As a German composer whose early works exemplified the grandeur of Baroque style and whose subsequent works evolved into pure Classicism, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach’s keyboard music offers a charming and historical look into the musical transition between two great eras of music history. Standing in the shadow of his famous father, Johann Sebastian Bach, C.P.E. Bach is sometimes overlooked by historians for his ground-breaking keyboard Sonatas and his significant contribution to Protestant Church music in the second half of the Eighteenth Century.
Most of his music is not as well known as that of his father, but in the second half of the Eighteenth Century, C.P.E. Bach was known as the “Great Bach.” He was the second eldest and the most famous of J.S. Bach’s sons. An advocate of subjectivity and individual self-expression in music, C.P.E. Bach was quickly hailed as the foremost exponent of the Sturm und Drang movement of the late Eighteenth Century. Growing out of Baroque music, the “Storm and Stress” period can be seen as a time of transition between the works of J.S. Bach, Handel, and Telemann, and those of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven.
C.P.E. Bach was born in Weimar, Germany on March 8, 1714 as the second surviving son of Johann Sebastian Bach and his first wife Maria Barbara. He was baptized on March 10, 1714 with Telemann as one of his godfathers. In 1717 he moved with the family to Cöthen where his father had been appointed Kapellmeister. His mother died in 1720, and in the spring of 1723 the family moved to Leipzig, where Emanuel attended the Thomasschule as a day student. J.S. Bach said later that one of his reasons for accepting the post of Kantor at the Thomasschule was that his sons’ intellectual development suggested that they would benefit from a university education.
Emanuel Bach received his musical training from his father, who gave him keyboard and organ lessons. From the age of fifteen, he took part in his father’s musical performances in church and in the collegium musicum. He appears relatively seldom as a copyist, no doubt because he was usually excused from such duties due to his outstanding notational abilities. The one large-scale work of sacred music in Leipzig, mainly copied by him, was the anonymous Saint Luke Passion (BWV 246), obviously arranged by J.S. Bach to meet an urgent deadline for Good Friday in 1730. In October of 1731, Emanuel matriculated at Leipzig University. Following his godfather’s example, he studied law, although he was destined for a musical career. His first compositions were probably written about 1730. They consisted mainly of keyboard pieces and chamber music as it was understood in the Eighteenth Century (i.e. solos with basso continuo, trio sonatas, and concerti grossi emulating the style of Vivaldi).
At the age of nineteen, Emanuel applied unsuccessfully for the position of organist at the church of Saint Wenzel in Naumburg. In September 1734, he transferred to the University in Frankfurt, where he was prominent in many university-related musical activities. The Musikalische Akademie mentioned in his autobiography was a student ensemble or collegium musicum. Besides his own compositions, he performed works by his father in Frankfurt, including the Ouverture in D major (BWV 1068), the Coffee Cantata, and the Concerto in D minor (BWV 1052) in what was probably his own arrangement (BWV 1052a). He also composed occasional pieces for university events and for weddings. In the genealogy of the Bach family compiled by J.S. Bach about 1735, it clearly states that C.P.E. Bach was also teaching keyboard lessons (harpsichord and organ) during this time in Frankfurt. In 1738, he was offered an opportunity to go on an educational tour abroad as companion to Heinrich Christian von Keyserlingk, son of Reichsgraf Hermann Carl von Keyserlingk, a patron of both J.S. and W.F. Bach. However, his new appointment to the service of Crown Prince Frederick of Prussia prevented him from accepting this invitation.
The details that led to Emanuel Bach’s appointment to the court of the Prussian King are unclear. He says in his autobiography that his appointment became official only after the prince succeeded to the throne as Frederick II in May of 1740, and he then had the honor of accompanying the “first flute solo” played by the new King “alone at the harpsichord.” The first mention of Emanuel Bach in official court records was as “one of those who joined the Kapelle in 1741.” So he must initially have been paid from Prince Frederick’s private funds. The orchestra consisted of some 40 musicians and was one of the largest and most outstanding ensembles in Germany. Frederick, who took flute lessons from J.J. Quantz and studied composition with J.S. Bach’s pupil, J.F. Agricola, usually played in the concerts himself. He was an enthusiastic advocate of the new Italianate style of the time, and he was also interested in Italian opera. As an absolute monarch, Frederick largely dictated many aspects of the musical life of Berlin, and he exerted considerable influence on the development of music in the city between 1740 and 1755. But from the beginning of the Seven Years War, his taste ceased to develop, and he eventually contributed to the decay of musical life at court.
