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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

The Life and Work of CPE Bach

Part One

One of the facts of music history which many of us probably remember is the fact that Johann Sebastian Bach's music fell into obscurity very soon after his death, and that it wasn't until Mendelssohn revived the St Matthew Passion that Bach's music started to be performed again.

The centrality of JS Bach to our view of music history from the 21st century is undeniable, and completely deserved. But in the half century or so after his death, he was indeed known to very few musicians in Europe.

But the name Bach wasn't forgotten. There were other Bachs alive and well and writing great music in the second half of the 18th century. Most prominent among these were the four sons of JS Bach who had major careers as performers and composers: Wilhelm Friedemann and Carl Philipp Emanuel from his first marriage; and Johann Christoph Friedrich and Johann Christian from his second.

Without doubt, when musicians in the latter half of the 18th century mentioned the name "Bach" they didn't mean Johann Sebastian. An unqualified "Bach" surname to them would have implied the most famous of JS Bach's sons, Carl Philipp Emanuel. Because Emanuel Bach doesn't fit neatly into either the Baroque period or the Classical period, and because his music explored many different styles over his life, he has tended to be ignored in recent times far more than he deserves. The fact is, CPE Bach was an amazing musician; a first-rate composer, performer and teacher. In this article we're going to celebrate the life and work of this remarkable man.

Weimar (1650)

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach was born in Weimar on 8 March 1714. He was the second surviving son of the seven children born to JS Bach and his first wife Maria Barbara. One of his godparents was the famous composer Georg Philipp Telemann, from whom the child took his second name.

As a toddler Emanuel Bach moved with his family to Cöthen when his father took up a new appointment there, and it was there in 1720 that the boy's mother died suddenly. Maria Barbara's sister had been living with the family as a housekeeper and continued to do so even after the elder Bach remarried the following year.

In 1723, when Emanuel was 9, the family moved again, this time to Leipzig where Johann Sebastian took up his last and most important post, that of Thomaskantor, which he held until his death 27 years later. Young Emanuel was a day boy at the Thomasschule from June of that year.

There can be no doubt that JS Bach attended to the early musical education of Emanuel Bach as he did with all his sons (and perhaps his daughters, although the lives of the Bach daughters are, sadly, almost completely unknown to us). His stepmother, Anna Magdalena, was a skilled musician and her book of musical excerpts and memorabilia includes some pieces which may be among Emanuel's first compositions. This polonaise is certainly by him and is found in Anna Magdalena's so-called notebook. [listen]

From about the age of 15 Emanuel took part in his father's performances both at church, in sacred cantatas, and in the Leipzig collegium musicum, where JS Bach performed concertos and secular vocal works. He matriculated in law from Leipzig University in October 1731, but as was common at the time, a degree in law didn't necessarily mean someone was destined for a legal career. Law training was often undertaken as a good basis for other disciplines, like an arts degree today perhaps, and there was never any doubt that Emanuel was destined for a career in music.

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach

It was around 1730 that Emanuel wrote his first datable compositions. This is the first movement of a flute sonata known to have been composed in the early 1730s. [listen]

When he was 19 Emanuel applied for a church position in the town of Naumburg, like that held by his father in Leipzig, but he was unsuccessful. The following year, 1734, he moved to Frankfurt where his life was centred on the city's University and where he was involved greatly in the city's musical life. He seems not to have held a formal post there but rather freelanced as a teacher, player and composer-for-hire. He stayed in Frankfurt for about six years.

From about 1738 until his death 50 years later, CPE Bach's life can be more or less divided between two appointments in two cities. In the first of these Bach was based in Berlin where he employed by Frederick II of Prussia, popularly known as Frederick the Great. Then from 1768 he was based in Hamburg.

