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Enigmatic Legacy: Music of Wilhelm Friedemann Bach


Wilhelm Friedemann Bach

David Schulenberg will be the harpichordist in the Music at First Church series at the First Church in Boston, on Dec. 16. Here, he offers a validation of including music of Wilhelm Friedemann Bach in the program. The details are here.

As the year 2010 draws toward a close, lovers of keyboard music will remember the bicentenaries observed during the year for Chopin and Schumann, while looking forward to that of Liszt in 2011 and perhaps recalling Mendelssohn’s in 2009. But as this year ends, we also have passed the three-hundredth birthday of Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, born on Nov. 22, 1710.  The oldest son of the great Johann Sebastian Bach, Friedemann, as I shall him, was regarded by many during his lifetime and afterwards as the most brilliant of his father’s sons — of whom no fewer than five became professional musicians, four of them composers, yet he has never been so well known or appreciated as the other sons of J.S. Bach.

When I perform recitals of Friedemann’s music, I am always asked two things: Was he really a drunk, and who was the better composer, he or his brother Carl Philipp Emanuel, born four years later in 1714? I will return to those questions, but first I should probably remind readers that Emanuel is nowadays probably  the best known and the most frequently performed of Sebastian’s sons, although Johann Christian, the youngest of all (born in 1735), has always been a close rival, thanks to his influence on the young Mozart.

All four composer sons lived during what we consider the transition between the Baroque and Classical periods in music. All were also professional keyboard players, composing sonatas, concertos, and other solo music for their own instruments, as well as chamber music, orchestral works, and vocal music, even operas in the case of Johann Christian. Friedemann and Emanuel are often viewed as representatives of a so-called empfindsamer style — a hyper-expressive, proto-Romantic manner that combines highly rhetorical, rhythmically complex melody with chromatic harmony reminiscent of their father, Sebastian’s. Christian’s music, on the other hand, is closer to the Classical style of Mozart, although his earliest works are remarkably close to Emanuel’s. Johann Christoph Friedrich, born in 1732, composed in styles resembling those of both Emanuel and Christian.

Friedemann’s music, not surprisingly, is closest to his father’s, above all in his adherence to the latter’s contrapuntal conception of music. Only Friedemann wrote a significant number of musically engaging fugues, for instrumental and vocal ensembles as well as for keyboard instruments. And although all four sons were keyboard virtuosos, he seems to have been the most prodigious performer and the only one noted for his organ playing.

Yet barely a hundred works survive by Friedemann, many of them still unpublished. Emanuel, Friedrich, and Christian all had successful careers, enjoying prestigious court appointments and seeing their music disseminated widely in both print and manuscript copies. Friedemann never rose above the level of a church organist, ending his career unemployed and supposedly a drunk. To help make ends meet, he supposedly sold off the manuscripts of his father’s music that he had inherited, occasionally crediting himself with these compositions. It was for this reason, incidentally, that Sebastian’s organ arrangement of a Vivaldi concerto was long assigned to Friedemann.

The truth of the more scurrilous allegations is uncertain. But the unflattering anecdotes that circulated after Friedemann’s death do seem to have reflected a difficult personality that alienated potential patrons. Moreover, in an age when composers were adopting increasingly simple and popular styles, Friedemann insisted on writing music that is challenging for both player and listener. His younger brothers were more willing to compromise. Emanuel, in particular, would learn (as did Haydn and Mozart) to write music that is relatively simple and popular in style while remaining expressive, even dramatic. Emanuel would go to Berlin as keyboard player to King Frederick “the Great” of Prussia by 1741. Friedemann would come to the Prussian capital only in 1774, after Emanuel had left for Hamburg. Despite receiving a favorable reception from the king’s sister, Friedemann blew his chances for her support by intriguing to have her make him her Capellmeister or music director, a position that was held securely by Johann Philipp Kirnberger (a pupil of Sebastian).

