The Best of C.P.E. Bach

A Baker’s Dozen by Johann Sebastian Bach’s Most Famous SonThe subject of the In Tune Icon column for March is the German composer Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714-88). It’s hard for us to imagine bewigged figures of the 18th century as rebels akin to
rockers or rappers, but C.P.E. Bach made music that was just as iconoclastic in its day. His most pioneering compositions were wildly dynamic and dramatic, bursting with the sound of surprise; his keyboard pieces and orchestral works pushed onward from the Baroque of his father – the towering Johann Sebastian Bach – toward the Classical era, serving as a prime inspiration for Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, even Schubert. C.P.E.’s music, with its swings of tone and temper, could seem disruptive to the listeners of his time. Eighteenth-century music historian Charles Burney noted how some fellow critics felt that some of C.P.E.’s works were overly
“fantastical” and even “far-fetched.” But Burney begged to differ with the more conservative-minded types, saying of C.P.E.: “His flights are not the wild ravings of ignorance or madness, but the effusions of cultivated genius. His pieces… will be found, upon a close examination, to be so rich in invention, taste and learning, that… each line of them would furnish more new ideas than can be discovered in a whole page of many other compositions.”

C.P.E. was a renowned keyboard performer, and a keen improviser; he wrote a treatise – An Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments – that remains in print more than 250 years after its initial publication. None other than Mozart commented on the pervasive influence in his time of C.P.E.’s music and philosophy, putting it bluntly: “He is the father, we are the children. Those of us who know anything at all learned it from him; anyone who does not admit this is a scoundrel.” This playlist offers a selection of C.P.E. Bach’s most immediately alluring music, from solo piano pieces and string symphonies to cello concertos and a vocal motet. —
Bradley Bambarger