Pesne: Crown Prince Frederick of Prussia, later Frederick II (1736)

How Emanuel Bach came to be employed by the Prussian court is unclear. What seems certain is that he entered Frederick's employment as a harpsichordist (and not as a composer) while Frederick was still crown prince, but that his appointment to the court payroll only became official after the prince had succeeded to the throne as Frederick II in 1740. Frederick the Great was an absolute monarch but also a highly educated and enlightened one. He was a famous - some would say, brutal - military strategist and leader, and also highly skilled in music, most notably as a flute player.

In the 1740s Frederick maintained an orchestra of about 40 players, considered very large for the time, and it comprised some of the finest musicians in Europe. His opera company included some of greatest singers of the day, and while Frederick had the time and the money, music flourished at the court. The King's influence extended beyond the court into Berlin itself and until the start of the Seven Years War in 1756 he had a forward-thinking and progressive outlook.

Emanuel Bach was paid 300 thalers a year by Frederick when he started work at the court, an appropriate salary and on a par with his colleagues. Only those above him in the pecking order - the Kapellmeister and the Konzertmeister - and some of the star singers, were paid more. One still reads that he was poorly paid in Berlin but the evidence says otherwise.

Bach's duties were as the court harpsichordist. Apart from playing in the orchestra and for the opera performances, the special privilege of this post meant that in the evening concerts in which the king himself played flute works, Bach was the principal accompanist. And only two years after the king's accession, a second harpsichordist was appointed to the court. Each drew a full salary but only worked in alternation every second month. This freed Bach up for other work, and he made the most of it by teaching, composing music and writing a treatise.

The early 1740s saw the composition and publication of Emanuel Bach's first important set of harpsichord sonatas. These were dedicated to Frederick the Great and are known as the "Prussian" sonatas. Despite the dedication, these six marvellous works made little impression on the king and Frederick never regarded him as worthy of being officially recognised as either a composer or a virtuoso at court. This is the finale of the fourth sonata in this set. [listen]

Sans Souci, Frederick the Great's summer palace near Potsdam

A few years after the "Prussian" sonatas were published, a struggling teenage musician in Vienna got hold of them and found them a life-changing revelation. He later wrote, "I could not leave my keyboard until I had played them through. Whoever knows my work must recognise that I owe to Emanuel Bach a great deal, and that I have diligently studied and understood him". The young musician who made this discovery was called Joseph Haydn.

In 1744 Bach married Johanna Maria Dannemann. Three of their children lived to adulthood but only one - named Johann Sebastian after his famous grandfather - had any artistic inclinations, although in this case it was in the visual arts. JS Bach junior became a painter but died in Rome at the age of only 30 in 1778.

In 1747 there took place one of the most famous meetings in musical history, the visit of the elderly JS Bach to Potsdam where he met and played for Frederick the Great. This encounter (which led to the older Bach's late masterpiece, The Musical Offering), had no effect whatsoever on the king's opinion of Emanuel Bach and it's clear that from this time Emanuel started actively looking for alternative employment. In that same year, 1747, he completed a dazzling setting of the Magnificat, something which indicates he was probably developing a portfolio of work to use in applying for church posts. And, to not put too fine a point on it, he must have known his ailing father's position in Leipzig would become vacant sooner rather than later.

The Magnificat may have been performed in Leipzig during JS Bach's lifetime, and it's one of CPE Bach's works which is still performed with some degree of regularity today. [listen]

Emanuel Bach duly applied for his father's job in Leipzig after JS Bach died in 1750, but on this occasion - and again in 1755 - he was unsuccessful. He applied for another church post, in Zittau, in 1753 but he didn't land that job either. In 1751 he dedicated a pair of trio sonatas (composed two years earlier) to Count Wilhelm Friedrich Ernst of Schaumburg-Lippe when Frederick the Great awarded the music-loving Count the Order of the Great Eagle. It seems likely the dedication was yet another attempt to find a new employer, but again to no avail.

