Mar 082016


Today is the birthday (1714) of Carl Philipp Emanuel (C.P.E.) Bach, also formerly spelled Karl Philipp Emmanuel, an 18th century musician and composer, the fifth child and second (surviving) son of Johann Sebastian Bach and Maria Barbara Bach. His second name was given in honor of his godfather Georg Philipp Telemann, a friend of Johann Sebastian. He’s part of the alphabet soup of Bachs, famously parodied by Peter Schickele via his alter ego, P.D.Q. Bach. It was, indeed, a prodigiously productive family, musically, but outside of J.S., C.P.E. is arguably the most notable. C.P.E. was extremely popular in his day, outstripping his father, but then his star waned until the later 20th century, when it brightened again. C.P.E. is commonly called a “transitional” composer between his father’s baroque style and the classical and romantic styles that followed it. I’d like to use his own words to counter the judgment:

According to my principles, every master has his true and certain value. Praise and criticism cannot change any of that. Only the work itself praises and criticizes the master, and therefore I leave to everyone his own value.

As much as we can, therefore, let’s forget his famous father and focus on what C.P.E. did in his own right. Not being a musical scholar, I can’t spend a lot of time on technical matters. But I know one or two things. Perhaps paramount is that I don’t like labels. To start, all the Bachs are called German musicians, and their music, German. This is an anachronism (that I have fallen victim too before, myself). Germany did not exist as a nation in the 18th century. There is as much difference between a Prussian and a Bavarian as between a Sicilian and a Venetian. And . . . instead of lumping him under a label of “transitional,” thinking of the Baroque, Classical, and Romantic periods as high points with undoubted master exponents, let’s just look at what he accomplished.


When it comes to labels he was listed as part of the empfindsamer Stil of the 18th century. “Empfindsamer” is normally translated as “sensitive,” but this does not quite get at the nuances which might include “true,” “natural,” “sentimental,” and “moody.” The emphasis is on dramatic fluidity with surprising changes of mood somewhat contrasting with the slightly later showier and stormier phase called Sturm und Drang (storm and stress), that emerged around 1770. Both emphasized extreme expressive contrasts with disruptive incursions, instability of key, sudden changes of register, dynamic contrast, and exciting orchestral effects, all of which are atypical of musical classicism as practiced in the second half of the eighteenth century.

C. P. E. Bach was born in Weimar to Johann Sebastian Bach and his first wife, Maria Barbara. Georg Philipp Telemann was his godfather. When he was ten years old, he entered the St. Thomas School at Leipzig, where his father had become cantor in 1723. He was one of four Bach children to become professional musicians; all four were trained in music almost entirely by their father. In an age of royal patronage, father and son alike knew that a university education helped prevent a professional musician from being treated as a servant. Carl, like his brothers, pursued advanced studies in jurisprudence at the University of Leipzig in 1731 and at Frankfurt-on-the-Oder in 1735. In 1738, at the age of 24, he obtained his degree but never practiced law, instead turning his attention immediately to music.

A few months after graduation C.P.E. obtained an appointment at Berlin in the service of Crown Prince Frederick of Prussia, the future Frederick the Great. Upon Frederick’s accession in 1740, Bach became a member of the royal orchestra. He was by this time one of the foremost clavier players in Europe, and his compositions, which date from 1731, include about thirty sonatas and concert pieces for harpsichord and clavichord. During his time there, Berlin was a rich artistic environment.


In Berlin, C.P.E. wrote numerous pieces for solo keyboard, including a series of character pieces, the so-called “Berlin Portraits”, including “La Caroline”. His reputation was established by the two sets of sonatas which he published with dedications to Frederick the Great (1742) and to Charles Eugene, Duke of Württemberg (1744). In 1746, he was promoted to the post of chamber musician (Kammermusikus) and served the king alongside colleagues like Carl Heinrich Graun, Johann Joachim Quantz, and Franz Benda.

The composer who most influenced Bach’s maturing style was unquestionably his father. He drew creative inspiration from his godfather Georg Philipp Telemann, then working in Hamburg, and from contemporaries like George Frideric Handel, Carl Heinrich Graun and Joseph Haydn. Bach’s interest in all types of art led to influence from poets, playwrights and philosophers such as Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock, Moses Mendelssohn and Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. In turn, C.P.E. ‘s work influenced Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Felix Mendelssohn, and others, all of whom wrote of him with high praise.


