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Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach

Of all the Bach children, C. P. E. Bach came closest to escaping the shadow of his father, the incomparable J. S. Bach.  In fact, during the late eighteenth century, the younger Bach was actually better known than the elder.  This situation was not to last, however; the revival of J. S. Bach’s music was in full swing by the early 1800s, while C. P. E. Bach was sinking into obscurity.  It was not until very recently that C. P. E. Bach’s music, particularly the highly individual and varied music for keyboard, was rediscovered.

Following in the Family Footsteps

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, known as Emanuel by his contemporaries, was the second of J. S. Bach’s twenty children.  Born in Weimar on March 8, 1714, with Georg Philipp Telemann serving as his godfather, he and his family moved to Cöthen three years later.  His mother, Maria Barbara Bach, died when Emanuel was six.  Just fifteen months later, in December 1721, J. S. Bach took Anna Magdalena Wilcke as his second wife. 

The final move of Emanuel’s childhood was to Leipzig in 1723.  There, he was enrolled in the Thomasschule, where his father taught.  Emanuel learned to play keyboard and violin, becoming proficient enough to assist in his father’s church services and concerts sometime around 1729.  Two years later, he entered the University of Leipzig and enrolled in the law program.  By this time, however, he had already begun composing, and, like many earlier Bachs, it was clear where his future lay.

His first attempt at getting a position (as an organist in Naumberg), in 1733, was a failure.  Instead, he moved to a different university, that of Frankfurt an der Oder, in 1734.  He continued his music-making there, writing pieces for festive occasions at the university and also performing some of his father’s works.  We do not know much more about his activities in Frankfurt, but he must have made quite a reputation for himself.  Sometime before 1740, he received a plum position: harpsichordist to Frederick, Crown Prince of Prussia.

Early Years at the Court of Frederick the Great

Frederick became King on May 31, 1740.  C. P. E. Bach probably counted himself lucky to be at the Berlin court, for Frederick II loved music and enjoyed playing the flute.  Bach’s position as harpsichordist was not as prestigious as that of Kapellmeister or Konzertmeister, but there were other advantages.  From 1742 onwards, with the hiring of a second harpsichordist, Bach had every other month free from courtly duties and thus had more time to compose or teach.  His salary was not extravagant, but it allowed him to marry in 1744.  He and his wife, Johanna Maria Dannemann, had two sons and one daughter.

During his service to Frederick the Great, C. P. E. Bach wrote large quantities of keyboard music, as he had also done earlier in his career.  Highlights included the two groups of six keyboard sonatas each, known as the “Prussian” sonatas, and the six “Württemberg” sonatas.  After they were published in the early 1740s, these sonatas circulated widely and were acclaimed as highly original.  Their degree of difficulty was such that they were clearly intended for extremely skilled musicians.  In contrast, later published keyboard works were written for and marketed towards home music-making by amateurs; these include six sonatas “for the use of women.”  Bach continued, however, to write difficult sonatas, but these were almost never published.

Another important part of Bach’s output at the Berlin court during the period was his chamber music, especially trios.  Because of his employer, flute was often a featured instrument.  He also wrote three-movement symphonies and more than fifty keyboard concertos.

One of Bach’s most valued contributions to the musical world was his Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments.  The first part was published in 1753 and dealt with fingering, ornaments, and performance.  The second part, published in 1762, mostly discussed accompanying.  The book continued to be used into the nineteenth century, long after C. P. E. Bach’s compositions had fallen out of fashion.

Later Years in Berlin

Around 1750, Bach apparently began to grow unhappy with his Berlin position, as he made two attempts to take over his father’s former position in Leipzig.  Despite the support of his godfather Telemann, his applications were rejected both in 1750 (the year that the position was left vacant due the death of J.S. Bach) and in 17551755 was also the year that Bach engaged in a war of words with the second harpsichordist at Frederick’s Berlin court, Christoph Nichelmann, who found Bach’s playing style fussy.  By bringing the matter to Frederick II, however, Bach got the last word.  Nichelmann left the court, and Bach received a raise.

In 1756, the Seven Years’ War broke out, and musical life at court was greatly curtailed because Frederick II was usually off fighting.  To fill the gap, Bach cultivated other patrons, such as Frederick’s youngest sister Princess Anna Amalia, for whom he wrote several organ sonatas and possibly his two organ concertos.  Another new musical outlet was his participation in the so-called Berlin lied school, a group of composers who set German texts as songs to be accompanied by keyboard.  Also as a result of the war, Bach joined the militia (although he never actually fought in a battle).

Bach made another attempt to transfer out of Berlin in 1767.  Telemann had been musical director of the five most important churches in Hamburg, but upon his death on June 25, 1767, this post was left vacant.  Bach applied and was awarded the post in preference to three other candidates, including his half-brother Johann Christoph Friedrich.


Bach’s new position required him to write much more sacred choral music than he ever had before.  He produced several important works in this genre, such as the oratorios Die Israeliten in der Wüste (The Israelites in the Desert) and Die Auferstehung und Himmelfahrt Jesu (The Resurrection and Ascension of Christ).  However, he was also able to avoid overworking himself by adapting other composers' music, especially that of Telemann and Georg Benda.

Outside the church, he joined in Hamburg’s active musical and intellectual life, befriending the writer Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, the poet Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock, and many others.  He also gave a series of subscription concerts in which he himself performed, although he seems to have given up playing in public after 1779.  Bach’s final concert, on April 9, 1786, included two of his choral works, one of his symphonies, an aria by Handel (“I know that my Redeemer liveth” from Messiah), and several excerpts from his father’s compositions, including the Credo from the Mass in B minor.  C. P. E. Bach continued to compose until 1788, dying on December 14 of that year.  His wife, Johanna Maria, filled his position until the next music director was chosen in late 1789.


Blanning, T. C. W.  The Eighteenth Century: Europe 1688-1815.  Short Oxford History of Europe.  Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Leisinger, Ulrich:  'Bach, §III: (9) Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach',  Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed 15 March 2006), <>