Skip to page content

Composed: 1748
Length: c. 23 minutes
Orchestration: strings and solo keyboard
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performances

Being the son – the second surviving, the first was Wilhelm Friedemann (a composer, too, no surprise) – of Johann Sebastian Bach seems to us a most daunting proposition. J.S. was, after all, a model of good work habits and self-control, to say nothing of the possessor of an awesome degree of creative (composer) and re-creative (keyboard player) genius. Yet Carl Philipp Emanuel seems to have gotten along with his father – “he was my only teacher,” the young man would proudly assert – even though father would berate son, in time-honored fashion, of moving too far to the left, so to speak, of his predecessors’ notions of musical order. The son’s respect for his father is exemplified by C.P.E.’s introduction of Johann to the mighty monarch Frederick the Great at his court in Potsdam, and the result of that visit was the elder Bach’s creation of his monumental Musical Offering, on a theme supplied by Frederick.

King Frederick II of Prussia, dubbed “The Great,” is the other principal player in any biography of C.P.E., for it was at his court, where he served (truly) as composer and accompanist (to Frederick himself, an accomplished flutist), an adornment to the monarch’s musical establishment, which further included Johann Joachim Quantz, Frederick’s favorite, who supplied reams of flute music, and Johann Gottlieb Graun, whose specialty was playing and writing for the violin – and was, in fact, Wilhelm Friedemann’s principal violin teacher.

An important by-product of C.P.E.’s stay in Potsdam was his textbook on the art of keyboard playing, as much a guiding light in its time for performers as would be the violin manual by Leopold Mozart, Wolfgang’s father, a generation later.

“Good performance,” he writes, “consists of the ability through singing or playing to make the ear conscious of the true content and affect of the compositions.” He has it in for those who merely “play the notes” and “astound us with their prowess without ever touching our sensibilities.” And, finally, in the most oft-quoted sentence in the book, “a musician cannot move others unless he, too, is moved. He must of necessity feel all of the affects that he hopes to arouse in his audience.”

C.P.E. was, of course, a gifted and prolific composer as well, with more than 50 concertos and over 200 solo pieces for keyboard alone, most produced during the Potsdam days. He left Frederick’s court in 1767, after nearly 30 years of employment there, to take over the position held by his late godfather, George Philipp Telemann, as music director of Hamburg’s principal churches.

The present work, in D minor, composed in 1748, was until well into the last century his only known keyboard concerto and might not have been known at all had it not been included in the massive and influential published compilation Denkmäler deutscher Tonkunst (Monuments of German Music). Why this supremely compelling music did not inspire immediate further exploration of C.P.E.’s keyboard oeuvre remains a mystery.

In its dramatic intensity, to say nothing of the virtuosity required of the soloist, it must have seemed out of place amid the galanteries of Quantz and Graun. Jane R. Stevens, of the UC San Diego faculty and an editor of C.P.E. Bach’s works, observes that the composer here seems intent – in the first movement, at any rate – on evoking not so much the future as something of the past: “The melody often displays wide leaps reminiscent... of an exaggerated opera seria style, joined to driving repeated notes in the bass and an unrelenting minor-mode harmonic world, without any of the passages in major that would usually have been included.”

If the opening movement is all turbulence and motoric drive, the second movement, while harmonically unsettled, is in the major and of a more contemplative cast, while the finale reflects the instability of mood that gave rise to the expression Empfindsamer Stil – Sensitive Style – reflective of the changing, contrasting “moods of life” rather than the notion of emotional consistency, i.e., the Baroque Affektenlehre (Doctrine of Affections), in which a composition (or movement) would project a consistent “affect,” or emotion, throughout.

*Wq = Alfred Wotquenne, the Belgian musicologist (1867-1939) who catalogued C.P.E.’s works during the first decade of the 20th century.

Herbert Glass, after serving on the administrative staffs of the New York Philharmonic and the San Francisco Opera, was for 25 years a critic / columnist for the Los Angeles Times. He has also written for the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians and for periodicals in Europe and the United States. He recently completed his 15th season as English-language editor / annotator for the Salzburg Festival.