One of the most successful efforts in musical education in North Carolina is the “Focus on Piano Literature” held at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro every other year since 1990. The biennial symposium features concerts and lectures by distinguished performers and scholars who spend three days on the UNCG campus immersed in the music, history, and discussion of a single topic. For 2014, this topic was “The Brothers Bach,” meaning the musical sons of Johann Sebastian Bach: Wilhelm Friedemann Bach (1710-84), Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714-88), Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach (1732-95), and Johann Christian Bach (1735-82). [For brevity’s sake, each of these will be referred to hereinafter by his initials.] Much attention focused on music by C.P.E. Bach in celebration of the 300th anniversary of his birth.

In attendance were 121 people from 19 states, Canada, and Germany, receiving their first exposure to “The Brothers Bach” in an opening lecture-recital. Symposium Director/ UNCG Prof. Andrew Willis and three of his doctoral students each introduced one of the brothers, illustrating their presentations with examples of each composer’s music played on a fortepiano (the “bridge” keyboard instrument and earliest type of piano between the harpsichord and the modern piano). Willis, who is a virtuoso pianist as well as fortepianist, entered the fortepiano/historical performance practices field through study with its leading exponent, Malcolm Bilson. Not just one, but several fortepianos were on stage. In addition to musical examples for each brother (played by Willis for C.P.E. Bach, Robin Morace for W.F. Bach, Stephanie Schmidt for J.C. Bach, and Sally Renée Todd for J.C.F. Bach), music for two performers, at either one or two keyboards, was presented. Dr. Willis was joined by Schmidt in the Presto from W.F. Bach’s Sonata in F, for two keyboards, and by Todd for the Allegretto from J.C. Bach’s Sonata in A, for two pianists at a single keyboard. Morace and Schmidt joined forces in the opening Allegro from J.C.F. Bach’s four-hand Sonata in A, followed by the birthday-Bach’s music: C.P.E. Bach’s Four Small Duets for two keyboards.

This lecture-recital was a welcome introduction to the sounds which would be heard so often during the symposium. A fortepiano, smaller and lacking the metal frame and weight of a modern grand piano, does not make its effect through thundering bass notes and seamless legato melodic passages. Its voice being smaller, it requires considerable attention from its listeners so that they can hear the nuances of volume and touch which its performers produce. Whereas the earlier keyboard instruments (harpsichord and organ) could produce changes in volume only by the addition of sets of strings or sets of pipes, the fortepiano (literally translated, the “loud-soft”) brought to keyboard music the ability to change volume by altering the way its keys are struck by the player’s fingers.

The playing was uniformly fine. UNCG is fortunate to have a doctoral program which attracts such excellent players/musicians as Morace, Schmidt, and Todd. Each is likely to continue what has already begun as a fine career in music-making and in teaching. Like graduate students everywhere, their “additional duties as assigned” were in evidence as they moved instruments and stands, assisted guest artists, and generally made sure that each event went off as scheduled.

The only “glitch,” which according to the hall’s audio tech resulted from an un-pulled patch cord in the sound system, was that we heard the lecturers’ voices coming from the right-rear of the hall, rather than from their positions onstage in the front.

Continuing the Thursday afternoon program, a lecture and a lecture-demonstration provided both a sociological background of the Bach brothers’ time and an exploration of the historical musicology which informs any performer regarding what is known about how music was performed at the time it was composed (in this case, the eighteenth century.) UNCG Professor Emeritus Karl Schleunes* set the scene with his erudite-but-easy-to-assimilate lecture entitled “18th-Century Germany: the Cultural, Political, Economic and Philosophical World of the Bach Brothers.” Willis’ lecture-demonstration, “Mind Your Manners: C.P.E. Bach’s Mannerism and Manieren,” centered on C.P.E.’s musical language, with considerable attention to his definitive treatise, Versuch über die wahre Art das Clavier zu spielen (“An Essay on the True Art of Playing the Clavier/Keyboard Instrument”). In this book, which became a classic in its own time and which is still used today, C.P.E. went into great detail about such musical esoterica as fingerings and ornamentation.

