Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach On his 300th Birthday

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach was long looked upon as the chief figure of the famous family of musicians. It was only in the nineteenth century that public perception of his significance changed in favour of his father, Johann Sebastian Bach. Now both are regarded as luminaries in their métier and in 2014 the son is being honoured in particular. An anniversary portrait.

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, pastel painting by Gottlieb Friedrich Bach (detail). Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, pastel painting by Gottlieb Friedrich Bach (detail). | Source: Bach-Archiv Leipzig Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, who was born on 8 March 1714 in Weimar and died on 14 December 1788 in Hamburg, was in his lifetime the best-known representative in the German-speaking world of the Bach family. When people in the second half of the eighteenth century spoke of the “great Bach” or simply of “Bach”, they meant not Johann Sebastian but rather his second-oldest son. Only Carl Philipp Emanuel’s youngest step-brother, Johann Christian, achieved a comparable level of recognition at the European level. The esteem in which Carl Philipp was held by his contemporaries and the next generation is underscored by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s well-known dictum about him: “He is the father, we the sons. If any of us can ‘do it right’, it is because we learned from him”.

Also known as the “Berlin” or “Hamburg Bach” because of the stations in his life, Carl Philipp Emanuel was a key representative of a musical epoch that the literary term “storm and stress” has been borrowed to characterize. But the terms “gallant”, “sentimental” or “pre-classical” style have also all been applied to Bach’s time. One of the most colourful personalities of his age, his Europe-wide fame was founded largely on his skills as a keyboard performer of excellence (his favourite instrument was a Silbermann clavichord) and on his keyboard compositions.

Accompanist, pioneer

Widely played were Bach’s so-called “Prussian” and “Württemberg” Sonatas (each a collection of six sonatas, dedicated respectively to King Frederick II and Carl Eugen, Duke of Württemberg), as were his editions Für Kenner und Liebhaber I–VI (i.e., For Connoisseurs and Amateurs, I-VI). Added to this was the resounding success of his work on musical theory: Versuch über die wahre Art das Clavier zu spielen (Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments; two parts, self-published in 1753 and 1762). To most people today he is remembered as the accompanist of Fredrick II of Prussia. The picture of C.P.E. Bach that circulates in the public mind corresponds essentially to the famous painting of the Flute Concert at Sanssouci by Adolph Menzel, which depicts Bach accompanying the flute-playing Frederick the Great on the harpsichord.

But Bach’s life cannot be reduced to harpsichord accompaniment. After attending the Latin School in Köthen and the Thomas School in Leipzig, he began the study of law in Leipzig, which he continued in Frankfurt (Oder) from 1734 to 1738 before the then Crown Prince of Prussia gained him as the harpsichordist for his orchestra. He had already appeared as a musician in Leipzig and Frankfurt, whether as a harpsichordist in concerts of the Leipzig Collegium Musicum or in Frankfurt, as he wrote himself in his autobiography, as conductor and composer “at both a musical academy and at all public musical events at ceremonies and celebrations”.

After nearly thirty years at the Prussian court, he at last succeeded in relinquishing this for him ultimately unsatisfactory position so as to follow in the footsteps of his godfather Georg Philipp Telemann in the capacity of the cantor of the Johanneum and music director of the five main churches in Hamburg. For the last twenty years of his life, therefore, he held in Hamburg a position comparable to that which his father had held in Leipzig. A decisive reason for Bach’s Hamburg vocal music still being hardly known to the general public is that, until the re-discovery in Kiev, in 1999, of the Music Library of the Sing-Akademie zu Berlin and its return to Berlin in 2001, most of the musical sources, mainly preserved in manuscript, had disappeared. Exceptions were the then already supra-regionally known, because printed, vocal works such the oratorios the Israelites in the Desert, the Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus and the so-called “double-choir Heilig”.

Bach and scholarship

Currently being compiled is the edition of C.P.E. Bach’s Complete Works, which in the end will comprise 120 volumes (more than half of which has appeared in the last ten years); it is a cooperative project of Harvard University, the Leipzig Bach Archive and the Saxon Academy of Sciences in Leipzig, financed by the Packard Humanities Institute (Los Altos/California), an American foundation. With its help and that of the catalogue of his vocal works (Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. Thematisch-systematisches Verzeichnis der musikalischen Werke, Teil 2, [Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. Thematic-Systematic Catalogue of the Musical Works, Part 2], eds. Wolfram Enßlin and Uwe Wolf, Stuttgart, 2014), which will be presented to the public on the 300th anniversary of Bach’s birthday, the discussion of this part of Bach’s œuvre will be placed on a broad foundation.

Bach was a composer who, apart from the opera, served all the genres of music with outstanding and sometimes unusual compositions; he was a concert organizer and successful publisher of his own works; he was a collector of unique picture and portrait collections. He was also an avid collector of music, who left posterity an extensive and important musical library; it is thanks to him that most of the musical legacy of J.S. Bach and his ancestors (the so-called “Archive of the Elder Bachs”) has been preserved. He had a remarkable understanding of the idea of a “work”: on the one hand, in later years he would rigorously weed out youthful indiscretions in his earlier music; on the other, especially in the church music intended for every day use in Hamburg, he would create to an amazing degree new compositions from the compositions of various other composers (here one speaks of “pasticci”), combine his own works with the works of others or substantially revise his own work at repeat performances, with the result that the idea of “a work” received a unique definition. He maintained close contacts with major literary figures such as G. E. Lessing, F. G. Klopstock and J. W. L. Gleim. Visitors to Hamburg deemed it a special honour to be granted access to his home so that they could listen to him improvising on the harpsichord or clavichord.

The anniversary year

The anniversary year 2014 could give the growing public recognition of the person and compositional work of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach a further boost. Numerous events are devoted to his life and work: a variety of concerts and music festivals; scholarly conferences in Leipzig, Hamburg, Magdeburg, Weimar, Stuttgart and Kenyon College (USA); and Bach exhibitions in Leipzig, Berlin, Hamburg and Cambridge (USA). The hitherto only C.P.E. Bach Museum in Frankfurt (Oder) will be joined in the course of the year by a new one in Hamburg. The Bach cities of Weimar, Leipzig, Frankfurt (Oder), Berlin, Potsdam and Hamburg have banded together to form a C.P.E. Bach City Network so as to coordinate numerous activities.

Visible results of the network are its own homepage, including an events calendar and a wealth of information on the life and work of the composer, and a commissioned almanac intended for the general public: Unterwegs mit Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. Musikalisch-biografischer Reiseführer zu seinen Lebensstationen (i.e., On the Move with Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. A Musical-Biographical Travel Guide to the Stations of His Life) (eds. Christine Blanken u. Wolfram Enßlin, Berlin 2014). And there will also be programmes on radio and television. Chances are good that after this anniversary year, the musical public will give Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach the attention and appreciation which is his due, and that music history will regard him as a highly significant and independent personality who hardly need be primarily defined in relation to his father.