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The Father of Classicism

December 11, 2013 by Christine Gengaro, Ph.D.

Carl Philip Emanuel Bach is probably the most famous of all the children of J.S. Bach. That in itself is a pretty amazing thing considering that JS Bach had twenty children (half of whom survived to adulthood) and that four of them became composers. In retrospect it seems like C.P.E. Bach, Johann Sebastian’s fifth child, was destined for musical greatness. He definitely started out with a couple of distinct advantages: his first teacher was J.S. Bach and his godfather was Georg Philipp Telemann. Learning at his father’s knee first, C.P.E. also studied subjects other than music in school. But when school was over, and his degree had been earned, music became his primary focus.

C.P.E.’s first job was working for Prince Frederick of Prussia. As luck would have it, a couple of years into this job, Frederick acceded to the throne and became Frederick the Great. That meant that C.P.E. Bach was suddenly working in a royal orchestra. During this early stage in his career, he absorbed many different musical influences including his father and godfather’s music, the operas and instrumental pieces of G.F. Handel, and the work of Josef Haydn. C.P.E. Bach wasn’t content to just continue the musical traditions of his father; he was interested in striking out in new directions as well.

By the time the elder Bach died in 1750, his musical style was falling out of fashion. The long and heavily ornamented melodies of the Baroque period were giving way to something else. Johann Sebastian Bach’s children were the wave of the future, writing in the cleaner, simpler Galant style and dabbling in the highly emotional Sturm und Drang movement. These pre-Classical styles reacted to the overly complex counterpoint of the Baroque period. Even though his sons tried to get him to compose in the new, simpler style, Johann Sebastian stuck with that complex counterpoint until the bitter end, composing The Art of the Fugue late in his life. Baroque music didn’t disappear with the death of J.S. Bach, although that’s what some histories would have you believe. Some of C.P.E.’s religious works draw upon his father’s style. And, in fact, sacred compositions through much of the Classical period maintained a lot of Baroque features, including basso continuo.

Whereas J.S. Bach was the culmination of the late Baroque style, certainly not its father, his son, C.P.E. has the distinction of being called the Father of Classicism. It was actually a title bestowed upon him by the man we consider to be the culmination of the Classical style, Mozart. He said of C.P.E. Bach, “He is the father, we are the children.” (Beethoven was also a fan.) The bulk of C.P.E.’s famous work—and the pieces classical composers admired—were keyboard sonatas. C.P.E. formed his own style in writing these, distinct from the earlier Italian and Viennese models. His most famous sonatas were the set he wrote for Frederick the Great and the set he wrote for the Grand Duke of Wurttemberg. C.P.E. Bach was an influence on classical composers, but his influence reached even further. Romantic composers like Felix Mendelssohn, Carl Maria von Weber, and Johannes Brahms drew inspiration from his clear and polished phrasing. The Romantics must also have appreciated his use of color and his sometimes very emotional writing.

When C.P.E. Bach left the service of Frederick the Great, he took over his godfather’s job in Hamburg. Telemann had been the director of music for the city, and he was in charge of music for St. Michael’s church. Like his father before him, C.P.E. Bach wrote new music for each Sunday service. The focus of his creativity was choral music, including oratorios, passions, and cantatas.

C.P.E. Bach died in 1788 at the age of 74. In the following century, much of his work was forgotten, while J.S. Bach’s music received a triumphant revival thanks to the efforts of Felix Mendelssohn. But C.P.E. Bach was never entirely missing from history, of course. Composers kept his work alive by studying it and learning from it (much as they had for Bach’s father). C.P.E. Bach’s own revival came about in the mid-twentieth century, with new scholarship, new editions of his work, and recordings of his symphonies and sonatas. Because of this, we now have a more complete picture of how Classicism developed. C.P.E. Bach’s use of the Galant style, which was a reaction to the complexity of the Baroque period, helped usher in a new era. His use of chromaticism, emotion, and flexible changes of mood—known as Empfindsamer Stil (Sensitive Style)—laid the groundwork for Classicism and early Romanticism.

In general, most people on the street can name Bach as a famous composer of “classical” music. The Bach they mean is Johann Sebastian. Folks who know about Bach’s sons are harder to come by. Ask someone on the street and they’ll likely know Mozart, and perhaps Haydn. What those people don’t realize is this: Mozart, Haydn, and the Classical style owe a great debt to C.P.E. Bach. The development of the Classical style—not that the development of a new style was something C.P.E. did consciously—grew out of his experiences with music from all over Europe, the teachings of his father, and his own compositional ideas. His clear and concise writing, delicate phrasing, and sensitive evocation of emotion spoke to young composers who came of age in the shadow of the High Baroque.

C.P.E. Bach, so close to that shadow, managed not to be swallowed up by it. Even though JS Bach was not especially famous in his lifetime, he still left his sons some big shoes to fill. Undaunted, and certainly encouraged by his father, C.P.E. stepped out of the shadows and stood on his own.

Dr. Christine Gengaro is an award-winning educator, and a successful writer and musician. She has been on the faculty of Los Angeles City College since 2004. A graduate of the Ph.D. program in historical musicology at the University of Southern California, Dr. Gengaro currently serves as the program annotator for the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. She has also written notes and other materials for the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, Camerata Pacifica, and the Mozartwoche concert series in Vienna. Her research interests include music and film, music and literature, and classical music in popular media.

Dr. Gengaro's first book, Listening to Stanley Kubrick: the Music in His Films, was published by Scarecrow Press in 2013.