The Letters of C.P.E. Bach

The Letters of C.P.E. Bach

The Letters of C.P.E. Bach

The Letters of C.P.E. Bach


This is a complete edition of the correspondence of the most famous of J.S. Bach's sons. Very few of these letters have appeared previously in English translation. They provide a fascinating picture of an eighteenth-century composer hard at work publishing his own music, debating aesthetic matters, and championing the music and teachings of his father. The readable translation, detailed index, extensive cross referencing, and glossary of names make this an accessible and useful volume.


Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach was born in Weimar on 8 March 1714. The story of the family's subsequent moves to Köthen in 1717 and Leipzig in 1723, and of Bach's early education, has been told elsewhere and will not be repeated here. I will only note that his musical training was sufficient by 1733 for Bach, at the age of 19, to apply for the position of organist at the Wenzelskirche in Naumburg. The application is the first of his letters to survive. He was not offered the job.

The next letter, addressed to his godfather, Georg Philipp Telemann, was written twenty-three years later, when Bach was 42 years old and had been accompanist at Frederick the Great's court in Berlin for sixteen years. Our limited knowledge of Bach's Berlin years comes not from his own letters, but rather from his autobiography, and from letters and writings of the Berlin circle of poets and musicians. The number of letters we have increases significantly after 1765, when Bach had reached the age of 50. Most of them date from his years in Hamburg (1768-88).

The correspondence with Georg Michael Telemann, Georg Philipp's grandson, which began during Bach's very last year in Berlin and continued through his first few years in Hamburg, forms the core of the first of three phases of the 338 letters in this edition. The letters from this first period show Bach learning and struggling with his new responsibilities as music director of the five main churches in Hamburg, the position he assumed after Georg Philipp's death. The second and largest phase of the correspondence begins in 1773, and is dominated by letters to Johann Gottlob Immanuel Breitkopf. While there are letters to Breitkopf from as early as 1765, Letter 41 from June 1773 marks the start of the regular collaboration between Bach, as publisher of his own works, and Breitkopf, as printer of those works. The June 1773 letter is significant because it is Bach's first enquiry since his arrival in Hamburg about the cost of a printing project. The important correspondence with Forkel also begins in this period, and letters to Gerstenberg, Ramler, Schwickert, Artaria, and others complement and amplify the relationship with Breitkopf.

The first letter from 1787 (no. 301), addressed to Johann Jacob Heinrich Westphal, begins the third phase of the correspondence, characterized by Bach's final preparations of his estate and legacy during the last two years of his life. Bach continues writing to Breitkopf during this period as well, but, as we shall discover, the nature of their relationship changes as a result of Bach's interest in getting his affairs in order. Before turning to a discussion based on this three-part interpretation, I will offer some general observations about the letters and their significance.

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