Bach’s Friends in Berlin, proponents of the Enlightenment

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach – People and Places

Johann Georg Sulzer (1720–1779), Portrait by Anton Graff (c. 1780). (Source: Wikipedia)

C. P. E. Bach found more like-minded spirits and friends among the writers and poets in Berlin than among the court musicians in Potsdam. In the 1740’s Berlin was the stronghold of the German Enlightenment, whose exponents met at clubs modelled on the debating clubs in England, where aesthetical and political issues were discussed. Also Bach’s apartment in the house of publisher Georg Ludwig Winter on Friedrichstrasse, where Bach lived since 1760, was such a centre of intellectual exchange. The so-called Monday Club of Berlin established friendships between Bach and the poet Karl Wilhelm Ramler (1725–1798), the critic and playwright Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729–1781), the musicians Christian Gottfried Krause (1719–1770) and Johann Friedrich Agricola (1720–1774), as well as the philosopher Johann Georg Sulzer (1720–1779). He also entertained contacts with Moses Mendelssohn (1729–1786), the founder of German popular philosophy and one of the central figures of the Enlightenment, and writer Christoph Friedrich Nicolai (1733–1811), whose journal Allgemeine Deutsche Bibliothek (General German Library) reviewed many of his compositions. 

In 1749, Sulzer had also been one of the initiators of the Monday Club. Sulzer, a native of Switzerland, where he had acquired an extensive education not only in theology and natural sciences, but also in the fine arts and poetry, was initially employed as a professor of mathematics (1747). As he became director of the philosophical course at the academy of sciences in 1775, the book that made him famous, the Allgemeine Theorie der schönen Künste (General Theory of the Fine Arts) in four volumes (1771–1774), a widely known compendium of aesthetics, had already been published, formally based on the French encyclopedias of the Enlightenment.

The psychological theory proposed therein postulated the stimulating effect of art and natural beauty on judgement and personality and matched the zeitgeist, breaking the ground for German Idealism (Kant, Schiller). On one hand Sulzer’s aesthetics still adhered to the dogmatic rationalism of Wolff’s philosophy, on the other hand, in tune with the era in its discussion of the original genius, Sulzer’s aesthetics represent a similar transition within intellectual history as does the work of C. P. E. Bach within the development of music.

» Next: Sensitivity and friendship cult: Johann Wilhelm Ludwig Gleim