The notion that C.P.E. Bach was poorly paid for his services at the Prussian court is unfounded. His salary was 300 thalers per year from the time he took up his duties. And this sum was as much as was paid to any of the other musicians engaged at court. Unless they were busy with chamber music, which was initially played to Frederick the Great daily, the court musicians were all required to take part in the performances at the Berlin Opera House. Bach’s duties were considerably reduced from 1742 onward, when Christian Friedrich Schale was appointed second harpsichordist (succeeded by Christoph Nichelmann in 1745). The harpsichordists alternated monthly, and each of them were paid a full salary. This meant that Bach could pursue other activities as a keyboard teacher and composer. His teaching in Berlin inspired the writing of his treatise: Versuch über die wahre Art das Clavier zu spielen (Vol. I: H.868, Vol. II: H.870) (Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments), the most important Eighteenth Century German language work on the subject. However, Bach never won recognition at court as the prominent composer and virtuoso that he truly was. Frederick would allow only Hasse, Graun, Quantz, and Agricola that status. Even the dedication to him of Bach’s first published work, the Prussian Sonatas, made no lasting impression on the King.
In 1743, an attack of the gout (that was to trouble Bach all his life) obliged him to visit the Bohemian spa of Teplitz for treatment. The following year, he married Johanna Maria Dannemann, the daughter of a Berlin wine merchant. Of the three children from this marriage who lived to adulthood, Johann Adam (1745–1789), Anna Carolina Philippina (1747–1804), and Johann Sebastian, also known as Johann Samuel (1748–1778), only the youngest showed any artistic inclinations. He became a painter, but he died at the age of 30 in Rome. In May of 1747, the famous meeting between Emanuel’s father, Johann Sebastian Bach, and Frederick II took place in Potsdam. And it was as a result of this meeting that the Musical Offering (BWV 1079) was composed by the elder Bach. However, it brought no improvement in Emanuel Bach’s position at court, and his efforts to leave Berlin began at that time.
In August of the same year, he completed an impressive and ornate vocal work, his Magnificat (H.772), which was intended to pave his way to a post as a church musician and which was performed in Leipzig during his father’s lifetime. However, his applications for the position of Thomaskantor in Leipzig in 1750 and 1755 failed even though he had Telemann’s support. Likewise, an application for the post of organist at the Johanniskirche in Zittau in 1753 did not gain him a position. A journey in early summer 1751 took him to Bückeburg, where his younger half-brother Johann Christoph Friedrich had been a court musician since early 1750. The occasion for the visit was the award of the Order of the Great Eagle by Frederick II to his childhood friend Count Wilhelm Friedrich Ernst zu Schaumburg-Lippe, and Bach dedicated his two Trios to the art-loving count. He travelled home by way of Halberstadt, Brunswick and Hamburg, where he visited Johann Mattheson in mid June, and no doubt he also took the opportunity of visiting his godfather Telemann with whom he regularly corresponded. Three years later, in June of 1754, he attended the baptism of his cousin, Johann Ernst Bach’s son Johann Carl Philipp, in Eisenach, and he combined this personal reason for making the trip with his professional interests by giving concerts in Gotha and Kassel.
C.P.E. Bach took part in the première of Graun’s Tod Jesu (Death of Jesus) in March of 1755, playing the harpsichord continuo part. During this same year, tensions at the Berlin court came to a head when Christoph Nichelmann criticized Bach’s compositional style for its “affectation” in a treatise published in Danzig. Bach urged a family friend to publish a rebuttal, and this in turn unleashed a further written onslaught from Nichelmann. In May of 1755, in a memorandum which survives only in extracts, Bach complained to King Frederick about what he regarded as Nichelmann’s unwarranted and preferential financial treatment, and Bach threatened to resign his position. This dispute finally led to Nichelmann’s leaving the service of the court, while Bach’s salary was raised by 200 thalers. In February of 1756, the young C.F.C. Fasch was appointed second harpsichordist at the standard salary of 300 thalers. But for Bach, the increase in salary did not make up for the indignity that he had suffererd at the hands of Nichelmann, and he began to distance himself still further from life at the royal court. He mingled more in the private musical circles of Berlin. Bach was a member of the so-called “first Berlin lied school,” founded by Christian Gottfried Krause, although his writing of songs was a only minor focal point during his career.
