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Nothing is More Powerful Than a Face


The results of one of the most important recent discoveries in Bach research are currently hanging on the walls of the renovated Bach Archive and Museum in Leipzig, Germany, the city where J. S. Bach lived with his family from 1723-1750. Unearthed musical manuscripts of previously unknown works by Bach garner far more media play than have the objects that can be seen in the Bach Museum exhibit running until December 1st. But discoveries that do not involve sheets of music can be just as moving, and even more revealing for the texture and depth they give to musicians’ lives and works. Music is never the notes alone, which only accrue meaning through context. And nothing is more powerful than a face, even if what it reveals is difficult to define.

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach: The Portrait Collection, curated by English musicologist and Cornell University professor Annette Richards, brings together some sixty images of musicians, music-loving philosophers and poets, dilettantes and prodigies, great men and leading ladies, from among the nearly four hundred pictures owned by C. P. E. Bach. Second son of Johann Sebastian, this Bach was the most famous member of his family in the 18th century, more renowned by a good measure than his father; Emanuel was revered by thinkers and musicians of his day, from Diderot to Haydn to Mozart. The great Hamburg poet Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock wrote his friend’s epitaph on his death in 1788:

Tarry not imitators,
For you must blush if you remain.
Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach,
Profoundest harmonist,
United novelty and beauty;
Was great
In text-led strains
But greater yet
In bold, wordless music;
Surpassed the inventor of keyed instruments,
For he raised the art of performance
Through teaching
And practice
To its perfection.

Unlike his many brothers and their father, C. P. E. Bach was artistically celebrated and financially successful. A fair slice  of the proceeds from his profitable publications for the burgeoning market for keyboard music went to feed his collecting habit: even up to the last months of his life he was continuing to fill out his holdings of portraits; these were mostly engravings, but included drawings, oil paintings, plaster busts and silhouettes. The figures ranged from musical Gods Pan, Apollo and Mercury, to musical polymaths Johannes Kepler and Benjamin Franklin, to musicians, both famous and obscure, ranging from Bach’s time back two hundred years and including men and women not only from Germany but from across Europe.

Bach’s collection was the object of intense discussion and widespread emulation in the later 18th century. The musical man-of-letters, the Englishman Charles Burney visited Bach in 1772, and in the diary of his travels described the thrill of hearing the great man play surrounded by the images of so many musicians, including the stern oil painting of J. S. Bach himself:

“The instant I entered [his house], M. Bach conducted me up stairs, into a large and elegant music room, furnished with pictures, drawings, and prints of more than a hundred and fifty eminent musicians: among whom, there are many Englishmen, and original portraits, in oil, of his father and grandfather. After I had looked at these, M. Bach was so obliging as to sit down to his Silbermann clavichord, and favourite instrument, upon which he played three or four of his choicest and most difficult compositions, with the delicacy, precision, and spirit, for which he is so justly celebrated among his countrymen.”

Burney had embarked on his European travels in order to do research for his General History of Music, the first volume of which appeared a few years after the Hamburg visit. Indeed, as Annette Richards argues, portraits, especially those assembled by C. P. E. Bach, played an important role in the conception of music history found in the first comprehensive works dedicated to the subject by Burney and his German counterparts. The anecdotes that characterized these histories can be thought of not only as annotations of a picture gallery, but as an attempt to flesh out the faces with musical temperament.

Because of C. P. E. Bach’s musical prestige and the fame of his collection, his portraits were coveted by enthuasiasts.  Bach had hoped that the collection would stay intact after his death—an elusive dream for many a collector. In the end it was dispersed, much of it snapped up by those with close connections to the composer and his family. Bach made a catalogue not only of his musical compositions, but also his portrait collection; this careful inventory shows how important both oeuvres were in the life of the artist.

Richards suspected that many of these portraits had probably made their way into the State Library in Berlin, as had so much of the Bach family’s music. With C. P. E. Bach’s careful descriptions in hand, she went through countless drawers of hand-written cards in the massive musical portrait holdings of the library, and indeed found nearly a third of Bach’s personal pictures.  Most of these were prints, some with Bach’s wavering hand-writing giving the subject, artist, or inventory number. More dramatic were Richards’s discovery of original drawings, some by important north German and Italian artists.

