A Chip Off the Old Bach

by Emily Reese, Minnesota Public Radio
June 24, 2011
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St. Paul, Minn. — Some of my favorite composers are those who bridged the gaps between eras. Monteverdi led the charge out of the Renaissance and into the Baroque era. Beethoven forged into Romanticism from the late-classical Age of Enlightenment. And, although it's difficult to imagine a "bridge" between traditional tonal music and avant-garde atonal music, I have a deep admiration for what Arnold Schoenberg did in 1926 through his "emancipation of the dissonance."

So what about that bridge between the Baroque and Classical eras? If we consider the Baroque era to be a highly ordered system of rather complicated style known as polyphony, we can consider the Classical era to be a highly ordered system of a more simple, homophonic style. What happened in between those two periods of music?

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach happened. Named in part after his godfather, Georg Philipp Telemann, C.P.E. Bach (1714-1788) wrote the usual music of the day: sonatas, symphonies, concertos and the like. I hear the most quintessential C.P.E Bach, however, in his solo piano music.

There is a fantastic CD by conductor and pianist Mikhail Pletnev, simply called C.P.E. Bach: Sonatas and Rondos. If you're unfamiliar with the music of this man, the fifth child (second son) of Johann Sebastian, the very first track will give you an excellent education into his style.

That first track is the first movement of C.P.E.'s Sonata in G minor, Wq 65/17 (unpublished during his lifetime). Characteristic of a time in music in the middle of the 18th century called Emfindsamkeit - German for "sensitivity" - the music is full of stops, starts and very quick changes in mood.

I've been listening to it over and over again; I adore how C.P.E. presents these wonderful snippets of sound buffered by silence. No matter how many times I hear it, I can't wait to hear what mood or sound will come next.

To my ears, though, there's something quite special about this particular movement of this particular Sonata. I can't stop hearing his father's famous Toccata and Fugue in D minor for organ. Be it coincidental or intentional, there are so many aspects of the two pieces that mirror each other, complete with actual musical quotes from the Toccata. I often wonder if C.P.E. blatantly parodied his father's monumental work for organ, or if the explanation is as simple as son learning from father? I'll freely admit that the music theorist in me tends to over-think such connections.

The opening of the piece sounds so Baroque, and continues as such, until about a minute and a half in, where we're thrust into the Classical era (if only for a brief moment). There are only so many examples in the entirety of music history where you can hear the "future" of music unfolding, and this is one of them.

I've only just begun, but now it's your turn to listen to Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach and decide if you also can't wait to hear what comes next.

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