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.

Listen

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.

Routes to Beethoven – J.S. Bach

by Ben Hogwood

As we plot a course towards listening to the complete works of Beethoven, I thought a good way to start would be by listening to composers who have helped shape his output.

While I am sure we will ultimately find Beethoven out to be one of the most original composers of all, every artist will have had their grounding somewhere, which is bound to have had a say in their eventual direction. The first composer to appear under the microscope is J.S. Bach.

There are some fascinating and very different viewpoints among Beethoven scholars on the extent of Bach’s influence. In his famous book The Classical Style, dissecting the music of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, Charles Rosen is not convinced of much common ground. “It is worth noting, in this respect”, he says, “the extremely limited influence of the music of Bach in Beethoven’s works, in spite of the fact that his knowledge of Bach was considerable.”

Rosen goes on to note the facts – that Beethoven played both volumes of Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier in their entirety as a child, continuing to play it all his life, and that he copied out passages of Bach when approaching composition for the Hammerklavier Sonata. He had a copy of the Inventions for keyboard, two copies of The Art of Fugue, and was familiar with the Goldberg Variations. For Rosen, though, “…except for an obvious and touching reference to the Goldberg in the conception of the final variations of the Diabelli set, the use he (Beethoven) made of all his familiarity is very small, almost negligible in comparison to the continuous reference to Bach in the music of Mendelssohn, Chopin and Schumann. The classical style had already absorbed all that it could of Bach as seen through the eyes of Mozart in the early 1780s, and as Beethoven continued to work within these limits, his love for Bach remained always in the margin of his creative activity.”

Lewis Lockwood’s book Beethoven: The Music and the Life sees things very differently. On several occasions Lockwood highlights Beethoven’s desire to seek out the music of Bach for himself, specifically the Mass in B minor, as he approached the period of composition for the Missa Solemnis. He also focuses on Beethoven’s use of fugue throughout his later period. For in this ‘late’ period (with Beethoven still in his 40s!) it would appear he looked back at Bach for further inspiration, writing complicated but incredibly expressive fugues at key points in his music. The Grosse Fuge (the finale of his Op.130 string quartet), the Hammerklavier and several other piano sonatas, the Ninth Symphony – these are all works where we will no doubt come back to this article and consider its implications.

To build up a basic impression of Bach, I listened to the pieces referenced above and some well-worn favourites of my own. Listening to The Well-Tempered Clavier, then The Art of Fugue, it is possible to marvel at the sheer inevitability of Bach’s music, its structure and lines – but also its profound emotion and moments of humour, joy and even despair. Despite his rigorous working methods Bach pours his heart into this music, including the Goldberg Variations, which are simply sublime – and as Rosen says point towards Beethoven’s massive, late Diabelli Variations, not to mention many other works in the variation form.

Bach’s music has an incredibly sure direction, its workings are so logical and secure, each note and melodic figure seems very closely related, and the end goal – when reached – is unbelievably satisfying. Listen to the Prelude no.1 in C major from The Well-Tempered Clavier (the first item of music on this broadcast) and see if a single note is out of place or could be changed:

By contrast the forward thrust of the Fantasia and Fugue in G minor for organ is especially notable. Although Beethoven wrote virtually nothing for the organ, he surely will have picked up the discipline, application and adventure of J.S. Bach’s keyboard works. That sense of adventure can be heard in a work like the joyous Fugue in E flat major from The Well-Tempered Clavier, or even more in the standalone Toccata in C minor, below:

This shows how Bach can be unpredictable. His music is so sure of its own destiny, but that doesn’t stop it having a few emotional wobbles and flights of fancy along the way.

A work like the Brandenburg Concerto no.1 is a great example of this, where the beautifully argued lines of the first movement (above) are thrown into doubt by the extremely emotional second (below), the oboe floating above chords that are riddled with anxiety:

Moving to the larger scale works, Bach’s dramatic impetus becomes clearer. Whether Beethoven encountered the Mass in B minor is not known, but had he done so the contrasting solemnity of the Kyrie and outright exultation of the Gloria would surely have made a strong impression. Within the Credo section, when Bach reaches the moment of the Crucifixus, there is almost inaudible contemplation – after which the resurrection itself (Et resurrexit) literally bursts from the grave! The splendour of the Dona nobis pacem would seem to anticipate Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, also in the same key of D major.

