C.P.E. Bach: Symphony no. 2 in E-flat, Wq. 183/2

performed by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment under Gustav Leonhardt, or below by The English Concert under Andrew Manze

Another Bach. There are many of them.

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach was born on March 8, 1714  to Johann Sebastian Bach and Maria Barbara Bach (nee Bach, since they were second cousins). He was the fifth child born to this couple, his middle name given in honor of J.S. Bach’s friend Georg Philipp Telemann.

This is neither the time nor the place to start talking about father/son relationships, especially from hundreds of years ago, but CPE Bach was interestingly “working at a time of transition between his father’s baroque style and the classical and romantic styles that followed it”, says Wikipedia. There are things in his music that one will find neither among his father’s work nor that of his siblings. Johann Christian Bach, his brother, was known as “The London Bach,” as he was music master to the Queen of England, and hence CPE became known as the “Berlin Bach” while there, but later as the “Hamburg Bach,” when he took up there from his (partial) namesake Telemann as Kapellmeister in that city.

Having one of the greatest minds, musical or otherwise, as a father certainly helped with the children’s musical upbringing, as four of the Bach children became professional musicians, all trained by their father, apparently almost exclusively. CPE got his law degree, but never practiced. He quickly moved to Berlin, working under the Crown Prince Frederick of Prussia, later to become Frederick the Great. He was mighty successful there, but eventually moved to Hamburg. Among his many compositions are much church and/or choral music (21 settings of the Passion!), and many keyboard works during his time in Berlin.

Today, we turn to a piece that stood out among the symphonies and sinfonias that I listened to, one work a set of symphonies. One set for string orchestra was commissioned by Baron Gottfried von Swieten, dating from 1773. There are also nine other individual symphonies, numbered Wq. 173 thru 181, that I have also skipped over. The piece we’ll be focusing on today comes from a set now numbered Wq. 183, four “Orchester-Sinfonien mit zwölf obligaten Stimmen” symphonies with twelve obbligato parts, including winds.

That might not seem like anything terribly wild, but it was an increase in complexity and detail, and I think you’d be surprised to hear what he’s done with it if you’re familiar with anything else of the time.

The work is in three movements, and brief, under ten minutes in Leonhardt’s reading, but wildly colorful for the time. I get the impression he’s the Berlioz of his period. Just listen to the first movement. It begins with an explosion from the full ensemble, no introduction, no “hello, very nice to make your acquaintance,” just bam: music. It’s instantly followed by full orchestra trills followed by pauses that climb up the scale, leading to repeated notes in strings with accents and color provided by winds. It’s bold, vivacious, almost rebelliously so. There’s a brief flute solo, appearances by oboe, bassoon, lots of texture and timbre, but also these exposed passages that contrast with the full-bodied sound of this orchestra. It’s crisp, vibrant, and more than a little quirky. There’s no repeat of the exposition; no time for that. We jump right into a development, no matter how short it is, and constant contrast is made between the power of the whole ensemble and small transparent chamber-like passages.

The first movement cools down a bit, and with very suave slight of hand, we find ourselves into the second movement, no pause, no cadence, but a nice full-bodied chord followed by a beautiful flute solo; this could easily be part of the first movement, but now we see the smaller, more intimate passages are sticking longer; it’s actually the slow movement, with beautiful exposed passages for individual instruments, harpsichord plucking an exposed note here and there, but wait.

That’s it? Again, without pause we’re in the third movement, apparent only from the sudden spring in the step of the violins. There’s more crunch, a light but propulsive drive to the melody, a certain bounce, and the music is far more string-focused, but winds are not to be left out. This movement in some ways seems the most traditional, but even it is vivacious and bursting with energy, like a breath of fresh spring air. There are more noticeable clear-cut phrases and passages here, instead of the constant unraveling, long line of youthful energy; some heavier passages make themselves apparent, but overall I’m blown away by the freshness and inventiveness of everything about this piece.

I’d originally intended to take a stab at all four works of this set, but I was too pleased with this little piece not to give it its own article. It only takes ten minutes of your time, but it is full of everything that makes music enjoyable. There’s not an instant of boredom or repetitive, stodgy, dryness in it.

I haven’t yet given Papa Bach near the attention he deserves, but his children are clearly not to be overshadowed. This little three-movement piece is full of scrumptious detail that makes a compelling argument for giving a listen to the rest of this man’s work. I’d like to thank Mike McCaffrey over at Haydn Seek for his suggestion in purchasing the Leonhardt disc. It’s truly wonderful. Stay tuned as we take a few small steps back a decade or so in this weekend’s String Quartet series, but then forward for more lovely music.

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