Conductor, Musicologist, Keyboard player

Reviews of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach: The Complete Works

August 1, 2007


Two reviews of volumes of the Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach: The Complete Works project appeared in November [2006]. The aim of the project is to make available a critical edition of the works of C. P. E. Bach; the plan is to employ a concentrated publication schedule so that the completed edition is ready by 2014, the 300th anniversary of Bach’s birth. For a list of volumes now available and details on how to obtain the volumes, please visit

The two reviews appeared in:
British Clavichord Society Newsletter
Early Music

From British Clavichord Society Newsletter 36

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach: The Complete Works, Series I (keyboard works), Volume 3: ‘Probestücke’, ‘Leichte’ and ‘Damen’ Sonatas, edited by David Schulenberg. pp. xxi, 12 plates + 190. US$ 25.00

Anthony Noble, Farnborough

‘When we turn to Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach we see a figure much written about in his own times, but less since. In his own times a great modernist, then the thin son of a ripe father, and now? Perhaps the dullest of all the classics’. Such a statement, written half a century ago by Max Kenyon in an otherwise generally enlightened survey of early keyboard instruments and their music, might cause raised eyebrows amongst the readers of this journal, but was surely representative of a not untypical approach to music history. Much has changed since, however, and C. P. E. Bach has slowly begun to regain something of the esteem in which he was held in his own time, a time when judgements were unaffected by the, as yet undeveloped, notion of canonical hierarchy.

It is refreshing to read, then, in David Schulenberg’s contribution on the composer in the excellent little volume Eighteenth-Century Keyboard Music, that ‘Of the elder Bach’s five sons who became professional musicians, the most important, both for the size and for the consistent quality and originality of his output, is now generally acknowledged to have been Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach’, and that amongst his works is to be found ‘some of the most profound as well as some of the wittiest, most engaging keyboard music ever written’.

Despite this, C. P. E. Bach has not been fortunate when it comes to modern scholarly editions. The previous attempt at a complete works, the Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach Edition, under the editorship of Rachel W. Wade and E. Eugene Helm and published by OUP, was begun in the 1980s but only ever issued four volumes, now out of print; and, as noted in the last BCS Newsletter in the announcement for the volume under review, Miklós Spányi’s edition of the keyboard music has also run aground. There has been, it is true, a complete facsimile version of the keyboard works edited by Darrell Berg, though this is difficult to track down; and many of the keyboard works have appeared in modern editions of varying quality (the ABRSM Selected Keyboard Works edited by Howard Ferguson, though far from complete and not exactly scholarly, has always seemed to me useful). Nonetheless, and especially in the light of the recovery in 1999 of the archives of the Berlin Singakademie, this particular Bach is long overdue for a scholarly critical edition of his works, and this is a timely and laudable venture, due for completion in 2014, the tercentenary of the composer’s birth.

This project, under the auspices of the Packard Humanities Institute, has a distinguished editorial board, including, among other well-known scholar-musicians, Christopher Hogwood, Darrell Berg, Christoph Wolff and Peter Wollny. The editor of this volume, David Schulenberg, is, as we have already seen, a tremendous advocate for the keyboard music of C. P. E. Bach, and he brings to the task not only enthusiasm but also an encyclopaedic knowledge of the music, its compositional contexts and its sources.

The works contained in this volume are some of the most approachable of all of Bach’s compositions for the keyboard, though they are not, as Schulenberg repeatedly points out, always as easy as their titles might imply. The Achtzehm Probe-Stücke in Sechs Sonaten (Wq. 63/1–6) were, of course, written to accompany and illustrate the Versuch published in 1753. These sonatas, unusually, though not uniquely in Bach’s works, do not maintain a single key within each work, though the keys are related: for example, the three movements of Sonata IV are in B minor, D major and F sharp minor (incidentally, it is the use of such remote keys that contributes, according to Schulenberg, to the difficulty of these movements, especially, he says, on the clavichord). These sonatas are placed first in this volume, and appearing at the end are the Sechs Neue Clavier-Stücke (Wq. 63/7–12). These six short single-movement sonatas were written in 1786 and published the following year as part of an expanded musical supplement to the third edition of the Versuch. Despite their discrete published appearance, Schulenberg presents evidence that they may have been viewed as constituting two three-movement works in the same form as the first six sonatas: certainly the sequence of tempi would support this, and the key relationships do not make it implausible.