Thursday evening’s concert featured both UNCG faculty and guest artists. Joining Willis as featured keyboard artists were harpsichordist André Lash (Instructor of Organ) and pianists John Salmon and Joseph Di Piazza. Any university would be proud to have three professors of piano who are as gifted as Willis, Salmon, and Di Piazza. Each is not only a virtuoso performer, with many concerts and reviews to prove it, but also a dedicated teacher. Each has a different character of performance: Willis’ nimble fingers produce sparkling, effervescent and always-clean cascades of notes; Salmon’s playing is dramatic, sometimes with an improvisatory quality (understandable, as he is also a jazz artist of note); Di Piazzo’s playing conjures up the grace and power of the great 19th and early 20th-century romantic pianists.

The program opened with Willis and Lash performing W.F. Bach’s Sonata in F. Its three movements showed the similarities and differences between the harpsichord (Lash) and the fortepiano (Willis), as the two keyboardists made their way gracefully and briskly through this music by the oldest of J.S. Bach’s sons.

Just to show that C.P.E.’s music should not be restricted to the fortepiano of his day, Salmon began his contribution to the program on the 9′ Kawai grand piano, on which he performed the Fantasia in C, the Fugue in G minor, and the Sonata in A minor, with its tumultuous and vigorously-played final movement, Allegro di molto. Allowing his alter ego to take over for the Rondo in E Major, Salmon turned to a synthesizer keyboard, presenting each iteration of the rondo theme with a different soundscape, including tintinabulating bells, a marimba, and a sound set which seemed for all the world like wow-wow-muted trumpets. The jury is still out as to whether C.P.E. turned over in his grave or sat up to applaud. To add spice to his rendition, Salmon even altered a chord in the last rondo, substituting one from Dave Brubeck’s style.

Another C.P.E. rondo, this time in G Major, was the first of Di Piazza’s set, also played on the modern grand piano. “Dr. Di,” as he is known to many of his students, followed this with the Sonata in A by J.C. Bach, known as “The London Bach.” Its opening Allegro alternates a graceful melody with scintillating passage-work, leading to the triple-time closing Presto movement. Di Piazza brought out what would become known by succeeding generations as the “Mozartean quality” of this music. In the course of the symposium, we learned that J.C. Bach, who had studied in Italy with Padre Martini, mentored Mozart, who greatly admired J.C.’s music.

After intermission, Willis returned to the fortepiano for two ensemble works. The first, by J.C.F. Bach, was his Sonata in A for ‘cello and keyboard. Stephanie Vial, an early-music specialist, is an adjunct faculty member at UNC-Chapel Hill. Playing on gut strings which produced occasional intonation problems, she joined Willis in a quiet ensemble of precision and musicality. After the opening Allegro, the sonata’s Larghetto took the form of a triple-meter dance which brought to mind the “Dance of the Blessed Spirits” by Christoph Willibald von Gluck, who was only 18 years older than J.C.F.. The final movement, while entitled “Rondo: Allegretto,” was really more of a theme-and-variations. Particularly effective was the variation with ‘cello double-stops throughout.

The concert, and the symposium’s first night, closed with C.P.E.’s Trio in C. Willis and Vial were joined by violinist Gesa Kordes. The three artists played as one in this early example of what would become the “piano trio” type of composition. C.P.E.’s adventurous spirit produced chromatic scales at the close of the second-movement Larghetto, leading directly into the closing Allegretto, which was a delightful rondo. The three artists traded cascades of scales back and forth until they concluded with one of the composer’s frequent “Affekts,” ending the work with an unexpected pianissimo.

Friday morning brought the first of two lectures by Harvard professor and internationally-acclaimed scholar of all things Bachian, Christoph Wolff. He discussed “C.P.E. Bach: a Composer Finding His Own Musical Language,” describing C.P.E.’s formative years as his father’s student and his musical journey to becoming the pre-eminent composer of the “pre-classical” period of music history. Wolff is not only a brilliant scholar, but is also able to present his encyclopedic knowledge in a clear, communicative way, often leavened with humor.

