C.P.E. Bach 300th Birthday Celebration

             On March 8, 1714, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach was born in Weimar to Johann Sebastian Bach and Maria Barbara Bach. This was before the family moved to Leipzig, where his father would become Cantor at St. Thomas’ Church and write some of the greatest church music ever written: the St. Matthew Passion, the Mass in B Minor, 200 cantatas, plus motets, concertos, trios, and organ music. While today J.S. Bach is considered by many to be the best composer in music history (read about it here), his second son had a higher reputation than he did in the eighteenth century. Indeed, C.P.E. Bach spent almost 30 years in the service of Frederick II of Prussia, accompanying the king in concerts at the palace and writing a text on keyboard playing that is still read today. His music attracted the attention of older composers like Johann Adolf Hasse and Georg Philipp Telemann, as well as younger composers like Haydn and Mozart. Eventually, C.P.E. Bach succeeded his godfather Telemann as music director of the Lutheran churches in the city of Hamburg, where he spent the last 21 years of his life writing and arranging cantatas for weekly services much as his father had done at Leipzig. It was only in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that his reputation was eclipsed by that of his father.

            Many of the members at St. Paul know that our family moved to Boston from Madison, Wisconsin in January 2000 so that I could take a job as managing editor of the Complete Works of C.P.E. Bach (check out here). The original expectation was that this edition would be completed in time for Bach’s 300th birthday, but we had not counted on the recovery of the Berlin Sing-Akademie archives, which turned up in Kiev after having been given up for lost after World War II. This collection contains many unique sources for the vocal music from C.P.E. Bach’s Hamburg years, and so the edition grew from about 75 volumes to 115 or more. Little did I know at the time when I took the job in 1999 that this was going to be a much longer and more difficult project than I had expected. But we are making good progress with over 60 volumes published and many more in the works, though we will not finish next month!

            St. Paul’s music director, Kira Winter, and I have organized a service with special music for March 2, the last Sunday in Epiphany, to celebrate the life and music of C.P.E. Bach. This will include familiar chorales that he arranged and performed in Hamburg, organ music, songs, and a motet “Veni, sancte Spiritus” that probably has not been performed in more than 200 years. In addition to St. Paul’s Adult Choir, there will be many musicians from the congregation, including soprano Anne-Louise Klaus, and everyone is encouraged to sing along on the hymns. (In fact, the congregation did sing along with the chorus on chorales in the Passions performed each Lent in Hamburg.) This will be a time not only to reflect on the life of a faithful church composer, but also to appreciate and experience the rich heritage of Lutheran church music.

            Each year we commemorate J.S. Bach, Handel, and Heinrich Schütz on July 26 (the death date of J.S. Bach in 1750), but falling in the middle of the summer and not often on a Sunday, we don’t often get to focus on these major composers. Of course we hear their works in concert halls and recordings regularly, and works like Messiah and the St. Matthew Passion are loved by believers and non-believers alike. We should not overlook the fact that C.P.E. Bach preserved much music by his father, he wrote his obituary, and shared much material with Johann Nikolaus Forkel, who wrote the first biography of J.S. Bach (found at Amazon). In many ways, C.P.E. Bach was a transitional figure in music history—a composer who built on the tradition of learned counterpoint and improvisation perfected by his father, while striking out in new ways with original and daring modulation and harmonization. He took the psalm literally and “sang to the Lord a new song.”

            In addition to the special music on March 2 at St. Paul’s, there is an exhibition at Houghton and Loeb Music Library at Harvard University focused on C.P.E. Bach’s life and legacy (check out here) through April 5, and on Friday, March 28, there will be a symposium and performance of his oratorio The Israelites in the Desert at Memorial Church by the Harvard University Choir and Baroque Orchestra.

Happy 300th Birthday, C.P.E. Bach!

-Paul Corneilson

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  9:15 Education Hour
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