C.P.E. BachA Tribute to Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach


by T.L. Hubeart Jr.

© 1996-2002 by T.L. Hubeart Jr.


It cannot have been easy to have been a son of the great Johann Sebastian Bach--or especially to undertake a career in music under the shadow of such a father. The most notable members of Sebastian’s progeny broke from their father’s influence like billiard balls escaping a neat triangular formation. Musically, they turned away from the traditions he had embodied, mainly because they knew themselves unable to surpass his outstanding achievements.[1] In some cases, the paths of their lives also seemed to reflect rebellion against his legacy. Wilhelm Friedemann Bach (1710-84), Sebastian’s eldest son, became a rather tragic figure, abruptly abandoning his organist’s position in Halle in 1764 and never again holding a formal post, reduced to recycling his own music and plagiarizing his father’s.[2] Johann Christian Bach (1735-82), youngest of Sebastian’s sons, abandoned Sebastian’s Lutheran faith after the latter's death, being received into the Roman Catholic Church during his years in Italy.[3]  Although Sebastian seems to have been especially fond of Christian, treating him as "the Benjamin of the family,"[4] Christian is reputed to have referred to his father as "the old wig";[5] this son composed as though Sebastian had never existed, prompting J.S. Bach’s first biographer, J.N. Forkel, to remark that "The original spirit of Bach is . . . not to be found in any of [Christian’s] works."[6]

Undoubtedly the child of Bach who made the most of both the advantages and the handicaps of being a son of Sebastian was Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714-88).[7] This second son of the great composer first took up the study of law at the Universities of Leipzig and of Frankfurt an den Oder, but during the same period (1731-38) was also producing his first compositions under his father’s tutelage. After completing his education, he received a summons to the court of the Crown Prince of Prussia, soon to become king--Frederick the Great, one of the most notable "scholar-kings" of all time. Frederick himself was an avid flautist, and was assembling a musical entourage consisting of several of the greatest composers and performers of the day.

Emanuel would seem to have had it made at this point, but although he served Frederick for the next thirty years, he had ample reason to become dissatisfied with his royal employer. Not only did Frederick become more involved in military exploits than in musical matters, but he also largely ignored Emanuel’s compositions and resented the composer’s independence of mind.  He also grossly underpaid Emanuel as compared with other court musicians such as Nichelmann, Quantz, and the Graun brothers.[8]  Dissatisfied with Berlin, Emanuel applied for several posts in other cities over the years. Finally in 1767, when his godfather G.P. Telemann, cantor and music director in Hamburg, died, Bach applied for the position and was chosen to succeed him. Frederick finally released Bach after repeated requests, and in March 1768 Bach took up the position in Hamburg, where he remained to the end of his life.

Emanuel Bach became so well known throughout Europe that he was often referred to as the Hamburg Bach (to distinguish him from his brother the London Bach--Johann Christian, who was now music master to the Queen of England). Not only did he supply music for Hamburg’s five churches, but he also initiated concerts and published many of his compositions, including six influential sets of keyboard pieces für Kenner und Liebhaber ("for connoisseurs and amateurs"). Already famous for his definitive Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments, he proceeded to make great strides in the genre of symphony in the ten works of Wq. 182-183 (Helm 657-66), and in choral music, culminating in his magnificent oratorio Die Auferstehung und Himmelfahrt Jesu ("The Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus," Wq. 240 [H. 777]).

In addition to his own substantial contributions to music, he provided an immense service in protecting the legacy of his deceased father. Prof. Eugene Helm, one of the foremost authorities on Emanuel Bach, states that he was "an honourable and effective guardian of Sebastian’s music and other Bach family treasures important to Bach research; most of the Bachiana now extant were owned by him."[9] Unfortunately, the largest share of Sebastian Bach’s autographs had been given after his death to his eldest son Wilhelm Friedemann, due to whose negligence most of the scores he inherited have been irrecoverably lost.[10] Philipp Spitta’s account of the disposition of J.S. Bach’s five Passions indicates the comparative respect by Emanuel and neglect by Friedemann of their paternal legacy:

