Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach


The 18th and 19th centuries saw the rise of the Classical period of art in Europe, concentrated in areas such as Austria and Germany. The composer, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, better known as C.P.E. Bach, rose to prominence during this time. Although his name in modern times has often been overlooked or disregarded in favor of his famous father, Johann Sebastian Bach, during his time, C.P.E. Bach was regarded as the superior member of the Bach dynasty.

As a transitional figure between the Baroque and Classical eras, the music of C.P.E. Bach was greatly influenced by the Enlightenment philosophes as well as the changing economic, political, and social fabric of Europe upon which he developed his unique music and style.

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach was the second surviving son of J.S. Bach, and embodied just as much, if not more, musical talent and prowess. He was able to play the technically demanding keyboard pieces written by his father by the age of seven, and was an outstanding student on top of that (Reel).

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He studied law in his early years at the University of Leipzig and the University of Frankfurt an der Oder, but by 1740 he was employed as harpsichordist to Frederick the Great of Prussia, a passionate flautist. There, he was exposed to Italian opera music, and the emotional, dramatic music influenced his work. Within an extremely talented musical family, with all his brothers as well as his father, C.P.E. Bach soon began to establish his own name as a prominent composer by the mid-1700s.


During the 17th century, colonialism declined, and was gradually replaced by imperialism. While colonialism typically involved settling the conquered land with people, imperialism was far more depersonalized, and placed a larger emphasis on the economic interactions between the imperialized and imperialists. The holdings of countries such as the Dutch Netherlands, Spain, and France led to the rise of England and France in their stead, and states such as Germany, Austria, and Prussia also flourished during this time. The common practice of government throughout Europe was known as absolutism, in which a single ruler who encompassed the entire state dictated everything (Porter 43). In Prussia, Frederick II, also known as Frederick the Great, employed C.P.E. Bach in his court. Frederick the Great is a prime example of an enlightened despot, or an absolutist ruler influenced by Enlightenment thinking. Along with other rulers such as Catherine the Great of Russia, Frederick the Great took more responsibility for his actions, and deemed himself “a servant of the state”. This signaled a shift from the European rulers who claimed “divine right” for themselves, such as the Sun King Louis XIV of France. Frederick the Great filled his court with talented artists and some of the most forward-thinking individuals of his time, including Bach. Surrounded by intellectuals and artists like himself, C.P.E. Bach became greatly influenced by them, and his ingenuity and intelligence is reflected in the intense, remarkable symphonies he composed.

During his time in Frederick the Great of Prussia’s court, Bach found himself artistically constricted due to the king’s constant demand for accompanying concerto music for his flute concerts. However, the Seven Years War which began in the 1750s distracted Frederick and pulled him away from the court, allowing Bach to find time to begin composing works that reflected his own tastes and style. He also published his influential Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments in 1755, frequently regarded as one of the “most significant eighteenth-century performance instruction treatises” (Powers).


In accordance with the changing political fabric of the time, economic factors were also shifting. As European states moved from colonialism to mercantilism with a new balance of power, the new economic system saw a general rise in wealth across Western Europe. The rise of the cotton industry, especially concentrated in Great Britain, stimulated the economy and led to the beginnings of the proto-Industrial Revolution. The newfound profits coming from the Triangular Trade between Africa, the Americas, and Europe accompanied a shift towards urbanization, as peasants were forced to move to cities to find jobs and work due to the Enclosure Acts. This greatly impacted music during the 17th and 18th centuries as society began changing, and reflected in the shift from Baroque to Classical music. The transition is best embodied by the work of C.P.E. Bach, as he combines complex technical passages with increasingly emotional phrases, and as stated in The Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments, “since a musician cannot move others unless he himself is moved, he must of necessity feel all of the affects that he hopes to arouse in his listeners” (Bach). The application of intense emotions to performance as well as technical competence was obvious in his after-dinner performances, in which onlookers described his playing like a man “possessed” (Naxos). This philosophy also greatly affected prominent composers such as Haydn and Beethoven, who swore by it. Bach is often even labeled as something of a proto-Romantic due to his incorporation of dramatic, dark lines throughout his music that reappeared during the 19th century in the works of Brahms, Chopin, and Mendelssohn.


Enlightenment thinking was developed, largely stemming from French philosophers and intellectuals known as philosophes, whose ideas continue to influence and shape society today. Ideas such as natural rights, separation of the branches of government, and citizenship rights all draw their roots from Enlightenment thinkers. Philosophes which dominated the upper and elite class began to retaliate against old customs and promote a new way of thinking. Figures such as Voltaire, John Locke, and Diderot argued for inalienable rights and outlined the reach of government. In fact, C.P.E. Bach was even friends with Voltaire, whose revolutionary thoughts are reflected in the intimate and passionate music produced by Bach, especially in the years after he left the Prussian court and was free to compose music to his own liking. Enlightenment thinkers believed in skepticism, reason, tolerance, freedom, and equality, characteristics that still stand for debate over the degree to which they should be applied in modern society.

Ultimately, the Enlightenment played an essential role because it was key in the shift away from orthodox, strict Christian lifestyles and values to increasingly secular societies. The decline of the Holy Roman Empire due to corruption also contributed to more people turning away from religion. In music, the previously deeply religious, stoic, and complex Baroque music typically used in church ceremonies gave away instead for more lighthearted, straightforward music with a clear melody line and contrasting emotions. Classical music embodied grace and light elegance . However, since Bach was a transitional figure, he not only used the straightforward melodic lines of Classical artists, but also incorporated some intense emotions from the previous period. He was fluent in several different genres of music, and his music reflects how flexible and adaptable he was–a sign of his genius among great composers of history.


Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach is a perfect embodiment of the changing, shifting fabric of society during the 17th and 18th centuries. New ways of thinking introduced by the Enlightenment, as well as a shift in the political balance of power between European states and beginnings of the shapings of modern society are reflected in his tumultuous, groundbreaking music. His impulsive works for solo keyboard, which lurch into unexpected keys, change tempo and dynamics abruptly, and fly along with wide-ranging themes, are especially compelling for musicians and listeners alike, and have captivated both groups for centuries. Engaged with poets, painters, philosophers, his music is a reflection of the burgeoning secular discourse of his time. Although he is considerably less known than his father, C.P.E. Bach’s influence upon subsequent composers such as Haydn and Beethoven was arguably much more far-reaching. Indeed, his promotion of music as more than a simple means of entertainment for after-parties established his role in shaping “absolute music” which dominated the 18th and 19th centuries, and still influences musicians to this day.

Works Cited

  • Dammann, Guy. “CPE Bach: like Father, like Son.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 24 Feb. 2011,
  • Porter, Roy S. The Enlightenment. MacMillan, 1990.
  • Powers, Doris. C. P. E. Bach A Guide to Research. Routledge, 2016.
  • Reel, James. “Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach | Biography & History.” AllMusic,
  • “Welcome to Naxos Records.” Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach- Bio, Albums, Pictures – Naxos Classical Music., 2017,

Cite this page

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. (2021, Aug 18). Retrieved from

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