Absolute Music for Bach’s Ladies’ Night

sydney opera
Sydney-Hamburg. © Charles Thibo

Music lovers will of course know that this is the Sydney Opera House. Many years ago I had the pleasure to enjoy an opera in Sydney, but this post is not about any opera. It’s about money. About making music a profitable business. Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach, the son of Johann Sebastian Bach, had to make money. Of course, he had a job back then in 1768. In March he had succeeded Georg Philipp Telemann as the musical director and Kantor in Hamburg. But his salary was low, and only four weeks after he had settled down in Hamburg, he announced his first public concert. It was a success and Bach immediately scheduled a second one. He gave regular concerts on a subscription basis until 1771, when he would start to run out of subscribers.

To be rated as successful and financially viable by Bach, the composer and interpreter had to fill a room with some 100 music enthusiasts. Now Hamburg certainly had its wealthy bourgeoisie, striving on maritime commerce, but still, that is quite a lot of people. Bach tried bargains: He lowered the ticket price, he  even offered some tickets for free and the male subscriber would be allowed to bring two women along. Ladies’ night at Bach’s! In the end, it did not help. From 1771 on, Bach would only occasionally give concerts, but he insisted on presenting new pieces. Like the Keyboard Concerto in G Major, Wq. 44, that he wrote in 1778 for such a concert.

And this is where it gets interesting. The musicologist Siegbert Rampe sees Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach as the first composer writing absolute music. L’art pour l’art, music written indepentendly of a commission, without a specific purpose or audience in mind, composed exclusively as a piece of art, expressing the composer’s ideas, feelings etc. While Bach did not go the extra mile for the liturgical works he had to compose, when it came to the works he intend to present as an artist, his quality standards were extremely high. And it shows!

Listen to his concerto! Such brilliance, such ravishing melodies, betraying Bach’s Baroque heritage and announcing at the same time a new era, the era of Beethoven. I have listened to this piece many, many times and I still can’t get enough of it. It is soooo beautiful. And even if it was written for the harpsichord, performed on the piano it still sounds splendid. And that’s perhaps the greatest magic of the piece. Performed on a piano, it does not sound like being 250 years old.

The Keyboard Concerto in G major has been recorded by the Kammersymphonie Leipzig and the pianist Michael Rische.

© Charles Thibo


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de Chareli

Writer, photographer, piano student, music enthusiast. And a lot more. You are welcome to follow my blog.

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