During his residence in Berlin, Bach composed a setting of the Magnificat (1749), in which he shows more traces than usual of his father’s influence; an Easter cantata (1756); several symphonies and concert works; at least three volumes of songs, including the celebrated Gellert Songs; and a few secular cantatas and other occasional pieces. But his main work was concentrated on the clavier, for which he composed, at this time, nearly two hundred sonatas and other solos, including the set Mit veränderten Reprisen (With Changed Reprises, 1760–1768).

While in Berlin, C.P.E. placed himself in the forefront of European music with a treatise, Versuch über die wahre Art das Clavier zu spielen (An Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments), immediately recognized as a definitive work on keyboard technique. By 1780, the book was in its third edition and laid the foundation for the keyboard methods of Clementi and Cramer. In it, C.P.E. broke with tradition in allowing and even encouraging the use of the thumbs. Since his time this has been a standard technique for keyboard instruments. The essay lays out the fingering for each chord and some chord sequences. The first part of the Essay contains a chapter explaining the various embellishments in work of the period, e.g., trills, turns, mordents, etc. – vital for music historians. The second part presents C.P.E.’s ideas on the art of figured bass and counterpoint, where he gives preference to the contrapuntal approach to harmonization over the newer ideas of Rameau’s theory of harmony and root progressions.


In 1768, after protracted negotiations, C.P.E. was permitted to relinquish his position in order to succeed his godfather Telemann as director of music (Kapellmeister) in Hamburg. Upon his release from service at the court he was named court composer for Frederick’s sister, Princess Anna Amalia. The title was honorary, but her patronage and interest in the oratorio genre may have played a role in nurturing the ambitious choral works that followed.

Bach married Johanna Maria Dannemann in 1744. Only three of their children lived to adulthood: Johann Adam (1745–89), Anna Carolina Philippina (1747–1804), and Johann Sebastian “the Younger” (1748–78). None became musicians and Johann Sebastian, a promising painter, died in his late twenties during a 1778 trip to Italy. C.P.E. died in Hamburg on 14 December 1788. He was buried in the Michaeliskirche in Hamburg.

Letter from CPE Bach to JH Voss

C.P.E.’s name fell into disregard during the 19th century; Robert Schumann notoriously wrote that “as a creative musician he remained very far behind his father,” with many others following suit. This is quite laughable given that a generation earlier J.S. Bach was also ignored because of shifting tastes. Don’t believe the critics, believe your ears. Johannes Brahms held C.P.E. in high regard and edited some of his music. By the early 20th century, he was better regarded but the revival of his works has been chiefly underway since Helmuth Koch’s recordings of his symphonies and Hugo Ruf’s recordings of his keyboard sonatas in the 1960s.

It may be a trivial accolade on my part, but I am intrigued by his compositions for mechanical instruments such as the music box and musical clock, popular at the Prussian court in Frederick’s day. Music boxes, in particular, are plagued with horrible tinklings. C. P. E. wrote thirty original compositions for these instruments, grouped together as Wq. 193. Frederick was intrigued by mechanically reproduced music and had mechanical organ clocks built for the City Castle of Potsdam and for the New Palais. Here’s one such piece recreated on the organ:

In honor of C.P.E.’s birthplace, here is a famous soup from Weimar. The apples make the difference !! This not the darker soup that is common in France, although the beer adds a bite.


Weimar Onion Soup.


1 lb yellow onions, peeled and thinly sliced
3 tbsp butter
1 tbsp flour
1 apple, peeled, cored, and thinly sliced
4 cups beef stock
½ cup German beer
½ tsp dried marjoram
salt, pepper
1 bunch fresh chives, chopped
5 tbsp Emmenthal cheese, grated
2 tablespoons croutons


Melt the butter in a saucepan, add the onions and sauté until they are soft. Add the apple slices and sauté for a few minutes longer. Gradually add the flour, then the beef stock and beer. Season to taste with marjoram, salt and pepper. Simmer over medium-low heat for 15-20 minutes.

Serve very hot in individual crocks with croutons and cheese, and a chive garnish.