Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach was born in Weimar, Germany. When he was ten years old he entered the St. Thomas School at Leipzig, where his father had become cantor in 1723, and continued his education as a student of jurisprudence at the universities of Leipzig (1731) and of Frankfurt (Oder) (1735). In 1738, at the age of 24, he took his degree, but at once abandoned his prospects of a legal career and determined to devote himself to music.
A few months later (armed with a recommendation by Sylvius Leopold Weiss) he obtained an appointment in the service of Frederick II of Prussia ("Frederick the Great"), the then crown prince, and upon Frederick's accession in 1740 Carl Philipp became a member of the royal orchestra. He was by this time one of the foremost clavier-players in Europe, and his compositions, which date from 1731, include about thirty sonatas and concert pieces for harpsichord and clavichord.
In Berlin he continued to write numerous musical pieces for solo keyboard, including a series of character pieces- the so-called "Berlin Portraits" including La Caroline.
His reputation was established by the two sets of sonatas which he dedicated respectively to Frederick the Great and to the grand duke of Wuerttemberg; in 1746 he was promoted to the post of chamber musician, and for twenty-two years shared with Carl Heinrich Graun, Johann Joachim Quantz, and Johann Gottlieb Naumann the continued favour of the king.
During his residence in Berlin, he wrote a fine setting of the Magnificat (1749), in which he shows more traces than usual of his father's influence; an Easter cantata (1756); 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 veranderten Reprisen (1760-1768) and a few of those fuer Kenner und Liebhaber. Meanwhile he placed himself in the forefront of European critics by his Versuch Uber 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 Muzio Clementi and Johann Baptist Cramer.
In 1768 Bach succeeded Georg Philipp Telemann as Kapellmeister at Hamburg, and in consequence of his new office began to turn his attention more towards church music. The next year he produced his oratorio Die Israeliten in der Wueste (The Israelites in the Desert), 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 1768 and 1788 wrote twenty-one 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 in Hamburg on December 14, 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 Joseph 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 keyboard 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 both the Italian and the Viennese schools, moving instead toward the cyclical and improvisatory forms that would become common several generations later.
The content of his work is full of invention and, most importantly, extreme unpredictability, and wide emotional range even within a single work. It is not less sincere in thought than polished and felicitous in phrase. He was probably the first composer of eminence who made free use of harmonic colour for its own sake since the time of Lassus, Monteverdi, and Gesualdo. In this way, he compares well with the most important representatives of the First Viennese School. In fact he exerted enormous influence on the North German School of composers, in particular Georg Anton Benda, Bernhard Joachim Hagen, Ernst Wilhelm Wolff, Johann Gottfried Muethel, Friedrich Wilhelm Rust and many others. His influence was not limited to his contemporaries, and extended to Felix Mendelssohn and Carl Maria von Weber.
His name fell into neglect during the 19th century, with Robert Schumann notoriously opining that "as a creative musician he remained very far behind his father"; in contrast, Johannes Brahms held him in high regard and edited some of his music. The revival of C.P.E. Bach's works has been underway since Helmuth Koch's rediscovery and recording of his symphonies in 1960s, and Hugo Ruf's recordings of his keyboard sonatas.