The Inimitable

On the reception of the works of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach’s contemporaries were unanimous in their verdict of him being an “original genius”. Christian Friedrich Daniel Schubart explains: “Bach in Hamburg leads the clavierists as Klopstock leads the poets. He is epoch-making [...]. Both his composition and his playing are inimitable.” A characteristic of Bach that still applies today. Countless composers of the late 18. century were imitating Haydn and Mozart, but no-one tried to imitate Bach. They would not have succeeded – his melody is expressive but seldom cantabile. The 'Hamburg Bach' was denied having street boys whistle his tunes as they did Mozart’s. In any case, Bach considered himself the creator of demanding music and had little interest in serving the populace. 

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714–1788), copper engraving by Johann Heinrich Lips (1776) made after a painting by Johann Philipp Bach (c. 1773). (Source: Leipzig, Bach-Archiv Leipzig)Bach avidly participated in civic music life whilst in Berlin (1740–1768), and soon became a famed cembalo virtuoso and composer. His Prussian Sonatas (Wq 48/H 24–29, 1742) are a prime example of his personal style: ambitious playing technique, daring harmony, surprising contrasts and movements of almost free, fantastical form. Of these factors it was his understanding of harmony that drew the most attention, reaching far beyond the standard modulation repertoire of the time, received by listeners as being unusual or emotionally touching. Bach’s contemporaries repeatedly gave great credit to this aspect of his art. Schubart wrote: “His confined style, his manners, his elusions, his harmonious artifices are insurmountable. [...] There is no other who is as rich in sensitivity, as inexhaustible in novel modulations, as full of harmony.” 

On the other hand, Bach’s “Indomitability against fashion” referred to his unwillingness to adapt the elements of Italian comic opera, with its catchy tunes and simple basses. Already deemed “Lirumlarum” by Johann Sebastian Bach, his son similarly despised it, opting for a more difficult tonal language. Friends of the Italian style considered his music unnatural, obstinate and bizarre, often wishing “that the great man should incorporate more of the touching, cute, simple and less of the artificial [...] in his movements.” Bach reacted by compiling works of differing quality and giving his collections of piano works the subheading “for Connoisseurs and Lovers”. With an emphasis on the “and”, as Bach’s target group comprised both professional musicians (“connoisseurs”) and “mere lovers, who [...] seek but a fleeting study of the clavier.” This compromise was reproached by a number of “connoisseurs”, but Bach’s immense success proved him right: His prints reached subscribers from London to Moscow, from Copenhagen to Vienna. 

The music scholar Dr. Charles Burney was the central figure in a group of Bach admirers in England. One of his friends, Thomas Twining, coined a term for this admiration in a message to Burney in 1774: “I find the Carlophilipemanuelbachomania grow upon me so, that almost every thing else is insipid to me”. Burney was indefatigable in his praise of Bach’s music prints, resulting in 24 pre-orders of even the sixth collection of Clavier-Sonatas (Wq 61/H 286–291, Druck 1787) from London – more than from Berlin or Vienna, where the . First Viennese School was now dominating musical life. 

But even Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven knew and valued Bach’s Music. Haydn often mentioned how much he owed to Bach. As a young man he worked through the Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments and in 1749 he acquired the Prussian Sonatas: “I was unable to leave my piano before I had played through them all, and those who know me thoroughly must find that I owe very much to Emanuel Bach, that I have understood and avidly studied him; Emanuel Bach also had me made a compliment on this.” Returning from his second voyage to England in 1795, Haydn even took a boat from London to Hamburg to finally meet the master – only to find out that Bach had already passed away in 1788. Evidently news of Bach’s death had not reached Haydn’s distant place of employment, Esterháza.

There was a copy of Bach’s cantata Morgengesang am Schöpfungsfest (Wq 239/H 779, Druck 1784) in Ludwig van Beethoven’s library. He was very familiar with Carl Philipp Emanuel’s  Essay, and in July 1809 he had the Breitkopf & Härtel publishing house send him sheet music for an in-depth study of Bach’s work. Nothing happened and Beethoven repeated his request until he wrote in 1812: “surely you can send me the C. P. Emanuel Bach material. It will moulder otherwise.” Twenty years after his death, Bach’s works had become slow sellers. The aesthetics of music, playing techniques and instrument design had changed. Concerts were being presented with a focus on brilliant virtuosity and the symphonic music of the First Viennese School; house concerts were no longer played on the clavichord, but on the fortepiano. Maybe the posthumous interest in Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach would have been greater if the Bach biography written by his friend Hans Adolph Friedrich von Eschstruth in 1789 had actually been published. Only in the 1860s did Carl Hermann Bitter write a discerning scientific Bach biography. Nevertheless, Carl Philipp Emanuel was long-overshadowed by his father. It took another 60 years until Otto Vrieslander (1880–1950) emphasised the significance of Bach’s son as an independent composer and music theorist. When Early Music was “rediscovered” in the 1920s, Carl Philipp Emanuel’s works once again found a broad audience at concerts and through radio shows. What Charles Burney had written about Bach’s “academic” compositions in 1773 now seemed to prove true: That his works were creations “made for another sphere, at least for another century, in which one might consider that easy and natural which today is said to be difficult and farfetched.”

Dorothea Schröder (Cuxhaven)