once he completed his legal studies in 1738, Emanuel Bach set about finding himself a musician's post. The remaining 40 years of his life divide evenly into two positions which each lasted 20 years. The first was quite a coup, landing a post in Berlin in the personal employ of Crown Prince Frederick of Prussia, although exactly how Bach got the post isn't clear. What is clear is that the Prince acceded to the throne of Prussia as Frederick II in 1740. History remembers him as Frederick the Great.

Frederick was one of the most admired military strategists of his age, but he is also remembered as a ruler who placed great emphasis on the arts, and especially music. His court employed some of the finest singers, instrumentalists and composers of the day and the King himself was a fine flute player. He employed one of the largest orchestras in Europe, which numbered about 40 players, and had his own private opera house. Emanuel Bach was not employed as a composer to the court but as a harpsichordist, and one of his responsibilities was to accompany the King's flute solos in the regular musical evenings held in the palace.

Ziesenis: Frederick the Great (1763)

Still, even though his duties did not officially involve composition, Bach did compose in Berlin and he did compose for the King. It is possible that his famous sonata for unaccompanied flute, dating from 1747, was written for Frederick the Great. It is equally possible that it was written for JJ Quantz, the most famous flute player of the period, who was also employed at Frederick's court, and who was the King's personal flute teacher. [listen]

Emanuel Bach lived at a time when the term "keyboard" could equally have meant harpsichord, the clavichord, or the newly-developing piano. The modern concert grand was still a century or so off, but the earlier forms of the piano - lighter, more delicate and more like the harpsichord in appearance - would have been regarded as highly fashionable and increasingly used. Nowadays we use the word "fortepiano" (one of the terms used to describe the new instrument in the 18th century) to describe the early forms of the piano which preceded the modern piano, and such instruments were available at Frederick's court. A piece Bach wrote in Berlin was very likely intended for the King to play the solo part while the composer played the keyboard. This sonata for flute and continuo was written in 1740 and revised in 1747 and in this recording the keyboard part is played on fortepiano. [listen]

Fortepiano attributed to Johann Andreas Stein (1775)

Frederick's musical performances were of course private affairs. It would have been regarded as unseemly for a member of the nobility to perform publicly, and Frederick's playing was mostly heard by his staff, family members and maybe honoured guests.

But Bach was not highly regarded by the King. Reading the composer's own recollections in his autobiography, it seems clear that he was not happy in Berlin. He felt under-utilised, he felt Frederick didn't appreciate him, and there were tensions between Bach and other musicians on the staff. Bach's first-published music was a set of six keyboard sonatas dedicated to the King. Now known as the "Prussian" sonatas, the King seems not to have even noticed them when they appeared in print in 1742. They certainly made no apparent impression on the monarch, despite their quality. These are "serious" works intended for connoisseurs. [listen]

Over the his two decades in Berlin, Emanuel Bach maintained as much distance as he could from the intrigues of the court. Early in his time there - in 1744 - he married Johanna Maria Dannemann and three of their children survived to adulthood. Professionally, though, his activities extended far beyond the court by virtue of his keyboard compositions and his increasing reputation as a virtuoso and pedagogue.

Bach was clearly a shrewd businessman. He had an eye to the market and produced a huge amount of music expressly designed for publication and dissemination across Europe. The intended market for such works largely consisted of domestic performers; in other words, he wrote music intended for private performance in the home.

This amounted to a substantial amount of music of very high quality; there is never any sense of Bach writing "down" to his intended buyers in the music intended for domestic use, but in some cases there are fascinating examples of him being unable to give up the role of teacher.

A set of six sonatas written in the late 1750s and published in 1760 is among the music Bach issued in which the repeats are written out with ornamentation. In sonata movements with repeats, it was expected in the 18th century that the music would be embellished to some extent when it was played the second time. All good performers (both singers and instrumentalists) had training in harmony and counterpoint - not to mention plain good taste - which enabled them to do this. But for the domestic market Bach clearly thought some people might appreciate a helping hand.

Menzel: Frederick the Great's Flute Concert at Sanssouci (1852). This posthumous and imagined scene portrays Frederick playing the flute and CPE Bach at the keyboard.

The 1760 publication is specifically titled Sechs Sonaten für Clavier mit veränderten Reprisen - Six Keyboard Sonatas with Altered Repeats - and as you can imagine, they provide a rare insight into the ways in which was actually ornamented at the time. In the preface to the collection Bach explained that he "had in mind beginners or those amateurs who, because of their age or other circumstances, no longer have time or patience for diligent practice". [listen]

One of the collections Bach published during his years in Berlin was also designed for a specific market of domestic music-makers: women. In the mid 1760s he wrote six sonatas later published with the French title Six Sonates pour le Clavecin à L'usage des Dames (Six Keyboard Sonatas for the Use of Ladies). This reminds us vividly of the fact that sound musical training was regarded as an essential part of a young woman's upbringing. Jane Austen's novels - written half a century later - make it very clear that even then young women from good families had a better prospect of marriage if they could play or sing passably, preferably both. Here again, Emanuel Bach was eyeing out a distinct niche market and targeting his music in that direction. There is nothing essentially "feminine" about this music; he was just supplying good music of only moderate difficulty for an existing market that he knew would appreciate it. [listen]