It is interesting to note Beethoven did not take up Bach’s lead in writing for solo instruments, with no sonatas for solo violin or cello in his output. Nor did he write extensively for the church as Bach did – no realms of cantatas here. Yet that is perhaps a sign of where the commissioned work now originated in music, and Beethoven’s beliefs too, which remain largely unknown. But the two composers have much in common, being innovators and inventors in so many different musical disciplines. We look forward to spending much more time with their music!

Listen

Follow our route to Beethoven by listening along with this Spotify playlist, including the works by Bach discussed in the feature above. Please do follow Arcana here for further playlists in the series!

Next up

Routes to Beethoven moves swiftly on to the music of the ‘next generation’ Bach, Carl Philipp Emanuel – Johann Sebastian’s second surviving son. Expect some fireworks!

Wigmore Mondays – Nicolas Angelich plays Bach / Busoni, Brahms & Beethoven

Nicolas Angelich (piano)

Wigmore Hall, Monday 9 December 2019 (lunchtime)

You can listen to this concert on the BBC Sounds app here (opens in a new window)

Review and guide by Ben Hogwood

A concert of the three ‘B’s, all of them greats of keyboard literature – with a fourth, Busoni, added for good measure.

J.S. Bach and Busoni make a winning combination, the Italian 20th century composer having discovered a strong affinity with his ‘ancestor’s’ work in transcribing his organ and harpsichord works for piano. These were always done in a reverent way, and the famous Advent chorale prelude Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland (Now come, Saviour of the heathens) is no exception. Nicolas Angelich ensured all was still before beginning this account, and once started he left plenty of room for musical thought and variation of tempo and phrasing. Although at times it was a little too mannered, it was a nicely gauged start to the concert.

Angelich continued without a break into Brahms 7 Fantasien, hailed by Clara Schumann as ‘a true source of enjoyment, everything, poetry, passion, rapture, intimacy, full of the most marvellous effects’. The seven pieces work well as a whole, with three Capriccios placed 1, 3 and 7 in the group, interspersed with four Intermezzi. The relatively ambiguous labels mean Brahms has plenty of freedom for expression, and beyond the Capriccios being faster and stormy, and the Intermezzi slower, intimate and experimental, there is little to confine his work.

The performances here were well-informed, Angelich having recorded these works for Virgin Classics back in 2006. The first Capriccio in D minor (9:51) exhibits power and authority, with the composer’s beloved triplet rhythms in evidence, and is complemented by the first Intermezzo in A minor (12:11), one of several moments where Brahms’ thoughts turn wholly inwards – apart from the slightly sunnier middle section. The third piece, a Capriccio in G minor (16:23) has arpeggios tumbling downwards, and has a central section anticipating the tonal area (E) of the three Intermezzi to come. These are the fourth piece in E major (19:23), full of subtle but noticeable questioning in its melody, and the longest piece of the set. It is followed by the thoughtful fifth piece in E minor (23:59) and a sixth, mostly chordal piece back in E major (26:56) which quickly moves away from its harmonic base. Finally the power and passion returns for the seventh piece, a Capriccio in D minor (30:21). Brahms again is in his favourite two-against-three rhythmic figuration, and this signs off the set in the major key with some aplomb in Angelich’s performance.

Fantasy is also a theme for Beethoven’s most famous piano work, his Moonlight Sonata. In truth this piece sits between a fantasy and a sonata (hence the composer’s subtitle, Sonata quasi fantasia), and the first movement, though static in the profile of its arpeggios, is pure and magical imagery, Beethoven intentionally or not evoking moonlight over Lake Lucerne as perceived by his friend, the poet Ludwig Rellstab.

Angelich brought the stillness of the moment to the Wigmore Hall (35:30), reflective and deep in a reverie, only rousing slightly for a Scherzo of relatively downbeat thoughts (41:35). Those sentiments were well and truly blown away by the Finale (44:12), the only one of the three movements written in true ‘sonata form’ by Beethoven. This was a terrifically played account, carefully thought through and played with feeling rather than a need for technical prowess – though that was present too.

