Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach

1714 1788

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach



Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (C.P.E Bach) was an 18th century German composer, teacher and keyboardist who helped develop the Classical style. He is regarded as the most important composer in Protestant Germany from the second half of the 18th century. As a composer he wrote more than 1000 separate works, from songs to symphonies and keyboard solos to oratorios.

C.P.E Bach was the second surviving son of Johann Sebastian and Maria Barbara Bach. As a child, C.P.E Bach studied at the Thomasschule in Leipzig, where his father was the Kantor. He later pursued a study in law at both the University of Leipzig and the University of Frankfurt an der Ode. Though he finished his law studies, he eventually abandoned this career path and dedicated himself solely to music.

C.P.E Bach was one of the leading clavier players in Europe and also an established composer for his instrument. He stated in his autobiography, ‘for composition and keyboard-playing I have never had any teacher other than my father’. His success was based on his precision and beauty of sound; he was also an expert at conveying emotion. Charles Burney wrote that ‘he grew so animated and possessed. His eyes were fixed, his underlip fell, and drops of effervescence distilled his countenance’. He received employment under the prince of Prussia in Berlin and in 1740 he officially became a member of the royal household upon the prince’s accession to king.

In 1746, C.P.E Bach became a chamber musician along with Carl Heinrich Graun, Johann Joachim Quantz and Johann Gottlieb Naumann. Frederick II of Prussia was a great fan of music and also a relatively accomplished flautist. Together with his court orchestra, he performed concertos nearly every evening, except on opera nights.

His reputation as a composer grew with his two sets of sonatas dedicated to Frederick the Great and the grand duke of Württemberg, respectively. His father’s influence was unavoidable, and C.P.E’sMagnificat shows significant similarities to his father’s style. While in Berlin he also wrote an Easter Cantata, symphonies, concert works, three volumes of songs, occasional pieces and secular cantatas. Though successful in these genres, he preferred writing for his own instrument and during this time he composed nearly 200 sonatas and solos, the most impressive of which come from theMit veränderten Reprisen  (1760-1768) and theSonaten für Kenner und Liebhaber.

His treatise on the art of the clavier, Versuch über die wahre Art das Clavier zu spielen(‘Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments’)(1753, rev. 1787), was well-received and immensely influential, providing the basis for Muzio Clementi and Johann Baptist Cramer. For generations, this treatise provided the best explanations of the style and interpretation of 18th century music.Beethoven even told his student, Karl Czerny, ‘be sure of procuring Emanuel Bach’s treatise’.

After resigning from his post in Berlin, C.P.E Bach’s next important move was to Hamburg to take over as director of the five city churches after the death of his godfatherGeorg Philipp Telemann. As a result of his new position, he began composing more religious music suitable for the church. His oratorioDie Israeliten in der Wüste is one of his masterworks of this period and has much in common withMendelssohn’s Elijah. He further wrote more than 20 settings of the passion, and many liturgical works including cantatas, motets and litanies. He was also motivated byJoseph Haydn’s ability to compose for instruments at this time.

C.P.E Bach was able to adapt successfully to the times in terms of style and gracefully helped to found the Classical style. His brother, Wilhelm Friedemann Bach was not nearly as successful. C.P.E Bach’s reputation reached its peak in the second half of the 18th century, influencing great composers of the Classical era such asMozart and Beethoven. Mozart once stated of C.P.E Bach, ‘He is the father, we are the children’, referring to Mozart’s generation of composers adopting his style and learning from it. Beethoven was also very positive about C.P.E Bach’s works.

C.P.E Bach’s works are remarkable as he used harmonic colour freely to express himself, something that had not been done sinceLassus, Monteverdi or Gesualdo. His works also depart from the strict form of the Italian school, allowing for more freedom and expression. He combined elements of the Italian school with that of the Viennese composers, forming a style that could be greatly developed upon.

Though Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn and Brahms openly appreciated C.P.E Bach’s works,Schumann once claimed that, ‘as a creative musician he remained very far behind his father’. Brahms edited a portion of C.P.E Bach’s music as a token of appreciation to the master.

His orchestral work includes a set of six string symphonies dedicated to the Baron van Swieten, a patron of Haydn and Mozart, four orchestral symphonies with wind instruments, four flute concertos, three cello concertos and oboe concertos. The concertos were all arranged from his own harpsichord concertos.

C.P.E Bach’s chamber music works include five sonatas for flute and harpsichord, five trio sonatas for flute, violin and basso continuo and a sonata for solo flute. Much of the flute repertoire is due to the influence of Frederick II.

His largest output by far is for his own instruments. For the harpsichord and the clavichord, C.P.E Bach wrote among others, many sonatas and twelve variations on contemporary themes,La Folie d’Espagne.

Images courtesy of Beethoven FM, Classical Connect and public domain

In terms of style, the music from his period in Berlin, under Frederick II is quite old-fashioned, as that was Frederick II’s preference. In Hamburg he was able to freely explore new territory. His symphonies, concertos and keyboard sonatas from Hamburg were most influential, as they helped develop the standard sonata-allegro form of the Classical period. His latest compositions are, in turn, influenced by the younger composer Joseph Haydn.

His greatest masterpieces are Sonaten für Kenner und Liebhaber, his oratorios  Die Israeliten in der Wüste and Die Auferstehung und Himmelfahrt Jesu and several of the harpsichord concertos. The Flute Concerto in D minor is also immensely popular today.