The trios themselves, though, are beautiful; one of them has the subtitle The Sanguine and the Melancholic. In this the two violins each take opposing roles, one sad (or melancholy), the other lively (or sanguine). They partake in a musical dialogue, until at the end the melancholic protagonist sides with the sanguine. This is the opening of the sonata. [listen]

In 1753 the first part of Emanuel Bach's ground-breaking treatise, Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments appeared in print. This is one of many such treatises which appeared in the 18th century, and is one of the four most important and influential. The others were the 1752 flute tutor by JJ Quantz (Frederick the Great's flute teacher and Emanuel Bach's court colleague), the 1756 violin tutor by Leopold Mozart (Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's father), and the 1757 singing manual of JF Agricola (also employed by Frederick the Great).

Schleuen: Johann Joachim Quantz (1767)

The first part of Bach's Essay focuses on fingering, ornamentation and the aesthetics of performance. In 1762 it was supplemented by a second part which gives instruction on continuo playing and accompaniment. This book almost immediately became the manual on keyboard technique for the remainder of the century and beyond. It was reprinted many times and for us today it's a priceless glimpse into the performing techniques of the period.

Professional tensions arose between Bach and some of his colleagues in the Prussian court. Coupled with what he felt was his unfair treatment by the king - and his inability to find work elsewhere - he distanced himself from the court's toxic atmosphere. This led to him becoming, from the mid- to late-1750s, more involved in Berlin's musical life outside the court (and this all despite the fact that the king substantially increased his salary).

Bach became well-known in Berlin's musical circles and at least 24 of his harpsichord pieces from this time portray prominent characters he encountered, although today the exact significance of many of these pieces is unknown. This is one such piece, called La Philippine and played on an instrument closely associated with CPE Bach, the clavichord. [listen]

Berlin, c. 1688 (Drawing of 1835)

Another important aspect of Emanuel Bach's work in Berlin was his prominent role as a composer of lieder. German-language artsong is something we tend to think of as a 19th century phenomenon, in connection with composers like Schubert and Schumann. But the origins of form can be traced back well into the 18th century. Bach's contemporary, Christian Gottfried Krause, is generally credited with founding what is called the first Berlin lied school, and Bach contributed much to the artform. This song, Morning, was published in 1762. [listen]

Another important connection Emanuel Bach had with the larger social and musical life of Berlin stemmed from his involvement with the circle of the Princess Anna Amalia. His talents were greatly appreciated in this environment and it was for the Princess that most of the organ sonatas of 1755 were composed. Given Bach's father's fame as an organist - and the great works he composed for the instrument - it's fascinating to compare the completely different approach to the instrument in the organ works of his famous son. [listen]

Concertos in Emanuel Bach's output fall into one of two very clearly delineated genres. There is the "public" concerto, works on a grand scale designed for a wider audience, and then there are works called sonatinas, which are really domestic concertos for a very small ensemble of players accompanying a solo keyboard. The sonatinas are really chamber music, playable with just a handful of players in addition to the solo part. Yet even in this domestic, intimate music, Bach shows one of the features which marked him out among his contemporaries: a spirit of daring, of invention and of breaking new ground. This sonatina, for example, dates from 1764. It has three movements, but it starts with a slow movement. The middle movement is fast, and the final movement is a minuet. Furthermore, the elegant and searching opening movement starts with the soloist, and not the orchestra. [listen]

Bach also rearranged his concertos repeatedly throughout his career. Some concertos exist in versions by him for flute, for cello and for keyboard, and it's not always evident which is the original and which is a later version.

