Routes to Beethoven – C.P.E. Bach

by Ben Hogwood

Our first stop on the route to Beethoven was one of the great fathers of music, Johann Sebastian Bach. Moving on a generation, we arrive at the doorstep of his second surviving son, Carl Philipp Emmanuel.

Comparing the music of the two best known Bachs is like comparing chalk with cheese. Whereas the senior composer Johann Sebastian was notable for the order of his exemplary part writing, meticulously crafted melodies and an incredible economy of expression, Carl Philipp Emmanuel assumes the mantle of a rebellious son. As Steven Isserlis brilliantly describes it, his music is that of ‘divine disorder’.

In his best work, C.P.E. drives forward with terrific energy and unpredictability. Try this Fantasy in C major for starters, played on the fortepiano by Robert Hill:

But what was the extent of his influence on Beethoven? In his recently published biography, Jan Swafford writes how Beethoven began his studies with Christian Gottlob Neefe around 1781. “Central to Neefe’s influence on Beethoven”, he writes, “was Leipzig’s living memory of two towering composers who had lived and worked in the city: J.S. Bach…and his son C.P.E. Bach.”

He goes on to talk of how, “during his later years in Berlin and Hamburg, C.P.E. became the prime musical representative of the aesthetic called Empfindsamkeit, a cult of intimate feeling and sensitivity.” Empfindsamkeit (which can loosely translate as ‘sensitivity’) was associated with C.P.E. and a group of composers working for his employer, Frederick The Great.

Flötenkonzert Friedrichs des Großen in Sanssouci by Adolph Menzel

This approach, also known as Sturm and Drang, gained momentum through the 1760s, thanks to the output of Haydn, Mozart and an influential group of early symphonists operating in Mannheim. C.P.E. Bach was regarded as one of its pioneers, with further assertions made in his important treatise Toward the True Art of Clavier Playing. Here he declared that “moving the heart was the chief aim of music, and to do that one had to play from the heart and soul.”

In the New Oxford History of Music, Philip Radcliffe notes how “C.P.E. Bach’s richly varied range and texture in keyboard writing affected later composers such as Haydn and Beethoven. True to Empfindsamkeit, he preferred extremes, very high and very low ranges, sudden contrasts of thin and full textures or close and distant spacing. The expressiveness at the keyboard strangely did not influence his orchestration, where he showed no particular aptness in either choice or treatment of instruments.”

C.P.E.’s output includes some eye-opening moments. As well as the Fantasy above there are some fine works in the traditional style. The Cello Concerto in A minor, a substantial piece, has terrific drive to its writing in the fast movements, but also a deeply emotive lyrical side:

C P E Bach Cello Concerto A minor from Konserthuset Play on Vimeo.

The keyboard works, of which there are many, strain at conventional writing. The Sonata in D minor, included in the playlist, is the opposite of conventional ‘front loaded’ works. Where the first movement would often be the dominant one, on this occasion the third of three movements is twice as long as the first two – and is a colourful and thoroughly enjoyable set of a theme and variations.

C.P.E.’s Symphonies are striking in their unbuttoned enthusiasm and power, and are on occasion misunderstood as being reckless. The keyboard works operate with a freedom glimpsed much less commonly in the works of his father – which seems to have been Beethoven’s approach too. His choral music is striking, too – the hour long oratorio Die Auferstehung und Himmelfahrt Jesu (The Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus) is a powerful utterance, while shorter pieces such as the motet Helig ist Gott are notable for their vivid responses and word painting.

This musical freedom was shared by Beethoven, so it will be interesting to see how closely the approaches of the two composers align. The respect shown by Beethoven to C.P.E.’s documentation and keyboard works shows his deep and lasting respect for the composer, and will surely extend into a willingness to challenge the norm and push down musical boundaries.


This Spotify playlist presents just a small proportion of the massive output of C.P.E. Bach. It is intended to give an idea of his fearless approach to composition and his instinctive writing for orchestra, solo keyboard and choir. As you listen you will I’m sure recognise a fierce energy and drive, and also the sense of pushing against the boundaries of much of the music around him:

Next up

Routes to Beethoven moves on to the music of Handel, a composer Beethoven greatly admired.

3 thoughts on “Routes to Beethoven – C.P.E. Bach

  1. Pingback: Routes to Beethoven – Handel |

  2. Pingback: 2020 Beethoven: The Story So Far |

  3. Pingback: Routes to Beethoven – Joseph Haydn |

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