The Other Bach

After last year’s globe-spanning celebrations marking the bicentenaries of the births of Wagner and Verdi, the field of composers-to-be-commemorated may look rather sparse as we survey 2014. To be sure, none of this year’s honorees measure up to the fame of last year’s birthday boys, but it turns out that 1714 was a banner year for the hatching of musical greats, even though their posthumous reputations will never return to that which they enjoyed in their own time. Who now among us loves the music of that august trio of 1714 babies, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, Niccolò Jommelli, and Christoph Willibald Gluck? Only the last of these names was engraved in the frieze of classical greats, though in a shadowy corner of the temple. The changing critical fortunes of these musicians’ legacies and the attention—or lack of it—set to be paid their work during this tricentennial year tells us much about the nature of commemorations: their purpose, potential, and pitfalls.

Composer commemorations have traditionally been PR affairs, most often aimed at boosting national moral, not to mention international cultural tourism, perhaps under the guise of charitable work. These goals have been in place since the beginning of such spectacles, the first of which still outshines all subsequent ones. The Father of All Commemorations took the form of a series of massive concerts of Handel’s music in the Pantheon and Westminster Abbey in 1784, the organizers mistakenly believing that the great Saxon had been born in 1684 rather than 1685. Handel was the first composer whose music never went out of fashion, his corpus effectively creating the concept of “classical” music; indeed, events such as that first centenary celebration began a major shift in European music culture that increasingly tipped concert life towards the retrospective and away from the contemporary.

George III was mad—in the English sense of the word—about many things, but especially Handel’s music, and it is no coincidence that the final concert and end of the giant festivities altogether culminated with Handel’s monumental anthem Zadok the Priest, a piece written some fifty-seven years early for the coronation of George II, mad King George’s grandfather. Handel’s music was inextricably linked to, indeed formed a crucial buttress for, the British national image and the project of empire-building beyond. In both private and public, Handel’s music assuaged King George’s lunacy but also his sense of loss over the break with the American colonies—though as current events continually confirm, that divorce was only temporary. Who cared about the breakaway republic when Zadok the Priest resounded through Westminster Abbey, bellowed by a choir of three hundred? Ahead of the European game in terms of nationalism, the Brits ironically enough were sonically overrun by the German emigré Handel, the main musical engine that powered the sense of state cohesion.

When the Germans finally got serious about national pride and unity during the Napoleonic Wars, they not coincidentally began exhuming J. S. Bach’s music. By the time of the centennial of Bach’s death in 1850 the Germans had signed on to the business of commemoration by launching that year the epic task of preparing the composer’s complete works for publication—an undertaking that eventually ran to nearly fifty weighty volumes when completed in 1899, Brahms and Kaiser Wilhelm having lent their cultural prestige and financial support for the undertaking. This was truest affirmation of Bach’s classical status and the posthumous service his works would render the nation. Wagner’s music contributed mightily—one might even say heroically—to the project of nation building after the creation of the modern German state in 1871. Lagging behind, the Italians, too, made abundant use of Verdi’s operas to keep their Boot stitched together.

Under the related pressures of globalization and the ever-increasing domination of pop cultural, it becomes increasingly hard to hoist now-lesser-known figures out of obscurity and back towards something of the fame they once enjoyed. Economies of scale come into play; international monies are sought. In the case of C. P. E. Bach it is the high-tech lucre of Silicon Valley heir David Packard that contributes mightily to his revivification. Far more famous during in the eighteenth century than his father, Johann Sebastian, C. P. E. Bach fell largely—though not completely—into obscurity in the eighteenth century and did not experience the nationalist resurgence accorded J. S. Bach’s works. Mozart’s oft-quoted claim that C. P. E. Bach was musically “the father, we his kids” did not ensure his music’s durability; early plans to build a monument in this Bach’s honor soon after his death were never realized.

The growth of the Bach Industry since the nineteenth-century revival of J. S. Bach’s music and into our own time—a sometimes cult-like fascination whose most fervent conclaves and conventicles exist in Asia—has in the last few decades increasingly embraced the music of C. P. E. Bach. Building out from Emanuel’s idiosyncratic keyboard works prized for their bold modulations and epigrammatic humor as well as for the irresistible joy they give to fingers of the player, this rediscovery now extends to the large-scale vocal music and symphonies.

A nationalist element still cleaves to the re-ascendance of this second son of the now-more-famous Johann Sebastian Bach. A series of festivals will trace the progress of C. P. E. Bach’s life and work across Germany : from his birthplace Weimar, which would in the course of the eighteenth century emerge as one of Europe’s greatest cultural centers; to Leipzig where his father became Director of Music in 1723 and where the son received the lion’s share of his musical training and artistic formation; to Frankfurt an der Oder where Emanuel held his first position after leaving the family nest; to Berlin and nearby Potsdam where he was for nearly thirty years in the employ of the flute-playing Prussian King, Frederick the Great; and finally to Hamburg where he won the post of director of the city’s music in 1767 and went on to write the large-scale vocal works that evoked the Sublime for the many poets and writers that ranked among his most ardent devotees. Unlike Handel, the greatest Bachs—Sebastian and Emanuel— never left German soil; it was a provincialism they were celebrated for by their German biographers. Emanuel’s oratorios and choruses are not without Handelian aspiration and influence. Thanks to their reclamation by musicological scholarship, these works count as the biggest enrichments to our present day concert life, as in the Petite Bande’s thrilling presentation of the Auferstehung und Himmelfahrt Jesu (Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus) ten ago years in Leipzig and available on DVD and YouTube.

Performers now have access to these excavated treasures thanks to unstinting efforts of a complete edition  of his works headquartered not in one of those German cities, but in Cambridge Massachusetts. In their smart blue bindings, these volumes will run to more than a hundred number when the scholarly dust settles; about half will have appeared by the time the 2014 celebrations are past. The Packard Humanities Institute is footing the bill for the campaign aimed not only at producing the highest quality music texts but also at publishing them in sumptuous volumes made available for a trifling twenty or twenty-five dollars to scholars, performers and enthusiasts—that is the Kenner und Liebhaber (Connoisseurs and Amateurs) for whom C. P. E. Bach himself composed his greatest collection of late keyboard works available for a song in the Packard edition; unsupported by Packard’s deep pockets, the volumes of other scholarly editions usually cost at least four times as much. Thus even beginning piano students can afford these beautiful hardcover Packard-backed books of Emanuel Bach’s endlessly captivating keyboard music.

A stone’s throw from the C. P. E. Bach complete edition headquarters in Cambridge, two exhibitions devoted to the composer’s milieu and to the project of editing his works have just opened this week at Harvard—one in the university’s Houghton Library, the other in the Music Building.
From these exhibits one will get a sense of C. P. E. Bach’s towering stature in his own time and of the long, hard work of making his artistic legacy—his music—available to musicians three hundred years after the composer’s birth. Attention to such historical dimensions and their vagaries seems particularly fitting for a man who was himself fascinated both by music history and the vibrancy of musical life in his own time; these interests are reflected in the huge collection of portraits of musicians past and present that Emanuel amassed over several decades.  Among the holdings were images of his contemporaries Jommelli and Gluck, whose very different tricentennial fates I’ll quickly survey next week.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Bach’s Feet. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com


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