Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Concerto Guide: C. P. E. Bach

C. P. E. Bach (1714 - 1788)

The German music historian Hermann Abert has noted that in the mid-18th century there were two main approaches to instrumental music. One is a Viennese tradition which used a lot of thematic material and affective contrast. Think of J. C. Bach, whom we talked about last week, and his successor, Mozart. The other approach, a North German one, is found in the music of C. P. E. Bach. Charles Rosen talks about him in Sonata Forms:
The most prominent representative of the North German tradition was Philip Emanuel Bach, a composer whose interest in intimate and intense expression led him to explore the possibilities of dissonance and remote key relationships (i.e. dissonance on a higher structural level). Striking modulations in Scarlatti are generally more coloristic than expressive; in C. P. E. Bach, they have a remarkable and sometimes incoherent passion which is reflected in the intense and idiosyncratic character of his themes. The highly individualized motif or theme was to become central to sonata style. [Sonata Forms, p. 143]
Of course, the successor to this tradition was Joseph Haydn who is known for his use of many of the features of C. P. E. Bach's style including juxtaposition of remote keys, sudden silences and irregular phrase lengths. Rosen points out that it is the memorability of C. P. E. Bach's themes that allowed their transformation during development sections to be heard thus having a large influence on the development section of the sonata. Incidentally, while he had a short-term influence on Haydn, you might even notice some on another North German composer from Hamburg where C. P. E. Bach spent the last part of his career: Johannes Brahms.

Why this division between two sons of J. S. Bach, who was based in Leipzig in Saxony? J. C. Bach, like so many before him and Mozart after him, went to Italy to study. From age 21 he studied in Bologna. Later on he pursued his career in London. C. P. E. Bach, on the other hand, went north. His first employment was in Berlin and he spent the last and most prolific part of his career in the northern port of Hamburg.

C. P. E. Bach's concerto output was enormous: many times that of his symphonic output. He wrote numerous concertos for flute for his patron in Berlin, Frederick the Great, but also many for oboe and cello. But the largest category is for his own instrument: keyboard. He wrote about fifty concertos for one and two keyboards.

Today I want to look at his Concerto for Cello in A minor, Wq 170, written in 1750. This is a powerful, tempestuous piece with enormous rhythmic energy. Think Vivaldi, but painted in richer colors. Here is a performance:

There is not a good score online; all I could find was a so-so piano reduction, but here is that first, chromatic, angular theme:

Some things to note: the arpeggios get some of their drive from where the semitones are placed: as upbeats to the next harmony. That first idea takes up five measures and the next, a sequence, takes four, followed by two different three measure sequences. The total of this opening phrase: fifteen measures. The last measure on the page is the beginning of the next, six measure idea which finally has an irregular cadence (viiº 6/4 of D minor) on the minor iv chord in first inversion. If you want to think of all this, five different thematic ideas, as a single phrase, it is twenty-one measures long.

When the cello enters it has an entirely new theme, a lyrical one to contrast with the orchestra's, firmly in A minor:

Click to enlarge
This goes on for a while, then the orchestra returns with its opening theme, but this time in the subdominant, D minor. In a Baroque concerto, the ritornello would always come back in the tonic, but that system is breaking down. The new kind of concerto in the classical style will take a different kind of approach that I will get into in some detail in future posts. For the moment, let's just notice how little the dominant has been emphasized so far. No significant cadence on the tonic in the opening section, the cello solo starts in A minor, but cadences, as I said, on D minor. A lot of this opening movement wanders between A minor, E minor and D minor -- sometimes within a single measure! The only prominent cadences are to first inversion chords. Even at the cadence setting up the cadenza there is no standard cadence:

How odd is this? In the Classical period, every cadenza by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven begins with the orchestra and soloist sitting on a V7 chord, usually with a trill. What we have here is a tonic! But the preceding chord is equally odd: D# A C F# is viiº7 of V, but here it prepares the tonic. (UPDATE: True, the underlying skeleton, considering the measure before, is V to i, but the V is underemphasized, mostly in first inversion, and it is that odd viiº7 of V that gets the accent.)

C. P. E. Bach, though acknowledged as an important influence by both Mozart and Beethoven, is really going in a completely different direction than they did, harmonically. His is the path not taken: more obscure harmonically, without the clear definition afforded by the Classical tension between dominant and tonic found in Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. Like Domenico Scarlatti, he is carving out a territory all his own that will not be taken into the mainstream after his death--at least not the harmonic structure.


Nathaniel Garbutt said...

Hi Bryan,

Just to comment on your points about the setup for the cadenza...

I think he is cadencing on V - I clearly hear that chord after the dim7 as a V6/4 (cadential 6/4). I find it very easy to then imagine a trill over a V7 on the next chord leading to i which actually happens at the end of the cadenza.

I think this is actually a pretty standard minor cadential pattern for the late baroque...just interrupted by a longish cadenza.

Bryan Townsend said...

You certainly can hear the I6/4 as a lead up to a V, but as you say, he doesn't actually get there until the end of the cadenza. To my mind that is something rather different than introducing the cadenza with a V7! But that's C. P. E. Bach. He certainly knew what everyone else was doing, he just decided to do something a bit different!

Nathaniel Garbutt said...

Hi Bryan,

I suppose the point I was trying to make was that it was the classical composers that commonly introduced a cadenza on V7 but it's not as uncommon in the later baroque, which is the perspective that C.P.E Bach comes from, to cadenza on the V6/4*.

The cadenza for an opera seria aria is quite often begun on the V6/4 and conclude with a trill on the V7 into the tonic. The difference with this performance is that the cadenza is much longer than would be typical of a baroque cadenza.

*You're in good company spelling it as I6/4 but I really do think it's functioning in dominant harmony hence why my spelling it as V.

Bryan Townsend said...

Nathaniel, thanks for continuing this discussion. I'm sorry I wasn't able to get back right away--just too busy with other things. I wanted to follow your suggestion and look at some opera seria arias, but just didn't have the time this week.