Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach: Magnificat in D

The San Francisco Choral Society performed the Magnificat in D by C.P.E. Bach in 1998 and 2004.

I believe music must, first and foremost, stir the heart. — C.P.E. Bach(1)

The most successful of J. S. Bach’s many children, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach has been called a “transitional composer” because his lifetime fell between the Baroque and Classical eras. From his musical education by his father, he was deeply rooted in Baroque polyphony, but he extended his interest to meet listeners of the Enlightenment on their own ground, founding Classical music. His works were not the balanced masterpieces of his father’s era. Along with their unorthodox mix of Baroque and Classical styles, they anticipated Romanticism by half a century, creating vivid music imbued with Carl’s remarkable individualism.

Carl spent nearly 30 years in Berlin serving as court musician for Frederick the Great, a talented amateur musician in his own right. As one of the most notable scholar-kings of all time, Frederick enacted reforms that would earn him lasting admiration, such as building a modern bureaucracy based on respect for law and ethics, which Carl, with a degree in jurisprudence, could appreciate.

When the fight for supremacy in Germany between the house of Austria and the rising Prussia during the Seven Years’ War (1756-63) shifted Frederick’s attention from cultural to military and diplomatic matters, the musical environment in Berlin became stultified. Carl decided to take a position as kantor and music director in Hamburg, where he earned high praise as “the Hamburg Bach.” His brilliance at both wordplay and music brought scholars and activists from all over Europe to his door.

Carl was 35 when he wrote his Magnificat in 1749, and during this period in his life his wife Johanna bore their three children. It is written in the key of D, using the natural D trumpets to express a joyful, glorious and triumphal mood. The work both pays tribute to his father, alive at the time, and points to the Viennese Classical style. Yet where his father’s work gives prominence to fugue and counterpoint, Carl’s expresses a lyrical style, stressing the melodic line. His Magnificat surges with an excited, joyful pulse through the opening movement (semiquavers in the strings and woodwinds paired with accents and triadic figures in the trumpets and drums).

The soprano solo Quia respexit humilitatem (he hath regarded the low estate) uses ornamental grace notes (appoggiaturas) and subtle dynamics in its melodic exchanges between the voice and violins, reflecting the smallest nuances of meaning in Mary’s humility. The tenor solo Quia fecit mihi magna (he that is mighty has done great things to me), dubbed the “victory aria,” portrays the mother-to-be’s sense of greater purpose and her responsive praise in a rising triadic figure.

The subsequent choral movement Et misericordia (mercy) throbs with eighth notes and dynamic changes between piano and forte to depict the awesome scope of all generations. The portrayal of the strength of God expressed in the Fecit potentiam (he has shown strength) and Deposuit potentes (he has put down the mighty) pays homage to the style of the same movements in his father’s Magnificat.

The gracefully engaging solo Suscepit Israel (he has helped his servant Israel) and the fiery fugal texture of the Sicut erat (that ever shall be) show the contrast between Classical and Baroque styles. Mozart, who said of C. P. E. Bach, “He is the father, we are the children,” used the themes in the Magnificat’s last movement (Sicut erat) in the Kyrie of his own Requiem.

The term empfindsamkeit, which can be used to describe Carl’s music, roughly means to express feeling naturally. By assimilating Baroque ornamentation into his new style, he accomplished a “delicately adjustable means of expression” (Age of Enlightenment, 1745-1790, Sternfeld & Wellesz). If we forget, for a moment, any post-1750 music we have heard, we can join with the 18th-century scholars, performers, and audiences who marveled at the immediacy of Carl’s music — abrupt harmony shifts, strange modulations, unusual turns of melody, changes of texture, and pregnant pauses. Haydn and many of his colleagues were profoundly affected by this music and used its devices, along with more unity of content and form, to establish the Classical style.

Carl composed over 1,000 works. Because he catalogued his works, much was preserved. Regrettably, some of his Hamburg work that was archived in Berlin, such as his St. Matthew Passion, was destroyed in the ravages of World War II. Along with his own substantial contribution to music and his definitive Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments, Carl was “an honorable and effective guardian of Johann’s music; most of the Bachiana now extant were owned by him” (Tribute to C. P. E. Bach, T. L. Hubeart Jr.). During his lifetime, he worked to make his father’s music more generally known. He also learned from the financial difficulties that marked his father’s life that accumulating some wealth was important to be able to live comfortably and also provide for his family after his death, which he did by successfully publishing and selling his own music.

— Carol Talbeck