8 March 2014 marks the 300th birth anniversary of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714-1788), Classical period musician and composer, and fifth child and second son of his much more illustrious father Johann Sebastian Bach and his first wife Maria Barbara.
It is not easy being a son of an illustrious parent, especially if one then goes on to choose the same ‘business’ or profession as that parent as well. And the 1700s were a period of transition in music, from the Baroque style of the father to the Classical period that was to follow. Some of J.S. Bach’s twenty-two children did ‘crash and burn’, of those that survived infancy and childhood, that is. His eldest son Wilhelm Friedeman eventually abandoned his organist post in Halle, and became a drifter, plagiarising his father’s music and recycling his own. But his other sons, notably Carl Philipp, and the youngest, Johann Christian (the “London” or “English” Bach on account of his years spent there, even being known as John Bach) were able to carve a niche for themselves in music history despite the long shadow of their father.
CPE Bach was born in Weimar, and contemporary composer Georg Philipp Telemann stood as his godfather, accounting for the ‘Philipp’ in the child’s name. At ten, he entered the St. Thomas school Leipzig, where his father was cantor. Because he knew that a university education would buy respect and avoid exploitation in his professional career as a musician, he and his brothers studied jurisprudence at the University of Leipzig, and then at Frankfurt an der Oder. However, as soon as he graduated, he went back to music.
He became one of the top clavier-players in Europe, and was appointed to the court of Crown Prince Frederick of Prussia (the future Frederick the Great, the “scholar-king”), a great music lover and patron himself. Despite this, the two did not get on for several reasons, including personality differences and wage disputes, and in 1768 he left for Hamburg to fill the position of cantor and music director there after his godfather Telemann died. He remained in Hamburg all his life thereafter, earning for him the moniker ‘Hamburg Bach’ (presumably to distinguish him from his younger brother, the ‘London Bach’ mentioned earlier).
Although Emanuel’s father remained a lifelong influence, he also sought inspiration from Telemann, and other contemporaries, notably George Frideric Handel, and Joseph Haydn. His holistic interest in all the arts and philosophy enabled him to acquire a dynamic personal style known as empfindsamer Stil (‘sensitive style’), applying the principles of rhetoric and drama to musical structure. He immersed himself in the works of playwrights, poets and philosophers such as Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock and Moses Mendelssohn (grandfather of composer Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy).
His music in turn influenced a whole generation of composers, which included Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Mendelssohn. Haydn’s study of Emanuel Bach’s music formed the basis of most of his own training in composition. In fact Emanuel Bach was held in such high esteem that Mozart once exclaimed “He is the father, we are the children”.
While in Hamburg, he not only wrote music for its five churches. But promoted concerts and published several cornerstone works, including six sets of keyboard sonatas “für Kenner und Liebhaber” (for Conoisseurs and Amateurs). Previously in Berlin he wrote a landmark treatise Versuch über die Wahre Art das Clavier zu spielen (An Essay on the True Art of playing Keyboard Instruments), which set the stage for the keyboard technique of Muzio Clementi and others after him, and are still in use today.
His overall compositional output is staggering, even when considering whose son he was: 409 known works for solo keyboard; 99 concertos whether for keyboard or for flute, violin or oboe; 146 chamber works (sonatas, duets, trios and other combinations); 22 symphonies; 104 songs and arias; 10 liturgical works notably his Magnificat in D major; 21 Passions (he seems to have inherited this “passion” for Passions from his father as well); at least 22 cantatas, some of which are now lost; 22 motets and choral works; and other miscellaneous works.
And posterity will be forever be in his debt for being the dutiful custodian of the portion of his father’s oeuvre (Bachiana as it was sometimes called) that was bequeathed to him. Tragically, the lion’s share of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach’s music was given to his eldest son Wilhelm Friedemann, due to whose negligence is now lost, perhaps forever. Here is the account by Philipp Spitta, music historian and musicologist and biographer of J.S. Bach, referring to the five Passions: “After his death, his sons Friedemann and Emanuel divided these cantatas between them, and the Passions were no doubt included. Emanuel had the original scores of the St. John and the St. Matthew Passions. He treasured them faithfully and they still exist. The original scores of the other three fell into the hands of the dissipated Friedemann, who now grew wilder than ever; they were sold for a trifle, and two have completely disappeared.” Not only this, Emanuel also was the only one among his siblings to bring out new editions of his father’s works, recommending them to connoisseurs and music students. He conducted a performance of the Credo from his father’s B minor Mass when it was scarcely known, and he (anonymously) defended in the press an unfair comparison of the music of his father’s music compared to that of Handel.
But Emanuel’s music stands up to scrutiny in its own right. It is notable for its startling, unexpected dynamic shifts, modulations or new rhythmic patterns, what Pamela Fox in her essay “The Stylistic Anomalies of CPE Bach’s Nonconstancy” describes as the “novel unpredictability and imaginative unorthodoxy of his music” exerting a “magnetic attraction upon scholars, performers and listeners”. Beethoven may well have learnt a trick or two from Emanuel Bach.
German harpsichordist and musicologist summaries his legacy well: “Does Emanuel Bach stand between the times? No, he is his own time.”
All six Bach cities (where the Bach family lived and worked) in Germany: Hamburg, Berlin, Potsdam, Frankfurt an der Oder, Leipzig and Weimar will celebrate this milestone 300th birthday of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach through concerts, lectures, exhibitions, films, workshops and other activities to honour their great citizen.
(An edited version of this article was published on 9 March 2014 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)