Carl II playing his flute with CPE

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?

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Weimar, Germany
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 ;ber 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.CPE’s symphonies follow the Italian model of three movements, fast-slow-fast. The orchestrations are simple, strings and basso continuo with woodwinds or trumpets added in pairs for different symphonies. CPE’s inventiveness shows itself in the fiery, wide-ranging musical themes that dash off to unexpected places. These themes develop freely without the strict formal requirements the Baroque period would have placed upon them. The symphonies were so popular they were performed long after his death.

They clearly influenced the Classical symphony writers, such as Haydn and Mozart.

The Final Years

CPE remained busy all his days. In addition to symphonies CPE composed numerous concerti, sacred choral works, organ sonatas, vocal pieces, solo keyboard music, and chamber music. He could, and did, write anything and write it well.

He lived comfortably in Hamburg with his wife, Johanna Maria Dannemann, and his three children and enjoyed his famous reputation. On Dec. 14, 1788, CPE passed away, but his influence lives on even today.

Lesson Summary

Carl Phillip Emanuel Bach was born into the talented Johann Sebastian Bach family on March 18, 1714.

He studied music with his father. He held two important positions in his life, one in Berlin and one in Hamburg. His music was considered innovative, daring, and modern. He was concerned that music should be expressive and connect emotionally with the listener.

He wrote an essay on piano technique that had tremendous influence and is still consulted today. He died on December 14, 1788 in Hamburg. Although he was famous in his lifetime, over the years, he has been eclipsed by his father and was nearly forgotten. That is slowly changing as his music is being rediscovered and performed in the 21st century.


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