Five Reasons Why C.P.E. Bach Matters

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You might think that Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach would be better known today, considering that he held such a pivotal position between the Baroque and the Romantic musical periods.

Arguably the most productive of J.S. Bach's composer sons, C.P.E. Bach's life (1714-1788) spanned the still largely overlooked period between the high Baroque and the advent of the Classical era. This was a time of significant changes in musical form and taste, and to some extent, it was reflected in his compositions.

Although C.P.E. since has fallen under his father's shadow, the 300th anniversary of his birth on March 8 affords the opportunity to get to know his standout compositions. Tune in to WQXR throughout the weekend to hear some of C.P.E. Bach's pivotal works. Below are five reasons to tune in.

1. He wrote the pianist's bible

C.P.E.'s "An Essay on The True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments" (Versuch über die wahre Art das Clavier zu spielen) was immediately recognized as a definitive treatise on keyboard technique. By 1780 the book was in its third edition and it laid the foundation for the keyboard methods of Muzio Clementi and Johann Baptist Cramer. In it, Bach broke with tradition in allowing, even encouraging, the use of the thumbs (previously a no-no). Since his time this has been standard technique for keyboard instruments.

2. He was a custodian of his father's legacy

Before settling on a career in music, C.P.E. studied law at the Universities of Leipzig and Frankfurt. That early training seemed to shape his organizational skills. When J.S. Bach died, C.P.E. and his brother, Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, were each left a portion of their father's manuscripts. While Wilhelm Friedemann lost or sold a great deal of the works he received, C.P.E., who was highly organized about his finances and his assets, took good care of the works in his possession. It's been said that most of what we know today about J.S. Bach was once owned by C.P.E.


3. He was a man of the Enlightenment

For almost 30 years C.P.E. served as court harpsichordist to Frederick the Great, an influential patron of the arts during the 1740s and 1750s. Then, in 1768, he succeeded his godfather, Telemann, as the city of Hamburg's director of music. In these roles, C.P.E. was known for his open-mindedness and his hospitality, and frequently hobnobbed with the scientists, philosophers, poets and theologians of the Enlightenment.

Flute Concert with Frederick the Great in Sanssouci (C.P.E. Bach on the keyboard) (Adolph Menzel/Wikipedia Commons)

4. He paved the way for Haydn and Mozart's darker moments

C.P.E. shoved aside the decorous roccoco style of the era to embrace "Sturm and Drang" – "storm and stress" – as well as Empfindsamkeit, or "intimate expressiveness." The dark, dramatic, improvisation-like passages that turn up in pieces by Haydn and Mozart bore the direct influence of C.P.E. Check out Mozart’s Symphony No. 25 in G Minor or Haydn’s "Farewell" Symphony for examples of C.P.E.'s thumbprint. "He is the father, we are the children," said Mozart of C.P.E.


5. He was a Proto-Romantic

C.P.E.'s keyboard works lurched into unexpected keys, change tempo and dynamics abruptly. One account of Bach's after-dinner improvisations described the sweaty, glazed-eyed musician as "possessed," an adjective that would be applied to equally intense and idiosyncratic musicians in the Romantic age. Many of his symphonies are as audacious as his keyboard pieces.