Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach

by Anja Weinberger

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach – by profession far more than a son

Many of us know Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach above all as the son of the great Johann Sebastian Bach. But during the lifetime of the two, things were quite different. At the time, someone spoke of the “great Bach”, that was Carl Philipp, not his father Johann Sebastian.

Here is his story.

‘I was born on 8 March 1714 in the beautiful city of Weimar. My father had been appointed there as court organist some years ago. My mother Maria Barbara Bach had already given birth to 4 children before me, two of whom died soon. My godfather was Georg Philipp Telemann, a friend of my father. Later in my life this connection should be of great interest.

When I was three years old we moved to Köthen, where we were to spend 6 years. The family continued to grow, two brothers joined us. And then the terrible thing: my mother dies completely unexpectedly and that when my father does not stay in the city, but had to spend two months with the court in Carlsbad. In 1721, when I was 7 years old, my father married a second time. My stepmother Anna Magdalena Bach, an excellent singer, will give him 13 more children in the following years, 6 of which will survive the first years.

In 1723 we all moved to Leipzig, because my father became Thomaskantor. And there at the Thomasschule I was also educated by him. Lively it went on in our cantor’s apartment. My father taught many pupils on the harpsichord, colleagues often came to visit, and our own group of children was large. Even after school we sons were taught piano and composition by our father. We were very lucky.

At first I composed small forms – marches, minuets and sonatas. From the beginning I had the urge to write differently from my teachers. This encouraged me not to imitate but to be creative myself.


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In 1731 I decided to study law. I stayed in Leipzig for the time being and of course I continued to make music and compose. Three years later I continued my studies in Frankfurt/Oder. There I was able to earn money as a piano teacher and also became a member of the Collegium Musicum. It was interesting for me that I was able to escape my father’s supervision. Unlike in Hamburg or Erfurt, there was no one here who could report about me back home. I found many good friends, especially Ludwig Wilhelm and Ernst Wilhelm Happe, the two sons of the later Prussian Minister of War. It was also here that I first encountered the idea of the Enlightenment.

The few years in Frankfurt were very important for my personal development. In 1738 I finally completed my studies. But to follow an academic career, I could not imagine that. However, it was good to have this education in my pocket, because many higher music positions were only filled by academics. Handel and my brother Wilhelm Friedemann also followed this path. Music had fascinated me from birth and so I followed its call even now, at the age of 24.

He probably became aware of me through a cantata which I composed for his birthday. In any case, the Prussian Crown Prince Frederick (later Frederick the Great) called me to his chapel in Ruppin as a harpsichordist. For this position I even declined the offer of an educational trip to Italy at Heinrich Christian Keyserlingks side.

After Frederick’s coronation as Prussian king in 1740, I was offered a permanent position as a concert harpsichordist and in 1746 I became a chamber musician. It was my privilege to accompany the flute-playing king on the harpsichord.

The crème de la crème of European instrumental music was gathered at the Prussian court. I met Johann Joachim Quantz, the king’s brilliant flutist, flute maker, composer and flute teacher. There were also the Graun brothers and the Bohemian Benda brothers, all first-class composers and violin virtuosos.

I can say without wanting to sound arrogant that I too was one of the most famous “clavirists” in Europe. For my favourite instrument, the harpsichord, I have written around 150 sonatas and over 50 concertante pieces – all in the highly praised new German style. For I was fortunate to have been born into this exciting moment of change. On the one hand, the music of my father’s generation – key words: counterpoint, basso continuo and polyphony – on the other hand, the urge for a new musical style of expression, which emanated mainly from the Dresden court and then also from Gluck’s operas.

I immediately felt at home in this new style, later called sensitive. I freed the upper voice, I wanted to think thoughts full of beauty and esprit. I tried to formulate individual and distinctive themes. If it was a vocal piece, I tried to declaim the lyrics appropriately, to translate the affect directly. And so, for example, my settings of the odes and songs of Christian Fürchtegott Gellert were published five times by 1784 alone. They made me one of the most famous song composers in the country overnight. I was delighted when I heard a market woman or a craftsman warbling one of my songs as I passed by. The music had reached the people, it no longer celebrated God alone, but was also an expression of pure joy of life.


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By the way, in 1744 I married my Johanna Maria, we were happy together and had three children. One of my sons became a lawyer, as I could have been, and another became a painter.

In 1749 my father fell seriously ill. The city of Leipzig had to think about a succession arrangement for the Thomaskirche. My father asked me and my older brother Wilhelm Friedemann, who was music director and organist at the Marienkirche in Halle at the time, to submit “sample music”. I wrote my Magnificat, which I then added trumpets and timpani in some movements many years later in our Hamburg time. The work became very well known and popular throughout Europe.

Incidentally, the position of Thomaskantor was awarded to Johann Gottlob Harrer, sponsored by Heinrich von Brühl. The Prime Minister of Saxony and the Mayor of Leipzig, Born, probably also wanted to use this way to reprimand Bach’s insubordinate employees, who in their opinion placed too much value on the highest quality in church music. I should be fine with that, because we submitted our applications primarily for the sake of our father.

When he died in 1750, it was a hard blow, despite our rather distant connection. Only the death of the father makes a man really grown up. It is hard to believe that we should never again play four-handed, that we could never again follow his call “Let’s play music! My brother Wilhelm Friedemann was probably hit even harder by his father’s death; he spent much more time with his father and was close to him in a special way. I now took my youngest, still underage brother Johann Christian into the family. At less than 15 years of age, he was a talented apprentice and an excellent copyist. Later he also became a great composer, even more famous than I was to be for a while.