Angelich returned to late Brahms for his encore, the Intermezzo in E flat major Op.117/1 (54:02) Another late work, this one is based on an old Scottish ballad, Lady Anne Bothwell’s Lament – and brought the mood and chronology of the concert full circle.

Repertoire

This concert contained the following music (with timings on the BBC Sounds broadcast in brackets):

J.S. Bach arr. Busoni Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland BWV 659 (c1748, arr.1898) (4:36)
Brahms 7 Fantasien Op.116 (1892) (9:51)
Beethoven Piano Sonata no.14 in C sharp minor Op.27/2 ‘Moonlight’ (1802) (35:30)
Encore: Brahms Intermezzo in E flat major Op.117/1 (1892) (54:02)

Further listening

The music from this concert can be heard in leading available versions on Spotify below. These include Angelich’s recording of the Brahms pieces, with Murray Perahia playing the Bach / Busoni and Beethoven:

Angelich can be heard in a double album of late Brahms that includes the composer’s piano pieces published as Op.117-119. They hold a unique place in the piano repertoire, written by Brahms in the knowledge that his compositional career was nearly over and looking forward to innovations by composers such as Mahler, Berg and Schoenberg:

Busoni’s transcriptions of Bach organ works repay further exploration, especially at this time of year. This album from Kun-Woo Paik brings together some of the more famous examples, including the Toccata, Adagio and Fugue:

Beethoven’s 32 Piano Sonatas remain one of the wonders of his output, but even a listen to the four published after the Moonlight sonata reveal a composer striking out for new shores. The Piano Sonata no.15 in D major Op.28, known as the Pastoral, is similarly magical – before the group of three works published as Op.31 reveal humour in the first, stormy Romanticism in the second (nicknamed The Tempest) and an openness of expression in the beautiful third. The playlist below brings together leading recordings from Emil Gilels:

Wigmore Mondays – Jean Guihen Queyras & Alexandre Tharaud play Debussy, Poulenc, Marais & Bach

Jean Guihen Queyras (cello, above), Alexandre Tharaud (piano, below)

Wigmore Hall, Monday 28 October 2019 (lunchtime)

You can listen to this concert on the BBC Sounds app here (opens in a new window)

Review and guide by Ben Hogwood
Photo credits Marco Borggreve

Who could possibly be better suited for this concert among today’s musicians than cellist Jean Guihen Queyras and pianist Alexandre Tharaud? The long-established pairing constructed a hugely enjoyable programme of dance-based music for the combination, from two composers who were still writing for the viola da gamba to two writing for the modern cello but harking back to that older era.

The viola da gamba was on its way out when J.S. Bach and Marin Marais wrote their respective pieces for it. They did not know at the time, but it was about to lose its popularity to the cello, which – with one less string and eventually a spike for the player to hold it in – gradually took over.

Bach’s sonata, for viola da gamba and harpsichord, is equally rewarding when played by cello and piano as here, with great sensitivity and a lyrical line to the melodies from Queyras. The first movement Adagio (1:43 on the broadcast link) was beautifully weighted, as was the quicker but equally graceful Allegro (3:18). Both players found the deeper emotion of the Andante (7:06), Bach moving into the key of B minor for some aria-like soul searching. The final movement Allegro (11:03) was a delight, the benefit of an established musical partnership clear to see and with nicely judged ornamentation from Tharaud.

Marais wrote extensively for the lower end of the stringed instrument family, and his Pieces de viole contain music that is as challenging for the players as it is rewarding for the audience. This three-movement suite, arranged for the modern cello by Christian Döbereiner, contained a slower Prélude (16:53) and Sarabande grave (25:33) that Queyras and Tharaud played eloquently, the cellist finding wonderful clarity in his higher range. These shorter movements framed the main act, several variations on the popular tune La Folia titled Couplets sur Les Folies d’Espagne (19:11), which, while apparently played without repeats, is where we had the real fireworks. There was terrific playing from both and a heightened sense of drama ran throughout.

Poulenc originally wrote his Suite Française for orchestra in 1935 as part of a ballet score, but it proved equally effective in a piano arrangement made later that year. This version for cello and piano was made in 1953, for performance by the composer with French cellist Pierre Fournier. Based on the music of 16th century composer Claude Gervaise, it is a charming suite of seven dance movements looking back some four hundred years, merging the musical language of that time with Poulenc’s perky writing and crunchy harmonies. It was brilliantly realised here.

