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Book Review

The Music of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach

Music of C.P.E. Bach
David Schulenberg
University of Rochester Press, September 2014, pp xviii + 416
ISBN-10: 1580464815
ISBN-13: 978-1580464819
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David Schulenberg, Professor of Music at Wagner College and faculty at the Juilliard, is a leading expert on the Bach sons. His Music of Wilhelm Friedemann Bach (ISBN-10: 1580463592 ISBN-13: 978-1580463591) was published in 2010; and his recently-revised Music of the Baroque (ISBN-10: 0199942013 ISBN-13: 978-0199942015) is a standard work. The publication of "The Music of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach" in 2014, CPE's tercentenary year, is particularly welcome – and not just because there are precious few authoritative and scholarly printed sources otherwise available on Johann Sebastian's Bach's second son and arguably his most original, certainly the most prolific and influential.

In just under 400 substantive pages (there are extensive notes and a comprehensive bibliography) Schulenberg deftly combines biography with penetrating musical analysis and study. Since we really know as much about Emanuel's life as we do about his father's, it makes sense to set the achievements (of the former) in the wider context.

C.P.E. Bach had fewer appointments (and surely fewer disappointments) than his father: he was court musician to the Prussian King, Frederick the Great, for almost 30 years (from 1738 to 1768), then spent his last 20 years as director of music at Hamburg. Yet his almost one thousand compositions show not only variety in form and approach (and influences on them, even: something that's not always adequately acknowledged with Sebastian). Significantly, Emanuel's work shows a development in style that one can speculate might have been to his credit had someone of his caliber lived and worked in almost any century.

It's obvious that Schulenberg has given a great deal of thought to how best to arrange his material. The book is carefully organized into twelve chapters which take a roughly chronological approach. From Bach's birth in Weimar, student days in Leipzig, to Frankfurt (Oder), to Berlin and finally in Hamburg. The works of each period are examined in detail. These analyses alone justify the price of this book. They're not always easy works to approach and categorize if we try to situate CPE in the Baroque world of his father, as a consummate practitioner of the galant style, and as a precursor of the Classical movement.

Where do the songs, Oratorio and church music fit in, for instance? Schulenberg has looked far and wide to proffer the reader the best and most serviceable understanding. Miklós Spányi is quoted [p.101] as comparing the W.23 trios with Brahms, for instance; then there are Rosen's observations on Emanuel's influence on Haydn [p.204]. And the subtle relationship not only with Telemann, but a beautifully-sharpened dissection of the (changing) comparisons and distinctions that need to be made between Bachs, father and second son. These do Schulenberg great credit and can only deepen our appreciation of Emanuel after we've really taken the trouble to read and understand what the author has to say on this subject.

The balance between (historical) "background" such as the way the Prussian court functioned, the real nature of the empfindsamer Stil, the nature (if it did actually happen) of Emanuel's break with Friedemann and the liturgical context for some of the vocal music and the concise yet illuminating discussion of those works has been very well achieved. Given the author's depth of knowledge in the area, the temptation to include more circumstance than substance must surely have been there – particularly in the absence of much other material of this quality on the subject. In fact Schulenberg informs without suggesting any need whatsoever to persuade or advocate. This is a real achievement; it has the net result that our appreciation for the at times enigmatic C.P.E. Bach is all the greater because the facts of his life and work have been so well presented. Yes, this is a survey for both specialist and general music-lover. But it's one written by an expert, not an employee.

Schulenberg handles the necessary cross-referencing between Emanuel's works particularly expertly. As well as comparisons to (near) contemporaries like Couperin and Fasch. The result is that C.P.E. Bach's life and works are slowly revealed as though gazing at a carpet unrolling where, once exposed, its parts remain available for use and enjoyment. This holistic appreciation can only be arrived at by someone totally versed in the subject matter; and able to communicate it to both specialist and curious newcomer alike. This extraordinary grasp and understanding of context and the totality of Emanuel's achievement where details are paramount – but their interpretation just as fascinatingly offered – is perhaps Schulenberg's greatest success in this book.

This excellent study is well up to The University of Rochester's usual standards of production. Although not inexpensive at nearly US$100, it's worth the outlay given its anything-but-perfunctory nature. Schulenberg has successfully exposed the key issues in scholarship of C.P.E. Bach, covered the state of current knowledge and thinking and potentially stimulated further research given the richness of the composer's work, which Schulenberg also details particularly well individually.

In keeping with Rochester's These include nearly 80 substantial supplementary texts and tables, music examples (MIDI), scores (PDF) – some newly created by Schulenberg from autograph and other primary sources. There are also concordances and indexes (of Wotquenne, Helm with Nachlassverzeichnis numbers); usefully these include date and place of composition, a self-standing chronology of works, and even recordings (audio files, original instruments). Lastly there are details of a special offer for the book at a 40% discount until the end of December this year; these resources are still being extended and refined.

If you're looking for what's likely to be the definitive volume on C.P.E. Bach for some long time and are prepared to work with the author as he traverses detail and quantity (the book is packed with musical illustrations and meticulous close analysis), this outstanding narrative and interpretation is now the place to go. Highly recommended.

Copyright © 2014 by Mark Sealey.