Academic journal article Notes

C. P. E. Bach and the History of Music

Academic journal article Notes

C. P. E. Bach and the History of Music

Article excerpt


Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach belongs among the few musicians who left a mark in the history of music well beyond his contributions as a famous virtuoso and a distinguished composer. As author of the earliest biography of his father, he significantly shaped the perception of J. S. Bach's life until the present day. Elis own autobiography of 1772 gives much insight into his art and contemporaneous musical life. His large music library and extensive collection of musician portraits opens a window on the composer's curatorial activities. Finally, the context of the double-choir Heilig Wq 217 sheds light on his promotion of religious concert music, his concern about his own posthumous legacy, and his original style with its impact on the music that would follow.


A true son of the age of reason who missed experiencing only the first and last decades of the eighteenth century, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714-1788) belongs among the very few among his contemporaries who consciously and quite regularly demonstrated clear historical awareness regarding the music of their own time as well as that of earlier periods. Bach even belonged to the very few who at the time made use of the term "musikalische Geschichte." For example, in the preface to the first volume of his influential Versuch uber die wahre Art das Clavier zu spielen (Berlin, 1753) he referred to learning from the exemplary role played by those "who were able to make a great name for themselves in the musical world." (1) However, this kind of general reference to the major keyboard artists of the past does not mean much beyond the simple fact that the study of exempla classica, that is, the learning from classic models of the past, had been an essential educational concept ever since Renaissance humanism. The young Bach was trained by this method at the Leipzig St. Thomas School.

The question of musical progress over time in a more general sense emerged only gradually during the eighteenth century, but eventually led to such imposing surveys as Charles Burney's A General History of Music (London, 1776-89) and Johann Nicolaus Forkel's Allgemeine Geschichte der Musik (Leipzig, 1788-1801). Bach cultivated personal connections with both authors, but he was already familiar with the more limited discussions of historical developments to be found, for instance, in some of Johann Mattheson's writings or in the more specialized Abhandlung von der Fuge (Berlin, 1753-54) (2) by Friedrich Wilhelm Marpurg. In his youth, Bach may even have overheard pertinent remarks in his father's studio when the latter discussed what he eventually put into a 1731 memorandum, namely, "that the state of music is quite different from what it was, since our artistry has increased very much, and the taste has changed astonishingly, and accordingly the former style of music no longer seems to please our ears....," (3)

Emanuel Bach's 1753 book, along with the companion volume by Johann Joachim Quantz and the writings by Marpurg, Johann Friedrich Agricola, Johann Philipp Kirnberger and others, provide evidence of the unique intellectual atmosphere the young Frederick II, King of Prussia, brought to the Berlin of the 1740s, an atmosphere that had vibrant repercussions throughout the second half of the century. Living in the Prussian capital for thirty years, and forging close personal and reciprocal relationships with the intellectual elite there--notably Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Johann Wilhelm Ludewig Gleim, and Karl Wilhelm Ramler--left a lasting impact on the composer's intellectual horizon and literary taste. It also determined the comparable makeup of his later Hamburg circle of friends: Johann Andreas Cramer, Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock, Heinrich Wilhelm von Gerstenberg, Christoph Daniel Ebeling, Johann Joachim Eschenburg, and Johann Heinrich Voss, all leading charismatic figures in the scholarly and literary world of the northern Hanseatic region, but with considerable influence beyond. …

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