A Kid Named Carl Stirs Up The Bach Musical Dynasty

When it comes to musical dynasties, it’s tough to top the Bach family. From town fiddlers to court composers, the Bachs dominated German music for seven generations. Today, Johann Sebastian towers above all his relatives, but there’s another important Bach we shouldn’t forget — especially today, on the 300th anniversary of his birth.

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, C.P.E. for short, was the second surviving son of Johann Sebastian, whose sturdy, impeccably built music made a great impression on the young composer.

Still, C.P.E. seemed to chafe against the old Baroque restraints by forging an innovative and dramatic new sound, especially in his keyboard music and symphonies.

So where did C.P.E. get all his radical ideas? Not from his father. Although Johann Sebastian personally gave his son a complete music education — and moral support — Harvard professor and Bach scholar Christoph Wolff says C.P.E. had a mind of his own.

“I think he became fascinated by modern trends,” Wolff says. “His father actually supported that, and that was, I think, part of his educational concept not to make clones. And C.P.E. Bach became his very own character.”

One of the modern trends C.P.E. helped design — while he was bored with his 27-year job as harpsichordist to Frederick the Great in Berlin — was something the Germans called empfindsamer Stil. The literal translation is “sentimental style.”

But it’s not about being delicate, Wolff says. It’s more about plugging raw emotions into music by pivoting from one mood and dynamic shade to another. “With staccato and slurred phrases, small motifs are pitted against each other,” Wolff explains. “And that is something completely new in the compositional style of the mid-18th century and had a huge impact on European music.”

Pianist Danny Driver, who has recorded two albums of keyboard sonatas by C.P.E., says the music have felt like a roller coaster to people listening at the time.

“The most striking thing about it is the very quick change of character and the very quick change of harmony,” Driver says. “It’s like a stream of consciousness internal dialogue in a way.”

While listening to C.P.E.’s F-sharp minor sonata, Driver noted some of the composer’s quirky characteristics:

“Well, here you’ve got this rather manic, energetic fantasia-like passage that suddenly, abruptly stops. And then, a lovely aria melody comes in, like a singer with a light accompaniment. And because the juxtaposition happens so quickly we’re left guessing as to what comes next. Are we going to carry on in this sort of vein? And again, the way the harmony suddenly changes, he just changes a single note in a chord that completely turns the emotional effect upside down.”

Hans-Christoph Rademann, who’s just released an album of C.P.E.’s sacred choral music, says that Bach’s restless, radical new style fits within history — with the upheaval of the Seven Years’ War, the shifting of nations and the Enlightenment, which encouraged individualism.

“I think it was a question of this time,” Rademann says. “The time was also a time of change and new ideas. And this music, it was a new feeling, a very good feeling.”

Writing a dull piece of music didn’t seem to be part of C.P.E.’s playbook, even if he did fall into that peculiar crack between the old-fashioned Baroque period of his father and the newfangled freedom of the Classical era, which would star Haydn and Mozart.

In his double concerto, C.P.E. actually bridges that gap. It’s for harpsichord — old school — and fortepiano, the keyboard of the future. Driver, who performed the concerto recently in London, says the two instruments chase each other’s tails.

“It’s literally, from the very first movement, one bar piano, one bar harpsichord, a little bit of orchestra, then something else. The exchange of ideas is so quick,” he says.

The music is old but Driver insists it’s relevant: “It’s not postmodern, but it almost feels postmodern in the sense that there’s this sort of collation of different ideas and different feelings all sort of rolled into one. I think it’s of today as it was of its time.”

And who would have thought that all those weird juxtapositions and breakneck mood swings in the music of Johann Sebastian Bach’s son C.P.E. would end up, some three centuries later, making a surprisingly apt soundtrack for our fractured, multi-tasked, 21st-century lives.

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Transcript :

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

When it comes to musical dynasties, it’s tough to top the Bachs. From family’s town fiddlers to its court composers, the Bachs dominated German music for seven generations. Now, today, of course, Johann Sebastian Bach rises above all of his relatives, but NPR’s Tom Huizenga reports that there is another important Bach whom shouldn’t be forgot, especially on this day, the 300th anniversary of his birth.

