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Empfindsamer Stil


  • A musical aesthetic associated with north Germany during the middle of the 18th century, and embodied in what was called the ‘Empfindsamer Stil’. Its aims were to achieve an intimate, sensitive and subjective expression; gentle tears of melancholy were one of its most desired responses.1

  • The emergence, at the height of the Enlightenment, of a style such as the Empfindsamkeit of C.P.E Bach is not the least of the paradoxes surrounding the ideas of the Berlin School. At that time when the European Zeitgeist is imbued with empiricism and reason, there is an effort to find in the aesthetic of Affekt that which cannot be expressed, an effort which, on the level of the compositional process, looks so much like the antithesis of an organized plan that this school is often termed 'pre-Romantic'.2

  • The term can be translated as the 'Sensitive Style' or the 'Style of Sensibility', but however translated it must be interpreted as a style in which emotion is valued above all, and in which a more than usual susceptibility to a wide range of emotional response is required in both performer and listener. Since its chief practitioner was Emmanuel Bach, one of the most notable composers of the country, the style provided an effective contrast with the works emanating from the south, and ultimately had a significant effect on Haydn Beethoven.

  • The sensitive style has been looked upon as a localized variation - a North German branch office - of the style galant.

  • The sensitive style never aimed at the fashionable, broad audience of the style galant. For its fullest expression it needed composers of exceptional talent and schooling.


  1. Personal, subjective, eccentric style of angular melodies in which appoggiaturas stuck out like knobby protuberances, in which rhythmic hiatuses catch the breath, in which metrical oddities subject similar phrases to different emphases- in which the only expectation is the unexpected.

  2. Fullest expression is to be found in the sonata and other forms for keyboard solo.

  3. The composers in the style do not turn their backs on their Baroque heritage. They are apt to use contrapuntal devices such as imitation, inversion, etc.

  4. The composers using this style preserve complete flexibility in the creation of phrase structure, for while they occasionally resort to the short-breathed utterances of the style galant, they more frequently enjoy binding together longer melodies, often extending to six bars, sometimes to eight.

  5. Fondness for the use of the minor mode in an affective manner, the non-avoidance of extreme key signatures, a harmony conditioned by frequent chromatism, and a preparedness for remote modulation, and the list, which not exhaustive is at least indicative of the wide range of expressive possibilities inherent in the Empfindsamer Stil.

Case Study

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, Sonata No. 4 in A major, Wq. 55/4

The principal technical characteristics of the empfindsamer stil, of which C.P.E Bach was one of the leading exponents, may be observed in thesecondmovement, Poco Adagio, of the fouth of the Sonaten fur Kenner und Liebhaber (Sonatas for Connoisseurs and Amateurs), published in 1779.

It begins with a kind of melodic sigh, a singing motive ending in an appoggiatura that resolves on a weak beat, followed by a rest, and all this decorated with mordents, Scotch snaps, and trills; in short, with galanterie, as they were called.

The multiplicity of rhythmic patterns, nervously, constantly changing - short dotted figures, triplets, asymmetrical runs of five and thirteen notes - gives the music a restless, effervescent quality. Bars 6 to 10, making up the transition to the relative major tonal area, illustrate the marriage of sentimentality and galanterie so typical of Bach's style.

The chromatic motion delicately propels the sequential repetition toward its tonal goal, while the nonharmonic tones, particularly appoggiaturas, assure that there is no letup of suspense and excitement. Thus ornamentation serves and is not a mere accessory to expression.

1 Daniel Heartz / Bruce Alan Brown: 'Empfindsamkeit', Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed [19th April 2006]), <http://www.grovemusic.com/shared/views/article.html?

2 Clark, Stephen L. Ed. C.P.E Bach Studies. Oxford Clarendon Press, 1988: 43.

3 Grout and Palisca. ‘A History of Western Music, Fourth Edition’. J.M.Dent and Sons Ltd. London:557-558

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