Early years: 1714–38
C. P. E. Bach was born on 8 March 1714 in Weimar to Johann Sebastian Bach and his first wife, Maria Barbara. He was the composer's third son. The composer Georg Philipp Telemann was his godfather. When he was ten years old, he entered the St. Thomas School at Leipzig, where his father had become cantor in 1723. He was one of four Bach children to become professional musicians; all four were trained in music almost entirely by their father. In an age of royal patronage, father and son alike knew that a university education helped prevent a professional musician from being treated as a servant. Carl, like his brothers, pursued advanced studies in jurisprudence at the University of Leipzig in 1731 and at Frankfurt-on-the-Oder in 1735. In 1738, at the age of 24, he obtained his degree but never practiced law, instead turning his attention immediately to music.
Berlin years: 1738–68
Flötenkonzert Friedrichs des Großen in Sanssouci
("Frederick the Great's Flute Concert in Sanssouci") by Adolph von Menzel
, 1852, depicts Frederick the Great
playing the flute as C. P. E. Bach accompanies on the keyboard. The audience (invented by Menzel, and not based on any actual occasion) includes Bach's colleagues as well as nobles.
Detail from previous image
A few months after graduation, Bach armed with a recommendation by the Graun brothers (Johann Gottlieb and Carl Heinrich) and Sylvius Leopold Weiss, obtained an appointment at Berlin in the service of Crown Prince Frederick of Prussia, the future Frederick the Great. Upon Frederick's accession in 1740, Bach became a member of the royal orchestra. He was by this time one of the foremost clavier players in Europe, and his compositions, which date from 1731, include about thirty sonatas and concert pieces for harpsichord and clavichord. During his time there, Berlin was a rich artistic environment, where Bach mixed with many accomplished musicians, including several notable former students of his father, and important literary figures, such as Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, with whom the composer would become close friends.
In Berlin, Bach continued to write numerous pieces for solo keyboard, including a series of character pieces, the so-called "Berlin Portraits", including "La Caroline". His reputation was established by the two sets of sonatas which he published with dedications to Frederick the Great (1742) and to Charles Eugene, Duke of Württemberg (1744). In 1746, he was promoted to the post of chamber musician (Kammermusikus) and served the king alongside colleagues like Carl Heinrich Graun, Johann Joachim Quantz, and Franz Benda.
The composer who most influenced Bach's maturing style was unquestionably his father. He drew creative inspiration from his godfather Georg Philipp Telemann, then working in Hamburg, and from contemporaries like George Frideric Handel, Carl Heinrich Graun and Joseph Haydn. Bach's interest in all types of art led to influence from poets, playwrights and philosophers such as Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock, Moses Mendelssohn and Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. Bach's work itself influenced the work of, among others, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Felix Mendelssohn.
During his residence in Berlin, Bach composed a setting of the Magnificat (1749), in which he shows more traces than usual of his father's influence; an Easter cantata (1756); several symphonies and concert works; at least three volumes of songs, including the celebrated Gellert Songs; and a few secular cantatas and other occasional pieces. But his main work was concentrated on the clavier, for which he composed, at this time, nearly two hundred sonatas and other solos, including the set Mit veränderten Reprisen (With Varied Reprises, 1760–1768).
While in Berlin, Bach placed himself in the forefront of European music with a treatise, Versuch über die wahre Art das Clavier zu spielen (An Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments), immediately recognised as a definitive work on keyboard technique. "Both Haydn and Beethoven swore by it." By 1780, the book was in its third edition and laid the foundation for the keyboard methods of Clementi and Cramer. The essay lays out the fingering for each chord and some chord sequences. Bach's techniques continue to be employed today. The first part of the Essay contains a chapter explaining the various embellishments in work of the period, e.g., trills, turns, mordents, etc. The second part presents Bach's ideas on the art of figured bass and counterpoint, where he gives preference to the contrapuntal approach to harmonization over the newer ideas of Rameau's theory of harmony and root progressions.
In 1768, after protracted negotiations, Bach was permitted to relinquish his position in order to succeed his godfather Telemann as director of music (Kapellmeister) at Hamburg. Upon his release from service at the court he was named court composer for Frederick's sister, Princess Anna Amalia. The title was honorary, but her patronage and interest in the oratorio genre may have played a role in nurturing the ambitious choral works that followed.
Bach began to turn more of his energies to ecclesiastical and choral music in his new position. The job required the steady production of music for Protestant church services at the Michaeliskirche (Church of St. Michael) and elsewhere in Hamburg. The following year he produced his most ambitious work, the oratorio Die Israeliten in der Wüste (The Israelites in the Desert), a composition remarkable not only for its great beauty but for the resemblance of its plan to that of Felix Mendelssohn's Elijah. Between 1768 and 1788, he wrote twenty-one settings of the Passion, and some seventy cantatas, litanies, motets, and other liturgical pieces. In Hamburg he also presented a number of works by contemporaries, including his father, Telemann, Graun, Handel, Haydn, Salieri and Johann David Holland (1746–1827). Bach's choral output reached its apex in two works: the double chorus Heilig (Holy) of 1776, a setting of the seraph song from the throne scene in Isaiah, and the oratorio Die Auferstehung und Himmelfahrt Jesu (The Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus) of 1774–82, which sets a poetic Gospel harmonization by the poet Karl Wilhelm Ramler. Widespread admiration of Auferstehung led to three 1788 performances in Vienna sponsored by the Baron Gottfried van Swieten and conducted by Mozart.
Bach married Johanna Maria Dannemann in 1744. Only three of their children lived to adulthood: Johann Adam (1745–89), Anna Carolina Philippina (1747–1804), and Johann Sebastian "the Younger" (1748–78). None became musicians and Johann Sebastian, a promising painter, died in his late twenties during a 1778 trip to Italy. Emanuel Bach died in Hamburg on 14 December 1788. He was buried in the Michaeliskirche in Hamburg.