Saturday, August 2, 2014

C. P. E. Bach at 300

by Annette Richards

In the 300th anniversary year of the birth of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714–1788), the music of this experimental, ambitious, and ever-elusive composer continues to baffle and amaze listeners, as it did many of Bach’s own contemporaries. Famously, the English music historian and traveling journalist Charles Burney (a self-diagnosed sufferer of Carlophilipemanelbachomania) saw Emanuel Bach as having “outstript his age,” his music “made for another region, or at least another century.” Perhaps. In any case Emanuel Bach’s music is as arresting and original now, in the 21st century, as it was in the Europe of his day.

C. P. E. Bach’s reputation as one of the great German composers of his age rested on choral and orchestral masterpieces as well as his sets of publications for keyboard (and especially the famous Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments, 1753, 1762). Above all, he was the unparalleled master of intimate expression at his favorite instrument, the clavichord. In all genres, Bach’s highly affective music cast new light on, and was heard in terms of, contemporary theories of sentiment and the sublime.


The C. P. E. Bach Jubiläumsjahr 2014 is being observed across Germany and can be followed on a handsome WEBSITE with good video features, audio clips—even a C. P. E. Bach Online-Shop.



In Ithaca, New York, this October 2–5, the Westfield Center for Historical Keyboard Studies and the Cornell Department of Music will present the celebratory conference and concert festival Sensation and Sensibility at the Keyboard in the Late 18th Century.

The Cornell conference will explore the constellation of philosophical and aesthetic ideas, and the conditions of musical production and reception, clustered around concepts of sentiment, feeling, and sensation in Emanuel Bach's sublime and idiosyncratic art. Topics will include notions of Empfindsamkeit (sensibility) and theories of sensing, from medical inquiries into the physiology of the nervous system, to the operation of the inner fibres of the aural canal in sensitive listening, to the effects of Bebung at the clavichord; theories of expression and vocality, from the musical ode to singing with the fingers at the keyboard (Bach’s famous “cantabile” style); from concepts of melancholy and pain to theories of narrative and humor in the Hamburg Bach circle.

And looking beyond Northern Europe, a significant section of the conference and festival will consider American contributions to the (keyboard) culture of sensibility, from Benjamin Franklin’s glass harmonica to, in a reverberant after-echo, the Chickering-Dolmetsch clavichords of late nineteenth-century Boston. Concerts during the festival will feature the clavichord, fortepiano, harpsichord, and organ, as well as the period instrument ensemble Ars Lyrica Houston. A full list of participants and preliminary concert program may be found HERE.


Finally a conference at Oxford University, November 29–30, will consider C. P. E. Bach and Eighteenth-Century Keyboard Culture. Bringing together scholars from the UK, Germany, and the US, the Oxford conference aims not only to explore C. P. E. Bach’s music in relation to Affekt and feeling, character, and expression, but also to examine the composer’s role in the development of what might be termed an eighteenth-century Austro-German culture of keyboard music. Preliminary program HERE.

Annette Richards is professor of musicology and performance at Cornell, where she is also University Organist and executive director of the Westfield Center for Historical Keyboard Studies. She is the editor of CPE Bach Studies (Cambridge UP, 2006) and author of a highly regarded study that treats her reconstruction of C. P. E. Bach's extraordinary collection of musical portraits: “Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, Portraits, and the Physiognomy of Music History,” Journal of the American Musicological Society 66/2 (Summer 2013), 337–96.

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