A German composer of the 18th century, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach was born the second son of Baroque composer J.S. Bach (1685-1750). Emanuel’s influential and legendary father was, among many things, a music educator, passing the passion for music on to his sons. A Classical music scholar has said: “There is a kind of perverse obstinacy in Emanuel Bach, which his father and older brother also had in large measure and which caused all of them great trouble. In Emanuel this trait shows itself in his determination to go his own compositional way” (Downs 357). J.S. Bach had a total of four children who later became composers: Johann Christoph (1732-1795), Carl Philipp Emanuel (1714-1788), Johann Christian (1735-1782), and Wilhelm Friedemann (1710-1784). Along with brother Johann Christian, Emanuel became a well-known figure for the Classical period in music. C.P.E. Bach was educated as a child at the Thomasschule in Leipzig, then went on to study law at the University at Frankfurt on the Oder.
Centered around two locations of employment, C.P.E. Bach’s musical career developed first in Berlin at the court of Frederick the Great (King of Prussia from 1740-1786). Bach remained there for 28 years, then left to become Director of Music at the five main churches in Hamburg. He was court harpsichordist and accompanist for King Frederick. While the king played the flute, Emanuel was expected to accompany him on the continuo, an instrument that provides a foundation for the other instruments or voices. Frederick the Great was strict with regard to Bach’s musical freedoms, and the composer became unhappy with many aspects of his job. However, his wife and family were Prussian and therefore subordinate to the king, who prevented them from leaving when Emanuel was not satisfied. “In order to further his career, Bach had to choose between forsaking his family or submitting to the king’s pleasure” (Downs 21). In 1767, the composer left Prussia and went to Hamburg, succeeding his godfather Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767) as a church music director. It was during these years (the 1760s and 1770s) that “Emanuel Bach demonstrated most fully the two sides of his musical character: the fantastic eccentric and the conformist” (Downs 138).
C.P.E. Bach’s musical style manifests itself in both adherence to past elements and originality in compositional approach. In early works, he emphasized elegance and simplicity. In later compositions, however, Bach was drawn to an extensively expressive and expansive nature. The composer was a leader in theempfindsamer Stil, the main “singing” style associated with Classical music. An elegant style, this was characterized by an emphasis on subtleties and on the expression of numerous sentiments within one movement of a composition. Bach also stated about this style of emotional feeling that “the human voice was the model for any kind of melodic writing, which should always stress simple beauty without excessive embellishment” (Pauly 25). This lightness and simplicity are also featured in C.P.E. Bach’s keyboard works, which are the most significant genre of all his compositions.
An advocate of the empfindsamer Stil, C.P.E. Bach found the Baroque characteristics of music “dry and despicable pieces of pedantry” (Kamien 208). Therefore, his style held a lot of surprise with impulsive changes in dynamics, melody, and harmony. Within this context, Bach made use of ornamentation, the decorating and embellishing of notes, often in improvisation. Also possessing great improvisational skills in performance, “he grew so animated and possessed, that he not only played but looked like one inspired. His eyes were fixed, his under lip fell, and drops of effervescence distilled from his countenance” (Pauly 25).
Emanuel Bach wrote a great amount of keyboard music, including many sets of keyboard sonatas. The first of these were published in 1742 and called the “Prussian” Sonatas, named for the dedication to Frederick the Great. Coined the “Württemberg” Sonatas, the second set was dedicated to the Duke of Württemberg. These were published in 1744 and began to show the increase of musical contrasts inherent in Bach’s later, more creative style. Each of these two sets includes six keyboard sonatas. C.P.E. Bach began to write larger sonatas during the 1760s with the musical repetitions written out, which was very costly to print. In the “Sonatas with Varied Repeats,” Bach combined the empfindsamer Stil and galant (the representative modern) styles. He also wrote “Six Easy Keyboard Sonatas” in 1766. A seventh set of keyboard sonatas was also composed for the King’s sister, who honored Bach with the title of Honorary Court Kapellmeister upon his departure from the court of Frederick the Great. In 1799, C.P.E. Bach published the first of six collections of keyboard sonatas for “Conoisseurs and Amateurs,” but the pieces diminished into a smaller size and he intertwined other types of pieces among the sonatas as the collections advanced. This decrease of output was primarily because the public began to lose interest in the composer’s old style of writing as the keyboard sonata became more virtuosic and expanded at the hands of other composers. Bach also wrote approximately 50 keyboard concertos before 1760 and added woodwind instruments to the string orchestra.
Emanuel Bach also successfully composed in numerous other musical genres: songs, oratorios, and instrumental music (chamber music, concertos, and symphonies) as well as some sonatas for flute and harpsichord. Since compositions for the keyboard were most important to Bach’s repertoire, his favorite instrument was the clavichord. A historical type of piano, this instrument is very soft and offers much color in dynamics. However, it was gradually replaced by the fortepiano, the predecessor to our modern piano. This instrument was somewhat like the harpsichord, but offered more dynamic variety and color shades worthy of the empfindsamer Stil elegance. Bach’s last few keyboard sonatas were written for the fortepiano.
In addition to his important keyboard literature, C.P.E. Bach is most remembered for his treatise, the “Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments,” written from 1753-1762. In this essay, the composer discusses ornamentation and the musical view of the Classical period’s conventions. The treatise has become “invaluable source material for historically accurate performance of eighteenth-century music, in all its aspects” (qtd. Downs 29). Quoted from the essay is Bach’s thoughts on individual performances, “One must play from the soul, not like a trained animal” (Pauly 25).
Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach had a great influence on Classical composer Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809), especially through his treatise and “Prussian” keyboard sonatas. Haydn revealed: “Whoever knows me well must realize that I owe a great deal to Emanuel Bach” (qtd. Pauly 75). Bach was the most important composer to develop the sensitive empfindsamer Stil, but “like his father before him, Emanuel died still attached to a style that had fallen from favor” (Downs 361). Nevertheless, C.P.E. Bach was passionate about an elegant, emotional style: “I believe music must, first and foremost, stir the heart” (qtd. Downs 30).