Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714–1788), the second surviving son of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750) and his first wife Maria Barbara (1684–1720), was born on 8 March 1714 in Weimar. One of his godfathers was Georg Philipp Telemann (1681–1767). After the family had moved to Leipzig in 1723 when his father was appointed cantor at St Thomas’s Church, Carl Philipp Emanuel attended St Thomas’s School. However, he later reported that he had received his musical training solely from J.S. Bach: »In composition and keyboard playing, I never had any other teacher than my father.«


In 1731, C. P. E. Bach enrolled at the University of Leipzig to study law. Three years later, he left Leipzig to continue his studies at the University of Frankfurt (Oder), where he also worked as a harpsichordist, harpsichord teacher and conductor. His first compositions date back to this time, although later on he appeared to have a low opinion of these early works, judging by a letter written in 1786: »Forgive my excessive chatter and garrulous scribble. The drollest thing of all is the magnificent foresight of the King, who was bound on preserving Handel’s early works at any cost. In no way do I compare myself to Handel, but recently I burned over a ream of old compositions and I am happy they no longer exist.«


In 1738, C. P. E. Bach was appointed harpsichordist in the orchestra in Ruppin by Frederick, Crown Prince of Prussia (1712–1787). After Frederick had ascended the throne in 1740, the following year Bach received a permanent position as concert harpsichordist in the royal orchestra. He also taught keyboard instruments at the Royal court, including to the young Duke Carl Eugen of Württemberg (1728–1793), to whom he dedicated his six Württemberg Sonatas (1742–44). Two years beforehand, he had already dedicated his six Prussian Sonatas (1740–42) to Frederick the Great. These sonatas are considered the foremost examples of the new style emerging in keyboard sonatas.

In his twenty-eight years of service at the Prussian court, C. P. E. Bach became one of the most famous keyboard composers in Europe. He wrote more than 100 sonatas and solo works for the harpsichord, including the Six Keyboard Sonatas with Varied Reprises (1760–68) and the six anthologies of sonatas, fantasias and rondos fantasias für Kenner und Liebhaber (»for connoisseurs and amateurs«; 1773–86). It was in this period (in which he came to be known as the »Berlin Bach«) that C. P. E. Bach wrote a Magnificat (1749), three volumes of songs (Professor Gellert’s Sacred Odes and Songs with Melodies), a number of symphonies and concertos, a few secular cantatas, and several other occasional pieces. In 1753, C. P. E. Bach published An Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments, containing examples and eighteen exercises arranged in six sonatas, which became the main textbook for keyboard instruments and basso continuo in his day. Together with the flute method written by Johann Joachim Quantz (1697–1773) and the violin tutor by Leopold Mozart (1719–1787), it is one of the most important original documents on musical thought and performance in the eighteenth century.

During his service with the King of Prussia, C. P. E. Bach mixed with the musical circles of Princess Anna Amalia of Prussia (1723–1787) and her teacher Johann Philipp Kirnberger (1721–1783). He also attended the literary salons in Berlin, where he became acquainted with celebrities such as Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729–1781), Karl Wilhelm Ramler (1725–1798) and Johann Wilhelm Ludwig Gleim (1719–1803).

In 1744, Bach married Johanna Maria Dannemann, the daughter of a Berlin wine merchant. The marriage produced three children, namely a daughter, Anna Carolina Philippina Bach (1747–1804), and two sons: Johann August Bach (1745–1789, baptized Johann Adam), who became a lawyer in Hamburg, and Johann Sebastian (1748–1778), a painter who later rose to fame as Johann Samuel.


After Carl Philipp Emanuel’s application to follow in his father’s footsteps as cantor of St Thomas’s in Leipzig had been turned down, in 1768 he succeeded his late godfather Georg Philipp Telemann as Hamburg’s director of music and cantor of the Johanneum grammar school. This entailed a tremendous workload for Bach, who was now responsible for about 200 performances annually at the five principal churches and had to compose the music for all sorts of occasions. He also had to organize public concerts, just as his predecessor had done in both Frankfurt (Main) and Hamburg. Bach himself frequently appeared at these concerts as a soloist on the harpsichord or clavichord. He also performed oratorios by George Frideric Handel (1685–1759), Telemann, Johann Gottlieb Graun (1703–1771), Carl Heinrich Graun (1704–1759) and Joseph Haydn (1732–1809) as well as his own compositions. Under C. P. E. Bach, Hamburg became an important centre of music again, just as it had been under Telemann.

As in Berlin, C. P. E. Bach associated with many artists in Hamburg and also mixed socially with poets such as Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock (1724–1803), Heinrich Wilhelm von Gerstenberg (1737–1823), Johann Heinrich Voss (1751–1826) and Matthias Claudius (1740–1815), with whom he discussed sung poetry and the application of principles of rhetoric and drama to musical structures.


On 14 December 1788, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach died in Hamburg a highly respected and revered composer whose fame at the time far outstripped that of his father. The leading composer in the age of the Empfindsamer Stil (»sensitive style«), he was a major influence on the next generation of composers, including Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven.


A new edition of the catalogue of C. P. E. Bach’s works is currently being prepared by Dr Wolfram Enßlin and Dr Uwe Wolf. Volume 1 (vocal works; Enßlin and Wolf) published in 2014 to mark the tercentenary of C. P. E. Bach’s birth will be followed by Volume 2 (instrumental works; Enßlin) and Volume 3 (music library; Enßlin). Previously, the catalogues compiled by Alfred Wotquenne (1905) and Eugene Helm (1989) were used.


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