Bach, C.P.E.: Cello Concerto in A Major, Wq 172 (H.439)

Concerto in A Major for Cello and Orchestra, Wq 172 (H.439)

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. His A-major Cello Concerto dates from 1753. We lack information about its early performance history. The first and only previous San Francisco Symphony performances were in February 1982, featuring SFS Principal Cello Michael Grebanier under the direction of Christopher Hogwood. This concerto is scored for strings (two violin parts, one viola part), and basso continuo (here comprising bassoon, cello, double bass, and harpsichord), in addition to the solo cello. Peter Wyrick plays his own cadenza at these performances.

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 nineteen 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.”

Concertos spanned his entire composing career; he wrote his first—an A-minor Harpsichord Concerto—in 1733, at the age of nineteen, and his last—a Double Concerto for Harpsichord and Fortepiano—in 1788, his final year. Concertos filled the time between in a nearly constant flow, and the Catalogue of the Musical Estate of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (the “Nachlass-Verzeichnis”) that was published in 1790 listed fifty-two concertos within his prolific output. Most of these were originally written to spotlight keyboard instruments, principally the harpsichord, but some allow for an alternative solo instrument or even exist in variant versions if a different solo instrument is used.

The cello appears as soloist in three of C.P.E.’s concertos: in A minor (Wq 170), in B-flat major (Wq 171), and in A major (Wq 172). Except for a G minor Sonata for Cello and Basso Continuo that has gone missing, these are the only instances in which he wrote music for cello soloist. In each of the three concertos, the cello is only one of the three possibilities to be the soloist, since the solo part is designated as being playable on harpsichord, on cello, or on flute. The pieces are encountered in all three guises today, and legitimately so. Still, faced with this interchangeability, curious listeners are likely to wonder which version came first and what C.P.E.’s preference really was.

In the Nachlass-Verzeichniss, the three concertos in question are listed as being for “Clavier, 2 Violinen, Bratsche und Bass; ist auch für das Violoncell und die Flöte gesezt” (“Harpsichord, 2 Violins, Viola, and Bass; it is also set for the Cello and the Flute”). That would appear to give pride of place to the harpsichord, but a broader look at the historical record may lead to a different conclusion. Viewed from a musical standpoint, these three works do not come across as idiomatic harpsichord concertos. The harpsichord-writing in these three concertos seems surprisingly arbitrary. The right-hand lines are floridly elaborated—ornamenting a line was how composers typically made up for the fact that the harpsichord wasn’t good at sustaining long notes—but their left-hand part seems like an afterthought, sometimes merely doubling the basso continuo line. The keyboard texture is less rich than we expect of C.P.E. Bach. The flute versions of these concertos similarly come across as not born to the flute, even though C.P.E. enjoyed a deep appreciation of that instrument’s potential, and wrote many, many flute pieces that are nothing short of masterly.

In contrast, when viewed as cello concertos, these three works seem carefully crafted to capitalize on what that instrument can achieve in regards to both sonority and figuration. That is not to say that the three make the same demands. The first two of them explore the deep richness of the cello, perhaps echoing (at some distance) Johann Sebastian Bach’s aspirations in his Suites for Unaccompanied Cello. The third concerto, played here, uses the cello rather differently, hewing to a lighter, more galante aesthetic that exults in lightness of touch and fluid string-crossings, but also, in the middle movement, inviting heightened expressivity by placing the cellist’s part in the instrument’s high register.

The three concertos were composed in rather close succession: the A minor in 1750, the B-flat major in 1751, and the A major in 1753. Early manuscripts display different degrees of adaptation that went into the settings for the alternative solo instruments. In the A minor Concerto, the same orchestral parts could be used for each version; in the B-flat major, the same parts could be used for the harpsichord or cello settings, but a different one served the flute setting; and in the A major, played here, a different set of orchestral parts was used for each of the three versions. A curious detail jumps forth from the cello version: at the middle of the third movement, C.P.E. inserts an extra ten measures filled with virtuosic arpeggios that make a splendid impression on the cello. Surely this passage was conceived with that instrument specifically in mind, and, as an insertion into the other versions, it must signify the last stage of the score. But other detailed manuscript investigations have led to the belief that the original setting of this piece was indeed for cello—a now-lost version that was itself adapted into the arrangements for harpsichord and for flute (at which time the tempo marking of the third movement was changed from allegro to allegro assai) and then adapted from there into the final version, which is actually the revised cello setting. This position is upheld by the musicologist Robert Nosow, who prepared the texts of these three concertos for the new edition of C.P.E.’s collected works.

Cello concertos were uncommon at that time (indeed, at pretty much any time), but a handful of adept practitioners were serving at courts in and around Berlin and it seems logical that one in particular would have been the beneficiary of these pieces. The cello was considered a difficult instrument. C.P.E.’s colleague Quantz, in his famous 1752 treatise On Playing the Flute (Versuch einer Anweisung die Flöte traversiere zu spielen), observed of the cello: “Solo playing upon this instrument is not easy. Those who wish to distinguish themselves in this manner must be provided by nature with fingers that are long and have strong tendons, permitting an extended stretch.”

The A major Cello Concerto has the lightest flavor in C.P.E.’s cello triptych, favoring transparent textures in the orchestra. It is not in fashion nowadays to speak of works as being stylistically transitional, but it is hard to characterize this concerto in other terms. It stands with one foot planted in the ritornello structures of the late Baroque and the other stretching ahead toward the episodic sonata forms that would become a mainstay of the Classical period. The opening movement displays little of the volatility often associated with C.P.E., but he makes up for that in the second movement. In this Largo, which is marked mesto (sad), the orchestral strings are instructed to play with mutes on (con sordini), which yields a veiled tone against which the (unmuted) solo cello stands out as if in hyper-focus up in the stratosphere. The minor-mode music here is rich in sighing appoggiaturas and strong dynamic contrasts even within a single measure. (Some scholars of performance practice have argued that, at least in some cases, C.P.E.’s notationally sudden shifts between piano and forte, and vice-versa, may be meant to imply a crescendo or diminuendo between those volume levels.) A place for a cadenza falls near the end of this second movement. Unlike most composers of the time, C.P.E. provided music for cadenzas in many of his concertos, not within the score of the concerto itself but rather in a collection of cadenzas he wrote out in the last year of his life. The short cadenza he offered for this particular place is for the harpsichord version of the concerto. Although cellists may choose to draw some guidance or inspiration from C.P.E.’s harpsichord cadenza, they are left to their own devices. The Largo’s melancholy shadows are cleared away by the Allegro assai finale, in which rapid-fire triplets sparkle with energy and good humor.

—James M. Keller

More About the Music

Recordings: Anner Bylsma, with Gustav Leonhardt conducting the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment  (Warner Classics)  |  Truls Mørk, with Bernard Labadie conducting Les Violons du Roy (Virgin Classics)  |  Hidemi Suzuki, both as soloist and directing the Bach Collegium Japan (Bis)  |  For the harpsichord version of this concerto (Wq 29), Ton Koopman as soloist and conducting the Amsterdam Bach Orchestra (Philips)

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)