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8.570740 - BACH, C.P.E.: Viola da Gamba Sonatas
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Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714–1788)
Viola da gamba Sonatas


Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach was born in Weimar, the second son of Johann Sebastian Bach, then newly appointed Konzertmeister to the Grand Duke Wilhelm Ernst, and his first wife. He attended the Latin School in Cöthen, where his father became Court Kapellmeister in 1717, and in 1723 moved with the family to Leipzig, where he became a pupil at the Thomasschule, on the staff of which his father had become Cantor. In 1731 he matriculated as a law student at the University of Leipzig, embarking on a course of study that had been denied his father. He continued these studies at the University of Frankfurt an der Oder, and in 1738, rejecting the chance of accompanying a young gentleman on a tour abroad, entered the service of the Crown Prince of Prussia at Ruppin as harpsichordist. He moved with the court to Berlin in 1740, on the accession to the throne of the Prince, better known subsequently as Frederick the Great.

In Berlin and at Potsdam, Bach, confirmed as Court Harpsichordist, had the unenviable task of accompanying evening concerts at which the King, an able enough amateur flautist, was a frequent performer. His colleagues, generally of a more conservative bent, included the distinguished flautist and theorist Quantz, the Benda and Graun brothers and other musicians of similar reputation, while men of letters at the court included Lessing. In 1755 he applied for his father’s old position at the Thomasschule in Leipzig, but was unsuccessful, his father’s former pupil Doles being appointed to take the place of Johann Sebastian’s immediate successor, Gottlob Harrer. It was not until 1768 that Carl Philipp Emanuel was able to escape from a position that he had found increasingly uncongenial, succeeding his godfather Telemann as Cantor at the Johanneum in Hamburg, a city that offered much wider opportunities than Leipzig had ever done. He spent the last twenty years of his life there. In Berlin he had won a wider reputation with his Versuch über die wahre Art das Clavier zu spielen (Essay on the True Art of Clavier Playing) and was regarded as the leading keyboard-player of his day. In Hamburg he continued to enjoy his established position as a man of wide general education, able to mix on equal terms with the leading writers of his generation and no mere working musician. He died in 1788, his death mourned by a generation that thought of him as more important than his father, the latter disrespectfully dubbed ‘the old periwig’ by his sons.

As a composer Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach was prolific, writing a considerable quantity of music for the harpsichord and for the instrument he much favoured, the clavichord. His music in general exemplifies the theories expounded in his Versuch, with a tendency to use dramatic and rhetorical devices, a fine command of melody and a relatively sparing use of contrapuntal elements that had by now come to seem merely academic. Nevertheless he complained, at least during his years in Berlin, of the restrictions put upon his writing and of demands that seemed at times ridiculous. In musical terms he is associated with Lessing’s theories of sentiment, Empfindsamkeit, the complement of Enlightenment rationalism.

It was perhaps characteristic of the musically conservative court of Frederick the Great that a player of the viola da gamba should be employed there. In 1741 Ludwig Christian Hesse, one of the most distinguished players of the viola da gamba of the time, son of the virtuoso gambist Ernst Christian Hesse, joined the court chapel, and it was possibly for him that Bach wrote his three sonatas for the instrument. The younger Hesse, who had studied law at Halle, later served both as a musician and as legal adviser to the cello-playing nephew of Frederick the Great, who succeeded to the Prussian throne as Friedrich Wilhelm II. Sonatas for viol and keyboard remained a genre favoured in North Germany rather longer than elsewhere. Writing in the 1770s, the English scholar Dr Burney had high praise for the viol-playing of Johann Christian Bach’s colleague, Carl Friedrich Abel, but had little good to say of an instrument that seemed to him, at the very least, obsolescent: “… since the death of the Late Elector of Bavaria, who next to Abel was the best performer on the viola da gamba I had ever heard, the instrument seems laid aside … the tones of the viola da gamba are radically so crude and nasal, that nothing but the greatest skill and refinement can make them bearable: a human voice of the same quality would be intolerable.” It may be supposed that Burney’s words echoed general contemporary enlightenment opinion, as he praised Abel but deplored his choice of instrument.

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach’s three sonatas for viola da gamba and keyboard belong to his years in Berlin. The two preserved in reliable manuscript copies in the Brussels Conservatory Library, MS Wq.5634, Wq.136 and 137, belong to 1745-46, and the Sonata in G minor, Wq.88, was written in 1759. All three call for a degree of virtuosity in the performer.

The C major Sonata à Viola da Gamba Solo con Basso, Wq.136, written in 1745, offers three movements largely in the prevailing form of the period. The first movement, marked Andante, duly allows the opening theme to return in the dominant key, before a brief development and the return of the material in the tonic key. Something of the same procedure is followed in the Allegretto, with its two sections to be repeated, as in the final Arioso. The manuscript copy of the D major sonata, described as Solo a Viola di Gamba è Basso, includes figuration of the bass line in the first movement, with its improvised final cadenza. The Allegro di molto, in two complementary sections, calls for considerable agility and includes, in the second part, elaborate arpeggiation. The final Arioso, again in two sections, the second starting with a transposition of the opening theme, calls for double-stopping, a more obvious feature of writing for the viola da gamba.

The 1759 G minor sonata, of which an autograph copy survives, is listed in the Berlin library as Trio Nr. 24 / Viola da Gamba / Cembalo. The title Trio indicates the nature of the work, which follows the pattern of Johann Sebastian Bach’s sonatas for viola da gamba and harpsichord and his organ trio sonatas. Instead of the essentially two-voice texture of the two earlier sonatas, the G minor sonata presents a three-voice texture, filled out with chords in the keyboard part, suggested by figuration of the bass line. This allows elements of contrapuntal imitation, a particular feature of the last movement of a work that has provided an interesting addition to the repertoire of the viola and of the cello.

Keith Anderson

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