The other area of modern music to which Emanuel Bach made an important contribution was the newly-developing genre of the concert symphony. Bearing in mind that Haydn's earliest symphonies date from the late 1750s, and that many composers at that time were writing such works, we realise that Bach's earliest symphonies were ground-breaking works. In fact his earliest-known symphony is much earlier, written in 1741 when he was 27. To give an idea how modern this music was for its time, this was the year Handel wrote Messiah. [listen]

Most of Emanuel Bach's symphonies were written during the Berlin period and scored for strings, but nearly all were revised in later years by having wind and brass parts added. This symphony from 1757 is a good example. It was originally scored for strings but later revised with the addition of oboe and horn parts. It's also a good example of the daring and power which Bach's contemporaries admired - and sometimes reviled - in his music. This music very definitely shocked its first audiences. And remember, this music predates the earliest symphonies of Haydn. [listen]

Such radical moves played with people's expectations and was a hallmark of CPE Bach's style across his career. He is really impossible to categorise. He wasn't Baroque, he wasn't Classical, he wasn't Rococo and he certainly didn't fit other labels which might apply to other artists in the mid 18th century. He was at times some of these things, and at times others. He refused to be predictable, and that's one of the reasons many love him, and one of the reasons many can't handle him.

From the start of the Seven Years War in 1756, Frederick the Great's influence on - and interest in - the musical life of Berlin waned. From being a trendsetter he became a reactionary and, in the words of Grove, "his taste ceased to develop". Musical life at court started to atrophy, providing even more impetus for Bach to seek new employment.

Graff: Frederick II of Prussia (1781)

It was to be another decade, though, before he finally managed to secure another appointment. His godfather Telemann had for many years been the indefatigable director of music at the five (yes, five) major Lutheran churches of Hamburg, but in 1767 - at the amazing age of 86 - Telemann died and Emanuel applied for his job. He was finally successful and was appointed to this hugely prestigious position in November 1767. Frederick, though, almost stopped him going by refusing at first to allow Bach to resign from his Berlin post, but he eventually relented. Then an unusually bad winter delayed the journey to Hamburg for quite some time.

Bach eventually arrived in Hamburg in March 1768 and was formally inaugurated as the director of sacred music in Hamburg on the Saturday of the Easter weekend, 2 April, 1768. From this point his life changed dramatically.

Part Two

This beautiful oboe concerto is an example of the music Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach was writing at this transitional stage of his career. It dates from 1765, just three years before he left Berlin to take up a new position in Hamburg. [listen]

Concertos such as this were written as part of Emanuel Bach's involvement in the busy concert life of Berlin during his 30 years in the city. For most of that time he was unhappy and unsettled in his professional duties at the Prussian court, and he sought (and found) greater musical fulfilment elsewhere in the city. He moved in the most important and influential circles in Berlin and his reputation as a virtuoso harpsichordist and composer made him one of the most famous musicians in Europe.

Yet it was perhaps his gifts as a teacher which made him more widely admired. His Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments had appeared in two instalments in 1753 and 1762 and this cemented his reputation as one of the greatest pedagogues of the age. In addition to this, the wide dissemination of his published music created admirers and imitators across the continent. In addition to Haydn (whose self-confessed debt to Bach's early "Prussian" sonatas I mentioned in Part One), Mozart and Beethoven, among many others, professed deep admiration of CPE Bach. Of him Mozart said, "Bach is the father; we are the children", and Beethoven said that CPE Bach's music "should certainly be in the possession of every true artist, not only for the sake of real enjoyment but also for the purpose of study".

CPE Bach finally managed to extricate himself from Berlin at the end of 1768 after 30 years' service at the court of Frederick the Great. His new position in Hamburg had become vacant on the death - at the age of 86 - of his godfather, Georg Philipp Telemann. This post was a church position, not unlike that which his father, Johann Sebastian, had held for the last 27 years of his life in Leipzig.

The post in Hamburg was enormous, requiring the supervision of music at no less than five churches, the five principal Lutheran churches of the city. He was also required to teach in the major church school but (also as his father had done in Leipzig) he took up the option of paying someone else to do some of this work for him. The churches alone required some 200 performances a year during services and it rapidly became clear that Emanuel Bach was a very different kind of musician to his godfather.

Galli: Hamburg (c. 1680)

Bach wrote more slowly than Telemann had, and often performed or adapted music by other composers to fulfil the requirements of the services which needed music. This was of course allowed but whenever he could Bach used his own music for important occasions.

