C.P.E. Bach: Biography, Symphonies & Works

Instructor: Charis Duke

Charis has taught college music and has a master's degree in music composition.

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach was part of the large and talented Bach family of the Baroque period. He served an important role in the transition from the Baroque period to the Classical. In this lesson, we will learn about his life and music.

Born into the Bachs

If you wanted to be a famous R&B singer, you would be fortunate to be born into the Jackson clan. If you wanted to be an Oscar winning movie director, it would be nice to have Steven Spielberg for a father. What if you wanted to be a composer at the end of the Baroque Era?

Weimar, Germany
Photo of Weimar, Germany

Carl Philip Emanuel Bach, called Emanuel by his family and CPE by historians, was born March 8, 1714 in Weimar, Germany, to the most important composer of the German Baroque, Johann Sebastian Bach, and his wife Maria Barbara. His godfather was Georg Philipp Telemann, another important German composer. His grandfather was a musician. He had musician uncles and cousins. Three of his brothers would become successful composers. It would seem CPE was destined for musical greatness, and that proved to be the case.

CPE studied keyboard and composition with his father and displayed early talent. Following in his godfather's footsteps, he studied law and received a degree in 1735. However, music was his true passion. He continued composing and performing and never actually practiced law.

Positions Held by CPE

CPE moved to Berlin in 1740 to take an appointment at the court of Frederick II of Prussia. Frederick was a talented amateur musician who enjoyed playing the flute. CPE was hired as court harpsichordist. He accompanied Frederick for his flute recitals. CPE chafed at the menial tasks of his position, but he had a lot of free time at court and was a very productive composer there. He wrote numerous keyboard sonatas 'for the ladies' and had them published, earning a tidy sum.

Frederick II playing his flute with CPE at the harpsichord
Painting of CPE performing with Frederick II

While in Berlin he also wrote an important book titled Versuch über die wahre Art das Klavier zu spielen, or Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments. This book taught its readers about the the importance of correct fingerings, how to execute ornaments properly, how to improvise tastefully, and introduced the radically new idea that if a performer wants his audience to be moved by the music, he must first be moved by it. It became the performance Bible for generations of keyboard players, including Mozart and Beethoven. It is still consulted today for correct ornamentation interpretation.

In 1767, CPE finally resigned his post in Berlin to become the music director in Hamburg. Hamburg was a more modern, exciting, and cosmopolitan city. CPE was happier there and remained in this position for the rest of his life. While there, he became the leader of the Empfindsamkeit (sensitivity) movement in music. This movement emphasized intimacy, passion, and expression in trying to convey emotions to the listener.

CPE's Music

CPE Bach
Portrait of CPE Bach

CPE has held a very interesting place in music history. In his lifetime, his music eclipsed that of his father. He was more famous than Johann Sebastian, and his music was more widely played. Mozart said, 'Bach is the father. We are the children,' referring to CPE. This changed dramatically in subsequent years. By the 1850s, Johann Sebastian's music was back in the forefront and CPE had virtually disappeared. In recent years, CPE has slowly been regaining lost ground as musicians recognize his talents once again, but it is likely he will always be in second place to his father.

Mozart said such things about CPE because CPE's music served as a bridge from the Baroque to the Classical periods. This is most evident with his symphonies. The symphony in CPE's day was a multi-movement work for orchestra intended for concert performance. This genre was unknown in the Baroque period. Influenced by Italian composers who had been dabbling with the symphony for awhile, CPE began to write symphonies while in Berlin. He claimed to have written 24, but only 18 exist today.

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