The Calm before the Classical

The Calm Before the Clasical 2
C.P.E Bach and his younger half-brother, Johann Christian Bach, were composers like their father, Johann Sebastian Bach.


Some figures in music history outmatch, outperform, and outproduce their contemporaries to such a degree that they deserve special scrutiny. Johann Sebastian Bach fits this category nicely, as does two of his sons. Other composers fit this bill, too. Their names might be familiar to you: Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and so on.

A similar set of lionized figures exists in the history of science. For example, seventeenth-century scientist and mathematician, Isaac Newton, defined the laws of motion, invented the field of optics, and devised the methods for calculus before he reached the age of 26. This is an utterly stupefying fact. Any discussion on the history of science simply must focus on Newton (Sagan 69).

Well, stupefying figures exist in the history of music too. For example, Beethoven reconfigured the classical symphony, performed on piano, and conducted huge orchestras all while being clinically deaf. He is important to music history like Newton is important to science history. As a consequence, Beethoven (and other musicians of his caliber) are covered extensively in the history of Western music.

From a distant vantage point, it may be confusing to students why academics fixate on the likes of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven, especially when thousands of other musicians have existed throughout history.

But reasons for not studying these famous composers disappear upon examination of the details.

Beethoven Conducting Charcoal and Oil on Paper, Framed 21 x 28 in by Javier Cabada
Beethoven conducting drawn with charcoal and oil on paper by Javier Cabada.

For once you understand the monumental scope, utter majesty, and awe-inspired brilliance of Beethoven’s symphonies—especially compared with those of his contemporaries—it proves preposterous not to focus like a laser on this man and his music. It’s a similar story with Bach, Mozart, and some tens of other well-known composers. There’s something like thirty, or so, unimpeachable musical geniuses throughout history. Many are covered on this blog.

In any case, this post covers two of the oft-overlooked composers: Johann Christian Bach and C.P.E. Bach. It begins around the year 1730 with a calm interlude that occurred between two great storms of music history.


The period in music from 1730-1760 was a transitional phase between the Baroque period and the Classical period—two of the most consequential segments in music history (Taruskin 401).

During this in-between stage, composers committed themselves to form, balance, and symmetry by adopting Ancient Greek and Roman standards of aesthetics. Like the Parthenon and the Acropolis, which were constructed with a systemized ordering of pillars and arches, the music of the mid-eighteenth century was constructed with a systemized ordering of melodies and accompaniments. The central ethos for both ancient architect and eighteenth-century composer was proportion without defect.

The central ethos for both ancient architect and eighteenth-century composer was proportion without defect
The central ethos for both ancient architect and eighteenth-century composer was proportion without defect.

The pre-Classical period—what some historians call this thirty-year stretch—featured composers countering the melodically ornate, theoretically dense, and proportionally irregular stylings of the Baroque Period (“Galant” para 1).

Listen to the fugues of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) to get an idea of the auditory onslaught often delivered by Baroque composers.

Listeners had had enough. Changing tastes and styles in the pre-Classical period began to favor simpler, more listenable forms that relied on a principle known as periodicity.

Periodicity, which was a method for parsing melodies into clear, declamatory phrases, was inspired by opera—an extremely popular form of stage drama that flourished in Western Europe during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The vocal phrasing and melodic idiosyncrasies of opera were periodic out of necessity. To make a story delivered entirely by song discernible to the listener, the words being sung had to be clear. The music of opera, therefore, was light, elegant, and periodic by design.

The recitative and the aria were two song styles used by opera. Recitatives were punctuated and clipped expressions of dialogue; arias were all-out songs. Both featured periodic melodies constructed to function like language. Just as words are assembled to form phrases and arranged further to form sentences and finally compiled into paragraphs and books, melodic fragments are assembled to form musical lines and arranged further to form parts and figures and finally compiled into movements and pieces. So pre-Classical composers took the main attributes of the recitative and the aria, two vocal genres, and applied them to instrumental genres.

Another development to emerge in the pre-Classical period was light and subtle textures: Baroque music was largely polyphonic; Classical music was largely homophonic. Polyphonic music is neither light nor subtle, homophonic music, conversely, is both of these things (Turek 171).

Here’s what those two words mean:

Polyphonic music featured multiple, intertwined melodies; homophonic music featured one, lightly accompanied melody. One was complex, difficult to comprehend, and an assault on the senses; the other one was simple, easy to comprehend, and contagious with earworms. (Those are melodies that you just can’t get out of your head.) (Webster’s 1117 and 684)

Eighteenth-century journalists began referring to the new style as Galant, which translates as “to amuse oneself,” and describes lightly textured and highly punctuated music (Randel 248).

Another difference burgeoning between the Baroque style and the Galant style was the way composers handled the mood of their melodic subjects.

