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The "Great Bach"

Marita Berg / twMarch 5, 2014

In his lifetime, C.P.E. Bach was more famous than his father, Johann Sebastian Bach. His music continued to influence composers for generations to follow.

Portrait of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach
Image: picture alliance/akg-images

When music lovers in the second half of the 18th century referred to the "Great Bach," they did not mean Johann Sebastian, the famous Cantor of St. Thomas' Church, who died in 1750, but his second-oldest son, Carl Philipp Emanuel. Of the four Bach sons who became professional musicians, he was the most avant-garde one, a revolutionary who ushered in the musical "Sturm und Drang" (Storm and Stress) period.

It was an era of heightened musical sensibility, and Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach's deeply personal artistry was grounded in own style of playing. Music writer Johann Friedrich Reichard once noted that when C.P.E. sat at the keyboard, his entire soul was in play. "Bach was the first to give spirit, expression and emotion to the keyboard," he said. Later, C.P.E. was an idol for composers of the First Viennese School; Mozart called him "the father of us all." And in an 1809 letter to his publisher, Beethoven wrote, "I have but a few of Emanuel Bach’s keyboard works, but for a true artist they serve not only to give great pleasure, but as a basis of study."

Under his father's tutelege

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach was born in Weimar on March 8, 1714. His godfather was the composer Georg Philipp Telemann, a friend of Johann Sebastian's.

As he did with all his children, Bach senior took charge of his second oldest son's musical education. In his autobiography, Carl Philipp Emanuel wrote that this had given him the "great fortune" to be exposed to the "best of all kinds of music and to make acquaintance with great masters, and in some cases even attain their friendship."

In 1738 Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach received an attractive offer from Berlin. Crown Prince Frederick, later called Frederick the Great, wanted to hire Bach to play harpsichord in his Prussian court orchestra. Bach senior warned his son about the superficiality of music-making there, but Carl Philipp Emanuel was keen to strike out on his own. He went to Berlin and stayed there for three decades.At court he became familiar with the latest music styles of the time but grew increasingly bored by his job, which generally entailed accompanying the king in his flute playing. The monarch was not interested in the bold and passionate compositions for keyboard instruments for which Carl Philipp Emanuel was known across Germany, disregarding them as "new-fangled nonsense."

But Bach's compositions, which could not have differed more from the studied works of his father, quickly won fans in the bourgeoisie. C.P.E. repeatedly asked to be released from his service at the court, but Frederick didn't want to let him go. When the Hamburg City Council invited Bach to succeed his recently deceased godfather, Georg Philipp Telemann, as musical director of the city's five main Lutheran churches, the king finally consented for him to move on.

Concert organizer in Hamburg

Bach's new role required him to write church music and scores for celebratory occasions, resulting in a new output of oratorios and symphonies. At last Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach felt free to express himself as he pleased. He organized his own concerts and, like Telemann, became a businessman who published his own works.

His first collection of "Keyboard Music for Connoisseurs and Music Lovers" was published in 1779 and received an enthusiastic review in a Hamburg newspaper:

"There seems to be no end to his talent for invention. Each of his sonatas is a new original. And hearing Bach play these masterpieces himself, it is hard to know whom to admire most, the performer or the composer."

English music historian Charles Burney was similarly impressed. After a visit to Hamburg in 1772, he wrote, "Herr Bach was kind enough to sit at his favorite instrument, a Silbermann piano, and to play three or four of his best and most difficult compositions with all the delicacy, precision and fire that have rightfully made him so famous among his compatriots."

Playing from the soul

Remaining in Hamburg for twenty years, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach became known for his trailblazing contribution to the style of "Empfindsamkeit," whose aim was to express true feelings. Influenced by the Age of Enlightenment, this "style of sensitivity" was marked by eccentric, suddenly contrasting moods and arching, lyrical lines of melody. In his own words:

"I believe that music should touch the heart first and foremost. Real music has a freedom that eliminates anything slavish or machine-like. One has to play from the soul, not like a performing bird."

His essay on the "True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments" offers additional insights. Widely distributed during his lifetime, the book was one of the most important reference works in the rediscovery of early music and historic performance practice in the 1960s.

In 1775 the poet and composer Christian Friedrich Daniel Schubart described the innovative talents of Carl Philipp Emanuel as a teacher, composer and pianist. "Bach leads the pianist like the rhythm stick the poet. His playful compositional style is inimitable, and his movements are filled with profundity and harmony. He is not just creating an era for us, but for times to come."

Anniversary year

To do justice to Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach in the year marking the 300th anniversary of his birth, the cities of Hamburg, Berlin, Potsdam, Frankfurt on the Oder, Leipzig und Weimar are collaborating in an inter-city network, celebrating Bach's life and work in concerts, lectures and exhibitions.

Title page to Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach's ""True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments"
Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach's ""True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments"Image: CC BY-SA 4.0/Ralph Theo Misch
Charles Burney
Charles Burney was a music historian of note
Hamburg around the year 1750 in a copper engraving
Hamburg around the year 1750Image: picture-alliance/akg-images
Flute concert with Frederick the Great at Sanssouci Palace
Flute concert with Frederick the Great at Sanssouci Palace