Celebrating the Tercentenary of C. P. E. Bach:


Sensation, Sensibility and Making Sense

Matthew Head, King's College London
Fantasia "in tormentis" (H. 278): Gout, Sensation, Musical Meaning

It was Carl Friedrich Cramer (1752-1807), professor of theology at the Danish-governed university of Kiel, biographer of Klopstock, and admirer of C. P. E. Bach, who confided in the readers of his youthful periodical, the Magazin der Musik, that Bach’s Fantasia in A major, H. 278, was composed (in the composer’s own testimony) "in torments"—specifically during the agonies of gout. This paper explores what is at stake in Cramer’s at one level tongue-in-cheek suggestion that Bach’s physical pain might find a typology in the at once abstract, but also mimetic, musical figures of this improvisatory piece. Certainly, Bach’s illness and its impact on his career as a performer warrant further exploration as components of the composer’s biography—did gout affect his fingers and so influence his decision to leave the post of court keyboardist in Berlin? The prospect of Bach’s physical suffering, and of possible deformity, also complicate his own account of the willing, healthy, disciplined body of the performer in his Versuch (a vision linked to professional identity and court service). But this paper is more concerned with understanding the link Cramer made between composer, body, pain, improvisation and musical meaning. Cramer not only situated Bach in the paradoxically elevated and (problematically) humorous culture of gout (some of his readers would have known that Friedrich Wilhelm I sought relief from that patrician malady in dubious paintings signed "in tormentis pinxit"), but tapped into the period’s debates over the possibility of knowing, representing, and making art out of somatic sensation and (in the broader German term) feelings (Empfindungen). Today, these debates are more commonly associated with the French Enlightenment (from whence they have recently reappeared in musical scholarship, most notably in Le Guin’s Boccherini’s Body). But the epistemology of sensation was also explored in German philosophy by Moses Mendelssohn, and in aesthetics by Johann Joachim Winckelmann and Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. These writers brought greater intellectual scepticism to the project of knowing sensation than their Francophone contemporaries, the Marquis de Condorcet and Denis Diderot. A less celebratory attitude to the body (reflecting a Lutheran legacy), and a more philosophically questioning appraisal of the possibility of rendering sensation intelligible to others, is also apparent in Bach’s own twilight contribution to the debate: his momento mori fantasia, subtitled (in its arrangement for keyboard and violin accompaniment) C. P. E. Bachs Empfindungen. Music, Bach seems to imply in this enigmatic monument to his famous improvisations, was an ideal medium in which to represent the unrepresentable, to signify beyond the limits of language, and to "speak" not just of the body but of the experience, at once corporeal and cognitive, of oneself.

Yonatan Bar-Yoshafat, Cornell University
“As obscure and unintelligible as the warbling of larks and linnets”: Latent Agendas in C. P. E. Bach’s C-Minor Trio Wq 161/1

Ever since its publication in 1751, Bach’s famous program trio (‘Sanguineus und Melancholicus’) has generated much debate. Arguably Bach’s quintessential conversation-in-tone experiment, the work nevertheless received mixed reviews, and Bach refrained from repeating it. It would be unfair to pass judgment on his contemporaries, however, since the work is not devoid of ambiguities.

According to the trio’s detailed preface and explanatory notes, an alleged moderation between the disputing protagonists is eventually achieved, when, by the end of the slow movement, Melancholicus finally succumbs to Sanguineus’s tenacious persuasion attempts. This plotline is in keeping with the “master-narrative” of the Enlightenment; yet there are other, darker and more skeptical sides to that era as well. In fact, no few literary and intellectual works of mid-eighteenth century manifest a rejection of the possibility to temper human sentiments by rational means. And while Bach’s music, by and large, conforms to his own program, it nonetheless displays some intriguing aspects that at the same time subvert its meaning.

I find these incongruities between the “diegetic” and “mimetic” levels of the work meaningful, and homologous to certain critical traits of the time. By recontextualizing the trio, and by comparing it with later pieces, such as the G major keyboard sonata Wq. 58/2 (H. 273), I suggest that Bach’s penchant for the unexpected and the uncanny bespeak not only the aesthetics of Empfindsamkeit, but of “counter-sentimentality” as well.

