CPE Bach: my life as a transformer (of music)

CPE Bach
CPE Bach: a lifelong punster, according to Grove.

(Le Grande Fromage shares some of his thoughts about CPE Bach, and his place in the 1700s)  

Our next concert, Broken Glass: a concert of transformation, will include music by CPE Bach, the third son of JS Bach. ‘CPE’ was an important, pivotal, figure in the transformation of music- from the Baroque to the Classical Period- and his association with a musical movement between these two periods, known as the Empfindsamer Stil, highlighted not only a difference in musical approach, but also a change in the philosophy that was occurring across Europe.

“Empfindsamer Stil?” I hear you ask?

Empfindsamer Stil: a bridge to the Classical Period

Despite my initial urges to visualise the Empfindsamer Stil as some sort of sweet, pastry-based, dessert which would include sponge-cake soaked in a very strong liqueur, it’s with understandable culinary disappointment that I point out that it was a period in music, overlapping both the late Baroque and the early Classical periods. If we had to get a couple of thumb tacks out and place them on a long line marked, “The 1700s,” you’d have to place one tack not too close to one end, and the other tack not too close to the other end, to mark the start and finish of the Empfindsamer Stil. To get some sort of perspective on the origins of this and the philosophies that were taking Europe by storm at the time, we should go back…to the end.

“We regret to announce the passing of Louis…”Sun King

The year 1715 saw the death of the all-powerful, rifle-toting, King Louis the Fourteenth of France, whose tastes in music and art can be seen as the epitome of the High Baroque: lofty, grand, subjects, and a focus on public spectacle as a way of displaying his regal magnificence (speaking for a moment as a trombonist, Louis’ coronation in the mid-1600s spelt out the death sentence for the early trombone in France (in favour of the recorder, oboe and violin), which wouldn’t return to that country until over one hundred years later. I haven’t quite forgiven him for that). After his death, the French court became more casual, informal, and intimate in tone, with an emphasis, on wit, sentimentality and charm; a period described as involving lots of sighing and heartfelt tears (and an increased need for laundered hankies).  This change would see the emergence of the Rococo Period (due to the predominance of shell-like curves in the visual arts of the time- see below), resulting in those earlier qualities of the High Baroque being considered unnatural by advocates of the new style (JS Bach’s works would be accused of such a thing). The writings of the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau- emphasising a much more natural approach in thought and bearing- affected an idolisation of the open countryside, and the simpler, and perceived more virtuous, life of the people that lived on it. This had a strong effect on the thinking of many of the well-to-do throughout the Eighteenth Century. With this in mind, the desire for nobles to have portraits painted of themselves lying under a tree holding a book in their hands whilst attempting to look intelligent, would seem to be the first pre-internet examples of the “selfie.”

Rococo artFrench music (and Italian for that matter) was performed within German music centres, and the Empfindamer Stil, which has been considered as a predominantly German development (and served with Schnapps), embraced many of the qualities of the Rococo, and would go on to eventually develop into Classicism. CPE Bach’s music, with its short, emotionally-contrasting, phrases, has parallels with the quick wit that was preference in decent conversation (and no doubt in indecent conversation also).   Some commentators have noted that the development of the Classical Period coincided with the rise in the estimation of German music, and the influence the CPE’s music, and his sense of fun, will be discussed later.


The Ady Ensemble will be performing CPE Bach’s Fourth String Symphony in A major, on the 8th of November. Click here for more information.