March 20, 2014
Over the weekend, classical musicians will celebrate the birthday of big daddy (Johann Sebastian) Bach. But his first son, and his most inspired musical heir, turned 300 on March 8. Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach also had the great composer (and Bach family friend), Georg Friedrich Telemann as his godparent. His first big job was in the royal orchestra of Frederick the Great of Prussia. As a brilliant keyboardist, C.P.E. was also an important chamber musician, a teacher of numerous students, and a member of a thriving artistic community, which included the poet and playwright Gotthold Lessing, who became C.P.E.’s good friend. He also wrote the definitive textbook on keyboard playing, which influenced more than half-a-century of musicians. Some of the original ideas in the book were incorporated into later pedagogy.
Carl Philipp Emmanuel is now recognized as a major composer of the 18th century. His experiments in orchestral and harmonic color, his detailed instructions on tempo, dynamics (loud vs. soft), his daring emotional contrasts within movements, and the sense of freedom and fantasy that pervade his works combine to make his one of the most easily identifiable styles of the age. Although J.S. is still the musical overlord of the family, C.P.E. Now has his own musical niche, symbolized by the creation of the complete works edition by the Bach Archive in Leipzig. Here’s an introduction to the composer and his musical style.
1. Allegro assai (mvt. 1) from Sonata in A Major, Wq 55/4; Mikhail Pletnev, piano.
Carl Philipp Emmanuel first became famous through his piano sonatas. Here are two examples.
2. Poco adagio (mvt. 2) from Sonata in F-Sharp Minor, Wq 52/4; Mikhail Pletnev, piano.
3. Allegro di molto (mvt. 1) from Symphony in E Major, H.662; Academy of Ancient Music, Christopher Hogwood, conductor.
And here’s the symphonic style that the Berlin royalty would have heard from its orchestra.
4. Presto (mvt. 3) from Symphony in B Minor, H.661; Academy of Ancient Music, Christopher Hogwood, conductor.
Note the extreme contrast between the speed and slashing chords of the opening of this movement, and the slower, fainting sequence of harmonic suspensions that immediately follows.
5. “Magnificat,” Magnificat in D Major.
Although musicians will remember Johann Sebastian’s classic version of this Advent poem (the words of Mary at the Annunciation), C.P.E.’s version, from the middle of his term at the Berlin court, is also brilliant. The influence of his father is really noticeable here.
6. Allegro assai (mvt. 3) from Quartet in A Minor, Wq. 93; Academy of Ancient Music.
Since King Frederick played the flute, and there was a famous flutist at court (Joachim Quantz), there were plenty of flute sonatas and other works incorporating flute in this period. Nicholas McGegan, who you may possibly know from his later job, plays the flute on this recording.
7. Un poco andante (mvt. 2) from Flute Concerto in D Minor, Wq. 22.
A beautiful melody that extends in a searching, highly emotional way, broken only by a couple of orchestral interjections. Think about some of Mozart’s piano concerto movements, which have this as their inspiration.
8. Allegro di molto (mvt. 1) from Symphony in E-Flat, W.183.
E-flat was a key of some seriousness for Mozart, as it was for C.P.E. Bach. This movement begins with a stately march, broken by some of C.P.E.’s signature dynamic contrasts, and softening interjections from the winds. But the trajectory of this movement is quite serious, despite what seems like quirkiness to us.