Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Symphony Guide Extended: C. P. E. Bach

Sadly Tom Service's year-long symphony guide at the Guardian has come to an end, which leaves me with the problem of what to talk about on Tuesdays! It was an excellent series, on the whole. Despite its faults (a journalistic tendency to try and manufacture controversy) it was probably the best educational series on classical music in the mass media. Wouldn't it be great if they followed it with the 50 Greatest Piano Sonatas or  String Quartets or Operas? I suppose we will just have to see. But in the meantime I would like to extend the series a bit with a few posts here augmenting Tom's choices.

Let me start with a symphony by a composer that we hardly consider: Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714 - 1788), the eldest son of J. S. Bach. This year is the 300th anniversary of C. P. E. Bach's birth and we are inundated with concerts and festivals dedicated to his music. Aren't we? Well, apparently not everywhere! There are festivities in the six cities where he lived and workedHamburg, Potsdam, Berlin, Frankfurt (Oder), Leipzig and Weimar.  Carl Philipp was one of the leading keyboard performers of his day and composed hundreds upon hundreds of keyboard sonatas and dozens upon dozens of keyboard concertos. His list of compositions also includes an astonishing amount of chamber music and twenty symphonies. He also wrote a couple of dozen passions, nearly all of which seem to be lost. Carl Philipp was highly regarded by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, all of whom expressed their debt to his work. Charles Rosen points out that Carl Philipp showed a harmonic daring that exceeded that of even Haydn. His reputation plummeted during the 19th century with Robert Schumann in particular being unimpressed with his creativity.

Most of his music remains unrecorded, but there are three recent collections of recordings available at Amazon, one of which I have.

Carl Philipp's music takes some getting used to as it usually comprises a wide emotional palette with unpredictable changes and extremes. As an example, let's look at his Orchestral Symphony No. 1 in D major, composed in 1776. Following the Italian model, there are three movements, Allegro di molto, Largo and Presto. The slow movement is in the remote Neapolitan key of E flat major which Carl Philipp prepares by slamming on the brakes at the end of the allegro and just switching to E flat for a final phrase ending with a quiet full cadence in the new key.

The Allegro di molto begins with an unusual rhythmic gesture:

The two rhythmic layers interact in an odd sort of way. Here is that shock modulation at the end of the movement. As you can see, one moment we are outlining the IV6 chord in D major, that's G major with the B in the bass, and the next moment we are sitting on B flat, unison, fortissimo, the dominant of the new key, E flat major:

Now let's listen to the whole symphony. It is quite short, only eleven minutes in all:

Coincidentally, there is a symphony, also in D major, from the same year, 1776, by Joseph Haydn, and it might be interesting to compare them. Here is the Symphony No. 61 by Haydn:

It is in four movements as Haydn had long since added a minuet and trio to the Italian sinfonia. As you can tell from the number, Haydn had already written a lot of symphonies. His works in the genre date from the late 1750s and his first position with Count Morzin. There is quite a different rhythmic and harmonic sense in the Haydn. The rhythms are clearer and more directed and the harmonies more consistent. What is odd about the Carl Philipp is the strange juxtaposition of very extreme harmonic daring and rhythmic angularity with the occasional sequence that could have been written by Vivaldi. Carl Philipp is both very progressive harmonically in some ways, but in other ways, decades behind the times. He is writing ten minute symphonies in three movements when Haydn and Mozart were already writing symphonies twice as long in four movements. For comparison, here is one of Mozart's finest earlier symphonies, written in Salzburg in 1774. The Symphony No. 29 in A major by Mozart:

I think one of the fundamental things that we hear in both the Haydn and the Mozart is the consistent rhythmic drive that probably derives from Italian comic opera and is one of the important elements in the Classical Style. Something that Carl Philipp does not seem to have absorbed.

Still, he wrote some fascinating music. His concertos are also quite interesting. We hear more of his capricious approach in this Concerto in D minor:

C. P. E. Bach sounds to my ears like a rather odd synthesis of Antonio Vivaldi and Philip Glass!!

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