Symphony in E-flat major, Wq. 179
Composed: c. 1760
Length: c. 10 minutes
Orchestration: 2 oboes, 2 horns, strings, and continuo
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performances
C.P.E. Bach, second son of Johann Sebastian and Maria Barbara Bach (Wilhelm Friedemann, another distinguished composer, was the first), is the leading transitional figure between the Baroque, represented by his father, and the Classical era personified by the mature Haydn. C.P.E. rejected the contrapuntal style of J.S. as "dry and pedantic," gradually moving into the homophonic style of the new era, of which he was one of the pioneers.
In 1740, at the age of 25, Carl Philipp entered the service of Frederick the Great, King of Prussia, as harpsichordist of the court orchestra. His duties also included accompanying his sovereign on the flute, often in Frederick's own compositions, which Carl Philipp disliked as much as Frederick's playing of them.
The purpose of music, for the king, was "to drive out ill-humor…and deadly melancholy, kindling all gentle emotions, to make reason more complaisant and the heart more sensitive…to give our passions the most useful moderation."
For C.P.E., on the other hand, music was an expression of - and a means of inflaming - the passions. Thus he tolerated for nearly 30 years a master who regarded him as no more than a household utility. During these decades, however, he produced hundreds of musical works and the two-volume Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments (1753-1762), generally regarded as the first methodical, practical treatise on the subject.
C.P.E. failed to find more satisfying employment until the death in 1767 of his godfather, Georg Philipp Telemann, whom he would succeed as music director of the five main Protestant churches in Hamburg, remaining in that city as a highly honored composer-performer-administrator until his death in 1788.
Among his compositions while in Frederick's employ are the nine so-called "Berlin Symphonies," including the present work in E-flat, Wq. 179. (The "Wq" stands for Alfred Wotquenne, who in 1905 produced the first thematic catalog of the composer's oeuvre.) These symphonies were not written for presentation at the court but rather within a circle of the composer's appreciative friends and colleagues.
The Symphony in E-flat is unstable in tonality, unstable in its emotional tenor. It begins with a furious call to arms: torrentially ascending arpeggios in the major, with a rapid descent over two octaves in the tonic minor - all jagged edges and precipitate dynamic shifts. The slow movement seems more intent on creating a mood of uncertain calm than melodic balm, while the "hunting" finale is a striking example of maximum thematic variety within an unchanging rhythmic pattern.
- Herbert Glass, after many years as a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, has for the past decade been the English-language annotator and editor for the Salzburg Festival.