Before lunch, the very-busy Andrew Willis and violinist Kordes presented a concert which they called “A Bach Family Reunion: Sonatas for Violin and Keyboard.” Their program consisted of three sonatas: an early and a late sonata by C.P.E. and the late Sonata in D by J.C. (“The London Bach”). These two brothers’ musical styles were quite different. Where the older brother’s early (1731) Sonata in D minor reflects the contrapuntal language of his father, the younger J.C. Bach’s 1779 sonata displays a graceful melodic line with accompaniment; no contrapuntal passages for J.C., who had already moved into the next musical era, leaving that Baroque mainstay behind. However, older brother C.P.E. assimilates the newer style also, with his 1763 Sonata in B minor moving between imitative passages and melody/accompaniment passages with ease.

Willis and Kordes each used two instruments; Willis chose two fortepianos with different sounds which he thought were most appropriate for the music; however, since one was tuned at A=415 Herz and the other at A=430 Hz., Kordes needed to use a violin tuned to each pitch. (To have re-tuned a single violin’s gut strings on stage would have been to risk even more intonation problems than were occasionally already in evidence when Kordes’ appropriately-small amount of vibrato had its apex at the written pitch.) Both performers are totally at home in these musical styles, often tossing off rapid figurations as if in conversation, the violin answering the keyboard’s invitations. Only C.P.E.’s Allegretto siciliano, the third movement of his B-minor sonata, suffered from a tempo which seemed too fast for this stylized dance form; the speed made the necessary ornamentation sound furtive rather than elegant. It was fine playing by both artists; those who were distracted by Willis’ facial expressions could simply close their eyes and enjoy the excellence of his musicianship.

After lunch came the first contact with Jacques Ogg, this year’s Guest Artist, who conducted a master class with three UNCG doctoral candidates in performance. Ogg, who plays both harpsichord and fortepiano, teaches at the Royal Conservatory in The Hague and has a U.S. connection by virtue of being Artistic Director of the Lyra Baroque Orchestra in Minneapolis/St. Paul. Some master classes leave students feeling that nothing they did was right and that they were brow-beaten by the artist in charge. This was obviously not the case here. Ogg’s pleasant, almost fatherly manner put each student at ease. They did not hear that the way they were playing was not a correct interpretation; rather, Ogg invited them to explore more than one interpretation and then decide for themselves which was the most musical. Music by C.P.E. and W.F. Bach was played and discussed before the audience, which, as always, included many keyboard teachers.

The afternoon’s last session was a lecture-demonstration by Prof. Willis: “DIY Performance Practice: Test-Driving C.P.E. Bach.” Using examples from the Probestücken (test pieces) contained in the Versuch (see paragraph 6 above), Willis demonstrated several principles of C.P.E.’s music. One given is that non-legato playing was the norm; where notes were intended to be connected, C.P.E. wrote “ten.” (tenuto) in the score. More surprising to many was that the performer’s right and left hands do not always have to play exactly together in rhythm. While we know of this principle in later music such as Chopin’s, where the right hand is free to “bend” the tempo of a line while the left hand keeps strict time, the use of this Affekt in the 18th century remains hidden to many contemporary performers.

Continuing in the same vein, but using the modern piano, Omri Shimron, Associate Professor at Elon University, discussed and played C.P.E.’s Sonata in F-Sharp minor. His facile and musical performance continued to show that this music can be just as effective on the modern keyboard as it is on the fortepianos of its time. While the sounds are different, an informed and musical performance on any keyboard instrument may serve the composer’s intentions.

Friday’s events concluded with a lecture-recital by David Schulenberg, Professor and Music Department chairman at Staten Island, NY’s Wagner College. His program consisted of seven keyboard works by C.P.E., preceded by his lecture entitled “A New Voice for the Clavier: Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach and the Changing Idiom of Keyboard Music.” There were two miscalculations in evidence: first, combining a full lecture with a full concert program at 8 p.m. on a day which began for the symposium participants at 9:30 a.m. tests the attention-span of even the most-interested of scholars and/or music-lovers; and second, playing almost half the program on the clavichord, an instrument which was never intended for public performances, was not a well-received choice. The clavichord, notwithstanding the fact that it was an instrument beloved by C.P.E., speaks with the softest of voices. Its whispered tones can barely be heard a few feet away: thus, to be heard in a large hall, it must be played with a microphone hanging directly over its strings. Perhaps if Schulenberg had taken an opportunity to listen to this audio setup in the hall, he might have reconsidered his approach.

