Virtuosic Ornaments on a Baroque Background

Music like a summer day. © Charles Thibo

Stepping out of the shadow of a famous father is always a challenge. Especially if that father is Johann Sebastian Bach. But it can be done. Better, Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach stepped out of his father’s shadow without betraying his heritage and, much to his family’s glory and satisfaction, his music quickly evolved from the Baroque forms he had learned from his father to what was the fashion of the day at the Prussian court in Berlin or in Hamburg, where he would take up the post of Georg Philipp Telemann after the latter’s death.

We are writing the year 1747, the old Bach is still alive, and his second son is serving as a cembalist at the court of King Frederic of Prussia. Frederic was an enlighted monarch, promoting arts and science, and though he did not pay his cembalist very well, he gave him the necessary freedom to compose at will. The piano, gradually replacing the harpsichord, was becoming a popular instrument, while organ works were less in demand. The young Bach avoided the technically complex style of his father and the playful, pre-Romantic style of his elder brother Friedrich Wilhelm. He developed a language of his own: emotional with a certain depth, with equal emphasis on form and substance. Music that is pleasingly sentimental without being superficial.

Joy and translucence

In 1747, Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach composed the Keyboard Concerto in D Minor (Wq. 22, H. 425), a work like a summer day. Light-hearted, translucent, joyful, full of energy and vitality, and while the orchestral parts betray their Baroque origin, the virtuosic pianist parts foreshadow the modern piano concertos that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart would make popular a few decades later. A second version for flute and orchestra exists, but I found no confirmation it was written by Bach, as well as a third arranged for two horns and orchestra. I will focus on the harpsichord version, performed by Michael Rische (piano) and the Kammersymphonie Leipzig.

A musical audacity

The work is written in three movements. In the Allegro, the orchestra presents the thematic material, taken up by the piano and expanded with beautiful ornaments. The second movement, poco andante, flows smoothly and elegantly, while the last movement, allegro di molto, brings the work to a surprisingly thrilling conclusion, music of outstanding intensity and, the piano pacing through a wide tonal range, a musical audacity going far beyond anything  Bach’s father had ever written.

Quality matters

A noteworthy chapter describing Bach’s way of composing explains that although our knowledge is limited, Bach “sketched his compositions extensively before polishing them […] Instrumental works are usually notated on one system only, though with indications of harmony or important subsidiary parts. Final versions often diverge only slightly from the sketches”.  As for his style, the composer himself noted that “ornamentation must suit the emotional effect of the piece, taking harmonic requirements into account, and must have some claim to be at least as good as the original [theme].

There can be no doubt: Johann Sebastian Bach’s fame would leave no room for half-hearted compositional efforts. If Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach found his own way to express himself musically, he would stress excellence just as his father did.

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

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