Programme notes

Magnificat, Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach (1714—1788)

CPE Bach, the second son of Johann Sebastian, inevitably became a professional musician, and a very accomplished one. It was said that at the age of 11 he could play all his father’s keyboard compositions at sight, and he was widely known and admired throughout his life as a keyboard player. Mozart admired him and his works on keyboard theory, and said of him, ‘He is the father, we are the children.’

The Magnificat is his only major church work, and has some surprising features. It was performed while his father was alive and possibly among the congregation, and scholars point out many moments in the piece where the son emulates and sometimes copies the father. The aspects which surprise today have to do firstly with the way in which the soloists predominate. The piece is 1,150 bars long, and until the final movement—the massive fugue and amen ‘Sicut erat’—the soloists have sung more than three times as many bars as the choir: 688 bars worth, divided between the four of them, compared with only 220 for the choir. But in that long and difficult final piece the choir sings 246 consecutive bars of intensely demanding, rhythmically complex and technical music. Do not be surprised if you see the choir slump to the ground afterwards.

The second feature of the piece is that given its date—1749, it seems—the harmonies and shifts in the melodies are often unexpected. This music does not have the easy forward movement of Carl Philipp’s contemporaries, such as Glück, but is adventurous, unexpected and sometimes spikily probing. It’s a piece that is not only keenly aware of the past but also, as Colin Touchin has said, looks forward to Beethoven and beyond in a way that no-one else in his generation did. His father would have been proud of him, though perhaps a little puzzled.

Mike Torbe

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