In his lecture, Schulenberg discussed each work which he intended to play, with particular attention to dynamic variation and the question of which kind of keyboard would best fit each work on the program. The program was chosen to be illustrative of C.P.E.’s changing style, with works written when he was 17, 30, 39, 44, 61, and 73 years old. The changes were obvious: the earliest work was much like Johann Sebastian Bach’s style; each succeeding decade moved farther away from the late Baroque style and closer to what would become music history’s “Classical Period.” A common element, however, is – for want of a better term – a “quirky” musical language. Within two measures of music, one can hear a total change in harmonic center, a total change in dynamic, and notes which wander off in different directions like musical appendages.

Schulenberg’s performances are fleet of finger; he navigates his way through the mazes of C.P.E.’s works as if he is sure he has found the way out. However, where Jacques Ogg’s approach (of which more later) shows to be that of a musician whose performances are undergirded by his musicological knowledge, Schulenberg’s approach is more that of a musicologist who attempts to illustrate musicological points through a performance. This made for a less-compelling musical thesis; on the other hand, the recital program was well-chosen to illustrate how C.P.E.’s music changed over the decades of his compositional life.

Focus’ final day began, due to the smaller capacity of the organ recital hall, with two simultaneous and repeated events: André Lash’s presentation of “Neglected Nuggets of Organ Literature,” featuring organ music by W.F. and C.P.E. Running concurrently was proof that the Bach brothers are indeed part of the 21st century: Morace and Schmidt’s “C.P.E. Bachtube,” a compilation of audio-visual works about the brothers which can be found online. (There’s not one specific place, but if you go to YouTube and put “C.P.E. Bach” in the search block, many choices – 70.000 as of this writing! – will come up.)

Lash’s program, played on the Andover organ in the Organ Hall, consisted of seven chorale preludes by W.F. as well as sonata excerpts from W.F. and C.P.E. These showed, once again, that the oldest of J.S. Bach’s sons wrote music which was mostly in his father’s style, albeit less complex. In several instances, Lash played Sebastian Bach’s chorale prelude from the Orgelbüchlein immediately before playing W.F.’s work based on the same chorale; in this way, the similarities and differences between their styles were readily apparent. The excerpts from C.P.E.’s sonatas (which one can usually define as being for the organ only by the presence of bass notes which were not available on the fortepiano) were a welcome addition to the C.P.E. soundscape. Lash’s playing is clean, always musical, and delivered without mannerism.

On a large movie screen in the Recital Hall, we saw and heard a number of selections of the Bach brothers’ music which may be found online, as well as part of a 1941 German motion picture on the life of W.F. which featured a delightfully-anachronistic harpsichord in a performing “duel” with Louis Marchand (that “duel,” in reality, did not involve W.F., but his father).

Christoph Wolff took the stage again in his second lecture: “C.P.E. Bach: the Master’s Musical Legacy.” Continuing his survey of C.P.E.’s life, Wolff chronicled the composer’s move from Berlin to Hamburg at age 54, when he took charge of music for five churches but at the same time became de facto the leader of public music in Hamburg. Wolff described how C.P.E. became the leading composer of the second third of the 18th century, publishing music such as keyboard concerti (twelve years before Mozart’s first works in that genre), symphonies with winds added to the usual string orchestra of his time, and some of the first songs with orchestral accompaniment. Once again, Wolff’s lucid speaking style, combined with his truly-vast knowledge of this field, made his lecture a high point of the symposium.

Then, after a break for lunch, there was an audience/panel interactive discussion which gave symposium participants the opportunity to ask presenters to comment on various aspects of interest about “The Brothers Bach.”