One of the most spectacular of his Hamburg sacred works was written in 1776. It's a setting of German-language version of the Sanctus (and therefore titled Heilig) and it shows the same sort of daring and inventiveness which Bach had developed in his instrumental writing in Berlin. It's scored for very large forces: a double choir and double orchestra, with each orchestra consisting of 3 trumpets, timpani, 2 oboes, strings and continuo. When it was published three years later a short aria was added at the start, but the choral movement on its own is extraordinary and caused huge interest in Hamburg when it was first performed. [listen]

As he had in Berlin, Emanuel Bach immersed himself in the greater musical life of Hamburg quite beyond the requirements of his professional duties. In the winter of 1768-69 (the end of his first year in the city) he announced a series of 20 subscription concerts. The following winter he gave at least six and in the winter of 1771-72 he gave 12 concerts on Wednesdays.

One area in which he explored new territory was as a composer of oratorios and smaller-scale concert choral works. Oratorio had started to become increasingly popular in German-speaking regions in the latter half of the 18th century, partially as a result of Handel's oratorios being performed (in German translations) on the continent. CPE Bach's oratorios are most definitely concert works although they were sometimes performed in churches as well as in concert venues, but as they required female singers most definitely could not at that time have been performed as part of an actual church service.

Bach's first oratorio for Hamburg was written in 1769. Die Israeliten in der Wüste (The Israelites in the Wilderness) tells part of the Bible story in which the Israelites are wandering in the desert after the Exodus from Egypt and before the conquest of the Promised Land. (I conducted what I believe was the first Australian performance of this work in Adelaide in 1988 as part of the commemorations marking the bicentenary of the composer's death.) The central dramatic incident (in fact, pretty much the only dramatic incident) is when Moses strikes a rock to bring forth water for the people. Bach's aria for Moses in which he prays for mercy is coloured by a mournful yet beautiful bassoon solo, while the following chorus sees the people rejoice at the water cascading forth. [listen]

Such was Emanuel Bach's reputation by the 1770s that he received an extraordinary commission from Baron Gottfried van Swieten. A diplomat and highly-educated connoisseur of the arts, van Swieten was the Austrian ambassador to the court of Frederick the Great in Berlin from 1771 to 1777. That is, he lived in Berlin after CPE Bach's time there. But in 1773 he wrote to Bach in Hamburg and commissioned him to write a set of six symphonies. The one condition - and this is the extraordinary bit - was that Bach was to write to please himself and no-one else. Van Swieten was clearly fascinated by new music as much as he was by old (he was well acquainted with the music of JS Bach and Handel, something very rare at the time) and Emanuel Bach didn't disappoint. The six string symphonies he sent to van Swieten are among his most gripping, virtuosic and audacious works.

Gottfried van Swieten

Before sending the symphonies to Berlin, Bach organised for the works to be played through by a large orchestra in Hamburg and the results stunned all who were present. A witness said, "One could hear with enchantment the original, bold progression of ideas and the great variety and novelty in the forms and modulations, even if they were not entirely appreciated. Seldom has a musical composition of higher, bolder and more witty character flowed from the soul of genius". [listen]

The following year, 1774, Bach wrote his other large-scale oratorio for Hamburg, Die Auferstehung und Himmelfahrt Jesu (The Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus). While not as outrageous as the string symphonies - nothing else he wrote quite pushed those boundaries - this second oratorio is a more colourful affair than the earlier one. Both oratorios are in two parts (as opposed to the Handelian model of three) and are the perfect length for a modern concert with each part in the case of the second oratorio being about 40 minutes long.

