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C.P.E.Bach. Oboenkonzerte & Sonaten / ALEXEI UTKIN


Text of the booklet "C.P.E.Bach. Oboenkonzerte & Sonaten / ALEXEI UTKIN"

When, at the end of the 18th century in Germany, they talked of the “great Bach”, it was usually not Johann Sebastian they had in mind, who was admired at the time by just a few connoisseurs, but his second son, Carl Philipp Emanuel (1714 –1788) in whose powerful talent Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven delighted and whose influence extended even to the early romantics: Weber, Hoffmann, Mendelssohn.

Emanuel Bach’s striking individuality made it impossible for him to fit into any one school or style. In the music of the 18th century he stands on his own, belonging in entirety neither to the baroque nor classical styles. There is no mistaking C.P.E. Bach’s style; it is recognizable right from its first abrupt, tense, almost electric phrases which seem to anticipate the pre-storm atmosphere of the Sturm und Drang period. In the eyes of his contemporaries he was regarded not just as a maitre (as was his father), but as a genius in so far as at that time the term genius tended to be associated above all with people possessing exceptional personalities, exceptional ability in the arts taking second place.

Carl Philipp Emanuel was born in Weimar. His godfather was Georg Philipp Telemann, a close friend of the Bach family. Emanuel’s first and only teacher in composition and playing keyboard instruments was his father who, however, considered it essential that his son be given a good general education. When the family moved to Leipzig (1723), Emanuel Bach went to the Thomasschule and, in 1731, enrolled in the faculty of jurisprudence, at Leipzig University. After three years at Leipzig, he continued his studies in law at the University of Frankfurt an der Oder.

It is possible that the history of music might have taken a somewhat different turn, had C.P.E. Bach, on completing his studies at Frankfurt University in 1738, set off, as planned, on a journey through France, Italy and England, in the capacity of tutor to the young Count Keyserlingk. The talented musician, however, was ‘snatched up’ by the Prussian Crown Prince, the future King Frederick the Great, who had a Kapelle at his residence of Ruppin and, following his accession to the throne in 1740, was to turn Berlin into one of the musical capitals of Europe. Thus for almost thirty years Emanuel, having been appointed harpsichordist to the King of Prussia, became the ‘Berlin’ Bach. Frederick II, as is well-known, was an avid flautist and wrote music for this instrument. He too thought of himself as a genius who, in addition to being a great ruler and military commander, was also an artist, philosopher and poet; despite his outstanding personality, Frederick was difficult to get on with. The King’s favorite composers were the brothers, Carl Heinrich and Johann Gottlieb Graun and also Johann Joachim Quantz, who wrote numerous flute concertos for Frederick. Emanuel Bach was not among the King’s favorites, but Frederick went out of his way to show his respect for Emanuel’s father when, in 1747, the latter visited Berlin. Though his salary was raised from 300 to 500 thalers, Emanuel was never to become court composer (this coveted title was to be bestowed on him much later by the King’s sister, Princess Anna Amalia). The Prussian king’s harpsichordist was required to take part in the royal concerts which, when Frederick was in residence, were given daily. Of the musicians, only Quantz was allowed to shout ‘bravo!’ as a token of his admiration for the king’s playing.

In Berlin, Emanuel Bach wrote a large number of instrumental works (ranging from symphonies to concertos and keyboard sonatas, the most famous of the latter being the Prussian and Wurttemberg sonatas), as well as dozens of religious and occasional songs (the collection of his spiritual odes to the verses of Gellert, published in 1758, ran into five editions in the 18 th century). His treatise, Versuch uber die wahre Art das Clavier zu spielen(Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments), brought Bach the fame of an outstanding theoretician. Like Quantz’s book on flute-playing and Leopold Mozart’s study of violin-playing, Bach’s Essay was considerably more than a textbook. In it, Emanuel generalized the artistic experience of the late baroque and looked to the future, demanding of every student a truly creative approach (Beethoven used Bach’s treatise as a source-book for the lessons in composition he gave to Archduke Rudolph).

C.P.E. Bach tried several times to leave Berlin and seek for a more suitable position, but this was not easy. For all his striking gifts, erudition and impeccable reputation, he lost out several times to less brilliant competitors. Twice (in 1750 and 1755) he tried in vain to succeed his father in the post of Thomaskantor; unsuccessful too was his application in 1753 to be appointed cantor in Zwickau. It was not till 1767 that Bach won by one vote the competition for the post of cantor and director of music in Hamburg, which had fallen vacant on the death of Telemann. He was not able to move to Hamburg, however, till the following year.

From 1768, the Berlin Bach became the Hamburg Bach. He taught music studies at the School of St. John (Johanneum) and was director of music to the town’s five principal churches. The inhabitants of Hamburg were able to hear, with Emanuel Bach directing, the works of his father (including movements from the latter’s Mass in B minor which, at that time, was performed nowhere else), Handel’s “ Messiah”, plus the music of Telemann, Graun, Hasse, Jommelli.

Emanuel Bach’s oratorios were an important bridge model in the history of the genre. Of course, he also wrote instrumental works. He had at his disposal the hall of the Handelsakademie where, for many years, he organized Bachische Privatkonzerte, in which he took part as soloist and conductor. For these concerts, he wrote Four Orchestral Symphonies which were distinguished by the paradoxical novelty of their composition. In 1773, Bach was commissioned by his Viennese admirer, Baron van Swieten, to write Six Symphonies for strings (in the slow movement of Symphony No.3 in C major, he included his monogram: BACH-E). Bach composed far fewer concertos in Hamburg than he did in Berlin, but among them is the unique Double Concerto in E flat major for harpsichord and piano with orchestra (Wq 47). Emanuel Bach’s favorite keyboard instrument was the sensitive – requiring a very gentle touch – clavichord, however for public performances he preferred either the harpsichord or piano.