. . . After his death, his sons, Friedemann and Emanuel, divided these cantatas [i.e., Sebastian’s five yearly cycles of such works] between them, and the Passions were no doubt included. Emanuel had the original scores of the St. John and the St. Matthew Passions. He treasured them faithfully and they still exist. The original manuscript[s] of the other three fell into the hands of the dissipated Friedemann, who now grew wilder than ever; they were sold for a trifle, and two have entirely disappeared . . . .[11]

It has been accurately said of Emanuel that he "was the only one among [Bach’s sons] who would actively work to increase Johann Sebastian’s fame and make his works more generally known."[12] Besides treasuring his father’s manuscripts, he was responsible for the only J.S. Bach publications between the Art of Fugue edition published shortly after Sebastian’s death and the competing editions of the Well-Tempered Clavier which appeared in 1801: Emanuel brought out 371 chorales culled from his father’s vocal works, commending them to both connoisseurs and students of counterpoint.[13] He directed a performance of the Credo from Sebastian’s B Minor Mass (BWV 232) in Hamburg in 1784, at a time when this monumental work was completely unknown.[14] At the end of his life, he published (albeit anonymously) a defense of his father’s art against unfavorable comparisons with that of Handel.[15] Posterity thus owes Emanuel a double debt, since in addition to creating his own masterpieces, he safeguarded many of Sebastian’s as well.

And it would be unfair to allow Emanuel’s works to remain in the shade of those of his father. Certainly nothing is quite like Sebastian’s music--but then Emanuel’s does not aspire to be like it, but to cultivate a very different effect. The German term empfindsamer Stil, which can be loosely rendered as "sensitive style," is often used regarding Emanuel’s highly subjective music. His most original works are the opposite of predictable; he delights in startling the listener with a sudden shift in dynamics, or a new pattern of note-rhythms, or an unexpected modulation.  Pamela Fox remarks, at the outset of an important study of what she terms the composer’s stylistic “nonconstancy,” that “The novel unpredictability and imaginative unorthodoxy of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach’s music exert a magnetic attraction upon scholars, performers, and listeners.”[16]  The opening of his Concerto for Two Harpsichords, Wq. 46 [H. 408], or the first movement of his Sixth "Prussian" Sonata in A, Wq. 48/6 [H. 29], provide good examples of the wide range of moods through which he can navigate in a mere few bars.

Rather than try to compete with Sebastian’s style--or to vacillate between various styles, as Friedemann did, failing to find a consistent style of his own[17]-- Emanuel travelled the corridors of the human psyche and related to his audience on a level that seems emotionally immediate. To say that Sebastian was the only great Bach and that his sons were unworthy successors to his legacy, as many in the 19th century did,[18] betrays a lack of critical discernment.  Indeed, we are still suffering from the effects of this shortsightedness in that much of Emanuel’s music is still not widely available, or is available in old or unreliable editions. Complicating the problem is the fact that, according to Rachel W. Wade’s important study The Keyboard Concertos of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, this artist “rarely considered a work finished. More than most other composers, he revised quite frequently”[19]--a trait that has obvious ramifications for responsible editors of his music.  Only towards the end of the twentieth century was the Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach Edition finally initiated to provide an authoritative text of the works of this composer.  (Compare this with J.S. Bach and Mozart, each of whom has been honored by two complete works editions!) The C.P.E. Bach Edition unfortunately ceased publication after only four volumes had been released, but a new edition called Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach: The Complete Works has now been started, with a projected completion date of 2014 (the 300th anniversary of C.P.E.’s birth). [20]

Sebastian and his sons--especially his most remarkable, Emanuel--composed very different types of music. No doubt Sebastian’s St. Matthew Passion is the finest musical setting of the suffering, death, and burial of Christ; but can anyone who has heard Emanuel’s Auferstehung und Himmelfahrt Jesu (possibly his finest composition) deny that the son’s depiction of the resurrection and ascension of Christ is also unsurpassable?[21] Can one pit Sebastian’s concerti against Emanuel’s, or one’s sinfonias against the other’s symphonies, and come away with anything meaningful? That would be as foolish as comparing Sebastian Bach to Handel, or Mozart to Beethoven, in an effort to downgrade one or the other’s compositions. Hopefully our musical culture has outgrown favorite Victorian parlor games like these.