CPE Bach's sale of keyboard sonatas in these and other publications went in tandem with the publication in 1753 of what would eventually become the first part of his great teaching work on keyboard playing, known in English as the Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments. This publication is one of the great teaching works of the time, and forms part of an auspicious quartet of theoretical works which appeared in German in the mid-18th century. The other three were Leopold Mozart's violin tutor (dating from 1756, the year Wolfgang Mozart was born), JJ Quantz's flute tutor of 1752 and JF Agricola's singing manual of 1757. Quantz and Argicola were, like Bach, both employed in Frederick the Great's court. Agricola, who had been a student of JS Bach, based his book on an earlier Italian singing manual by Pier Francesco Tosi, but Agricola's extensive comments amount to an original work in their own right.

Emanuel Bach's treatise of 1753 covers keyboard fingering, ornamentation, and performance practice, all based on a sound understanding of harmony. In 1762 he published a second volume for the Essay, which covers continuo playing and accompaniment. These treatises - and especially Bach's - give us the best insight we have into mid-18th century performance practice in German-speaking countries, and Bach's thoroughness and methodical approach is eloquent testimony not only to his own gifts as a teacher but also to the excellent training he must have received from his father.

Title page of Part Two of CPE Bach's Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments. (1762)

Bach's published domestic music went far beyond solo keyboard sonatas. During his Berlin years he published a number of sonatas for keyboard and violin, and in these the keyboard part of not a continuo part (in which the player improvised on a figured bass line) but an obbligato part, fully written out in the modern manner. A set of four sonatas along these lines was composed in 1763. [listen]

One of the new developments in music-making in Berlin during Bach's time at the court of Frederick the Great was the development of song writing. Bach was a member of the first Berlin “Lied School”, although he didn't play a major role in the many controversies which arose in these ranks. Disputes over the merits of French music, Italian music and German music didn't seem to interest him and his songs tend to be lighter works, often setting humorous texts. These too would have been designed for private performance, in exactly the same way we view Schubert's songs of a few decades later, and they are a little-known but delightful part of Emanuel Bach's output.

This song, The Morning, was published in Berlin in 1762. [listen]

I've spent most of this article on the "intimate" music of CPE Bach focusing on the 20 years he spent at the court of Frederick the Great. This is because his next 20 years were spent doing very different work which didn't involve him in the creation of so much music for domestic performance. In 1768 he was finally able to leave the Berlin court. He moved to Hamburg to take a position recently made available by the death of his famous godfather, Telemann. This was as music director to the five major churches of Hamburg, a position not unlike that held by his father, JS Bach, in Leipzig from 1723 to 1750. In Hamburg, Emanuel Bach had to be more of a public figure, writing and arranging sacred music, and he had to mount some 200 performances of sacred music a year.

Preisler: Georg Philipp Telemann (1750). Telemann was CPE Bach's godfather and predecessor as Director of Music in Hamburg.

But he did still manage to produce some music for domestic and private music-making. The most famous were six sets of sonatas titled Sonaten für Kenner und Liebhaber (Sonatas for Connoisseurs and Amateurs). Published between 1779 and 1787, these sonatas, fantasias and rondos cross the boundaries Bach had hitherto kept separate. They appeal to amateurs making music at home while simultaneously appealing to connoisseurs who wanted something interesting, new and challenging. In this way they parallel the achievement of Joseph Haydn's "Paris" symphonies, which were written at exactly the same time: they’re tuneful and appealing to the untrained music lover while also being full of intricate and skilful devices which appeal to the professional. [listen]

But perhaps the most intimate music Bach wrote in the last two decades of his life was music in which we get a rare glimpse into the composer's own tastes. Baron Gottfried van Swieten was a career diplomat and music-lover who played an important role in the creative lives of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, and he also appreciated the unique skills of CPE Bach. Bach dedicated the third set of Kenner und Liebhaber sonatas to van Swieten. In 1773, five years after Bach's arrival in Hamburg, van Swieten commissioned as a set of six symphonies from him on the condition that he write to please no-one but himself. The works, for string orchestra, were given a private play-though in Hamburg before they were sent off to the Baron, and contemporary reports tell us that those privileged to be at this first hearing were stunned. Their bold, original and at times bizarre twists and turns show that Emanuel Bach loved music that shocked and challenged, both in terms of harmony and melody and in terms of technical demands. This was no music for Liebhaber; this music required professionals of the first rank to to bring it off.

CPE Bach died in Hamburg in 1788 and his importance to the history of music in the 18th century cannot be overstated. The fact that so much of his music is little-known today is a tragedy, especially as his desire to make his music accessible to all sorts of people, and not just the nobility or those of a church congregation, sets him apart. His "intimate" music is delightful and intriguing and well worth exploring.

I'll end with the last movement of the final symphony from the set of six composed for Gottfried van Swieten. Enjoy. [listen]

Sanssouci, Frederick the Great's summer palace at Potsdam, near Berlin.

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in May, 2013.

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