CPE Bach and the true Fantasia

My first experience playing the music of CPE Bach was not as a pianist but as a violinist, leading a high school orchestra in the extraordinary last movement of the D minor flute concerto. I was immediately struck by its originality and raw emotion, and concluded that had his positioning in the timeline of music history been a bit more auspicious, his place would have been guaranteed in the firmament of composers (something I still believe today). 

The work I discuss here is a lot less conventional than the D minor flute concerto, but it still shares the same sense of raw and uninhibited expression. The F major Fantasia for keyboard is part of a collection of sonatas, fantasias, and rondos written for “connoisseurs and lovers” (Kenner und Liebhaber). It is more fantasy-like than most great fantasies written for the piano as it is truly and entirely improvisatory. Except for a middle section in C major, it has no barlines, making metric division merely implied rather than written out. Its harmonic twists and turns are entirely unpredictable, and are in fact sometimes rough and uncouth, as he breaks the conventions of harmonic transition (something he did quite often). 

The genre of the fantasy, of course, has not disappeared from the performed repertoire. But this sort of fantasy is not quite the same as those written by Haydn, Chopin, Schumann, and Scriabin. It is a truly uncalculated piece of music, perhaps even the equivalent of a Picasso sketch. The only widely performed fantasy that is in any way stylistically similar to this one is Mozart’s C minor Fantasy, K. 475. The question that arises is: Why has the genre of a completely spontaneous fantasy somewhat petered out from the commonly played repertoire? It is not a question I have a definite answer to, but one that I am confronted with when I play this fantasy. Indeed, most performances of this piece are played on early pianos rather than on modern ones. Part of it has to do with projection—the CPE Bach fantasias were not meant to be played for large audiences, but rather in private homes, and they don’t possess the artistic scope and ambition of sonatas by Haydn or Mozart (which were also not intended for public occasions, but are nevertheless works of enormous artistic scope). Hence, save for a few parts marked fortissimo, a pianist playing this music today isn’t going to find material of particularly great prowess with which to “make his mark” on the audience. Still, I believe this music is extraordinarily rich, expressive, and worthwhile. When I set about playing this fantasia, I was immediately struck by how tailored the dynamic markings are to the early piano. For example, the fortissimo would have been a lot more radical on a fortepiano than on the modern Steinway. Therefore, to come to grips with a genre I have no experience performing, I needed to adapt my way of playing. Here are two of the mental shifts I made:

The decay of sound on the modern piano is essentially different from that of the fortepiano. On a fortepiano, when the key is struck, the sound almost instantly decays. This isn’t the case with the pianos we use nowadays, where the sound fluctuates after the key is struck, and persists for a lot longer. The two different types of decay serve two different types of playing. That of the early piano resembles speech, and that of the modern piano is much more adaptable to a cantabile style of playing. While we strive (as we should) for a singing sound on the piano, we must remember that the articulation markings of 18th century composers are often written to evoke speech, not song. Taking the decay of the modern piano and the effect of speech into consideration, I found myself playing this fantasia considerably slower than it would likely have been played in CPE Bach’s time, in order to have a better sense of definition and not to have harmonies blend into each other. 

The long decay of the modern piano, however, did come in handy as I reached the fortissimo marking. Given that the context of fortissimo has changed over the centuries, it is evident that such a marking in a work of CPE Bach shouldn’t be as loud as one in a work of Ravel, as the pianos of the 18th century were simply not as loud as our modern Steinways. So to achieve the “shock” effect without going way outside the boundaries of aesthetics, I turned to using the long decay. Whereas I avoided it in the beginning, when I wanted to express rhetorical clarity and emotional sanguinity, here, the blending of harmonies and overtones helped me express turmoil and disorder. Not only do I seek to use the long decay of the piano I have at hand, but to do that, I use the full capacity of the pedal (which is a lot more powerful than that of the early piano). This way, I achieve the extreme effect without having to physically enact extremity.  While I do understand why this music hasn’t received the attention that the music of other great (and greater) composers has, I still believe that it is great music in its own right. And, I also believe that it can greatly inform us listeners and performers when we encounter later fantasies, for example, by Chopin and Schumann.

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