This dazzling bass aria comes near the end of the later oratorio, and tells of the glory of Jesus as he ascends into heaven. The prominent writing for horns and trumpets is antiphonal and their fanfares are hurled across the orchestra as the strings battle with virtuoso passages of enormous energy. [listen]

With all these large-scale works to create and perform, as well as his regular church duties across the city of Hamburg, CPE Bach still managed to compose and publish keyboard music, which was his principal claim to fame as a harpsichord virtuoso and pedagogue. He retired from public concert-giving - but not from his church position - in 1779 when he was 65 but continued to compose and publish copiously.

In 1786, two years before his death, he published an extraordinary teaching work which he called Eighteen Practice Pieces in Six Sonatas.

This is a set of 18 pieces of graded difficulty, but with each group of three pieces forming its own three-movement sonata. And while most of Bach's keyboard pieces contain a great deal of information regarding the proper manner of performance, these particular pieces go much further. Each piece has a conventional tempo marking (like Allegro or Andante) but most also contain extra words describing the style required: Allegretto tranquillamente, for example, or Adagio assai mesto e sostenuto. Such marking were far more common in the 19th century, but this sort of detail in the 1780s was very unusual. What's also unusual is that because these 18 pieces are really stand-alone works, the "sonatas" into which they're arranged don't start and end in the same key.

These sonatas were designed to be a supplement to the famous Essay on keyboard technique and they provide a rare glimpse into Emanuel Bach's teaching methods and performance style.

Clavichord (17th century)

The first of the pieces - the easiest - is in C major (and this recording of the set is played on the clavichord). [listen]

By the sixth piece, the player is expected to able to manage this. [listen]

The thirteenth piece requires an even perpetual motion. [listen]

And by the end, the eighteenth piece is a fully-blown Fantasia in C minor in three sections - a mini sonata in its own right - requiring great sensitivity from the player. It's immensely free and leaves so much up to the performer. [listen]

Fantasias form a large part of CPE Bach's later keyboard music, in collections he composed and published in his later years designed for professional and amateurs. These extensive sets are remarkable in the way they are accessible to the less-proficient amateur but still provide a great deal to interest and challenge the professional. These publications also contain sonatas and separate rondos as well as fantasias. [listen]

Graff: Sarah Levy-Itzig

In his final year, 1788, Emanuel Bach composed two virtually unique works. One was a set of three quartets for keyboard, optional cello, flute and viola, a most unusual combination for the time. These were commissioned by Sarah Levy-Itzig, a fine Berlin-based musician (who coincidentally was Felix Mendelssohn's great aunt) and they are Bach's very last works. They show that even at an advanced age and in ill-health he was able to create music of superb quality and impeccable craftsmanship.

This is the last movement of the first of the set, a quartet in A minor. [listen]

That recording uses a fortepiano as the keyboard instrument and the whole of CPE Bach's life coincided with the development of the piano and its gradual replacement of the harpsichord the pre-eminent keyboard instrument. CPE Bach also loved and played the intimate, quietly-voice clavichord, and much of his music works equally well on all three instruments.

But shortly before writing these quartets, he wrote a work which seemed to sum up the old and the new, and again it's for a virtually unique combination of instruments. It's a double concerto for harpsichord, piano and orchestra. The very "Classical" (ie: modern) instrumentation of the orchestra, with flutes rather than oboes, and the two very different keyboard instruments presented the composer with an extraordinary challenge, a challenge which he masterfully met. It's a work which sounds best on period instruments as the fortepiano of the 18th century matches and complements the harpsichord better than a modern grand. It's a work of complete and utter charm and still manages to shock and intrigue from time to time. In short, CPE Bach never lost it. [listen]

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach died in Hamburg on the 14 December, 1788 at the age of 74 and was buried in the crypt of St Michael's Church. The location of his grave was for a long time unknown and only positively identified in 1925. His legacy - apart from inspiring Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and countless others of his time and after - is a large body of superb music which has the ability to fascinate, move and delight us today as much as ever. Explore that legacy; I'm sure you won't be disappointed.

View of St Michael's Church from Hamburg harbour

This article is based on a pair of Keys To Music programs first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in May, 2014.

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