The Sechs Leichte Clavier-Sonaten (Wq. 53) of 1766 constitute the last set of sonatas published by Bach while he was in Berlin. These predominately two-part works are not, says Schulenberg in the introduction to this volume, ‘especially easy by the prevailing standards of the day’. However, varied and embellished readings for four of the movements from these sonatas are contained in a manuscript, catalogued as Wq. 68. This manuscript contains only those parts of the music varied or embellished: Schulenberg therefore presents composite versions of these movements (separately from, and in addition to, their published form) in which the varied and embellished movements are merged with the published form to produce a complete, performable text. This provides a fascinating insight into the process of varying given material, something Bach discussed in the Versuch particularly with reference to repeats, and which he illustrated elsewhere (the third movement of Wq. 53/5 or the two sets of Reprisen sonatas, for example).

The other works contained in this volume are the Six Sonates pour le Clavecin à l’usage des Dames (Wq. 54). Though composed in 1766, while Bach was still in Berlin, they were not published until about 1770, when he had been in Hamburg for several years. Schulenberg suggests that the [unusually] inaccurate and imprecise nature of this edition, issued by Hummel in Amsterdam, implies that Bach may not have been as closely involved in its production as was his usual practice.

In addition to the project preface from the editorial board and a series preface by Darrell Berg, David Schulenberg provides a lengthy and thoroughly detailed introduction to the volume. In sections dedicated to each of the four sets of sonatas included he describes the compositional and publishing history and contexts, as well as discussing the musical forms and styles employed, all in a scrupulously documented and footnoted form. Of particular use is a passage in the section on the Probestücke where are listed all the references to these works that occur in the main body of the Versuch. He concludes with a brief section on performance practice which touches (as also does Berg’s general preface to the keyboard works) on the precise status of the clavichord as the intended medium for Bach’s music; discusses the appropriateness of additional ornamentation; and refers to ambiguities in the text in relation to the application of dynamics, and to the durational values of some notes in inner voices.

The critical report, amounting to some 40 pages of the 190 in the main body of the volume, is a treasury of information. Like the introduction it is split up into sections on each work. Each section lists and fully describes all early sources — the many manuscript copies, of varying authority, and the printed copies, both authorized and pirated. These are presented in groups: autograph and other manuscripts used for the edition, prints used for the edition, manuscripts not used for the edition and early prints not used for the edition. For the printed sources used Schulenberg lists all exemplars seen.

After an evaluation of the sources there follows a detailed listing, firstly of changes made by Bach prior to publication and variants between printings (where applicable), and secondly of editorial emendations to the text. Bach’s active involvement in the publishing of his works is referred to frequently in this volume, and can be followed in great detail in Stephen Clark’s edition of his letters. Consequently the original texts are generally both detailed and accurate, and editorial emendations are relatively few. All are carefully explained and apt. I did notice one slip, though: on page 189 in the notes on Sonata I (Wq. 63/7) we are told that the seventh note of the top stave of bar 13 has been changed to an e2 and the reasons for the change are explained; however, unlike all similar emendations there is no indication of the reading given in the source. A very small slip in such a volume, but it does reinforce for all of us Bach’s own frequent pleas to Breitkopf on the subject of proofreading: for example, he writes in a marginal note in one letter ‘Tell your proof-readers ... that if they deprive me of my honour through the slightest mistake, then they would deserve nothing better than to be taken to Waldheim [a prison in Saxony]’.

This is a beautifully produced volume, about the same large size as the abortive OUP edition and like it bound in blue cloth. Whereas the OUP volumes had a gold silhouette of Bach as the emblem on the front cover this new edition uses a gold print of Bach’s own autograph harmonization of his surname in an album of C. F. Cramer. The paper is of a very good quality, the musical print (even in the heavily ornamented, annotated and fingered Probestücke) and text are splendidly clear, and this book is altogether a delight to pick up and use. Perhaps this very quality makes it a little heavy for some music desks, and I have one small quibble concerning layout: it is a shame when three consecutive two-page movements, as in Sonata IV (Wq. 63/4), all require page turns.

These are only tiny issues, however. This is an outstanding volume in an excellent venture, and, at $25 for direct sales, quite unbelievably good value. One can only wish such a praiseworthy project well and look forward to future volumes of the same high standard of scholarship and production.

At present, this series is only available direct from the publishers. To order copies, visit