Saturday, March 8, 2014

Bach Bagatelles

March 8
            By Linda de Vries

On this date in 1714, Sebastian’s fifth child, Carl Philipp Emanuel, was born in Weimar. His godfather was the composer Georg Philipp Telemann, about whom you will read more in this series.

On this date in 1895, the evaluation committee released its report on Sebastian’s remains, concluding that they had truly found the grave of the great musician in the bombed out St. John’s Church in Leipzig.

The subject of our Bach Bagatelle for today is, though, Sebastian’s son: Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach.

C.P.E., as he came to be known, was the second surviving son of Sebastian and first wife Maria Barbara. Besides being the primary conservator of his father’s legacy he was an important composer in his own right, providing a bridge between the Baroque and Classical periods in music.

Today is the 300th anniversary of his birth! Today you can hear concerts in cities all over the world celebrating this event—even here in Los Angeles at the Colburn School!

Typical of so many musicians of the period, CPE studied law at the University of Leipzig, but upon graduation almost immediately turned his full attention to music and accepted a position with Crown Prince Frederick of Prussia in Berlin. When the prince became king (Frederick “the Great”) in 1740, CPE, one of the leading harpsichord players in Europe, became a member of the royal orchestra. He was 26 years old.

In this capital city he mixed with the cultural elite of German society, becoming a lifelong friend of the literary giant Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. He also continued composing, which he had begun in 1731. His primary influences were his father Sebastian Bach, his godfather Telemann, and their friend Georg Frideric Handel. C.P.E. composed mainly for the keyboard in Berlin, where he published his widely influential book, An Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments, still used today.

While in Berlin he married Johanna Maria Dannemann. Three of their children lived to adulthood but none was a musician.

In 1768 CPE succeeded his godfather as director of music at Hamburg, where he began to turn his energies more toward the composition of choral music. Ultimately, he composed in every genre except opera. He died in Hamburg on December 14, 1788 and was buried in St. Michael’s Church.

Classical Music

In the middle of the 18th century taste began to move toward a new style, a style that came to be called Classicism, as artists sought to copy the ideals of Classical Greece.
This new taste reflected changes in society such as the rejection of absolute monarchies in favor of the independent individual, an emphasis on reason and skepticism that led to the rise of science, and the rise of the middle class with its new-found wealth.

Consequently, the new style in music favored simplicity over complexity. It shifted from polyphony (two or more lines of simultaneous independent melody) to homophony (one dominant melody accompanied by subordinate chords).

Variety of key, melody, rhythm, and dynamics became more pronounced, as did changes in mood and timbre. The harpsichord was replaced by the piano (called the fortepiano initially, because it could play both loudly and softly, which a harpsichord could not). Melodies were marked by clear-cut phrases and cadences (pauses at the end of a section of music).

The most important composers in the transition from Baroque to Classical were the Italian Domenico Scarlatti, the Viennese master Christoph Willibald Gluck, and C.P.E. Bach. Sebastian’s son was held in high esteem both for his ability to master the older forms and to present them in a new guise.

Many stylistic sub-groups arose within Classical style, so you also find the period also referred to as rococo (from rocaille, a form of home and landscape decoration using shells), meaning highly decorative and fanciful.

Another term was stil gallant, or Empfindsamer Stil. C.P.E. practiced this “sensitive style,” which emphasized simplicity, immediacy of appeal, and elegance. In contrast to the Baroque Doctrine of Affections in which a piece maintained the same emotion throughout its length, sensitive style aimed to express “true and natural” feelings and featured abrupt contrasts in mood. To achieve his highly dramatic style, C.P.E. recommended free improvisation and the elimination of the bar line in a score!

The giants of the fully-evolved Classical style are Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Franz Joseph Haydn of the Vienna School, both of whom were highly influenced by C.P.E. Bach. Mozart said of him, “He is the father; we are the children.” Currently, there is a project underway to record his complete works, and today is his 300th birthday!

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