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C.P.E.: A Listener’s Guide to the Other Bach

C.P.E.: A Listener’s Guide to the Other Bach
By David Hurwitz
Amadeus Press
A review by R.C. Speck

Despite being almost 300 years old, C.P.E. Bach is “relatively speaking, a very new field,” according to music critic David Hurwitz. Overshadowed by his illustrious father Johann Sebastian, and later by the greats of the Classical period, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, Bach had what Hurwitz describes as a long life but a short biography. In his engaging Listener’s Guide to the Other Bach, Hurwitz gives us a biographical overview of this neglected composer and then analyzes the works in his catalog one by one.

Musical aesthetics were changing during Bach’s lifetime, and much of this change was due to his dedication to keyboard music. The harpsichord and clavichord were on their way out, and a new instrument, the pianoforte, was showing how dynamic instrumental music could rival the human voice in sheer beauty. During this period of transition, Bach’s work cannot be placed easily in a period the way Handel can be considered Baroque or Haydn Classical. Hurwitz demonstrates how Bach’s music is truly original, innovative, surprising, and at times even funny.

Hurwitz has a way of making Classical music accessible through breezy, charming prose. And with Bach being so poorly understood by most, he pours it on in every chapter. The quirky “L’Aly Rupalich” from 1775, he describes as a “disco piece.” One sonata he refers to as a “musical paint-by-numbers kit.” A motive in Bach’s Symphony in C Major reminds him of a “puppy shaking itself dry after a bath.” The opening of his Symphony in F Major he calls a “German Classical version of the ‘Mexican Hat Dance.’”

Hurwitz also places C.P.E. Bach in the grander timeline of Classical music. He dubs him the “father of the sonata” since the way Bach structured the sonata and developed themes was emulated by later composers. Bach was also a great innovator of the keyboard concerto. Hurwitz even theorizes that Bach pre-dated his father in this, claiming that a keyboard work of the younger Bach from 1733 was indeed the first one. Hurwitz describes how Bach’s technique of alternating from major to minor variations in symphonies became standard practice for composers from Beethoven to Mahler. He also describes in several places how Franz Josef Haydn was indeed a disciple of C.P.E. Bach.

In his “Parting Thoughts” chapter, Hurwitz explains how he rediscovered C.P.E. Bach after disdaining his music for many years. In a flash, he was fascinated, and in his wonderful Listener’s Guide he shares this fascination with others who may have also overlooked the marvelous music of C.P.E. Bach.

This book review appeared in the spring 2017 issue of Quarter Notes, the member magazine of WCPE Radio, The Classical Station. To receive a subscription, become a member today!

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