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A Bach More Famous Than His Father Once, Sung By The Chamber Singers Of Iowa City

Jackie Blake Jensen

"Bach is the father, we are the kids,” said Mozart, maybe. The quote was reported 40 years after Mozart’s death by someone known to make stuff up and otherwise fall short of NPR sourcing standards. But even if it’s apocryphal, what makes it interesting is not who said it but which Bach he had in mind: not Johann Sebastian, but his second son, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. Let's call him CPE (1714-1788). He can seem a footnote with too many initials, but Oxford Bibliography calls him “arguably the most imaginative German composer of the mid-18th century." It adds that “in the 18th century he was more widely recognized as a composer than was his father.” You get a sense of why in this excerpt from his Magnificat, as performed last month by the Chamber Singers of Iowa City conducted by David Puderbaugh at the University of Iowa's Voxman Music Building:


Why, then, did CPE get demoted to footnotes? One reason was the “Bach Revival” of the mid-19th century, which focused overwhelmingly on his father. It would have pleased CPE all the same. While some might call J.S. Bach a “tiger parent," CPE seems to have been free of daddy issues. Nobody worked more tirelessly than CPE to burnish his late father’s biography (beginning with the obituary) and to preserve and circulate his music. After J.S. Bach’s death in 1750, CPE shepherded his The Art of Fugue through a deluxe first publication; and in 1786 he conducted the first performance of the Credo of his father's Mass in B Minor, after working out illegible manuscript passages and filling out the keyboard part. CPE could make easy work of such challenges because, when he wanted, he could compose in his father’s style with a fluency that must have made the old man proud. The Magnificat is a prime example.

You’d think CPE tossed off Bachian choral masterpieces all the time, but after the Magnificat he didn't write another for years. It certainly wasn’t part of his job description at the Prussian royal court. There he served for three decades as a harpsichordist for Frederick II, eventually called Frederick the Great. Like CPE, Frederick had taken up the family business, in his case imperial conquest, although he did so under paternal pressure so brutalthat it makes J.S. Bach look like Mister Rogers by comparison. But in his spare time Frederick the Great had enthusiasms, and high among them was music. He became an accomplished flute player and composer and kept a first-rate orchestra. This provided CPE with a steady income, but CPE grew quietly disgruntled.

One annoyance was that Frederick was a micromanager who valued exactly what CPE did not. Frederick, writes Grove Music Online, was “an enthusiastic advocate of the new Italianate style of the time,” which CPE disliked, and Frederick favored lightness in music, while CPE, says David Schulenberg, was noted for the “originality and the intense expressivity of his music.” Another frustration was underemployment. CPE's job description never expanded to include composing, which could have raised his salary by an order of magnitude, and even his basic harpsichord duties, says Grove, "were considerably reduced from 1742 at the latest." The king seemed unaware of CPE's acclaimed 1742 Prussian Sonatas, which were dedicated to him, and was merely amused when J.S. Bach visited the court in 1747 and improvised a fugue on a theme designed to stump him. (Frederick claimed to have written the theme himself, and it became the germ of J.S. Bach's A Musical Offering.) Still, Frederick kept the thalers coming, and they let CPE focus on composing and on writing his Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments.  That manual became the standard, and it (not CPE’s music) was the topic of the “Bach the father” aphorism.

Meanwhile, CPE kept an eye out for a less dead-end job. That may be why he wrote the Magnificat in 1747 and why he conducted it in 1750 in his ailing father’s church in Leipzig. If that performance was a job audition, however, it was doomed. The Leipzig establishment was done with strong-willed Bachs and had lined up a now-forgetten inside candidate. Only in 1768 did CPE find his dream job, in the far more prestigious post of music director of the city of Hamburg. There he succeeded his godfather, the most celebrated composer in the German-speaking world, Georg Philipp Telemann.


In Hamburg, Schulenberg says, CPE “refashioned himself as a composer of vocal music" as well as instrumental forms. And for a 1786 concert to raise money for medical care for the poor, he revised the 1747 Magnificat. The concert also included what was probably the world premiere of the Credo section of his father’s Mass in B Minor. That Mass has since become a central pillar of the choral repertory. But it’s not common to hear the Magnificat in concert, partly because it's difficult to perform, and partly because it’s been overshadowed. The Chamber Singers of Iowa City's thrilling performance shows why it deserves a share of the limelight and its composer a place in the main text, not the footnotes.

Barney Sherman is a Senior Music Producer and Classical Music Host