Finally, in 1753, I noticed that the increasing number of amateur musicians urgently required a proper school work. A year earlier Quantz had published his “Versuch einer Anweisung die Flöte traversiere spielen” for the same reason. And so my textbook was written in two volumes. I called it “Attempt at the True Way to Play the Clavier.” By the way, in 1756 Leopold Mozart did something similar for strings with the “Versuch einer gründlichen Violinschule”.

My school does not only deal with the actual playing of the piano, but also teaches good taste and many a theory. Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven have studied the book thoroughly. It was not my intention that the organ playing should be pushed into the background in this way. Pianos were in almost every middle-class household, the organs in the churches and were only used during church services. I myself hardly played the organ at all and composed only little for my father’s main instrument.


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In the same year the famous Dresden court conductor Johann Adolph Hasse visited me together with his wife, the Venetian singer Faustina Bordoni. I admired his opera triumphs and he my harpsichord playing. The two of them were THE sensational artist couple – the European magazines never missed any of their quarrels or reconciliations – and we liked each other very much.

During my time in Berlin I wrote more than 300 works, most of them chamber – and piano music. My “Prussian and Württemberg Sonatas” are considered the most important testimony to the new stylistic development in the field of piano sonatas. They have their name because they are dedicated to Friedrich II of Prussia and Carl Eugen von Württemberg – also one of my students.

In the period of the Seven Years’ War from 1756 to 1763, we musicians had to accept considerable financial losses. As courtly servants we received our money in the form of cash notes. These lost more and more in value during the war. Fortunately, I also had many private pupils and earned additional money by publishing my works. But also Friedrich’s chamber concerts took place only in very small numbers during the war years. So for me it was a little fulfilled time. This war was really a superfluous and annoying affair. In addition, the mood at the royal court had clouded over lately. Again and again there were disputes, especially in the collaboration with Christoph Nichelmanns, the second harpsichordist at the Prussian court.

In addition to courtly life, I fortunately had a fulfilled middle-class existence. My circle of friends was colourful. Lessing, Agricola, Krause, Gleim, Nicolai, Moses Mendelssohn, Anna Louisa Karsch, the Itzigs – with them and many others I was able to discuss and enjoy life on many a trip on the Spree. We founded clubs based on the English model and I joined the first Berlin song school. Out of these heartfelt connections I created the “24 character pieces” in which I portrayed my friends and their wives.

It was gratifying to have closer musical contact with Anna Amalia, the King’s sister, herself a very talented musician. In contrast to her brother, she was a rather revolutionary composer, very interested in the expressive style of the new era. She liked my irrepressible, subjective and passionate musical language. In 1767 she made me her bandmaster. The king, on the other hand, liked the conservative, gallant, rococo-like style. Probably this was also a reason why my dissatisfaction grew with time.

Also in 1767 my godfather Georg Philipp Telemann died. In Hamburg he had built up great things in the course of more than 40 years after initial difficulties. He died a respected and wealthy man. I asked Friedrich to say goodbye, which he did not like at all and only agreed to after a long back and forth. And so I took over Telemann’s position as municipal music director and cantor at the Johanneum in April 1768. Here in Hamburg in the far north, I was no longer a servant, nor an employee, but was appointed by the Senate. Meanwhile I was over 50 years old and known in the whole musical world as “the great Bach”. More than 200 performances were to take place annually at the 5 main churches in Hamburg, a heavy workload which I could only cope with by skilful planning and also by performing the works of other composers. I earned excellently and could also afford to publish my works in my own publishing house. Furthermore, there was enough money to support needy family members. We Bachs still had quite close contact and always tried to be at each other’s side.


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I introduced regular concert evenings. In doing so, I attached equal importance to my own taste and that of the audience. Again I made friends very quickly with interesting men from politics and culture. Bode, Klopstock, Matthias Claudius, Mattheson, Christoph Christian Sturm, Johann Reimarus, Friedrich Ludwig Schröder and again Lessing, who, however, left Hamburg soon after to become librarian of the Duke August Library in Wolfenbüttel.

From 1769 on I wrote twenty Passion settings, two oratorios, about 70 cantatas, moths and other liturgical pieces. In addition to my own compositions, I also performed many works by my colleagues – for example, by Graun, Händel, Telemann or my family. All concerts sold out, the churches always well filled.

In 1777 my dear son Johann Samuel died in Rome from a long, very painful illness. In the ache I numbed myself with work and the cantata “Heilig” for alto solo and two four-part choirs was written. The success of this work was undisputed, full of the soul’s intimate devotion to God – it was to experience many performances. And in the following years some of my sisters and brothers also died. The loneliness of old age came closer, although the Hamburg audience was very fond of me.

Fortunately I had extensive and interesting correspondence: Through Diderot I was able to delve deeper into the thought processes of the Enlightenment and followed the publication of the Encyclopédie. Johann Heinrich Voss, much younger than me, was working on the translation of the Odyssey. How interesting to be part of that. And with Klopstock I was connected to the cosmopolitan world view, which we discussed in detail in our correspondence.

So I spent 74 years in this world – until 14.12.1788. My tomb is in the Michaeliskirche in Hamburg. What remains is my music. ‘

Carl Philipp Emanuel’s life was completely different from that of his father. Again and again in history it happens that a big step in a political, medical or in this case musical-philosophical way is made exactly within a father/son generation. This results in an additional acceleration of renewal, a double force into the future.

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