Then, more music, this time by “the London Bach,” J.C. James Douglass, Associate Prof. of Collaborative Piano at UNCG, was joined by violinist Jacqui Carrasco, ‘cellist Evan Richey, oboist Ashley Barret, and hornists Catherine Creasy and Abigail Pack. In his opening remarks, Douglass described himself as “a modern piano guy” who approaches 18th century keyboard music from that standpoint. His program (two sonatas for violin and keyboard and the Sextet in C for Two Horns, Violin, Violoncello, Oboe, and Cembalo) again showed how accessible this early keyboard music is for performance on modern instruments. The two violin/keyboard sonatas, each in G Major, featured sprightly tempi, especially in the Minuetto movement of the first sonata. One problem presented itself: balance between violin and piano was heavily in favor of the 9′ grand piano, which would have been better on half-stick. The sextet, in which the balance was fine because of the additional instruments, was a showpiece not only for Douglass’ piano dexterity, but also for Barret’s superb oboe playing. With a greater dynamic range than many oboists, Barret (Prof. of Oboe at UNCG) led the way from the delightfully-lyrical second-movement Larghetto into the scintillating Rondo allegro finale, with its full-speed-ahead conclusion. Well-deserved applause greeted the performers.

Saturday’s mid-afternoon session, introduced and MC’d by Joseph Di Piazzo, was “Teaching the Brothers Bach.” Sixteen young piano students from North Carolina, having been prepared to perform in this event by their teachers, played music by C.P.E. and J.C. While there were a few memory slips (memorized performances were not required), the students acquitted themselves very well at the keyboard. Several will benefit from some additional training in stage presence, but given playing before an audience of musicians, a few nervous moments were to be expected. In addition to stand-alone works and sonata movements, we were fortunate to hear two of C.P.E.’s sparkling duets, played either on two pianos or by the two pianists at a single keyboard.

The students and [their teacher] were: Caroline Averitt [Yong Im Lee Federle]; Lindsey Tripp [Federle]; Emma Pedigo [Karen Allred]; Thomas Chen [Allred]; Helen Ni [Carol Fifield]; Elaine Guo and Aaron Guo [Fifield]; Stella Wang [Mary Alicia Cox]; Sylvia Want [Cox] Keona Lim and Kate Welch [Pamela Mullins] Stephanie Milvain and Joy Bai [Mullins]; Adrianne Huang [Brenda Bruce]; Jun Sun [Diane Higgins]; and Daniel Hueholt [Barbara Furr]. It is a credit to UNCG that its educational arm reaches out to these young students, encouraging them and their teachers to be part of the “Focus” performing and educational experience.

Before the closing concert, a delicious banquet was served in the Recital Hall atrium; the quality of the food and the convivial atmosphere made it well worth its cost. We were laughingly surprised when music of another Bach son (he who shall not be named, but who has always been identified only by his initials, P.D.Q.!) was performed. The historical authenticity of these post-prandial performances was questioned, however, because no fortepiano was in evidence.

The symposium concluded with a recital by Jacques Ogg. With the exception of W.F.’s Sonata in A Major, the program presented works by C.P.E., beginning with his Fantasia in E-flat. Most people heard this music from various speakers in the hall, since it was played on a clavichord, but improvements had been made to the audio system since David Schulenberg’s clavichord performances, so we heard a bit more. Ogg played the rest of his program on a harpsichord until his closing work, for which he moved to a fortepiano. No better description of C.P.E.’s works could be made than this, from Andrew Willis’ program note: “… the improvisatory freedom of Emanuel Bach’s fantasias, the episodic unpredictability and key-wandering of his rondos, and the intermixing of imaginative subjects in his sonatas.” All those elements were present as Ogg played two D-Major Fantasias, a Sonata in G minor, and the Rondo in A minor. Particularly compelling was Ogg’s playing of the Fantasia in D, Wq. 117, No. 8, with its right-hand flights of fancy, its lullaby-like interludes with lush harmonies, and its surprise pianissimo ending, which caught the audience so off-guard that they did not applaud, thinking that the work was not yet over. Understanding this, Ogg simply continued with the G-minor sonata.

Ogg is a quiet virtuoso performer, in complete command of his instruments. While his demeanor at the keyboard is quiet, it is by no means wooden. He plays not only with great facility of fingers, but also with a great depth of musicianship.

Congratulations to UNCG, to Andrew Willis, his faculty and student comrades-in-fingers, and the guest lecturers and performers for immersing the “Focus” participants into music of another time and other places, but showing us how that music is still powerfully alive and spirited in our own time.

A principal site celebrating C.P.E.’s anniversary year is here.

*Karl A. Schleunes (1971), Professor, History. Emeritus (2010). B.A., Lakeland College; M.A., Ph.D., University of Minnesota.