All Too Human

Musings on Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach

It’s a peculiar case: CPE had more recognition than his father in his own lifetime, though Bach père has since eclipsed not only his sons, but every other musician. Today, if someone refers to “Bach” they mean Johann Sebastian, but in the late 18th century “Bach” meant Carl Philipp Emanuel. Take the famous quote by Mozart: “Bach is the father, and we are the children.” It’s often assumed that Mozart was speaking of JS, but he was in fact referring to CPE.

This was probably because CPE was quite fashionable while JS was considered outdated, even though they both had conservative and progressive streaks at times. The battle between the inventor and the museum curator, as Glenn Gould put it, rages within every artist, and the most interesting ones express this conflict for all to see. For CPE this divide is most obvious between his sacred and secular works: in the sacred works (e.g. Magnificat) he uses rigorous contrapuntal methods and is clearly under the influence of his father, but in the secular works (e.g. Flute Concerto in D Minor) he is a radical to rival Beethoven. Despite the obvious influence of Johann Sebastian as well as the more dramatic Baroque composers — George Frideric Handel and Georg Philipp Telemann (his godfather and namesake) — CPE was an individual and forward-looking composer.

Among his many and varied innovations: he cemented Sonata Form, both the three-movement structure as well as the three-part first movement consisting of the exposition, development, and recapitulation; he was the foremost practitioner of empfindsamer Stil (“sentimental style”) and sturm und drang (“storm and stress”), which were dramatic pre-echoes of Romanticism; he even wrote a treatise on keyboard playing which is still relevant today — he was early to systematize using the thumb while playing, which he claimed was a trick he had learned from his father.

Of the Bach fils CPE is by far the most commonly programmed, but I think his music is still underplayed. Unlike his father, he is all too human; though some of his music bears the stamp of greatness, a lot of it can sound banal. And yet, I have a soft spot for him: he is the only one of Bach’s sons to have preserved his father’s methods while innovating his own style.

Compare Johann Sebastian’s Solo pour une flûte traversière with Carl Philipp Emanuel’s Sonata for Solo Flute. Both are solo flute pieces in A Minor, both skillfully use the solo flute to imply polyphony, and both are littered with never-ending phrases and wonky harmonies. But for all that, upon listening to them they aren’t as similar as you would expect.

Johann Sebastian’s piece is a four movement dance suite which looks back to the 17th or early 18th century. It is typically meticulous, with not a note out of place, and it is argumentative rather than dramatic; it continuously unfurls and iterates upon a musical idea without creating colors and contrasts for their own sake. Carl Philipp Emanuel’s solo, on the other hand, is a three movement sonata which looks forward to 18th, even early 19th century works. It is a great example of empfindsamer Stil, full of sharp, dramatic contrasts in timbre, dynamics, and rhythm. Carl Philipp Emanuel’s harmonies are weaker than Johann Sebastian’s — who can blame him? — but he uses harmonic color for its own sake, once again looking forward to the Romantics. I love to imagine the son of the Father of Harmony writing progressions just because they sound cool.

So why this disparity between his contemporaneous and posthumous recognition? Despite being quite modish and influential, his music sits on a fence. It can’t be denied that Johann Sebastian is the greatest example of where Carl Philipp Emanuel was coming from, and Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven became the greatest examples of where he was going to. His is a routine historical tragedy; it’s common for great men and women to be obscured by temporal misfortune.

His major musical descendants — Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven — admired CPE, but his own admiration was always greatest for JS. I’ll close my late night musings by quoting a segment of a letter in which he responds to someone who dared to write that Handel was a greater organist than Johann Sebastian. Carl Philipp Emanuel seems quite charming; I would love to sit down and have a long dinner with him. I’m sure he would have some great stories about Johann Sebastian, as well.

Seriously, the differences could hardly be greater. Did Handel ever write trios for two manuals and pedals? Did he write fugues for five or six voices for keyboard alone? Certainly not. Consequently, no comparison can be made in this respect, the disparity being too great. People need only look at the clavier and organ compositions of both men!

Excuse my chatter and scribble! The drollest thing of all is the King’s gracious precautionary measure, thanks to which everything that Handel wrote in his youth is being preserved. I do not wish to compare myself to Handel, but recently I burned a ream or more of my old compositions and am glad that they no longer exist.

Pray continue to love, all the foregoing notwithstanding,

Your most devoted


If you enjoyed this piece, you’ll love my podcast Impolite to Listen, in which I chat casually with my friend Christopher Arkin about classical music and its attendant matters.

Flutist & cohost of the Impolite to Listen podcast

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