The seven dance pieces are as follows: a lively Bransle de Bourgogne (30:13), a consoling Pavane (31:40), then a cheeky Petite marche militaire (34:00). The suite continues with an eerie Complainte, the cello in its highest register (35:17), then a largely reflective Bransle de Champagne (36:26), graceful Sicilienne (38:10) and ceremonial Carillon (39:29)

Debussy’s Cello Sonata (43:07) is one of the cornerstones of the cello repertoire, a late masterpiece with clear instructions that the pianist should ‘not fight the cello, but accompany it’. At its centre is a remarkable, forward looking second movement with an improvisatory air and extended episodes for pizzicato (plucked) cello.

This was a terrific performance, Tharaud starting off with a forthright opening statement but responding with great care to the nuances of Queyras and his beautifully shaded tone. The pair caught Debussy’s moods – his bold statements but also the furtive corners of the piece, which sometimes feels like it is hiding in the undergrowth on a hot summer evening.

Both elements were clear in the first movement, and also in the second (47:15), a Sérénade where Debussy’s fragments were all joined together. Queyras had the perfect range of pizzicato colours, but also the clarity of tone right at the top of the register. Tharaud complemented him with the ideal lack of sustain on the stumbling piano figurations and the weight of his responses.

All the while this music was headed for the quickfire finale (50:33), which in its short bursts of melody had charm, worry and glorious colour in equal measure, never quite letting go completely until the final bars and Queyras’ authoritative statement.

As a generous encore the pair complemented the Debussy with Rodion Shchedrin’s entertaining In the style of Albéniz (55:28), not dissimilar to the second movement of the Sonata in its evocative tones but more outrageous in its melodies and harmonies. Queyras and Tharaud set it up brilliantly to cap a memorable recital.

Repertoire

This concert contained the following music (with timings on the BBC Sounds broadcast in brackets):

J.S. Bach Viola da gamba Sonata no.2 in D major BWV1028 (before 1741) (1:43)
Marais (1656-1728) Suite in D minor: Prelude (16:53), Couplets sur Les Folies d’Espagne (19:11), Sarabande (25:33)
Poulenc Suite française (1935, arr. 1953) (30:13)
Debussy Cello Sonata in D minor (1915) (43:07)
Encore – Shchedrin In the style of Albéniz (1973)

Further listening

You can listen to the music heard in this concert on Spotify below, including Queyras and Tharaud in the works by Poulenc and Debussy:

Poulenc also wrote a Cello Sonata, which forms part of an album with works for cello and piano with works by Debussy, delivered by the Queyras and Tharaud pairing here:

As this concert illustrated, French composers were particularly skilled at taking inspiration from the Baroque and Classical periods of classical music (from c1650 to 1800). The playlist below enjoys some of the best examples, headed by Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin but also including works by Fauré, Debussy and Poulenc:

In honour of Raymond Leppard

This week we learned of the sad passing of Raymond Leppard, a conductor whose legacy should truly be celebrated. Anyone getting to know the music of Bach or other Baroque greats in the 1980s and 1990s would surely have encountered his wonderful recordings with the English Chamber Orchestra, either in their first pressings or through judicious reissuing on the Philips label.

Leppard offered a modern instrument alternative to the burgeoning movement of period instrument performance. Although the two sides had their differences, he ultimately showed there was room for both approaches, the music always foremost in his mind.

Leppard’s recordings always have poise, grace and energy, and hopefully the attached playlist will bring them to a wider audience. He was a fine choral and vocal conductor, resurrecting many operas from the Baroque and furthering the cause of composers such as Rameau and Monteverdi. It also includes part of a recent disc he did for Decca with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, where he was conductor from 1987 until 2001.

The playlist includes John Alden Carpenter’s Sea Drift from that disc, the Holberg Suite by Grieg and two works by J.S. Bach. Chiome d’oro, a short excerpt from Leppard’s recording of five books of Monteverdi madrigals, is included on account of its appearance as one of the conductor’s Desert Island Discs in March 1972.

Picture of Raymond Leppard (c) Thomas J. Russo