Keynote Address I

James Kennaway, Newcastle University
The Nerves, Refinement and Over-Stimulation: Medicine and Music in the Age of Sensibility

During the Enlightenment, medical thinking on the nervous system came to have a profound influence on debates about music, as writers on music therapy began discussing its power in terms of stimulated nerves rather than cosmic harmony. Crucially, this medical model of music’s effects also informed musical aesthetic, coincidentally in a way that prefigured contemporary interest in the neuroscience of music. The whole eighteenth-century cult of sensibility drew heavily on understandings of the nerves, as is reflected in the aesthetic of Empfindsamkeit associated with C. P. E. Bach, and in the aesthetics of people such as Johann Georg Sulzer, who described music as “shocks delivered to the nerves.” For most of the century, the notion that music required superior sensitive nerves and that it could refine those nerves was a commonplace in musical and medical literature. However, by the 1790s music was increasingly being incorporated into a medical critique of excessive nervous stimulation. Physicians began giving many examples of serious physical and mental illness caused by musical over-stimulation, especially among young women. At the same time, Romantic aesthetics began rejecting the physical explanation of music’s impact, what Christian Friedrich Michaelis called mere “mechanical shakings of the air and the nerves.” For many observers in the mid-eighteenth century all music had been a question of the nerves, but by the early nineteenth century the effects of serious music were being ascribed to the mind and discussion of the impact on the nerves were generally left for the titillations of trivial and effeminate music.

Cultivating Feeling

David Schulenberg, Wagner College / Juilliard School
C. P. E. Bach and the Metaphorical Voice: Problems of Expression and Representation in Instrumental Speech and Dialog

Since the early twentieth century, C. P. E. Bach has been known primarily for his keyboard works. Yet vocal compositions—songs, church pieces, and oratorios—comprise roughly half his output, and there are indications that throughout his career he aspired to being a composer of sacred music for the voice. The same was evidently true of J. S. Bach, and the outline of Emanuel’s career broadly paralleled that of his father. Yet the predominant style of Emanuel’s larger vocal works is neither that of Sebastian nor the proto-Romantic manner of his songs. Rather it derives from opera seria, which also provided the chief models for the metaphorical vocal writing in his keyboard and instrumental music, including instrumental recitative, metaphorical dialogs of various sorts, and a long-recognized “rhetorical principle” (examples of which are discussed). The composer nevertheless expressed skepticism about the capability of instrumental compositions to communicate meaning, raising the possibility of an ironic interpretation of his calls for expression in keyboard performance and of the famous title of his late work C. P. E. Bachs Empfindungen.

Annette Richards, Cornell University
Sensibility Triumphant: C. P. E. Bach and the Art of Feeling

In Goethe’s Triumph der Empfindsamkeit (1777), sensibility, and its refined sisters feeling and sympathy, are brutally exposed as a trivial obsession with postures and props. Excess, bad taste and poor behavior are the focus of Goethe’s hilarious critique of the craze unleashed by his own Sorrows of Young Werther. Embodied in this strange and funny text are satire aimed not only at the cult of Empfindsamkeit, and at the works of the artist himself, but also at the conspicuous blurring of public and private spheres, the untoward exposure of personal proclivities and private feeling.

Given the ubiquitous text-book designation of C. P. E. Bach as the architect of the Empfindsamer Stil in music, this paper takes another look at what Empfindsamkeit might mean, especially for Bach’s late keyboard works. Revisiting the broader cultural contexts within which Bach lived and worked, I map out the contemporary landscape of feeling constructed by critical and literary texts, as well as musical and visual artworks (including portraits in Bach’s collection). I hope to suggest that some of Bach’s late music, especially the rondos and fantasias, complicate humor with satire and pathos with parody, in a way that presents a complex and disconcerting picture of what it might mean to sympathize, and to feel, musically. In so doing, they ask us to reconsider Bach’s own claims about the competing aesthetics of public and private music.

Nicholas Mathew, University of California - Berkeley
Distance, Mediation, and Circulation: Between Bach and Beethoven

Eighteenth-century writing about Emanuel Bach’s keyboard music continually turns to the image of being face to face with the great man himself—whether it is to reiterate the value or necessity of hearing so sui generis an artist and improviser perform in person or to invoke the figurative presence of Bach’s musical physiognomy when accounting for his musical style. From Burney’s well-known travelogues to the critical commentaries of Cramer and Forkel, we are reminded that the highest experience of Bach’s music is one in which we are face to face with him. It is tempting to analyze this tendency in terms of rhetoric: as various elaborations of a romantic trope such as prosopopeia—the figurative act of conferring a face on the otherwise faceless or inanimate, which was deconstructed so artfully by Paul De Man. Yet this paper is more interested in the material conditions that enabled such tropes, especially the competing media forms and protocols that shaped Bach’s musical world—the interplay of manuscript circulation and expanding print commerce foremost among them. The primary conceptual motif of such an inquiry is not the rhetoric or reality of presence but its near opposite, which, according to literary critics such as John Guillory, is practically the precondition for mediation: distance, and the mechanisms of its traversal. This motif ultimately prompts a comparison, hinted at many years ago by Carl Dahlhaus, of two compositions precisely about absence and leave-taking: the rondo that bids farewell to Bach’s Silbermann clavichord and Beethoven’s “Les Adieux” Sonata. This comparison explores how familiar questions of romantic musical style and aesthetics might productively be recast in terms of media proliferation and circulation in the decades around 1800.

