BACH, C.P.E.: Symphony in G major, Wq 183,4 (H.666)

Symphony in G major, Wq 183,4 (H 666)

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach was born March 8, 1714, in Weimar, Saxony (Germany), and died December 14, 1788, in the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg (Germany). This year the music world is celebrating the tricentenary of his birth. The Symphony in G major dates from 1775-76; we lack information about its early performance history. The first and only previous performances by the San Francisco Symphony were in February 2011, with Ton Koopman conducting. This score calls for two flutes, two oboes, bassoon, two horns, strings, and harpsichord continuo. C.P.E. Bach’s compositions are identified by “Wq” (sometimes just “W”) numbers, from Alfred Wotquenne’s Thematisches Verzeichnis der Werke von Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1905/1958), and/or “H” numbers, assigned in Eugene Helm’s Thematic Catalogue of the Works of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1989). Performance time: about eleven minutes.

The third of Johann Sebastian Bach’s sons but the second to survive beyond childhood, Carl Philipp Emanuel (“C.P.E.”) was trained for a career in either law or music. By 1738 he fixed on the latter course and moved from the family home, then in Leipzig, to Berlin, where within two years, at the age of twenty-six, he was appointed chamber musician to King Frederick II “the Great” of Prussia, who had just acceded to the throne. The music-loving Frederick surrounded himself with a stellar assemblage of about forty staff musicians, not counting singers. C.P.E. was essentially his staff accompanist. Although he held the title of “first harpsichordist,” C.P.E. earned less than the “second harpsichordist” did, and as time went by it particularly irked him that even several staff musicians who had been his students were out-earning him. During his first fifteen years in the king’s service he was remunerated with 300 thalers per year, an amount that increased to 500 thalers only in 1755. It was a pittance compared to what some of the other members of Frederick’s music staff earned. Since Frederick was an enthusiastic flutist, it was his overbearing court flutist Johann Joachim Quantz who received a larger share of salary and favors: 2,000 thalers per year (the same as the Court Capellmeister, Carl Heinrich Graun), plus a fee for each new composition he wrote and each new flute he built.

Composition was never part of C.P.E.’s job description at court, but that did not prevent him from producing a generous, exceptionally imaginative body of work during his twenty-eight years at Frederick’s palaces in Berlin and, in the summer, at Potsdam, on the outskirts of the city. The popularity of his published collections of music reflected his ability to adapt his consummate technical skill in composition—he had learned at his father’s knee, after all—to rapidly evolving fashions in musical taste. Frederick’s preference tended toward music in the galant style, the sorts of amiable pieces C.P.E. accompanied in musical soirées held at court most evenings. In a brief autobiography he penned, C.P.E. stated, “I had the honor of accompanying on the harpsichord . . . the first flute solo which His Majesty performed as King.” So he continued until the Seven Years War (1756-63) enforced Frederick’s absence and, with it, a huge reduction in musical activities. For several months in late 1758, C.P.E. and his family fled Berlin, which was at that moment threatened by the advance of the Russian army, to stay with his composer-friend Johann Friedrich Fasch in Zerbst, forty-five miles to the southwest.

C.P.E. endured the war more comfortably than many of his musician-colleagues did, thanks in part to the auxiliary income stream he had developed through giving private keyboard lessons. (His importance as a teacher is underscored by the essential Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments he published in 1753/62.) As the years passed, however, he grew increasingly frustrated by the salary situation and Frederick’s conservative musical tastes. He repeatedly threw his hat into the ring for positions that opened elsewhere, never successfully. Georg Philipp Telemann, who had stood as C.P.E.’s godfather (thus their shared name of Philipp), died in 1767, and, following an audition process, C.P.E. was offered to succeed him as civic music director in Hamburg. Frederick consented to release his harpsichordist only reluctantly, but by the end of March 1768, C.P.E. assumed his new duties in Hamburg. His move from court to civil employment mirrored the progression his father had made when he left a series of court appointments to become music director of Leipzig forty-five years before. Indeed, his responsibilities were not unlike those his father had filled in Leipzig, since C.P.E.’s position in Hamburg obligated him to serve as music director of the city’s five principal churches and to be cantor of the Johanneum School, where he oversaw vocal instruction. C.P.E. remained in Hamburg for his remaining two decades, though he lamented that the arts were by then in decline in commerce-obsessed Hamburg. When the music chronicler Charles Burney visited in 1773, C.P.E. assessed the pluses and minuses of Hamburg: “I enjoy more tranquility and independence here, than at a court; after I was fifty, I gave the thing up, and said let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we may die! And I am now reconciled to my situation.” But as far as music was concerned, he sighed, “You are come fifty years too late.”

