The reputation of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach

CPE Bach portrait

Portrait of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach / Johann Philipp Bach ca. 1780

This year marks the 300th anniversary of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. His contemporaries held him in much higher esteem than later generations, who have regarded him as just one of Johann Sebastian Bach’s sons.

Yet in his lifetime, he was known as the “Great Bach.” When Mozart said, “Bach is the father. We are the children,” he had Emanuel in mind, not Sebastian.

We may see him only in the shadow of his father, but in his lifetime, his father cast hardly any shadow at all. Why isn’t C.P.E. Bach better known today?

Working in the periphery

CPE Bach accompanying King Frederick

Flute Concert with Frederick the Great in Sans Souci / Adolph Menzel (1850-52). Bach accompanies on harpsichord.

A number of fine composers of his time and later remain in obscurity simply because their work did not reach the public in any of the major cultural centers of Europe.

Bach worked first in Berlin and then in Hamburg, neither of them international centers.

At the court in Berlin, Bach served chiefly as accompanist. The music-loving king never numbered him among the court composers. That he developed any reputation at all as a composer results from a light schedule of court duties that left him plenty of time to compose for city’s musical community.

I’m not aware of concert data from Vienna, Paris, or London that would indicate how much of C.P.E. Bach’s music reached the general public there. His reputation with musicians rests largely on his treatise Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments.

It combines technical advice (he was the first in print to advocate using the thumbs) with an aesthetic attitude that exalted emotional expression to the same importance as technical competence. The treatise exerted a strong influence on Haydn and Beethoven, among others of Bach’s contemporaries, and remained in use well into the 19th century.

Bach was also an entrepreneurial businessman, who astutely promoted his compositions worldwide. After he moved to Hamburg he self-published 15 scores, including six sets of keyboard works, between 1772 and 1787. Johann Gottlob Immanuel Breitkopf printed them, but Bach himself took responsibility for everything else from planning the collections and distributing them.

Bach issued each collection on a subscription basis. To obtain subscribers he advertised in newspapers and enlisted “collectors” to solicit subscriptions in various cities all over Germany and elsewhere.

Most subscribers lived in Germany, but more distant cities where at least one of the collections was sold include London, Curland (Latvia), Copenhagen, Stockholm, St. Petersburg, Moscow, Vienna, and Prague.

Professional musicians subscribed, but so did amateurs from both the nobility and the rising middle class. Subscriptions brought in enough money to cover the advertising, printing and shipping expenses but represent only a fraction of total sales.

Bach was greatly concerned about how posterity would remember him. His autobiography clearly distinguishes between the music he wrote for his own pleasure and his more strictly commercial music.

Ironically, as the musical world rediscovered J.S. Bach, it began to forget and even spurn his illustrious son. But C.P.E. Bach seems to have exerted stronger influence on his contemporaries and slightly later composers.

Haydn and Beethoven avidly collected and studied his works. Besides the music itself, Bach’s drive to liberate instrumental music from mere entertainment led to the later concept of “absolute music.” To this day, the classical music world favors instrumental music over vocal music.

Bach composed his Fantasia in C Minor as an illustration for the treatise. It owes nothing either to his father’s example or the galant style then popular all over Europe.

He was one of the leading exponents of that style, but the Fantasia exemplifies something different, the Empfindsamer Stil or sentimental style. That style sought to make a direct emotional connection between the performer and the listeners. It emphasized passion above balance and clarity of form and intimacy above elegance.

C.P.E. Bach and Empfindsamkeit

CPE Bach lithograph

Lithograph by Heinrich E. Winter, 1816

The galant style morphed into the Viennese classical style. Empfindsamkeit, was mostly a literary movement. The Empfindsamer Stil as a style of musical composition never left northern Germany. No other composer of that style is any better known than Bach.

Bach was well aware of the growing importance of formal clarity at the end of the 18th century. He did not take up the prevailing style, but superimposed his own love of improvisation on top of it.

Most theorists of the late 18th-century developed modulation from one key to another as a structural principle.

Balanced structure and unity of form demanded modulation mostly to keys directly related to the original tonic. Modulation to more distantly related keys occurred mostly by moving through related keys first.

For example, Johann Philipp Kirnberger, a student of J.S. Bach, wrote that composers could limit themselves to closely related keys throughout an entire composition and maintain considerable harmonic variety even in long pieces, but he added that “practiced harmonists do not always content themselves with such a timorous kind of modulation.”

They could digress far enough from the principal key for the listener to lose track of it, but “yield to it again at the right moment.” Now and then they could go suddenly to a somewhat distant key for the sake of expression. But he required these distant modulations to be unusual and not to interfere with the listener’s ability to discern the underlying structure.

Most composers, including Mozart and Haydn, placed the same high value on unity and balance of form as did Kirnberger. Bach, while certainly aware of the growing emphasis on formal clarity, he did not esteem it as much as his contemporaries did.

C.P.E. Bach and Haydn, to name just two composers, introduced moments of disruption and surprise, but Haydn integrated his gestures into a balanced formal structure. Bach cared nothing about unity of form. His disruptions and surprises undermined unity.

The pieces Bach wrote for connoisseurs, along with the small amount of rather cryptic prose he devoted to modulation in his Essay, demonstrate his belief that composers, like improvisers, could modulate wherever they wanted. He considered his strange modulations in their immediate contexts and rejected the view that they had to be considered in terms of an entire phrase or section.

Bach evidently wanted to go beyond the limits of fashion and become a trendsetter. He had the prestige to fulfill that role, but no desire to “take on the establishment” in his writings. He simply authorized a revision of his Essay that he knew would not appear in print until years later, only after the supply of the first edition had sold out. He died three years before it appeared.

Therefore he wrote music unlike anyone else’s and provided no explanation for what he was doing.

The Viennese classical style is the most listener-friendly music ever written by great composers. Bach’s music places higher demands on the audience—much like Beethoven and subsequent Romantic music. But Beethoven and his followers built on an established tradition. Bach in part rejected that tradition in its formative years, although his influence also contributed to it.

C.P.E. Bach stood apart. Some listeners considered his works daring. The important critic J.F. Reichardt, for example, praised the symphonies’ “original and audacious progression of ideas and the great variety and novelty of the forms and modulations.” Others considered Bach’s music merely bizarre.

As much respect as he received from other musicians (including all the Viennese classicists), his style could never be truly popular. It seems to have been an acquired taste. Beethoven remains popular with concert audiences. The same cannot be said for Bach, whose style never became popular in the first place.

Guy Dammann. C. P. E. Bach: like father, like son (The Guardian)
Peggy Daub. “The publication process and audience for C. P. E. Bach’s Sonaten für Kenner und Liebhaber.” in Bach Perspectives. Volume 2: J. S. Bach, the Breitkopfs, and Eighteenth-Century Music Trade, edited by. George B. Stauffer. pages 65-83. University of Nebraska Press, 1996.
David Ferris. “C. P. E. Bach and the Art of Strange Modulation.” Music Theory Spectrum) Volume 22 (2000): pages 60-88.

Photo credits:
CPE Bach portrait. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons.
CPE Bach accompanying King Frederick. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons.
CPE Bach lithograph. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons.

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