Altogether, C.P.E. Bach wrote over 1000 works in very different genres, excluding stage music. Concertos and sonatas, for one and more instruments, predominate in his instrumental works. He wrote virtually all of his concertos for the keyboard (there are over 50 of them), re-arranging them when necessary for other instruments – the flute, oboe, cello. All these transcriptions were done in Berlin and were evidently intended for performance at the court concerts of the King or his sister, Anna Amalia. In 1754, there were three oboists on the staff of the Prussian king’s Kapelle (Quantz also played the oboe). In 1767, the outstanding oboist, Johann Christian Fischer, was a member of Frederick’s Kapelle; he later moved to London where he became a close acquaintance of Johann Christian Bach.

The oboe played a role too in the Bach family history: in 1704, Johann Sebastian wrote his Capriccio sopra la lontananza del suo fratello diletissimo, a farewell to his elder brother, Johann Jacob, who had enrolled as oboist in the Swedish army and, after the Swedes were routed at Poltava fled, together with Charles XIIth, to Turkey. As a child and young man, Emanuel must have heard performances by Caspar Gleditsch, the Leipzig oboist, for whom his father wrote very moving solos in his cantatas and passions.

In the 18 th century, the oboe was used universally in military, church, theatre, concert and chamber music. Its dense, even sound made it irreplaceable in an orchestra, while the beauty and expression of its timbre evoked associations with the human voice. It was mainly professionals who played the oboe (amateurs usually preferring the flute). As Christian Friedrich Daniel Schubart wrote: “Marvelous geniuses brought it to such heights of perfection and elegance, that it became the favorite [instrument] of the musical world”.

In a chamber orchestra, the oboe might replace the violin or flute, or be combined with them. TheTrio sonata in D minor (BWV 1036), thought to be an early work by Johann Sebastian Bach, was originally written for two violins and continuo. Its transcription for oboe, flute and continuo imparts a somewhat different tone to the music – making it less severe and more melancholic.

TheSonata for oboe and continuo in G minor (Wq 135) was written in 1735 in Frankfurt an der Oder where, according to his own admission, Emanuel Bach participated in all the town and university musical events. Even this early work enables us to discuss the stylistic differences between the music of C.P.E. Bach and that of his father. Despite the fact that Emanuel retains the typically baroque forms of the movements and demonstrates skilful mastery of polyphony, the texture of his music is lighter and more transparent (the continuo is played by the harpsichord alone), the themes are more homophonic and less ornate, while the harmony is not so concentrated as is that of Johann Sebastian. Juxtaposed to the agitated, though not over-passionate, music of the first and last movements, is the dreamy Adagio in E flat major. The broad cantilena of this Adagio resembles an Aria di portamento, implying skilful mastery of ‘messa di voce’ (sustaining a note for a long time, gradually swelling it and then letting it die away). The older Bach had a fairly skeptical attitude to such a ‘light’ style. “It is Prussian blue! And it will fade!”, was his later caustic comment on the works of his son. It was this manner, however, that held the key to the future: it was above all the expression of feeling, rather than profound erudition, that the mid 18 th century public demanded of music.

Some of C.P.E. Bach’s works have names that are a direct response to this demand. Among them – the Trio sonata in C minor Gesprach zwischen einem Sanguineo und Melancholico( Discussion between a Sanguine Person and a Melancholy Person) and Fantasia for Harpsichord and Violin in F sharp minor C.P.E. Bachs Empfindungen( The Feelings of C.P.E. Bach). Though not one of Emanuel’s concertos have names of this sort, their music is full of powerful, and at times very stormy emotion. It is noteworthy that in real life C.P.E. Bach was neither a rebel, nor eccentric, nor trouble-maker. He poured all his passion into his music and with such force, moreover, that his art is sometimes identified with the poetics of Sturm und Drang – the literary movement that was not to arise until the 1770’s and was led by Goethe, Herder, Schiller and Klinger.

A Sturm-like ferment of emotion is anticipated in the Concerto in C minor, written in 1747 and existing both in its original keyboard version and in a re-arrangement for flute (in D minor, Wq 22). The finale is a real storm with vortex-like passages, thunderous tremolos and zig-zags of lightening in the pattern of the solo part.

TheConcerto in E flat major (Wq 165) is dated circa 1765. It could easily have been called “ Discussion between a sanguine person and a melancholy person”. The first and last movements are sustained in a cheerful and slightly coquettish tone. The galant style is here laced with a lively piquancy at the expense of the bold syncopation in the minuet theme of the first Allegro and of the sudden gloomy capriccios in the elegant passepied theme of the finale. All the emotional outpourings are concentrated in the Adagio ma non troppo. Here are gathered all the expressive means, characterized at that time by an elevated melancholy: the movement of a funeral procession, reminiscent of the first chorus from Gluck’s Orpheus (1762), expressive syncopation, the moaning of chromatic chords. The movement begins in C minor and ends in E flat major, and it is likewise very typical of C.P.E. Bach, with whom the tonality of the middle movements is sometimes in stark contrast to that of the main movement.

Listening to the music of C.P.E. Bach it is not difficult to understand why contemporaries so delighted in his genius. Without renouncing his father’s legacy, he was able to create a new musical language in which the following generation would speak, convinced as they were that music was not a mathematical science, as the old theoreticians had it, but a free art whose vocation it was to express the feelings and passions of noble, enlightened man.


Larisa Kirillina, translation by Amanda Calvert

Text of the booklet "C.P.E.Bach. Oboenkonzerte & Sonaten / ALEXEI UTKIN"


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