At the Prussian Court: Potsdam and Berlin (1738–1768)

Going His Own Way – Stations in Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach’s Life

Friedrich II. of Prussia (1712–1786), engraving by Johann Friedrich Bause (c. 1770) made after a painting by Johann Heinrich Christian Franke (1767). (Source:  Wolfenbüttel, Herzog August Bibliothek, Inventar-Nr. A 2091)

In 1738, Bach left Frankfurt as he had been called to Ruppin as court cembalist by the then-Crown Prince of Prussia, Friedrich (1712–1787). Shortly after, the same was crowned Friedrich II., and Carl Philipp Emanuel was appointed concert cembalist of the court orchestra. Bach, who was considered friendly and sociable by his contemporaries, initially felt very comfortable at the Prussian court. 

The first mention of Bach in the court’s financial records states that he joined the orchestra in 1741; this leads to the conclusion that he previously received his salary from Friedrich’s private purse. Music was valued very highly at Friedrich’s court, which was largely due to the King’s own, great interest in music.

The Flute Concert at Sanssouci Palace 1850/52, oil painting by Adolph Menzel. (Source: Berlin, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz, Alte Nationalgalerie, Raum 1.05)

Boasting 40 musicians, the court orchestra was one of Germany’s largest, and thanks to its bandmaster Carl Heinrich Graun (1704–1759) and his brother, the concert master Johann Gottlieb, it also had an excellent reputation. Such surroundings provided a fertile, creative atmosphere for Bach to further develop his composing skills in. His production reached a first climax, and he made an effort to have his work published – with great success. Since he was assisted by various “second court cembalists” as of 1742, he found enough time for composing alongside his regular duties as court cembalist. In 1742, he dedicated his six Prussian Sonatas to the king, two years later he dedicated six Württemberg Sonatas to the young duke Carl Eugen of Württemberg (1728–1793), whom he taught the piano – works that are today considered seminal for the genre of piano sonatas.

Besides his piano works, he also wrote several extensive collections of songs while in Berlin, including the Sacred Odes and Songs with Melodies by Christian Fürchtegott Gellert in 1757. In 1753, his famous Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments was published. Here, Carl Philipp Emanuel addresses problems of music theory and practice that go far beyond piano music. This music theory remained very influential throughout the entire 18. century, was reprinted in several editions until 1787 and remains a worthwhile read for musicologists to this day.

Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments. Part I. Leipzig: Im Schwickertschen Verlage, 1787 (1. edition Berlin (C. F. Henning) 1753). (Source: Cambridge/Massachusetts, Harvard University Library, Merritt Mus 347.12.3 PHI)

In 1744, he married Johanna Maria Dannemann, the daughter of a wine merchant from Berlin, with whom he soon had children; Johann Adam (1745–1789, later known as Johann August), Anna Carolina Philippina (1747–1805) and Johann Sebastian (1748–1778). The youngest son would later develop serious ambitions as a landscape artist: Like many artists of his time, he travelled to Rome as a source of inspiration and education. Unfortunately, he fell seriously ill, as can be gathered from a letter Carl Philipp Emanuels wrote to Johann Nikolaus Forkel: “My poor son has been lying ill in Rome with a most painful sickness for the past five months, and is not yet out of danger. Oh God, how my heart is suffering!”

Johann Sebastian’s early death in 1778 in Rome put an abrupt end to his career. His father’s feelings are imparted in a rare, personal remark Bach made to his publisher from Leipzig, Breitkopf: “My dearest fellow compatriot, Still numbed by the sad news of my dear son’s demise in Rome, I can hardly put these words to paper.” This severe anguish is expressed in the arduous tonal eruptions of the rondo in A minor from the collection of piano music For Connoisseurs and Lovers Part II.

Despite the fact that Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach already suffered from gout in 1743, he nevertheless gained the reputation, within his 28 years at the Prussian court, of being one of the most significant “clavierists” of his time. And he composed more than 100 sonatas as well as many character pieces and concertos for the “clavier”: this being a cembalo in the case of concertos, and a clavichord for the more intimate sounds of chamber music, allowing for finer nuances between forte and piano.

Carl Philipp Emanuel’s growing fame which brought him the byname “Berlin Bach”. At the Prussian court, though, he felt he was denied the apt recognition that he was receiving elsewhere. Not even the sensational encounter between his father Johann Sebastian Bach and Friedrich II. in 1747 could bring the king to improve the standing of his cembalist. This must have been disappointing for Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, who now began to make plans to leave Berlin. 

In 1749, he completed Magnificat, his most voluminous composition to that date, which premiered in the presence of his father shortly before the latter’s death in Leipzig. This way he also achieved fame in vocal and church music. But his ambitions for a higher musical post remained as yet unfulfilled. 

The number of his publications increased notably as of 1760, accompanied by an increase in fame beyond the boundaries of Berlin. His publishing activities benefited from Bach’s close relationship with his main publicist in Berlin, George Ludewig Winter. Bach knew to make use of personal friendships to expand his sphere of influence: He visited his brother Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach in Bückeburg, where he dedicated two trios to the local earl Wilhelm Friedrich Ernst zu Schaumburg-Lippe (1724–1777). In Hamburg, he called on the composer and music theorist Johann Mattheson (1681–1764) and his godfather, Telemann. In 1753, he was being discussed for the position of organist at St. John’s in Zittau. A year later, he travelled to Eisenach, in part to become godfather of Johann Carl Philipp, the newborn son of his cousin Johann Ernst Bach (1722–1777), in part to give concerts in the neighbouring towns of Gotha and Kassel. All of these travels contributed to his fame and recognition, nevertheless the “Berlin Bach” was to remain at the Prussian court until the late 1760s. 

For Bach, the situation at the Prussian court was growing increasingly unsatisfying, but he had learnt to assert himself.  When the second court cembalist, Christoph Nichelmann, publicly criticized Bach’s treatment of musical affects, the latter reacted by issuing derisive pamphlets, which led to more hostility on behalf of Nichelmann. Bach complained to the king about the supposed favouritism of Nichelmann. The further course of events is difficult to reconstruct, but it remains a fact that Nichelmann soon left the court, and Bach’s salary was almost doubled by 200 additional talers. 

Princess Anna Amalia of Prussia, panel painting by Anna Dorothea von Lisiewska,1771. (Source: Wikipedia)

Bach was a frequent, popular guest in Berlin’s private musical and intellectual circles. He was friends with many famous characters of the time, including Christian Gottfried Krause (1719–1770), the most prominent representative of the Berliner Liederschule, the music critic Friedrich Wilhelm Marpurg (1718–1795), and Johann Philipp Kirnberger (1721–1783). His focus on the private circles of the city’s cultural life would be of a later advantage, as the Seven Year’s War (1756–1763) brought court life to a standstill. With the onset of battle action, Carl Philipp entered the Prussian army himself, which he left again two years later. His wish to leave the Prussian court remained, but he was compelled to stay even after the war was over. Only when Georg Philipp Telemann died in Hamburg in 1767 did a change in location become viable, as Bach applied to become his successor as director of music and cantor. Initially, Friedrich II. was not prepared to let him go, and then a harsh winter further postponed his move. He was finally able to assume his new office in Hamburg on Easter Sunday 1768, the official inauguration taking place two weeks later, on 19. April.

» Next: New Challenges – Carl Philipp Emanuel in Hamburg (1768–1788)