His composition of songs brought him into contact with F.W. Marpurg, the leading Berlin music critic. Bach assisted Marpurg by providing musical examples for his treatises, such as the Fugues (H.76 and H.99) and two Allegros (H.338 and H.339). He also wrote a short essay on double counterpoint printed in Marpurg’s Historisch-kritische Beyträge, published in Berlin in 1757. His abilities as a composer were greatly appreciated in the circle around Princess Anna Amalia and his father’s former pupil, Kirnberger. He composed most of the Organ Sonatas for the princess and possibly the two Organ Concertos (H.444 and H.446) as well. The importance of these private musical circles increased after 1756 due to the outbreak of the Seven Years War. The reality of wartime Prussia was that King Frederick visited Berlin only occasionally, and on the whole life at the royal court withered.
The war brought with it conditions of great austerity for the people of Berlin. Salaries were paid in paper money which had only a fifth of its supposed purchasing power. In view of the military threat, Bach joined the militia, but when Berlin was occupied by the Russian army in 1758, he moved to Zerbst to stay with Carl Fasch’s family, and he made a brief visit to the court of Mecklenburg in Strelitz in 1762. The intimate character of the compositions from this period, written between 1762 and 1764, suggests that they were intended for performance with modest musical forces, likely the salons of minor nobility, like some of the keyboard and chamber music works (for example H.143 and H.507). Bach composed most of his Symphonies at this same time and probably for the same kind of audience and performance setting. These were musically liberating works for Bach, free of the contraints of the royal court in Berlin (where they were never performed). He made a name for himself throughout Germany with a number of publications in almost all musical genres except opera. Like his famous father, Emanuel Bach never turned his attentions to opera stage. It is not surprising that it was Emanuel Bach, rather than his brother W.F. Bach, director of church music in Halle, who was commissioned to write a festive work (now lost) for trumpets and drums to celebrate the Peace of Hubertusburg in 1763.
After Telemann’s death in 1767, Bach applied to succeed him as music director of the principal churches in Hamburg. His competitors for the post were H.F. Raupach, J.H. Rolle (music director at Magdeburg), and his own half-brother Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach. Emanuel narrowly defeated Rolle in the second and deciding ballot. Although he was appointed to the position in Hamburg in November of 1767, he did not arrive there until March 1768, since King Frederick initially refused to release him from the royal court, and then a particularly harsh winter made it impossible for him to leave Berlin any earlier. Georg Michael Telemann, the composer’s grandson, acted as interim director of church music in Hamburg until Bach’s arrival. By appointing Bach her honorary Kapellmeister, Princess Amalia brought a note of conciliation to the close of his years in Berlin.
Bach took over as director of sacred music in Hamburg on Easter Saturday (April 2, 1768), but he was not officially inaugurated in his new post until April 19th. His duties in Hamburg were much like his father’s in Leipzig. He was on the staff of the Hamburg Lateinschule (still in existence today as the Johanneum) and was responsible for the teaching of music there. However, he claimed one of Telemann’s privileges, that of engaging a deputy at his own expense to teach at the school. His main task was the organization of the music in Hamburg’s five principal churches, the Michaeliskirche, Jakobikirche, St Katharinen, Nikolaikirche and Petrikirche. According to a report made after Bach’s death, the number of musical performances was almost 200 a year: a difficult task for a small choral establishment consisting of pupils from the Johanneum and a few professional singers.
His predecessor’s tenure of more than forty years and his extraordinary creative powers, which remained with him into old age, had aroused expectations for Bach that he could not equal. He worked relatively slowly and consequently tried to avoid the pressure of deadlines by planning long before music was needed. For instance, his first musical setting of the Passion for 1768 was mostly written while Bach was still in Berlin, and its performance was postponed until 1769 because of his delayed move to Hamburg. In subsequent years he usually completed his Easter preparations by the previous Christmas. Bach’s ambitious plan to compose two cantata cycles for the church year was never realized. Instead, much of the music he performed was by other composers: in particular Georg Benda, G.A. Homilius and G.P. Telemann. Bach adapted the works of others by changing the instrumentation, composing additional movements, and by revising the recitatives.