Emanuel himself enunciated a far sounder musical judgment when someone tried to draw him into a battle with Joseph Haydn. Correcting a story in the European Magazine, which had accused him of attacking Haydn in print, Bach wrote:

. . . According to my principles, every master has his true and certain value. Praise and criticism cannot change any of that. Only the work itself praises and criticizes the master, and therefore I leave to everyone his own value.[22]

If the value of Johann Sebastian Bach is unmistakable, so too is that of his son Carl Philipp Emanuel.  Far from being a mere transitional figure, C.P.E. Bach is increasingly being recognized as a highly significant composer in his own right; as harpsichordist Ludger Rémy aptly says, “Does [Emanuel] Bach stand between the times?  No, he is his own time.”[23]  Rather than diminishing Emanuel’s work, the fact that the son had a father like J.S. Bach should enhance our appreciation of Emanuel’s achievement. The towering figure of Sebastian had both encouraged his sons’ musical careers and unwittingly, simply by being the great J.S. Bach, made it more difficult for them to assert their artistic personalities. Emanuel emerged from his father’s shadow and made his own way in the world, cutting a path that would ensure his own immortality--but not without reverence toward the already immortal father who had so decisively influenced his course.

(Last revision: 14 July 2006.)



[1] Cf. Hans T. David & Arthur Mendel, eds., The Bach Reader, 2nd edition, NY: Norton, 1966, p. 31.  (In the revision of this work by Christoph Wolff, The New Bach Reader [NY: Norton, 1998], the relevant passage is on p. 15.)

[2] "Wilhelm Friedemann Bach," in Christoph Wolff, et. al., The New Grove Bach Family, NY: Norton, 1983, p. 243 (see also the work list on pp. 247-50 for Friedemann’s borrowings).

[3] Ernest Warburton, "Johann Christian Bach," in New Grove, p. 316.

[4] Philipp Spitta, Johann Sebastian Bach, trans. Clara Bell & J.A. Fuller-Maitland, NY: Dover, 1951 (reprint of 1889 ed.), Vol. 3, pp. 268-9.

[5] David & Mendel, p. 270 (New Bach Reader, pp. 378-9).

[6] Ibid, p. 333 (New Bach Reader, p. 458).

[7] For most of the following biographical data, I am indebted to the biographical essay "Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach" by Eugene Helm, in New Grove, op. cit., pp. 251ff..

[8] Hans-Günter Ottenberg, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, trans. Philip J. Whitmore, NY: Oxford UP, 1987, pp. 56-7.

[9] Helm, p. 263.

[10] See David & Mendel, p. 347 (statement by J.N. Forkel; New Bach Reader, pp. 472-3) and "W.F. Bach" in New Grove, p. 244.  Cf. also Forkel’s letter of April 24, 1803 in New Bach Reader, p. 394, regarding how Forkel copied the cantatas BWV 9 and BWV 178 from a manuscript of several J.S. Bach cantatas owned by Friedemann, which was later “sold out of necessity” by the latter and disappeared.

[11] Spitta, Vol. 2, p. 504. Spitta goes on to suggest that the St. Luke Passion (BWV 246) is possibly the remaining, unaccounted-for Passion making up the five listed in the obituary notice on Sebastian by C.P.E. and Sebastian’s pupil J.F. Agricola, but later researchers consider it spurious, although it is in J.S. Bach’s hand. (See "J.S. Bach" in New Grove, p. 134 on this topic; the obituary appears in David & Mendel, pp. 214-24, and New Bach Reader, pp. 295-307.)

