Today marks the 300th birthday of Johann Sebastian’s fifth child, the amazing Carl Philipp Emanuel. Born during papa’s Weimar period to his beloved first wife, Maria Barbara (who died six years later), C.P.E. occupies a fascinating position as a “transitional” figure. In other words, his creative work can’t be conveniently pigeonholed into the neat categories music historians use to wedge everything into a straightforward narrative.
Carl Philipp Emanuel is in the spotlight all year long, with all sorts of programs devoted to exploring his legacy. Last week, for instance, the Friends of the Berlin Philharmonic presented a special program featuring “an autobiographical monologue with music.” The actor Burghart Klaußner played the role of the composer to a script drawn from his letters and similar documents.
A great place to start exploring is the C.P.E.Bach — 300th Anniversary website. It includes a neatly illustrated biographical breakdown, an overview of life in the 18th century, a comprehensive catalogue of his prolific output, some audio samples, and more.
In a section on the reception of Carl Philipp Emanuel, the composer’s contemporary Christian Friedrich Daniel Schubart describes how he was considered a true original:
“Bach in Hamburg leads the clavierists as Klopstock leads the poets. He is epoch-making […]. Both his composition and his playing are inimitable.” A characteristic of Bach that still applies today. Countless composers of the late 18th century were imitating Haydn and Mozart, but no-one tried to imitate Bach. They would not have succeeded – his melody is expressive but seldom cantabile. The “Hamburg Bach” was denied having street boys whistle his tunes as they did Mozart’s. In any case, Bach considered himself the creator of demanding music and had little interest in serving the populace.