In Johann Sebastian Bach’s day, one musical idea was thoroughly treated through variation and invention to exercise one emotional contact point. It was thoroughly “spun out” so to speak. If the piece was sad, then the whole thing was sad. If it was happy, then the whole thing was happy (Taruskin 409).

Alternatively, music composed using periodic melodies could be unpredictable, so Galant music, which was composed that way, was capable of perturbing the listener’s nervous system in several ways and through several moods in quick succession.

The effect on the listener was like a roller coaster of sensibility. Sometimes a piece would begin dark and foreboding then transition to bright and uplifting before returning to dark and foreboding. Periodicity, with its short and to-the-point phraseology, lent itself perfectly to mood shifts of this sort.

The new styles, shifting sensibilities, and classical aesthetics of the mid-eighteenth century were well exercised and thoroughly developed by the musical sons of Johann Sebastian Bach.

Predicting Storms with the Sons of Johann Sebastian Bach

The music of Johann Sebastian Bach’s sons was integral to the development of the new Galant style. In northern Germany, where the Bach clan originated, the term used instead of Galant was empfindsamkeit, which roughly translated as “an intimate, sensitive, and melancholy expression,” and was used by musicians, poets, and authors to describe the mechanisms of bringing one’s listener or reader to tears (Norton 253).

The music produced with this ethos was known as, the empfindsamer style, examples of which can be found in the compositions of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714-1788), Johann Sebastian’s second son with his first wife.

CPE Bach worked for the King of Prussia before becoming music director in Hamburg. All-in-all, he had a successful career and was the most famous Bach of his day—far eclipsing the fame of his father. For the Prussian king, CPE was responsible for accompanying the royal flute solos and for various other low-pressure musical duties. This was an unsatisfying job with low pay, so he left for a position in Hamburg (Norton 48).

Carl Phillip Emanual Bach
Carl Phillip Emanual Bach (1714-1788)

There he became the city’s music director and was responsible for composing and performing choir and organ music for five churches, which—when compared with accompanying random flute solos from the Prussian king—was a much more satisfying job (Norton 48).

Carl Philipp Emanuel is especially famous for contributions he made to keyboard music. He published a treatise on keyboard technique and philosophy called, Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments.

Written between 1753 and 1762, it summarized everything there was to know about the instrument at the time.

This book was difficult to find on the Internet, but I found an article about the treatise on The Guardian website that had some good quotes. Here’s CPE on technique “More is lost by incorrect fingering than can be compensated for by all the art and good taste in the world” (Dammann para. 5).

Needless to say, Carl Philipp Emanuel was a keyboard virtuoso of the first order. Consider his harpsichord Sonata in A Major, a piece written about 1771 when Bach was at the height of his powers in Hamburg.

This sonata illustrates some emergent attributes of the nascent classical style including periodicity and homophony. Listen to this piece and pay attention to the hook-driven melodies, the sentence-like phraseology, and the shifting mood.   

Johann Christian Bach (1735-1782), Johann Sebastian’s youngest son from his second marriage and CPE’s half-brother, was somewhat less successful than his older sibling. However, Johann Christian managed a sustainable music career centered in Milan, Italy and in London, England.  In these two cities, he focused mainly on opera and achieved moderate success with that form. He is sometimes called “The London Bach” for his extended residency in that city. Johann Christian is perhaps most famous for meeting, befriending, and influencing the young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1751-1792) when that soon-to-be colossus of music was still impressionable (Norton 48).

Johann Chistian Bach
Johann Chistian Bach (1735-1782)

In any case, JC Bach, like his older half-brother, was a master of the galant style.  

To hear this mastery, consider the Concerto for Piano and Strings in E-Flat. This piece is written for a lead piano or harpsichord to be accompanied by an orchestra. The orchestra functions to prop up and highlight the piano, which plays all the fancy bits.

Listen closely to the phraseology of this piece, notice how Johann Christian constructs melodies in a conversational manner. Each new idea, different though it may be from the previous idea, flows like a storyteller’s sentence from one to the other.

This was the main idea of pre-Classical music, and it was the main precipitator of the storms that followed. The clouds of which were shaped like Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven.

The Viennese Masters, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven
The Viennese Masters: Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven

Works Cited

Dammann, Guy. “CPE Bach: like Father, like Son.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 24 Feb. 2011,

“Issac Newton.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 21 Dec. 2015.

Norton / The Norton/Grove Concise Encyclopedia of Music. Edited by Sadie, Stanley, and Alison Latham W.W. Norton and Company: New York, 1994.

Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music: Volume One, Ancient to Baroque. W.W. Norton and Company 2010.

Sagan, Carl. Cosmos: Carl Sagan. Ballantine Books, 1985.

Taruskin, Richard. Music in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. Oxford University Press: New York, 2010.

Turek, Richard. Analytical Anthology of Music. Second Ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc., 1992.

Webster’s New World College Dictionary, Fourth Edition. Edited by Michael Agnes. IDG Books Worldwide, Inc., 2000.

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