“Composition as Variation”

Composition as Variation in W. 65/7 and W. 51/1

I described what I called Emanuel Bach’s “composition as variation” in The Instrumental Music of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI Research Press, 1984), 21-46. The technique is especially prominent in his revision of the early keyboard sonata W. 65/7 and in the two “varied” versions of the sonata W. 51/1. Although I have subsequently revised my views on the significance of this technique for Bach’s music as a whole, I discuss it as a likely element of his training and teaching in The Music of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 2014), 20-24. For more on the sonatas W. 65/7 and 51/1, please scroll down. Editions of these works are accessible by clicking on the links above. Recordings are available here.

C. P. E. Bach: Sonata in E-flat, W. 65/7

This keyboard sonata is one of the composer’s earliest surviving pieces. According to the posthumously published catalog of the composer’s estate known as the Nachlassverzeichnis, the sonata was completed at Frankfurt (Oder) in 1736 and revised in 1744. But an early version of the first movement is included in the Little Keyboard Book of Anna Magdalena Bach; the copy, in Anna Magdalena’s hand, probably dates from well before 1736. On the other hand, several manuscripts give revised versions of the complete three-movement sonata that probably date from after 1744, possibly even from after the composer’s departure from Berlin for Hamburg in 1768.

In my dissertation, later published as The Instrumental Music of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1984), I showed that the composer relied on embellishment as a fundamental element of both the composition of new pieces and the revision of existing ones. I referred to the technique, which the composer described in his Versuch über die wahre Art das Clavier zu spielen (Berlin 1753–62), as “composition as variation,” illustrating it with passages from numerous works. In the case of the present work, the sonata W. 65/7, I showed that in creating its late version the composer went beyond variation as usually understood. In particular, he expanded the the later sections of the first movement in a way that Bach also applied in the varied restatements of the theme in his late rondos for “Kenner und Liebhaber” (e.g., W. 59/2; see The Instrumental Music of C. P. E. Bach, 149 and 180n. 5). Hence the successive versions of this piece document not only his revision of a piece through embelishment, but also, in the first movement, “his increasing awareness of the necessity of adequately articulating the design.” The middle section, what we now call the development, “grows from being the shortest to being the longest of the three periods” (diss., State University of New York at Stony Brook, 1982, pp. 301, 305–6).

Several years after I published my analysis of the composer’s technique, another account appeared in the article “Carl Philipp Emanuel Bachs Umarbeitungen seiner Claviersonaten” by Darrell Berg in the Bach-Jahrbuch, vol. 74 (1988): 123–61. Berg focused on W. 65/7 (alongside several other works). Berg subsequently gave a presentation on this sonata during the 2011 national meeting of the American Musicological Society. As the early and late versions of the sonata have never been printed complete in a form that permits easy comparison, my score shows the two versions together. Since around 1990 I have performed the piece using the late version as a source of varied reprises for the outer movements and for the later portion of the slow movement (from m. 17).

C. P. E. Bach: Sonata in C W. 51/1, with “varied” versions W. 65/35 and 65/36

In 1760, according to the list of works in the posthumously published catalog of his estate (the so-called Nachlassverzeichnis), Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach composed a keyboard sonata in C at Berlin. It was, according to the same catalog, his one hundred nineteenth work for solo keyboard, and it was published in the following year as the first of six sonatas comprising the collection known as the Fortsetzung or Continuation of the composer’s previous set, the so-called Reprisen-Sonaten issued in 1760. The latter works are famous for incorporating written-out variations of what would otherwise have been verbatim repetitions of various sections of each movement.

Despite their title, the sonatas of the Fortsetzung largely avoid these so-called varied reprises. But at some point the first sonata (W. 51/1) in the set “was twice varied throughout,” as the estate catalog put it. The term used (varändert) was one that the composer employed to describe not only variation in the usual sense but also a type of decoration or elaboration that was crucial for Emanuel Bach’s compositional process in new works, as well as his frequent revisions of existing ones. The description in the estate catalog is taken directly from the autograph title page in the principal source for the two “varied” versions; that title appears at the head of the present edition (in English: “The first sonata from myReprisen-Sonaten, twice varied throughout”).

When the two “varied” versions of the C-major sonata were made is unknown; neither has an entry of its own within the estate catalog, and therefore no date or place of composition is specified for either. The upward extension of the keyboard compass from e”’ to f”’ in both varied versions implies, however, that they are at least a few years later than the original, as Bach began to use the higher note regularly only in works of around 1762 . Of the two varied versions, the second departs more distinctly from the original, substituting arpeggiation for dotted rhythms in mvt. 1, m. 13, for example, and simplifying the figuration in mvt. 2, m. 5; this suggests that some period of time might have separated the creation of the two later versions. In any case, they were clearly meant as a tour de force, useful in training pupils but surely also as a souvenir of the composer’s ingenuity in improvising and composing variations and varied reprises. He described the latter practice in the first volume of hisEssay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments, published in 1753, illustrating it in the fifteenth of the eighteen Probestücke (“rehearsal pieces”) that accompanied that volume, and subsequently in the Reprisen-Sonaten and other works. The technique of variation is especially important as well in the sonatinas for keyboard and orchestra that Bach composed in 1762–4, and this further supports placing the varied sonatas in this period as well—among the composer’s last few years at Berlin, during which he expanded his activity in public performances and in music publishing.

The varied versions nevertheless must have remained private works, for Bach did not publish them, and only a few manuscript copies survive, prepared within the composer’s immediate circle. The varied versions remain unpublished, except in facsimiles of the manuscript copies by the composer’s principal Hamburg copyist that have served as sources for the present edition. This edition presents all three versions simultaneously, making it easy to compare them and revealing that all three versions compose out the same underlying harmonic progressions and voice leading. Although the varied versions often embellish the original or substitute similar figuration, they sometimes dissolve into completely new motivic material (as noted above). The phrase structure and measure count never change, however, and all three versions retain the idea (present as well in Bach’s symphonies) of joining the three movements.