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ClassicsOnline Home » BACH, C.P.E.: Hamburg Sinfonias Nos. 1 - 6, Wq. 182
Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714 -1788)
Hamburg Sinfonias Wq.182
By the 1760s the symphony had largely replaced the concerto as the most popular large-scale instrumental genre in Austria and the south of Germany. In Mannheim and Vienna, the two most progressive musical centres of the mid-eighteenth century, a group of exceptionally talented composers were collectively forging a new language which would dominate musical thinking for decades to come. The eventual emergence of Vienna as "the imperial seat of music as well as of power", to quote Burney, was due as much to the work of Hofmann, Vanhal, Dittersdorf and Ordonez as to the giants Haydn and Mozart. The north of Germany, by comparison, was a relative backwater in the evolution of the symphony. North German writers on music, reflecting a long tradition of serious-mindedness, regarded the new genre, and indeed the new 'classical' style in general, with contempt, considering it as frivolous and indulgent. The very greatness of their own musical tradition blinded many critics and composers to the importance of the revolution occurring elsewhere. Through a combination of natural conservatism, stubbornness and pride, the north of Germany slid into a lingering Baroque twilight. Nowhere was this more evident than at the court of Frederick the Great where Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714-1788) spent 28 years as court harpsichordist. In the early years of Frederick's reign, musical life at the Potsdam and Berlin courts was stimulating and progressive. Frederick, a fine amateur flautist and very proficient composer, involved himself in every detail. He chose artists, hired and fired instrumentalists and singers, commissioned works and expressed forceful judgements on their artistic merits. As he became older and more deeply involved in military matters, however, the court began to stagnate and the creative energy of its most brilliant star, Emanuel Bach, became increasingly frustrated. Although relations between the king and his harpsichordist were strained, Frederick was reluctant to let him go. Nonetheless, in 1768 Frederick consented to release Bach to take up the coveted post of music director in Hamburg which had recently fallen vacant following the death of his godfather Georg Philipp Telemann.
After Berlin and Potsdam, Hamburg carne as a breath of fresh air to Bach. There he was able to become part of the cultural and social life of the city as well as feel a greater sense of freedom to explore and develop his art. In his autobiography written in 1773, Bach confesses that he wrote in a conservative, even severe style, during the Potsdam years in order to satisfy the somewhat blinkered tastes of his patron. Hamburg enabled him to adopt a lighter style and it is surely significant that ten of his nineteen symphonies were written there. The ten symphonies, among Bach's most remarkable instrumental compositions, fall into two distinct sets. Six are written for string orchestra (Wq. 182) and the later set of four (Wq. 183) for a larger ensemble including two oboes, two horns and bassoon.
The symphonies of the earlier set, now generally known as the 'Hamburg' symphonies, were commissioned in 1773 by Haydn's and Mozart's future patron, Baron Gottfried van Swieten. During the years 1771-1777 van Swieten was ambassador to the court of Frederick the Great and resided in Berlin. While there, he became fascinated by the North German musical tradition, so very different to that of his native Austria, and may have travelled to Hamburg to see Emanuel Bach in the hope of acquiring manuscripts of his father's works. In his commission, sent to Bach from Berlin, van Swieten requested that the composer 'give himself free reign, without regard to the difficulties of execution' which were bound to arise. Before sending off the six symphonies to van Swieten it was decided that the works should be heard by a circle of Bach's friends and admirers. An account of this event was published in the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung in 1814:
In the house of Professor Büsch a large band of musicians was assembled by Eberling to make a thorough study of those symphonies before they were sent away. Reichardt led from his violin to the relief of the anxious composer. One could hear with enchantment the original, bold progression of ideas and the great variety and novelty in the forms and modulations, even ii they were not entirely appreciated. Seldom has a musical composition of higher, bolder and more witty character flowed from the soul of a genius. It would be a real loss for art if these masterpieces were to remain buried in a private collection.
Many of C.P.E. Bach's most characteristic touches can be found in these symphonies; energetic tuttis abound, sometimes in strong unison as is the casein the opening movement of Symphony No.3 in C. Sudden contrasts in mood, extreme modulations and abrupt closes, hallmarks of the so-called Empfindsamer Stil of which Bach is the supreme representative, occur frequently. In the finale of Symphony No.1 in G another characteristic gesture can be heard: the sudden intrusion of an intensely personal, emotionally anguished phrase into an otherwise warm and graceful melody. Wild and restless emotional upheaval are fundamental stylistic elements in Bach's music. His style is built around stark and sometimes bizarre contrasts, dramatic, emotional and intellectual; nowhere is it more apparent than in the sudden juxtaposition of extreme dynamic shifts also a feature of much of his keyboard music. In such an intensely personal and emotionally extravagant language it is understandable perhaps that Bach chose to omit the ubiquitous Minuet and Trio in keeping with his fellow composer Johann Adam Hiller's view that:
'Minuets in symphonies always seem to us like beauty patches on the face of a man; they give the music an effeminate appearance, and weaken the virile impression made by the uninterrupted sequence of three well-matched serious i movements, w herein lies one of the greatest beauties of execution'.
In the slow movement of Symphony No.3 Bach pays tribute to van Swieten, antiquarian and connoisseur, in a characteristically arresting manner: cellos and : basses begin the movement by declaiming the famous signature motif B [=B-flat] ACH [=B-natural] with strongly contrasting dynamics and unsettled harmonies.
Emanuel Bach possessed one of the most original musical minds of the century albeit, as David Wyn Jones observes, one that reflected local attitudes. In some respects his musical style represents a brilliant dead end but its influence on Haydn and later on Beethoven ensured that its spirit eventually triumphed.
The Capella Istropolitana was founded in 1983 by members of the Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra, at first as a chamber orchestra and then as an orchestra large enough to tackle the standard classical repertoire. Based in Bratislava, its name drawn from the ancient name still preserved in the Academia Istropolitana, the orchestra works in the recording studio and undertakes frequent tours throughout Europe. Recordings by the orchestra on the Naxos label include The Best of Baroque Music, Bach's Brandenburg Concertos, fifteen each of Mozart's and Haydn's symphonies as well as works by Handel, Vivaldi and Telemann.
The conductor and cellist Christian Benda was born in Brazil, descended from a family of Bohemian composers whose earlier members established a musical dynasty at the court of Frederick the Great. Discovered by Pierre Fournier, who launched him on a career as a soloist, and supported by Paul Tortelier, whom he often conducted, he made his first appearances on tours with ensembles from Eastern Europe, including the Prague Symphony and the Slovak Philharmonic Orchestras, playing the Brahms Double Concerto with Josef Suk and, as a conductor, appearing with a number of soloists of great distinction, including Lazar Berman, Michel Beroff, Bruno Giuranna, Boris Pergamenschikov, Pierre Amoyal and Barbara Hendricks. His many recordings, as cellist or conductor, include a disc devoted to the symphonies of his ancestor Jiri Antonin Benda and he has enjoyed the distinction of conducting a televised concert in Prague Castle in the presence of President Vaclav Havel.
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