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Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach lived mostly in the shadow of his father, Johann Sebastian. Yet his music ...
2021-02-20 09:00:00

Like Father, Like Son
The Lesser Known Bach Boy

Adolph, Menzel, “Frederick the Great playing a flute concerto in Sanssouci”, 1852, C. P. E. Bach is at the piano.
Like Father, Like Son
Like Father, Like Son

Let us teleport ourselves to a time when music wasn’t really considered an art form, but a craft passed on from father to son. Indeed, an 18th-century composer churned out fugues and sonatas as if he were forging horseshoes or tanning leather.

Read in 5 minutes

Dear readers, Johann Sebastian Bach had 20 children with his two wives – Maria Barbara and Anna Maria Magdalena. Carl Philipp Emanuel was the fifth child from his first marriage. He was born in 1714 in Weimar, when his father was 30 years old. All Bach offspring received a thorough music education. They had little choice. The composer’s home was thriving with music. It truly was. In those days, a musician was not an artist wandering around the park in fancy clothes, waiting for inspiration with a cigarette clenched in his mouth. Instead, he was more like a cobbler, pursemaker or goldsmith. Musicians and composers laboured just like other artisans – and Bach laboured a lot. He led choirs and orchestras in churches and at courts, played during services, taught and continuously composed pieces for various occasions. His wives and children helped him arrange voices for the orchestra. It was a production line. After supper, they continued to sing and improvise. Their entire life revolved around music.

Growing up in this atmosphere and assisting his father, Carl Philipp learned from the best of the best. In his autobiography, he claims that at the age of 11 he was able to play all of his father’s compositions faultlessly, a vista (i.e. at first reading). Now that is something. Like all his brothers he studied law, which in those days guaranteed a higher social status. Otherwise, the musician or composer was treated just like other staff.

After graduation, Carl got a pretty good job at the court of Prince Frederick II in Potsdam. There, enlightenment was in full swing. People spoke French and kept up to date with cultural news from around the world. Instead of balls, masquerades and hunts, there were concerts, readings and philosophical discussions. When Frederick ascended the throne in 1740, he started to maintain a large orchestra featuring the best musicians from Germany and beyond. He also played the flute and composed (poorly). He wrote a lot, mostly in French – many important historical texts, including the first attempt to record the history of Prussia, the history of the Seven Years’ War, the Silesian Wars and the Polish partitions. And, of course, he wrote diaries – Histoire de mon temps. He was also friends with the leading philosophers of the era and liked to surround himself with the crème de la crème of intellectual and artistic circles. Frederick’s court was one of the best places for a musician in 18th-century Europe. There, Carl Philipp was able to spread his wings as a composer.

His music, although based on his father’s craftsmanship, is radically different from the works of Johann Sebastian. Bach the elder wrote for and to God, even when he did not write strictly religious music. He signed each score with the phrase Soli Deo Gloria – his music is an eternal pursuit of the absolute, it is about the divine element in man. In his intricate fugues, in which he leads many voices in perfect harmony at the same time, Johann Sebastian shows us what we should be and what the world should look like. His music was and is an emanation of the ideal. This is one of the reasons why it still affects us after so many years. Meanwhile, Carl Philipp does the exact opposite. His music is about man and all his desires, virtues, passions, eccentricities and imperfections – about everything that is human. The musical narrative features sudden turns, turbulent passages, the building up and release of tensions, hesitations, understatements, and other dramatic elements completely absent in his father’s art. It was a really big change.

Carl Philipp pioneered a new musical genre that mirrored the literary Sturm und Drang. Young poets and musicians preferred intuition and feeling to reason and form. We all remember The Sorrows of Young Werther from that period, the seeds of Romanticism to come a few decades later, with all the obsessive interest in man and his inner dramas. In this spirit, Carl Philipp composed several hundred harpsichord sonatas, chamber pieces and symphonies.

In 1768, after 30 years at Frederick the Great’s court, Carl Philipp resigned from his position as court harpsichordist and moved to Hamburg, where he inherited from his godfather Georg Philipp Telemann the position of music director of the five most important churches. In a way, the move was a turn towards his youth and nurturing his father’s legacy. In Hamburg, he often staged Johann Sebastian’s passions and also wrote many of his own, as well as numerous magnificats, motets, oratorios, psalms, and other pieces. He also published the first manual for learning how to play keyboard instruments: Versuch über die wahre Art das Clavier zu spielen. The book was a huge success and stayed in print for many generations. Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven never parted with with it; nearly a century later Brahms consulted it, too.

During his lifetime and a few decades after his death, Carl Philipp Emanuel was the most popular Bach. Johann Sebastian was only known in narrow circles. In the second quarter of the 19th century, he was, however, resurrected by the Romantics. Romanticism was crazy about the past, and the young people fell in love with Johann Sebastian’s forgotten compositions (even though they owed at least as much to Carl Philipp!). Johann Sebastian Bach became the idol of the new generation and has not come off the throne since then. And that’s great. It’s just a pity that Carl Philipp Emanuel seems to have been forgotten.

I dare say that most of our readers don’t know his work. Therefore, I recommend you all get to know this part of European music history. You can start with Andrew Manze’s excellent album with four symphonies and a cello concerto, whose middle part is one of the most beautiful pieces I know. On YouTube I also recommend an entire episode, which I created together with Marcin Markowicz and Maciek Młodawski. We play several sonatas and symphonies in different instrumental configurations, as well as the aforementioned part of the cello concerto. And remember to pay attention to the capriciousness and impulsivity of this music. If you listen to something by Johann Sebastian right before that, you are in for a shock.

P.S. Carl Philipp’s character captivated me all the more because he is one of the few examples of a successful career in the shadow of a famous, brilliant parent. As history shows, such children rarely match their parents. But in this case, it worked. Bravo, Carl!

Carl Philip Emmanuel Bach (portrait inside a drawing by Daniel Mróz)
Carl Philip Emmanuel Bach (portrait inside a drawing by Daniel Mróz)

Translated from the Polish by Joanna Figiel


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