CPE Bach: like father, like son

Forward-thinking and unorthodox, CPE Bach was once regarded as the superior musician of the Bach dynasty. Guy Dammann argues for an underrated and overshadowed composer

"Bach is the father. We are the children!" No one with a smattering of musical knowledge will be surprised by this remark of Mozart's, made to the Viennese aristocrat and influential patron Gottfried van Swieten. It is well known that Mozart held the composer in the highest esteem and, some would even argue that it was his interest in the contrapuntal, learned style of "Old Sebastian", as he called him, which gave his music its edge.

But when Mozart referred to Bach as his musical father, it was in fact not Johann Sebastian he had in mind, but his second son, Carl Philipp Emanuel. Indeed, in the second half of the 18th century, the name "Bach" was almost exclusively associated with the initials "CPE".

Born in 1714 to Johann Sebastian and his first wife Maria Barbara, Emanuel followed the example of his godfather Georg Philipp Telemann by qualifying as a lawyer before pursuing a musical career. But his first main job couldn't have been along more traditional lines. He moved from Leipzig to Berlin in 1740 to be a harpsichordist in the court of Frederick the Great. Despite the fact that his appointment seems to have been made directly by Frederick – he was chosen to accompany the newly crowned monarch and musician for his first solo flute concert – Bach didn't appear to make much headway in the Prussian court, never becoming credited as an official composer. Even the visit of his father to Frederick's court in 1747 – the now legendary meeting that led to the composition of the Musical Offering – did nothing to advance the son's career, dogged by quarrels and criticism of his unorthodox and "affected" playing style.

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