CPE BACH – Symphonies & concertos

Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach
Music for a prince

Having a father like the Soldier-King, Frederick Wilhelm I of Prussia, a despotic monarch with a violent temper and a contempt for writers, led Frederick II of Prussia, while still an adolescent,  to take different path. He appreciated philosophy, venerated literature and languages – most of all French, which would become the language of his court – was familiar with painting and mastered the flute. At the age of 24 and newly wed, he would surround himself with philosophers and persons of letters, write poetry, and start a long correspondence with Voltaire. Upon ascending the throne a few years later, he had already been dubbed the Philosopher-King.

A clever strategist yet also an unscrupulous diplomat, he abolished torture, reorganized the judicial system, developed commerce and industry, and invested in schools (which were considered among the finest in Europe). He also founded an Academy of Science to which he invited the celebrated mathematician, Leonhard Euler. The King shared the belief of the philosopher Emmanuel Kant, whose reputation spread far beyond the kingdom’s borders, that freedom of thought must be defended at all costs even though social order required obedience.

Keen on literature and a great art collector (he possessed a good number of Watteaus), he also identified himself as a passionate lover of music. In a style blending “the Italian music of the senses” with the “French music of the mind,” he composed some hundred sonatas for flute (his favourite instrument) and four symphonies which, if not outstanding, are at least on a par with those of a good many of his contemporaries. Above all else, he knew how to surround himself with some of the best known musicians in Germany, such as Johann Joachim Quantz (his appointed professor who dedicated 295 concertos to him!), Carl Heinrich Graun, Franz Benda and Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach.

The second son of Johann Sebastian Bach and godson of Georg Philipp Telemann, Carl Philipp Emanuel had no one but his father as guide. He was a particularly gifted harpsichordist who, already at the age of 11, could read any score put before him. Despite these gifts, he undertook the study of law, but still composing all the while, starting with the keyboard repertory and then moving on to chamber music. Upon finishing his studies in 1738, Frederick the Great made him an offer he could not refuse: to become a member of his household. Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach would remain in the monarch’s service for thirty years. This in spite of latent dissatisfaction at the favouritism shown to Quantz and Graun, and his own sarcasm with regard to the king’s musical tastes, “You think the King loves music? No, he only loves the flute and even then, if you think he loves the flute, you’re mistaken, he only loves his flute.”

During Frederick II’s stays in Rupin, Rheinsberg, and finally Berlin, Bach wrote a good deal of “utility” music – easy pieces for keyboard and works the king could play. In addition to all those commissions, the composer would also produce some important works such as his Prussian (1742) and Wurtemberg (1744) Sonatas.  Alongside this essentially domestic music, Bach also wrote symphonies and harpsichord concertos (nearly fifty during his long career) for the court in Berlin,  a true turning point between Vivaldi’s baroque structure with ritornelli, the architecture and contrapuntal style of Johann Sebastian, and Mozart’s purely classical concerto. Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach would be one of the first to integrate bithematism and textural contrast into his works – concepts that would spearhead the sonata form.
His Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments remains one of the era’s most important practical treatises and served as the basis for Clement’s and Cramer’s methods. There, Bach touches on dexterity, ornamentation, aesthetics, accompaniment, and improvisation. But above all, he expresses the essentials of the Empfindsamer Stil (Sensitive Style), one of the indispensable ferments of the Romanticism to come: “A musician cannot move others unless he too is moved. He must of necessity feel all the affects that he hopes to arouse in his audience, for the revealing of his own humour will stimulate a like humour in his listeners. […] One must play with soul and not like some well-trained bird. Certain professional virtuosos might well surprise with the nimbleness of their fingers, yet they leave the sensitive souls of their listeners hungering.”

He also explains the necessity of broadening the baroque palette which, in any segment of a given work, only illustrates one more or less standardized emotion. “Hardly has a musician expressed one idea that another comes along, so he must be able to transform his passions at any time.” Thus as the Enlightenment strove to rationalize the instincts, Bach’s music, to the contrary, proclaimed itself a liberation of the feelings, in much the same way as the composer’s close friend, Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock, did in verse. Klopstock played a key role in the birth of Sturm und Drang (literally “Storm and Stress”). Rather than delving into the pre-established equilibrium between man and nature, the Empfindsamer chose to explore the currents, the half-shades, the unsaid, not even trying to reproduce them using any preconceived formulas, and translate them into music. In an inimitable style, Bach privileged the variety and originality of the thematic material (most especially in his fast movements), but also favoured expressive intensity and moving harmonies (in his slow ones).

By the end of the 18th century, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach’s reputation had reached its height. Mozart had gushed: “He’s the father and we’re the children.” Haydn had analysed the master’s scores and admitted to having drawn his foundations from them while Beethoven had boundless admiration for him and considered him a genius. With an abundant body of work covering six decades, he remains a determining figure in the history of music. As the writer Klopstock put it in The Hours of Inspiration: “The work which you shall inspire in him will transcend all the ages, men of every century will listen to it, it will lift their hearts to God and teach them virtue.”

© Lucie Renaud 2009 Translation Phillip Seebold.