CPE BACH for his 300th anniversary (1714-2014)

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach 1714-1788       CPE 1545901_510229322424163_376855935_n

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach 1714-1788

2014 will be a magnificent CPE Bach revelation!

Once viewed in lesser terms than he deserved, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach is now rightly regarded as a significant and influential composer whose list of work contains every genre except opera.  He was highly respected during his lifetime and made an indelible mark on the musical landscape.  So an international celebration of his music for the 300th anniversary  is entirely in order.

Born: Carolus Philippus Imanuel Bach 8 March 1714 at Weimar to Maria Barbara and Johann Sebastian Bach, their fifth child and second surviving son.  His Godparents were Mr Secretary Adam Imanuel Weltzig (Master of the Pages and Chamber Musician at Weissenfels), Mr Georg Philipp Telemann (Capellmeister at Frankfurt-am-Main) and Frau Catharina Dorothea Altmann (Widow of the Court Chamberlain at Schwarzburg in Arnstadt). (Quoted from The New Bach Reader edited by Mendel & David, rev. by Christoph Wolff published by WWNorton & Co (1998) )

A solid education and golden opportunities

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach’s musical education was given entirely under the tutelage of his father. Just nine years old when the Bach family left their lodgings at Cöthen to travel to Leipzig where Johann Sebastian was to take up a new position as Cantor, the young Bach eventually entered Leipzig’s Thomasschule at the age of ten and became a member of the Thomaner. This experience enabled CPE to become steeped in the city’s sacred and secular musical traditions  from a very early age.  In the Leipzig of the early 18th century, the acquisition of an appropriate social status was deemed essential if someone wanted to get on in life or be suitably recognised. So to achieve this a University education beckoned and Emanuel studied Jurisprudence (The Study and Theory of Law) at Leipzig then Law at Frankfurt-am-Oder, gaining his degree in 1738 at the age of 24.

That same year, having completed his Law studies, Emanuel then returned to music and gained employment at the Court of  Crown Prince Frederick at Berlin (later Frederick the Great) as Court Harpsichordist,  becoming immersed in the rich cultural life of the city and enhancing his standing as a keyboard player at which, like his father, he excelled.

Formidable keyboard skills

CPE Bach’s  formidable keyboard skills earned him a fine reputation throughout Europe. His influential treatise “An Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments” (Versuch über die wahre Art des Clavier zu spielen) published in 1753 while at Berlin was reinforced by a list of keyboard compositions as long as your arm (sonatas and concertos among them). These served to confirm Emanuel’s place at the forefront of keyboard music and instruments on the Continent – composer, performer and innovator.

250px-Hamburg-Michaeliskirche-Hafen     By 1768 it was time to move on and Emanuel travelled to the city of Hamburg to succeed his illustrious and equally prolific godfather, the composer Georg Philipp Telemann, as Director of Music of  the five main city churches.  This created opportunities to extend the range and scope of his compositions, especially choral works which flowed abundantly from his pen thereafter.

Evidence of CPE Bach’s extensive output can be found in the composition folio he amassed during his lifetime, which not only includes the keyboard works, but also abounds with chamber works, cantatas,  symphonies, Lieder, nearly two dozen Passions that included a setting according to St. Matthew, numerous oratorios and a particular favourite with the London Bach Society  Heilig ist Gott (Wq217 or H 778), a dramatic and extravagantly scored setting of the German Sanctus for solo alto, double chorus and double orchestra with no less than six trumpets! Although fairly short, it is a truly fabulous and imaginative creation.

Directing public concerts

Public concerts grew in popularity in the second half of the 18th century and the industrious Emanuel Bach contributed to these by directing performances of his own music, and also that of other composers including Handel’s Messiah and the Credo from Johann Sebastian Bach’s Mass in B minor.  A prominent church musician of the age would have been expected to contribute to his  City’s musical life in addition to carrying out duties to the church. CPE had already been shown this example  in his youth when he appeared with his father at the weekly meetings of the Leipzig students’ musical society in Zimmermann’s Coffee House playing Bach’s keyboard concertos for example. These were not mere  meetings. They were significant public concerts.

After a life packed with music, CPE Bach died on 14 December 1788 at the age of 74 and is buried at Hamburg’s Michaeliskirche (pictured).   He left behind a magnificent legacy of works  much of which will be performed in 2014, a unique opportunity to celebrate Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach properly.  

CPE Bach and his father’s legacy

Emanuel assumed responsibility for  his father’s legacy in greater measure than his elder brother (WFB) for which we have to be very grateful today. For example, he saw to it that Die Kunst der Fuge (Art of Fugue) BWV 1080 was finally published and, with old Bach’s pupil Johann Friedrich Agricola, wrote his Father’s Obituary in 1751 finally published in 1754. This is a Bach study in itself, raising many questions for scholars in the centuries since.

It cannot have been easy being a son of  JSB, with numerous comparisons to endure no doubt. However, in their respective postings there are important similarities. At one time or another, both held positions at a Princely Court for example and both were city church musicians.

In the 1740s  CPE was just starting out in his first post, harpsichordist at the glittering Court at Berlin (1738-68). Fashion, taste and style were changing and while Emanuel obviously inherited many of old Bach’s musical gifts, he was his own man both in life and in terms of compositional style.  He used what he had naturally gained from his father,  both genetically and through his childhood music education, to very useful and creative effect, but he was also a man of his time and times were clearly moving on.

By contrast in the 1740s, as  his son was beginning his professional life  Johann Sebastian was assembling material for publication. He was getting things in order, enjoying recognition from Royalty at Berlin that inspired the Musical Offering in 1747, from his peers at Leipzig’s Mitzler Society for whom he provided the wonderful Canonic Variations and busy in 1748/9 compiling his Mass in B minor….all these  towards the end of a life packed with musical activity.

Mozart referred to CPE Bach thus  “He is the Father; we are the children” and the composer, admired for the emotional intensity of his writing and powers of invention, was held in the highest regard by Haydn and Beethoven. Later it was  Brahms and Mendelssohn who recognised Emanuel’s gifts, although his  compositions mostly fell into neglect in the 19th century as the momentum gathered behind the movement to revive his father’s music.

Zelter and the Berlin Singakademie

A famous collector of CPE Bach’s manuscripts in the late 18th and early 19th centuries was Carl Friedrich Zelter, the director of Berlin’s Singakademie and a tutor to Felix Mendelssohn. Through this the institution eventually became custodian of the whole of the CPE Bach Estate.

Quoting from an important contemporary website devoted to CPE Bach: The Complete Works. “The recovery of the Archives of the Singakademie  in 1999, includes the Hamburg Passions  and cantatas once thought lost in WWII”.    A visit to the website will prove to be an essential source and starting point in your discovery of CPE Bach for his 300th. www.cpebach.org                   Margaret Steinitz

London Bach Society celebrated CPE Bach on Bach’s birthday

Friday 21 March 2014 7.30pm at St. John’s Smith Square London    

Celebrating CPE Bach’s 300th on Bach’s Birthday with special guest Mahan Esfahani playing keyboard solos and concertos with Steinitz Bach Players directed by Jane Gordon.

Latest :  Harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani has won a 2014 Gramophone Award for his recording of CPE Bach’s Württemberg Sonatas.   CPE Bach features in the March 2014 edition of our Journal “Bach Notes”  available to download free from the Bach Notes page




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