Keynote Address II

Richard Kramer, CUNY Graduate Center
The Klopstock Moment

“The firstborn child of sensibility, the fountainhead of poetic art, and the germ cell of its life is the ode.” Writing in 1765 toward a treatise on the topic, Johann Gottfried Herder, locates the ode at the core of poetic utterance, setting off torrents of brilliant insight engaging the poetics of antique Greece in battle with the vigorous efforts of contemporary German poets to find a voice and indeed an authentic poetic language distinct from its ancient models and true to its own diction. For Herder, the ode was the locus at which the eternal tension between thought and passion, between order and madness plays itself out.

A few years later, in the midst of an extremely long and detailed appreciation of Ode in the Allgemeine Theorie der schönen Künste, Johann Georg Sulzer penetrates to its essence, proposing that “in every effective Ode, more music will sound than in any other form of poetry.” Writing a history tuned to an aesthetic of the Enlightenment, Sulzer imagines the origin of the genre very much as Herder imagines the beginnings of language. The ode has much to do with music—its Greek root means song—less because it is designed to be set to music than because at its origin its language virtually sings the qualities of sound and accent that is music at its core: music before music, so to say.

It was Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock’s poetry, and his theorizing of language—most exhaustively in “Von der Nachahmung des griechischen Silbenmaßes im Deutschen,” (1755)—that sounded the authoritative voice in German letters in the 1760s and 1770s. The daunting challenge to compose a music commensurate with the Klopstock ode was an undertaking of a magnitude addressed in Forkel’s critique of Neefe’s Oden von Klopstock, mit Melodien von Christian Gottlob Neefe (1776). Two of Neefe’s more ambitious settings will be examined against Forkel’s strictures. But the composers whose music seizes the Klopstockian syntax with bold imagination are Gluck and Emanuel Bach, whose communications with the poet will illuminate our discussion of their provocative settings.

Sensing America

Pierpaolo Polzonetti, University of Notre-Dame
The American Sensation: Perceptions of America in Eighteenth-century European Music Culture

Perceptions of America in European music culture during the Age of Sensibility and Revolution range from operatic representations of the American land and American characters to the enormous interest in Benjamin Franklin’s public image and his ideas on politics, medicine, and technology. Some of these perceptions and representations of America and its inhabitants offer a fresh perspective on the link or gap between Enlightenment and Empfindsamkeit. After an overview of selected relevant cases, this contribution focuses on the presence of American enlightenment and sensibility at the court of Berlin during the time of C. P. E. Bach. It takes into account ideas on America and reformed opera by Frederick’s friend, Francesco Algarotti, in relation to Graun’s Montezuma, based on a libretto by Frederick himself.

Touching Instruments: Technologies of the Keyboard

Emily Dolan, Harvard University, Andrew McPherson, University of London, Ryan MacEvoy McCullough, Cornell University, and Roger Moseley, Cornell University

In Veit Erlmann’s terms, keyboards mediate between “reason and resonance.” At the keyboard, thought, sensation, and affect are rendered acoustically available. From the fourteenth-century organ to the Moog synthesizer and beyond, every keyboard interface is embedded in specific historical and cultural milieux and affords particular modes of play. Each can nonetheless stage encounters between disparate repertoires, materializing old ideas in new ways—and vice versa. The Technologies of the Keyboard project, a joint initiative of the Westfield Center for Historical Keyboard Studies and Cornell’s music department, sets out to trace these lateral relationships by seeking out points of contact between keyboard instruments of all kinds. Introducing the panel, Roger Moseley will suggest that considering the eighteenth-century clavichord alongside the keyboard interfaces and modifications engineered by Andrew McPherson draws our attention to the mediation of immediacy, which is to say ways in which the tactile contact between digits and keys has been made audibly expressive from C. P. E. Bach’s day to our own.

Placing McPherson’s instruments within a revolutionary tradition of musical inventions that harks as far back as the eighteenth-century clavecin électrique, Emily Dolan will consider the historicity of new instruments as well as the novelty of “old” instruments. The persistence of the keyboard as a default interface raises questions about the resistance and obstinacy of musical interfaces, as well as what one might describe as their legibility. In this light, McPherson’s TouchKeys, sensors that transform any keyboard into a multi-touch surface, could be understood to restore the expressive potential of Bebung to modern instruments as well as affording new possibilities in terms of vibrato-style effects, modulation, and pitch-bending.

In addition to the TouchKeys, McPherson will demonstrate his Magnetic Resonator Piano, which pursues similarly expressive goals via different technological means: it deploys electromagnets that induce the strings of a grand piano to vibrate, enabling the performer to shape notes after they have been struck. McPherson will then introduce a performance of his Secrets of Antikythera, a large-scale work for the MRP, by Cornell DMA student Ryan MacEvoy McCullough. The session will conclude with an open discussion in which the members of the panel and all others in attendance will be invited to participate.

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