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Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach’s (1714-1788) music has little in common with his father’s, though Johann Sebastian was his son’s most important teacher. Where Johann Sebastian’s music provided a coda for all that came before it, C.P.E.’s can sound strikingly modern, even to our post-Schoenberg ears.
C.P.E. wrote his set of six string symphonies in 1773 while serving as music director of the north German port city of Hamburg, a post he held for the last 20 years of his life. The symphonies were commissioned by a music-loving Austrian baron who instructed the composer to “let himself go entirely, without taking into account the difficulties of execution which necessarily must arise as a result.”
The Symphony in C major, the third in the set, with its wild invention and abrupt changes of mood, must have pleased the baron. C.P.E. felt that his music should stir the listener’s emotions, and he devised a style that could achieve this while encompassing the fiery passions of the Sturm und Drang (storm and stress) movement then sweeping the arts in central Europe. “As I see it,” the composer wrote in his 1773 autobiography, “music should move the heart emotionally, and a player will never achieve this by mere scrambling, hammering, and arpeggiation. Not with me, anyway.”
- John Mangum is a Ph.D. candidate in history at UCLA studying 18th-century German opera.