Happy 300th birthday, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach: still underappreciated after all these years!

So, today is the 300th birthday of CPE Bach, one of the sons of the much more famous Johann Sebastian Bach.

Unless you’re a Western art music history buff, or are specifically interested in the Baroque and Classical eras, you may not even have heard of CPE Bach, which is somewhat ironic because he was actually more well-known and respected in his day than his father.

Why is this composer so little recognized today? What is fascinating is that he so much influenced other composers who respected him, such as Mozart and Beethoven, but himself has kind of faded in public awareness.

There is such a huge difference between Johann Sebastian Bach’s music, which is so well-known now, and that of his son Carl Philipp Emanuel. The son’s music was radical at the time, going completely against his father’s style. He privileged bizarreness, extremes of emotion, restlessness. You get the feeling that it was experimental, and it still feels that way today. I think that history does not know what to do with someone whose life work was so relentlessly experimental.

Sonata in A minor for solo flute

To celebrate CPE Bach’s birthday, I made another attempt at reading through his sonata in A minor for solo flute, the second movement of which I performed almost two years ago at a party. At the time, I was uncomfortable with how to interpret the first, slow movement, not knowing what to do with this very free music, but now, I feel liberated and happy to play this first movement, the way that I feel it in the moment. I’d like to think that CPE Bach would have approved the evolution of my emotional openness.

I also rewatched a fine video performance of the final Allegro movement of this sonata, by Emmanuel Pahud:

I have no clip to share of the first movement because I don’t like any of the performances I’ve been able to find online.

How I originally discovered CPE Bach: Freie Fantasie in F-sharp minor

I have to confess how I originally discovered CPE Bach in the first place. It happened in college, when I would regularly browse the “new recordings” section of one of the campus libraries. One day I spotted on the shelf a CD by Andreas Staier of selected CPE Bach sonatas and fantasies. I didn’t know the first thing about CPE Bach at that point, other than that he was a son of Johann Sebastian. But I noticed that the CD advertised that not only a harpsichord, but also a fortepiano was used in the recording. I wanted to hear some fortepiano playing, so I checked out the CD. Up till then, I had only seen and heard the fortepiano once before, played by my music TA during a section meeting of a music appreciation course I took freshman year, “Piano Music of the 19th Century”, when she played sections of a Brahms intermezzo on the instrument.

It turned out the fortepiano was used for a particular piece on the album that caught my fancy, the Freie Fantasie (free fantasy) in F-sharp minor, which he himself titled “CPE Bachs Empfindungen”, or “CPE Bach’s feelings”. As you might expect, this is a really personal, expressive piece, and I still remember finding it bewildering and bewitching in its strange harmonic changes and emotional gestures.

Thanks to the miracle of YouTube, you can actually listen to the exact recording that I first discovered a quarter of century ago by Andreas Staier, right here. I’ve set it to start playing at the beginning of this piece, since the entire video is actually the whole album (which is quite worth listening to, because of the brilliant harpsichord playing of the other pieces). The piece lasts from 38:35 to 49:15, just over ten minutes.

I have heard other performances of this piece but I still think Staier’s is the best, in his really getting into the improvisational and free spirit of the fantasy. By the way, I recommend Staier’s recordings of all kinds of keyboard works before and after CPE Bach: I love everything I have heard from him, from Johann Sebastian Bach to Schubert. For example, here he is live, playing Schubert on a fortepiano. Check out the fantastical outburst that is part of this sonata movement (starting around 3:04).


If you haven’t explored the music of CPE Bach, please take advantage of the “publicity” of his 300th birthday to check out some of his work. It still sounds daring and bold today.

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