CPEB: The Piano Quartets
“The best performance of the Hamburger Sonata I’ve ever heard.”
Check out some behind the scenes photos of Musical Offering at work on the recording with engineer Kazuto Maekawa. Thanks are due to our many generous donors who made this project possible.
Musical Offering celebrates the C.P.E. Bach’s tercentenary in 2014. We are pleased to announce the release our debut album, CPEB: The Piano Quartets.
Sample Track: Piano Quartet No. 2 in A minor, Wq 93, I. Andantino
Album Liner Note
by Matthew Hall
Copyright © 2013 Ad Parnassum, Inc.
The importance of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach’s chamber music for late eighteenth-century and early nineteenth-century musical culture is enormous. Throughout his writings, C.P.E. Bach repeatedly acknowledged his debt to his father. But it is C.P.E. Bach, not J.S. Bach as is often misstated, of whom Mozart, speaking for his generation, said, “He is our father; we are all his children. Whatever we may do rightly we learned from him; and whatever he has not taught us is not worth knowing.” Haydn and especially Beethoven were avid collectors of C.P.E. Bach’s music. The young Mendelssohn first encountered the music of the Bach clan through his great-aunt Sara Levy, a long-time patron of Emanuel and Wilhelm Friedemann Bach as well as a collector of the music of J.S. Bach and several of the farther-flung Bach sons. It was for Sara Levy’s Berlin salon that Emanuel Bach’s quartets were almost certainly written. While Mendelssohn’s 1829 revival of the St. Matthew Passion looms large in the story of his connection with the Bachs, it is equally worth remembering that Mendelssohn’s first published works are his three piano quartets, opp. 1–3, modeled on Bach’s own quartets, Wqq 93–95. Thus Emanuel Bach’s output is at once a summing-up of High Baroque traditions, a model for Classic idioms, and even a jumping-off point for the early Romantics.
Despite his central importance for the musical culture of his own time, C.P.E. Bach’s music plays only a small—but happily growing—part of our modern concert life. Perhaps some of his obscurity is attributable to his idiosyncratic musical language: it is soaked through with asymmetrical melodic writing, extreme and sudden harmonic shifts, and elaborately embroidered textural and contrapuntal writing, which together produce the drastic expressivity which perplexes as many listeners as it delights. Charles Rosen has described this idiom as “arbitrary” and even “incoherent”; consider, for example, the sudden stoppages and changes of affect in the first movement of Wq 77. To be sure, Bach’s language is a far cry from the exquisite simplicity and restraint of that of the Viennese classicists; but surely Rosen’s indictment amounts to little more than the observation that C.P.E. Bach is not a Viennese classicist. One could just as easily say that Mozart’s music, considered from a Rococo perspective, is “four-square and boring,” which of course it is not: within the given constraints of the musical idiom, as much imposed by the surrounding musical culture as it is chosen by the composer, Mozart explores infinite and sublime variety and expression.
This is all the more true of C.P.E. Bach: for if Mozart probed the widest possible breadth within his musical idiom, Bach sought actually to coalesce a new musical language at a time of swift development in musical taste, all while producing pieces of music within this ever-evolving style. In this way Bach’s trailblazing outlook—his desire to capture novelty and expressivity, form and fantasy, learnedness and songfulness, pairs which are always in tension—make him rather more like the modernist composers of the twentieth century than like his contemporaries. C.P.E. Bach’s Berlin style in particular, exemplified by the quartets, attains a precarious balance between the light, tuneful character of purely galante music, as is heard in Wq 133, and the traditional (and by 1740 or so, archaic) contrapuntal practice exemplified by J.S. Bach’s style. The Berlin style distinguishes itself from the musical styles of Hamburg and Dresden, cities which had Italian opera houses since the late seventeenth century—whereas Berlin’s Hofoperwas inaugurated only in 1742—and whose instrumental styles were suffused with Italian operatic influences. (Here again, Wq 133 is a prime example.) The Berlin style is therefore perhaps the only purely instrumental eighteenth-century style. By imbuing the traditional contrapuntal practice with galante melodiousness, the style is at once progressive and conservative, but neither reactionary nor archaic. This is the musical language that made possible the notion of “absolute music” which dominated the aesthetic outlook of the nineteenth century, and which to a great extent still characterizes our modern concert life. The affinity between our modern musical values and those embodied by C.P.E. Bach’s music perhaps best explains the composer’s relative obscurity for much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and the resurgence of interest in his music of the past fifty years or so.
