Going His Own Way – Stations in Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach’s Life
His three oratorios, The Israelites in the Desert (1769), Passion Cantata (1769/1770) and The Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus (1774), were a huge success in the German-language area. Two of them were even printed in score, which was rare at the time and symbolized an economic risk for both publisher and composer. Today, they are considered some of the most significant protestant ariosos of the latter half of the 18th century. But Carl Philipp Emanuel, whose reputation as the Bach was beginning to overshadow that of his father’s in the public opinion, did not limit himself to ecclesiastical music. It was in Hamburg that he wrote his collections of piano music that would quickly be known throughout Europe, like the six collections for connoisseurs and lovers which he published from 1779 to 1787 with his Leipzig-based publisher, Breitkopf, and which included sonatas alongside fashionable genres of the time (rondos, fantasies and others).
“I did not care much for singing things, due to causes that I told you here [in Hamburg]. Now I kindly ask you not to make public use of my explanation. It will change nothing and I will make more enemies.” (Letter to J. N. Forkel). We do not know exactly what Bach meant specifically – possibly he was referring to the extraordinary circumstances under which he had to perform his church music in Hamburg: The number and quality of the few permanently employed singers will hardly have sufficed for the large-scale church performances in Hamburg. Maybe this was all the more reason for him to concentrate on his activities as publisher of his own piano and chamber music.
In Hamburg, C. P. E. Bach was viewed as a musical rolemodel. He was valued throughout Germany and beyond for his compositions as well as for his education, his open-mindedness and his hospitality. As had previously been the case in Berlin, he required little effort to find friends among the scientists, philosophers, poets and theologians of enlightenment in Hamburg. He had close contact with Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729–1781), worked on a collection of songs with the pastor Christoph Christian Sturm (1740–1786) and discussed natural science with the doctors Johann Georg Büsch (1728–1800) and Johann Heinrich Reimarus (1729–1814). He was friends with Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock (1724–1803), with whom he put music to the former’s poetry. He had a famous exchange of letters with the French encyclopedist Denis Diderot (1713–1784), who had tried in vain to visit Bach in Hamburg. His most important correspondence partners besides Breitkopf were the music critic Johann Nikolaus Forkel (1749–1818) in Göttingen and Johann Jacob Heinrich Westphal (1756–1825) in Schwerin, an avid collector of Bach’s works who compiled the first catalogue of his compositions.