TOM HUIZENGA, BYLINE: Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, CPE, for short, was the second surviving son of Johann Sebastian, the man who gave us this:

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HUIZENGA: But his son, CPE, seemed to chafe against the old baroque blueprints, forging an innovative and dramatic new sound.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HUIZENGA: So, where did CPE get all his radical ideas? Not from his father. Although Johann Sebastian personally gave his son with a complete music education and moral support, Harvard professor and Bach scholar Christoph Wolff says CPE had a mind of his own.

CHRISTOPH WOLFF: I think he became fascinated by modern trends, and his father actually supported that, and that was, I think, part of his educational concept not to make clones. And CPE Bach became his very own character.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HUIZENGA: One of the modern trends CPE helped design, while he was bored with his job as harpsichordist for Frederick the Great in Berlin, was something the Germans called Emfindsamer Stil.

WOLFF: Yeah, if you would translate it literally, it would be sentimental style.

HUIZENGA: But it’s not exactly about being nostalgic, Christoph Wolff says. It’s more about plugging raw emotions into the music by pivoting from one mood and dynamic shade to another.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WOLFF: With staccato and slurred phrases, small motifs are pitted against each other and that is something that is completely new in the compositional style of the mid-18th century, and had a huge impact on European music.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DANNY DRIVER: It must have appeared like a roller coaster, really, to people listening to this music at this time.

HUIZENGA: Pianist Danny Driver has recorded two albums of keyboard sonatas by CPE Bach.

DRIVER: The most striking thing about it is the very quick change of character and the very quick change of harmony. It’s very easy to lose yourself in this music. It’s like a stream of consciousness internal dialog in a way, an emotional dialog.

HUIZENGA: Driver provides a little play-by-play.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DRIVER: Well there, you see, you’ve got this rather manic, energetic fantasia-like passage that suddenly, abruptly stops. And then, a lovely aria-melody comes in.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DRIVER: Like a singer with a light accompaniment.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DRIVER: And because the juxtaposition happens so quickly we’re left guessing as to what comes next. Are we going to carry on in this sort of vein?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DRIVER: And again, there, the way the harmony suddenly changes. He just changes one little note in a chord that completely turns the emotional effect upside down.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HUIZENGA: And now we’re back to this scurrilous improvisatory passage. And then back again.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HUIZENGA: Hans Christoph Rademann, who’s just released an album of CPE’s sacred choral music, says that Bach’s restless, radical new style fits within history, with the upheaval of the Seven Years’ war, the shifting of nations and the age of enlightenment, which encouraged individualism.

HANS CHRISTOPH RADEMANN: I think it was a question of this time. The time was also a time of change and new ideas and this music; it was a new feeling, a very good feeling.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HUIZENGA: Writing a dull piece of music didn’t seem to be part of CPE’s playbook, even if he did fall into that peculiar crack between the old-fashioned baroque period of his father and the new-fangled freedom of the classical era, which would star Haydn and Mozart. In his double concerto, CPE actually bridges that gap. It’s for harpsichord – old school – and fortepiano, the keyboard of the future. Listen to them chase each other’s tails.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DRIVER: It’s literally, from the very first movement, one bar piano, one bar harpsichord…

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DRIVER: …a little bit of orchestra; then something else. The exchange of ideas is so quick.

HUIZENGA: Pianist Danny Driver.

DRIVER: It feels very of today. It’s not post-modern, but it almost feels post-modern in the sense that there’s this sort of collation of different ideas and different feelings and all sort of rolled into one. But I think it’s very much of today as it was of its time.

HUIZENGA: And who would have thought that all those weird juxtapositions and breakneck mood swings in the music of Johann Sebastian Bach’s little son CPE, would end up, some three centuries later, making a surprisingly appropriate soundtrack for our fractured, multi-tasked, 21st century lives. Tom Huizenga, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: You can hear recommended recordings of CPE Bach’s music on our website, nprmusic.org. By the way, he didn’t write the theme music to our show. That’s by BJ Leiderman. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.