If Emanuel Bach’s music was temporarily forgotten in the nineteenth century, his role as an early promotor of the piano was not. Indeed, Bach’s most lasting legacy was his treatise on keyboard playing, Versuch über die wahre Art das Clavier zu spielen (1753), the text that revolutionized Baroque keyboard technique and provided the basis for modern pianism. Baroque keyboard fingering is purposefully unequal: the technique cultivates the third (longest) finger as the strongest for use in strong metrical positions. The second and fourth fingers are commonly used but in weaker metrical positions, while the little finger and especially the thumb are not used preferentially, but rather only in the necessary cases of stretches or many-note patterns. This is in sharp contrast to the principle of nineteenth-century fingering that each of the five fingers of the hand should be equally strong. Central to this manner of even fingering is the use of the “thumb-under” technique, in which the thumb is crossed under the other fingers to facilitate a smooth and inaudible change in hand position. The thumb-under technique was first laid out systematically by Clementi in his Introduction to the Art of Playing the Pianoforte (1801), through which it became the basis of Czerny’s pedagogy and the bane of young pianists everywhere. But Clementi did not invent the technique: if we believe the Versuch, J.S. Bach did. In his discussion of the use of the thumb, C.P.E. Bach reminisces:
My father of blessed memory told me that in his youth he heard old masters who never used the thumb except in large stretches in which it was absolutely necessary. But he lived in an age which witnessed great changes in the development of musical style, and so was obliged to reconsider the practice of fingering, in particular the use of the thumb.
And, not able to resist a double pun, he concludes:
And so now the thumb may be at a stroke elevated from complete inactivity to the place of the pivotal finger.
The persistent use of the thumb is the first necessary step towards the development of the even, modern style of fingering. The musical ramifications of this are obvious: it facilitates the long phrasing of melodies so evident in Bach’s slow movements (especially the slow movement of Wq 77), the fantasia-like arpeggiando textures of the keyboard which the composer favors in developmental passages as in the first movements of Wqq 93 and 95, and fast, lengthy scales such as those in the first movement of Wq 94 and last movements of Wqq 93 and 95.
More importantly, however, Bach’s pioneering use of the piano does more than simply enable new kinds of idiomatic keyboard writing; the impact of the piano’s presence is felt by all the members of the ensemble. In the Versuch, Bach had reaffirmed the traditional continuo team of harpsichord and ’cello; yet the original prints of the score and parts of the quartets, dating from Bach’s last year 1788, lack a separate line or part for a ’cello. Of course, that falls short of demonstrating that the inclusion of the ’cello was not envisioned; in fact, there is ample iconographic and documentary evidence for the practice of part-sharing between keyboard and bowed bass players. What it does show, subtly but incontrovertibly, is that the use of the keyboard as an obbligato instrument means that the ’cello is no longer required as a member of the continuo team. This is borne out by the novel textures the quartets develop. The right hand of the obbligato piano part plays in the same register as the flute as the second melodic voice. The thin, delicate quality of the fortepiano must be a significant motivation for the use of the flute, with which it blends easily, rather than the violin, which could easily overpower it. Consider that the flute and right-hand melody of the piano often play in thirds and sixths in the quartets, whereas the violin and piano more usually trade melodic episodes in Wq 77. In turn, the delicacy of the two principal melodic voices obviates the need for a ’cello to double the left hand of the piano. The inclusion of the viola, by contrast, is motivated by its range: it plays in the middle continuo register now vacated by the keyboardist’s right hand. Still, it is given musical material which is thematic as often as it is accompanimental, and it asserts its presence as the only string instrument, both factors giving new prominence to the middle register of the ensemble. All in all the quartets generate textures quite unlike that of the traditional Baroque trio: instead of a polarization between treble and bass (ultimately derived from the petit choeur or concertinotexture of Baroque orchestral writing), the new quartet writing is full, even proto-symphonic. These considerations reveal the sea-change which is underway in this music: the final and ultimate breakdown of continuo in Western music which facilitated the large-scale formal and thematic developments of nineteenth century music.