C. P. E. Bach’s love of art, and especially portraiture, must also have contributed to the career path of his second son, named after his illustrious grandfather. Johann Sebastian Bach the Younger was a promising artist, who often helped his own father’s collecting interests through his own connections in the art world and his own talent for capturing likenesses.  Unforgettable is the grief-stricken letter in which C. P. E. Bach laments his son’s death at the age of 29 while studying art in Rome.

As I sat next to this exhibition’s curator in the Berlin State Library  in uxorious proximity ( yes, Annette Richards is my colleague and wife, though not necessarily in that order) busying myself with musical manuscripts, it was breathtaking to see the drawings as she removed them from their folders for the first time in decades, if not centuries. The drawing by J. S. Bach the Younger that Richards rediscovered in 2005, of the famed Dresden flute virtuoso, Pierre-Gabriel Buffardin, is among the images she chose for the Leipzig exhibition. In this portrait one can admire not only the meticulous treatment of dressing gown, shimmeringly hatched background, the carefully powdered wig, and the proud and sensitive face, but also the artist’s command of the immediate and vibrant possibilities of pencil on paper. But this level of detail does not detract from the overall sense of fiery nonchalance that the portrait exudes. One of the most welcome outcomes of Richards’s project conducted over many years is that this and the other drawings she has collected have now been preserved according to modern archival standards, and rescued from the acid-rich folders they had long been stored in; some of the badly damaged ones have also been restored.

Pierre-Gabriel Buffardin (1690-1768). Drawing by Johann Sebastian Bach the Younger (1748-1778)


Richards made discoveries in other libraries, and kindred research will continue to reveal more of Bach’s holdings. Using Bach’s pictures as well as exemplars of his prints from other archives, she has reconstructed his collection. As in the composer’s house in Hamburg, there was not enough room in Leipzig for everything.


The diminutive, but rich exhibition catalog is beautifully presented with texts providing descriptions of the sitters’ place in European musical culture and their often direct connection to C. P. E. Bach or other members of the Bach family.  Reproductions of the portraits will appear in a forthcoming volume in the complete works of C. P. E. Bach’s music (, and Richards is nearly finished with a monograph describing the culture of musical portraiture, collecting, and the birth of music history.

Many are the fascinating links Richards makes between those portrayed and Bach himself; his contemporaries were proud to be part of Bach’s collection—like being enshrined in an 18th-century musical hall of fame.

Rich in shadow and the warmth of living expression are the prints of Gluck, Rousseau, Benjamin Franklin (inventor of the glass harmonica), and the Italian violinist Carlo Tessarini, to name just a few.  Not only friends of the composer and famous figures such as Joseph Haydn fired Bach’s collecting imagination, but also now-forgotten players on the European stage, curiosities that seem to say as much about the past as do the great figures just mentioned.  The exhibition includes a rare print of the Polish cello prodigy Nicolaus Zygmuntowski, who played across Europe at major venues such as the Concert spirituel in Paris. The Bach-follower Gerber, whose biographical dictionary of musicians of 1790 includes a long appendix devoted to portraits, reports that, as the exhibition catalog puts it, Zygmuntowski “died at the age of eleven, having been overworked, beaten and starved by his father.” Prodigies are often older than their handlers claim, though this is a brutal précis of the rampant exploitation of musically-gifted children that marred the 18th century. Zygmuntowski died a few years before Bach himself did. One suspects that Bach knew of the young Pole’s fate, and was perhaps even the one who reported it to Gerber. These portraits were not just about capturing the drama of the human face, but also about the stories behind them, to be seen, in the case of Zygmuntowki in his stoic, slightly stunned expression.

Nicolaus Zygmuntowski (c. 17771-1782/86). Engraving by Carl Salzer (1740-1784)

When Bach sat at his clavichord and played for himself or in company, he must also have enjoyed being watched over by his father and so many other musicians, both living and dead. Perhaps he liked to think that they were listening, too. I don’t doubt that the music he made drew power not only from their compositions and the memory of their performances, but from the presence of their faces on his walls. To see so many of these portraits now back together in the modern gallery of the Bach Museum lets us imagine how, in Bach’s Hamburg household, it might have felt to make music for absent friends and welcome visitors.

David Yearsley teaches at Cornell University. He is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London”, has just been released by Musica Omnia. He can be reached at






DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at

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