C.P.E. composed nineteen works designated as symphonies. The earliest of them dates from 1741 and a handful date from his “middle years” of the mid-1750s through the early ’60s; but his most notable works in the genre waited until his Hamburg period, when he produced two sets of symphonies, one comprising six works, the other four. The set of six, for strings alone, was commissioned in the early 1770s by Baron Gottfried van Swieten, who expressly asked that the composer “give himself free rein, without regard to the difficulties of execution which were bound to arise”—at least, so reported the contemporary composer and chronicler Johann Friedrich Reichardt. (Van Swieten was at that time the Viennese ambassador-in-extraordinary to the Prussian Court in Berlin; he is better known to music-lovers for his activities after he returned in 1777 to Vienna, where he promoted an appreciation of earlier music—in particular the works of J.S. Bach and Handel—and played a significant role in the careers of Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven.) These pieces created quite a stir in aesthetic circles due to their daring, volatile expressivity.

Reichardt would leap to C.P.E.’s defense: “Were we to give each of our instrumental compositions one single character, or, in the case of those made up of several movements, to seek to portray in them the true refinements of one single Affekt, or the nuanced transitions from one to another, and were we also able to abandon those empty, constricting rules about how to handle nearly-related keys, and how to pass from major to minor and vice versa in supposedly well-written pieces, were we instead to give free rein to joyous élan and a more sedate, troubled pace to sorrowful music, much would be gained thereby.”

The symphony performed in this concert is the concluding one in the set of four that would follow in 1775-76 (perhaps as late at 1777), a group that expands C.P.E.’s liberated approach to the genre by employing a larger ensemble, one that includes flutes, oboes, bassoon, and horns in addition to the string complement.

C.P.E.’s final four symphonies display characteristics that a later generation would find emblematic of the Sturm und Drang in music. The term Sturm und Drang translates literally as “storm and stress,” and the eighteenth-century German literary movement to which it was initially attached referred to the turmoil encountered by non-conformist individuals when they collide with societal norms. The name originally belonged to a play by Maximilan Klinger; it had initially sported a different title, but Klinger re-named it Sturm und Drang in 1776 and it became a keystone of the style. Sturm und Drang literature flourished for only a brief span, perhaps two decades from about 1767 to 1786, during which time it achieved pinnacles in such works as Goethe’s Götz von Berlichingen (1773) and The Sorrows of the Young Werther (1774), as well as Schiller’s The Robbers (1781). A body of musical compositions from this era (including some by Haydn and Mozart) seem to present parallel musical characteristics, including prominent use of minor mode, rhythmic syncopation, sudden pauses, unanticipated harmonic modulations, fragmentation of themes, “sighing” melodic figures, sudden outbursts of motifs, violent dynamic contrasts, and terseness of expression.

In the G major Symphony we encounter many of these characteristics in the strongly accented opening movement, including a dramatic harmonic juxtaposition within a few measures of the outset and some unexpected breaks in the momentum. Not least of the movement’s surprises is its ending—or rather, the fact that it doesn’t so much end as fade into the second movement (Poco andante) by way of what sounds like a set-up for a cadenza (in the event, a red herring). This slow movement is entirely characteristic of C.P.E.’s expressive style, and it can be read as a catalogue of Sturm und Drang traits; every item from the above list makes an appearance in this movement, and it, too, arrives at an ambiguous conclusion. In contrast, the finale displays relatively little of the Sturm und Drang style, or at least not vehement examples of it. Instead, it deposits us on the doorstep of the Classical symphony, and if we didn’t know better, we might mistake it for a roughly contemporary symphonic finale by Mozart—although the strange caesura at the movement’s midpoint would probably seal the case for C.P.E. after all.

James M. Keller

More About the Music

Recordings:  Ton Koopman conducting the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra (Erato)  │  Karl Richter conducting the Munich Bach Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon)

Reading: Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, by Hans-Günter Ottenberg (Oxford University Press-Clarendon)  |  Music in European Capitals: The Galant Style, 1720-1780, by Daniel Heartz (Norton)

(April 2014)