Only for the primary festivals of the church year, Easter, Michaelmas and Christmas, did Bach compose new works of his own in appreciable numbers. In line with a tradition dating from the 17th century, Bach annually compiled Passion settings based on the accounts from the four Gospels in strict rotation, and these were performed in several smaller churches as well as in the principal churches of Hamburg. But since the the bulk of sacred music in the city consisted of works by other composers, Bach was soon criticized for performing his duties vicariously, through the music of others. On the other hand, he took great pains with works commissioned for special occasions, such as the inauguration of clerical or administrative officials or mayoral funerals. In 1780 and 1783, he composed music for the celebrations of the Bürgerkapitäne, and in 1770 he composed an Italian festive chorus for a visit by the Crown Prince of Sweden, later King Gustav III. Prominent among his compositions were his new oratorios, which were performed as often in churches as in concert halls, although not within regular church services. All three of Bach’s sacred oratorios: Die Israeliten in der Wüste (The Israelites in the Desert), Die Auferstehung und Himmelfahrt Jesu (The Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus), and the Cantata (H.776) which was derived from the first Passion that Bach composed for Hamburg, were performed widely outside Hamburg itself. They are among the most important Protestant vocal works from the second half of the Eighteenth Century.
Despite criticisms from some quarters, Bach was regarded as the leading figure in the musical society of Hamburg, and many musicians, men of letters, and other artists visiting the city sought him out. Bach was also much involved in teaching, and his pupils included professional musicians, such as J.D. Holland, C.F.G. Schwencke, Nils Schirrring, and the future mayor of Altona, Casper Siegfried Gähler. Besides performing his official duties as director of church music, a post that (except during a severe illness from February to April 1772) he filled conscientiously until his last years while remaining on good terms with the contentious Hamburg clergy, Bach assumed from the beginning a leading position in the city’s concert life. In winter 1768, he announced a series of twenty subscription concerts, and the following winter there were at least six concerts. Twelve Wednesday concerts were advertised for the winter of 1771.
Over the next few years there were considerably fewer concerts in which Bach was featured as a keyboard player. Apparently, he stopped giving public concerts altogether when he was sixty-five years old. As well as his own oratorios, he performed a number of other composers’ works in the Hamburg concert halls, including Graun’s Tod Jesu and Telemann’s Seliges Erwägen and the Donnerode. Bach brought his public appearances (outside his official church duties) to a close with a “historic” concert in April of 1786, consisting of one of his own orchestral Symphonies, isolated movements from works by J.S. Bach (the Credo from the Mass in B minor with a newly composed introduction) and Handel’s “I know that my Redeemer liveth” from Messiah, and two of his finest works, the Magnificat and the Heilig for double choir (H.778).
Bach remained musically productive, creating new compositions until the last year of his life, although he was in poor health after the summer of 1788. The three Quartets for harpsichord, cello, flute and viola (H.537–539), a new collection of Songs (H.700–760), published by Donatius in Lübeck in 1789, and a pasticcio Passion for 1789 were all written in Bach’s last year. He died on December 14, 1788 of a “chest ailment” and was buried on December 19th in the crypt of the Michaeliskirche. After his death Johanna Maria Bach temporarily administered the office of music director. Proposals for a reorganization of church music in Hamburg meant that a successor to her husband was not appointed until autumn 1789, and it was only in December that year that she handed the post over to C.F.G. Schwencke, who had been elected the previous October.
C.P.E. Bach believed in the new aesthetic ideals of his time which demanded that music “touch the heart” and “awaken the passions.” His works were daring for their time, and some were even considered bizarre by his contemporaries. In his music, there are often bold harmonic progressions, interjected sections in contrasting tempo, seamless transitions between movements, abrupt changes of mood, and frequent rambling passages that seem to be searching for a goal. While he was not a prodigiously prolific composer when compared to Haydn or Mozart, he produced music, often experimental, of undeniably high quality and with considerable charm and elegance.
While C.P.E. Bach’s progressive and uniquely individual style was most pronounced in his keyboard Sonatas and certain Symphonies, his Concertos for various instruments also contain many features that seize the attention of the listener with their great originality. After leaving the employ of King Frederick the Great of Prussia and settling in Hamburg, Bach was no longer restricted by the conservative tastes of the royal court, and he was able to indulge in a more daring, experimental kind of music. J.F. Reichardt, one of the most important music critics of the Eighteenth Century, praised the “original and audacious progression of ideas and the great variety and novelty in the forms and modulations” of Bach’s Symphonies.
Clearly, C.P.E. Bach was a leader among the group of composers who were creating music in a completely new style, and the influence of his works on those of Haydn and Mozart is considerable. His most conservative works were wholly Baroque in their conception (written in Leipzig and the early years in Berlin), while others contained many elements of what we now call Classical style while they simultaneously maintained Baroque elements as well. But in his most adventurous works (written for the private music circles in Berlin and later in Hamburg), he achieved a purely Classical idiom, thus branding him as a true innovator in music history and one of the founding fathers of the Classical Era through his contributions to the development of Sonata-Allegro form.