Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach composed keyboard concertos for his own use throughout his career as a performer, but he had no comparable need to write symphonies.1 The catalogue of his musical estate (NV 1790) lists only eighteen symphonies composed over a period of thirty-five years.2 Eight date from Bach’s time in Berlin; we know nothing about the specific occasions for which they were written. From the beginning of that period comes the single Symphony in G Major, Wq 173, of 1741. In 1755–58 Bach composed six more symphonies, Wq 174–177 and 179–180, one of which, the Symphony in E Minor, Wq 177, was published in 1759.3 The Symphony in F Major, Wq 181, followed in 1762. After his move to Hamburg in 1768, Bach composed two sets of symphonies on commission: six for string orchestra, Wq 182, in 1773 for Baron Gottfried van Swieten, and the four Orchester-Sinfonien mit zwölf obligaten Stimmen (Orchestral Symphonies with Twelve Obbligato Parts), Wq 183, for an unidentified patron in 1775–76. The latter group was published in 1780.

The extant symphonies may not represent Bach’s full output in the genre. In his 1773 autobiography, Bach reports that he had composed “a couple of dozen symphonies” (ein Paar Duzend Sinfonien), but NV 1790 lists only fourteen written as of that date.4 Assuming that Bach’s count was reasonably accurate, the discrepancy in numbers implies that a significant number of symphonies are lost, perhaps from the earlier part of the Berlin period.5 Additional symphonies ascribed to C.P.E. Bach are indeed known from manuscript sources, but an evaluation of the documentary and stylistic evidence fails to yield a convincing case for his authorship of any of them.6

The symphonies in this edition thus fall into three groups, each occupying a volume of series III:

Volume 1. Berlin Symphonies
Volume 2. Six Symphonies for Baron van Swieten
Volume 3. Orchester-Sinfonien mit zwölf obligaten Stimmen

Stylistically Bach’s earliest symphonies take their cue from Johann Gottlieb Graun, who in turn was under the influence of the Dresden school, with its strong Italian orientation.7 Soon, however, Bach was following his own course. All Bach’s symphonies show a three-movement design, fast-slow-fast. The first movements are the most ambitious of the cycle; all are through-composed and exhibit elements of ritornello structure. The finales are dancelike; all but one (the rondo finale of Wq 175) are in binary form with repetition signs for both halves. The slow movements run the gamut from modulatory connecting passages between the outer movements to movements nearly as substantial as the first movements. Frequently Bach asks that pairs of movements or entire symphonies be played without pause.8

As one might expect from their origin and their stylistic models, Bach’s early symphonies exhibit a typically Italianate type of orchestral writing: the violins play mostly in unison, with brief passages in thirds, and the viola usually doubles the bass in octaves. Later his orchestral textures become richer, culminating in the twelve obbligato parts of Wq 183. Most or all of the Berlin symphonies originated as compositions for string orchestra, but Bach later added horn and woodwind parts to many (and trumpets and timpani as well to Wq 176). By contrast, in Wq 183 Bach was thinking from the outset in terms of a larger orchestra with obbligato winds, and his orchestral writing shows him fully conversant with the new trends of the 1770s. All the symphonies employ basso continuo, though its role diminishes in the later works.9

To make the music available to a broader market, Bach published his own keyboard arrangements of Wq 173, 180, and 181; the other extant Berlin symphonies circulated in similar versions in manuscript and printed sources.10 Bach’s symphonies show few overt connections to his other works, but the G-major slow movement of the Symphony in E Minor, Wq 177, also appears in the Sonata in G Minor, Wq 62/18, of 1757.11

Bach’s symphonies continued to be performed after his death. The relatively large number of sources for many Berlin works testifies to their popularity and to their wide distribution into the early nineteenth century. As the Berlin works and Wq 182 figured in the repertory of Carl Friedrich Zelter’s Ripienschule in Berlin, they would have been among the models for Mendelssohn’s youthful string symphonies. The four symphonies of Wq 183, especially the first of the set, were issued in print and revived in the concert hall on a number of occasions in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and thus are the only symphonies by a composer of Bach’s generation to have a continuous performing tradition running from his era to ours.

Peter Wollny
General Editor

1. The term “symphony” is used here in accordance with the usual practice in English-language scholarship to refer to orchestral works in several movements intended for concert performance. See, e.g., NGII, s.v. “Symphony,” by Jan LaRue, et al. The eighteenth-century sources for the works under discussion usually employ the Italian term “sinfonia” or its German equivalent “Sinfonie,” but Bach also uses this word for some of his chamber trios and it can have a variety of other possible meanings in the period.

2. NV 1790, pp. 43–45.

3. Wotquenne gave this work two numbers, 177 for the original version for string orchestra and 178 for the later version with added wind parts. Both versions are listed under the single number 5 on p. 43 of NV 1790.

4. Autobiography, 207.

5. Besides those fourteen works, NV 1790 lists three additional pieces with the title “Sinfonie.” Wq 74 and 156 appear on p. 39 as nos. 18–19 in the list of trios and are published in CPEB:CW, II/3.1 and II/2.2, respectively. The third, a “Symphony improvised with Prince Lobkowitz one measure at a time” (Sinfonie mit dem Fürsten von Lobkowitz, einen Takt um den andern, aus dem Stegreif verfertigt), for strings, oboes, and horns, is listed on p. 65 under “Einige vermischte Stücke;” though it was still in the possession of Bach’s heirs in 1790, it cannot now be identified.

6. See the introduction to CPEB:CW, III/1.

7. For a discussion of this point, see Wagner 1994, 244–61.

8. Fur further details, see Suchalla 1968, 10–15; see also Wagner 1994, 191–206, 338–59.

9. Wagner 1994, 273–77.

10. See CPEB:CW, I/8.1 and I/10.2.

11. See CPEB:CW, I/5.2.