The four symphonies recorded here display the eternal youth of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach’s musical spirit, although he was, by eighteenth- century reckoning, already an old man (sixty-one!) when he wrote them. Their subjective intensity, a style referred to then and now as Empfindsamkeit (ultra-sensitivity), was perhaps the com-poser’s own elixir of youth. Bach’s life falls neatly into three distinct periods.
He learned his trade literally at his father’s elbow, as a student not just of organ, harpsichord, clavichord and composition but of all the skills necessary to be a complete Kapellmeister. He sat at his father’s table copying out material for the Sunday cantata or the weekly Collegium Musicum concerts and met the many colourful characters who visited the Bachs’ Leipzig home. At the age of twenty-four, in 1738, he became harpsichordist to Crown Prince Frederick, later ‘the Great,’ King of Prussia.
It is hard to imagine how disorientating this change must have been to the young musician who had served his apprenticeship under Johann Sebastian. He found himself surrounded by colleagues, notably Johann Joachim Quantz, Carl Heinrich Graun and the Benda brothers, whose reputations and salaries far exceeded his own but whose talents were clearly inferior. In addition, Bach was now the subject of a royal employer whose tyranny extended to censoring his musicians’ works on matters of musical style. As Burney wrote, “with respect to the general and national style of composition and performance [in Berlin], it seems at present, to be formed so much upon one model [i.e. the King’s], that it precludes all invention and genius.” But perhaps the strangest change Bach had to cope with was the almost complete lack of interest Frederick showed in church music, to which generations of Bachs had devoted their lives.