[12] David & Mendel, p.270 (New Bach Reader, p. 379). 

[13] Ibid, pp. 270-1 (New Bach Reader, pp. 378-80); "J.S. Bach" in New Grove, pp. 142-3.

[14] Christoph Wolff, "The Kantor, the Kapellmeister, and the Musical Scholar: Remarks on the History and Performance of Bach’s Mass in B minor," liner notes to ARCHIV 415 514-1 (BWV 232 performed by John Eliot Gardiner, 1985), p. 7; see also Ottenberg, p. 117.

[15] Given in David & Mendel, pp. 280-8 (New Bach Reader, pp. 400-409); this publication is uncertain in identifying the author of this defense as Emanuel, but the identification is corroborated in "J.S. Bach" in New Grove, pp. 168-9, and by Ottenberg, p. 182.  The defense was first credited to Emanuel by Dragan Plamenac on the basis of similarities between it and a letter Emanuel wrote to J.J. Eschenburg on January 21, 1786; see Stephen L. Clark, trans. & ed., The Letters of C.P.E. Bach, NY: Oxford UP, 1997, p. 243-4 (Letter 287) and note 1 to p. 243.  

[16] Pamela Fox, “The Stylistic Anomalies of C.P.E. Bach’s Nonconstancy,” in Stephen L. Clark, ed., C.P.E. Bach Studies, Oxford: Oxford UP, 1988, p. 105.

[17] Cf. Eugene Helm, “Wilhelm Friedemann Bach,” in New Grove Bach Family, pp. 245-6.

[18] For instance, Spitta (Vol. 3, p. 278) claims that “it is especially in Bach’s sons that we may mark the decay of that power which had culminated [in Sebastian] after several centuries of growth . . . .”   Robert Schumann, usually a more perceptive judge that the following quotation suggests, notoriously opined of Emanuel that “as a creative musician he remained very far behind his father.  As Mendelssohn once said, ‘it was as if a dwarf had appeared among the giants’” (qtd. in Ottenberg, p. 203).  Hans von Bülow also demonstrated a complete lack of sympathy with Emanuel’s keyboard music, the editing of which he called “very dry” work that put him “in a bad mood” (and which, Ottenberg indicates, he handled very irresponsibly, creating an edition of C.P.E.’s keyboard sonatas where “the original text is sometimes altered beyond recognition” [ibid., p. 185]).

[19] Rachel W. Wade, The Keyboard Concertos of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Research Press, 1981, p. 85.

[20] Regarding the Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach Edition, see Rachel W. Wade, "Filiation and the Editing of Revised and Alternate Versions: Implications for the C.P.E. Bach Edition," in Stephen L. Clark, ed., C.P.E. Bach Studies (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988), pp. 277-94; and also David Schulenberg’s page on Emanuel’s concerto Wq. 24. For details about Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach: The Complete Works, please see that edition’s website.

[21] This work is most readily available in the fine 1974 full score edition prepared by Gábor Darvas for Editio Musica, Budapest. C.F. Zelter, director of the Berlin Singakademie, certainly felt the greatness of this work keenly.  Zelter composed his own setting of the Auferstehung text (which several other composers had also set), but explicitly declined to set the aria “Ihr Tore Gottes”; “When questioned about this, he replied that Bach’s setting of the aria was so colossal, so great, so divine, that perhaps any composer who tried to follow it would be put to shame” (--Hans-Günter Ottenberg, “C.P.E. Bach and Carl Friedrich Zelter,” in C.P.E. Bach Studies, op. cit., pp. 198-9).

[22] Qtd. in H.C. Robbins Landon, Haydn: A Documentary Study, NY: Rizzoli, 1981, p. 88.  See also Ottenberg, p. 179, for this incident and a slightly different translation of Bach’s comments.

[23] Ludger Rémy, liner notes to CPO 999 350-2 (C.P.E. Bach: Harpsichord Concertos Wq. 30, 37, & 38, performed by Rémy/Les Amis de Philippe, 1995), p. 18.


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