Transition to happiness with Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach

Praise! © Charles Thibo

Music from the Bach family is a perfect way to start a day. Actually to start any day. On a sunny summer morning listening for example to Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach’s Cello Concerto in A minor (Wq. 170) fills me with joy and enthusiasm and a strong desire to praise mankind’s inventiveness, it’s ability to create Beauty, its incredible power to fill others with happiness. What a gift from Johann Sebastian Bach’s son! What a generosity!

Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach wrote the concerto in A minor explicitly for the cello, most likely in 1750. It thus ranks among the very first concertos for solo cello in Germany. Cellos or bass violins as they were initially known had been built since the 16th century and were common in Italy, France and Great Britain. As far as I could find out German composers of the 17th and 18th century favoured the viola da gamba that came into usage parallel to the cello. Technical improvements of the strings allowed the cello to become the main basso continuo* instrument until the end of the 18th century. Only at the end of the Baroque era did it become eligible as a solo instrument, mainly upon the impulse of the Italian composer Luigi Boccherini, whom I neglect way too much on this blog.

From harpsichord to cello

However Bach did not start from scratch. The cello concerto is an adaptation of an earlier piece, the Keyboard Concerto in A minor (Wq. 26), also composed in 1750. In 1740 Bach had been appointed as a harpsichord player to the Prussian court in Berlin. King Frederic II was aware that he had recruited a first rate musician, Bach however complained in 1755 that he deserved a higher salary. At the same time the king’s appetite for new pieces was insatiable. Bach’s intention may have been to present a piece that sounded new through the introduction of the cello even though it was based on another composition.

His relationship to King Frederic II remained cordial, in the end he did raise Bach’s salary, the composer had served the court for almost ten years already, and his career as a composer did not progress. What should he do? He was conscious of his outstanding talent, and only an appointment as a Musikdirektor in a major German town like Leipzig could advance his career. Upon the death of his father he applied to the post of Thomaskantor in Leipzig and failed. Five years later he tried again and failed again. The city of Leipzig expected him to give music lessons outside his official appointment, something both his father and Carl Philipp Emmanuel found unacceptable.

The cello concerto and the keyboard concerto are both wonderful examples of music that marks the transition from Baroque to the Vienna classic era. The harpsichord gives Wq. 26 a truly Baroque sound though from a formal point of view it is more dynamic than the Baroque tradition would allow would. If you listen to the same piece performed on a piano, the mood is still Baroque but the piano moves it closer to Mozart and Haydn. I truly appreciate the recording by Michael Rischke and the Kammersymphonie Leipzig. The adaptation for the cello (Wq. 170) – I recommend the recording by Jean-Guihen Queyras and the Ensemble Resonanz – places the piece in the Italian tradition of Vivaldi.

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

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