When he was ten years old he entered the St. Thomas School at Leipzig, of which in 1723 his father had become cantor, and continued his education as a student of jurisprudence at the universities of Leipzig (1731) and of Frankfurt an der Oder (1735). In 1738 he took his degree, but at once abandoned all prospects of a legal career and determined to devote himself to music. A few months later he obtained an appointment in the service of the crown prince of Prussia, on whose accession in 1740 he became a member of the royal household. He was by this time one of the foremost clavier-players in Europe, and his compositions, which date from 1731, included about thirty sonatas and concerted pieces for his favourite instrument. His reputation was established by the two sets of sonatas which he dedicated respectively to Frederick the Great and to the grand duke of Württemberg; in 1746 he was promoted to the post of chamber musician, and for twenty-two years shared with Karl Heinrich Graun, Johann Joachim Quantz, and Johann Gottlieb Naumann the continued favour of the king. During his residence at Berlin he wrote a fine setting of the Magnificat, in which he shows more traces than usual of his father's influence; an Easter cantata; several symphonies and concerted works; at least three volumes of songs; and a few secular cantatas and other occasional pieces. But his main work was concentrated on the clavier, for which he composed, at this time, nearly two hundred sonatas and other solos, including the set Mit veränderten Reprisen (1760-1768) and a few of those für Kenner und Liebhaber. Meanwhile he placed himself in the forefront of European critics by his Versuch über die wahre Art das Clavier zu spielen, a systematic and masterly treatise which by 1780 had reached its third edition, and which laid the foundation for the methods of Clementi and Cramer. In 1768 Bach succeeded Georg Philipp Telemann as Capellmeister at Hamburg, and in consequence of his new office began to turn his attention more towards church music. Next year he produced his oratorio Die Israeliten in der Wüste, a composition remarkable not only for its great beauty but for the resemblance of its plan to that of Felix Mendelssohn's Elijah, and between 1769 and 1788 added over twenty settings of the Passion, and some seventy cantatas, litanies, motets, and other liturgical pieces. At the same time his genius for instrumental composition was further stimulated by the career of Joseph Haydn. He died at Hamburg on the 14th of December 1788.
Through the latter half of the 18th century the reputation of C. P. E. Bach stood very high. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart said of him, “He is the father, we are the children.“ The best part of Haydn’s training was derived from a study of his work; Ludwig van Beethoven expressed for his genius the most cordial admiration and regard. This position he owes mainly to his clavier sonatas, which mark an important epoch in the history of musical form. Lucid in style, delicate and tender in expression, they are even more notable for the freedom and variety of their structural design; they break away altogether from the exact formal antithesis which, with the composers of the Italian school, had hardened into a convention, and substitute the wider and more flexible outline which the great Viennese masters showed to be capable of almost infinite development. The content of his work, though full of invention, lies within a somewhat narrow emotional range, but it is not less sincere in thought than polished and felicitous in phrase. Again he was probably the first composer of eminence who made free use of harmonic colour for its own sake, apart from the movement of contrapuntal parts, and in this way also he takes rank among the most important pioneers of the school of Vienna. His name has now fallen into undue neglect, but no student of music can afford to disregard his Sonaten für Kenner und Liebhaber, his oratorio Die Israeliten in der Wüste, and the two concertos (in G major and D major).
A list of his voluminous compositions may be found in Eitner’s Quellen Lexikon, and a critical account of them is given in Bitter’s C. P. E. und W. F. Bach und deren Bruder (2 vols., Berlin, 1868).
Adapted from the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.