After Bach: A new generation sets emotions to music

A radiant summer. © Charles Thibo

The summer is not over yet? If that is so, let’s celebrate one more sunny day with one of the most beautiful double-concertos I know of. Sparks of joy, energy and vitality mark this piece, which had to be considered avant-garde at the time of its composition. In the year 1740, the Baroque era was drawing to its end and composers in the wake of Johann Sebastian Bach were bridging the gap to the Vienna classics era. One of these composers was Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach, the second son of  Johann Sebastian Bach. Just like the keyboard concerto I have presented in an earlier post in July, today’s piece foreshadows the modern concertos that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven would write several decades later.

Developing a personal style

In 1740 Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach composed a radiant double concerto in F major for two harpsichords, two horns, strings and basso continuo* (Wq. 46, H. 408). That year he had joined the court of the King of Prussia, and his duties asca royal cembalist gave him enough spare time to compose instrumental music to be sold on the growing music market. The double concerto in F major is an expression of Bach’s evolving personal style, introducing many features that would gain track only later during the Vienna classics era.

Sudden shifts in dynamics

Bach’s music stands out for its sudden shifts in dynamics, changing pattern of rhythms and unexpected modulations. The Bach researcher Pamela Fox stated in a study, that “the novel unpredictability and imaginative unorthodoxy of Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach’s music exert a magnetic attraction upon scholars, performers, and listeners.” The opening of Wq. 46 may well qualify to demonstrate the composer’s talent to move from one mood to another. Bach’s language is often described as the “Empfindsamer Stil” (sensitive style), that emphasizes the emotional potential of the music: the musical expression of emotions primes over a purely formal beauty.

Parallels between father and son

I dug up a master’s thesis dated 1970 and written by Muriel Moore Waterman with a complete analysis of the double concerto in F major under stylistic aspects. The concerto follows the traditional form of a slow, a fast and another slow movement; the tonality moves from F major to F minor and back to F major. On the first  movement Waterman says “the thematic material, carried mainly by the violins in the tutti sections and […] the harpsichords in the solo sections, is supported by a continuo […] The horns and the viola are filler instruments.” The melodic material is set over a bass, with the simple and sparse filling of “the inner voices”. “The texture becomes even thinner in the second movement with the deletion of the horn parts […] The third movement has essentially the same texture as the first.”

What strikes me is that Bach was able to conceive such an emotionally loaded composition while still respecting the law of the economy of means. Maximal expression with the strict minimum of notes! If his style is radically different from his father’s, he closely follows in the old Bach’s footsteps with respect to the compositional methodology. The double concerto has been recorded by Michael Rische, Rainer Maria Klaas and the Kammersymphonie Leipzig.

© Charles Thibo


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de Chareli

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