Friedemann’s career had started out promisingly. He was born in Weimar, seat of a small duchy that would become famous in the nineteenth century as the home of Goethe, Schiller, and Liszt. But it was already a significant musical center when Sebastian was hired there as court organist in 1708. Before his tenth birthday, Friedemann received from his father the famous Little Keyboard Book now in the Yale University library. The manuscript contains not only Sebastian’s inventions and other pieces but (probably) Friedemann’s first ventures in composition. The family by then had moved to Cöthen, and in 1723 they moved again to Leipzig. There Friedemann attended university before gaining his first professional position in 1733, as organist at the Church of St. Sophia in Dresden.

Capital of Saxony, Dresden was also the musical capital of northern Germany, and Friedemann, like his father, doubtless had hopes of gaining a position in its court orchestra or chapel. He must have played in numerous private concerts as a keyboard virtuoso; we know of several brilliant keyboard sonatas as well as at least two concertos for keyboard and strings, yet not a single organ work can be traced with certainty to this period. He also wrote symphonies and instrumental chamber music. Some passages in these works are uncompromisingly contrapuntal, echoing the Art of Fugue which Sebastian was writing at this very time. Yet the concertos are surprisingly theatrical, giving the soloist opportunities for display (such as hand-crossing) that we associate more with Domenico Scarlatti than with members of the Bach family. These works also contain echoes of Italian operas like Johann Adolph Hasse’s Cleofide, premiered at Dresden in 1731 in a performance that Friedemann is thought to have heard.

Yet Friedemann published nothing until 1745, when a single keyboard sonata came out, optimistically titled the first in a series of six such works. By then, however, Emanuel had issued a dozen such pieces, the first six dedicated to his new employer, the king of Prussia. Friedemann probably already understood that his path upward in Dresden would be blocked, for a year later he moved to Halle, a university town in Prussian territory. There he would serve as organist until 1764, composing and performing vocal as well as instrumental works. His vocal music, most of it still unpublished, resembles his father’s in many respects. Even a large serenata in honor of the king’s birthday in 1758, one of the few secular works, is close in form to Sebastian’s church cantatas. Yet the arias draw on the Dresden operatic style, even incorporating cadenzas. The choruses comprise strict fugal passages alongside stunning melismas and arpeggios that may involve all four singers simultaneously. (These choruses, like most of Sebastian’s, were composed for four male singers, not a mixed choir in the modern sense.)

Why Friedemann quit his Halle job in 1764 and what he did for the next ten years, are uncertain. The German scholar Peter Wollny, whose work on Friedemann has greatly enhanced our understanding of the man and the music, suggests that he toured as a virtuoso, traveling perhaps as far as Vienna and the Baltics, even to Russia. If so, he would have been performing his own music for small private gatherings, hoping to pick up commissions and well-off students, much as Beethoven would do a few decades later. Occasionally, too, he would have been joined by small string ensembles in performances of his concertos. But the difficult writing for the strings in these works would have frustrated the mixed amateur and professional players who would have participated in such events — all sight-reading from Friedemann’s laboriously hand-written parts. Although we know of two fantasias for which a Baltic nobleman paid a very high price, such successes may have come only rarely.

When, in 1774, Friedemann moved to Berlin, he gave two organ recitals that were favorably reported in the local papers. What he played is unknown, but it might have consisted largely of improvisations. Those who knew him later reported that he disliked writing things down, and the small number of solo keyboard pieces that survive may have been intended less for himself than for pupils and for admirers seeking souvenirs of his playing. None of these works are for organ with pedals; rather, we have eight witty fugues that he presented to Princess Anna Amalie, as well as about ten sonatas, as many fantasias, and a dozen extraordinary polonaises — pieces very different from but as distinctive as the polonaises that Chopin would compose in the next century.

Surprisingly, a 1941 film gives a reasonably accurate impression of what Friedemann’s concerts may have been like from. The plot of Friedemann Bach, based on a fanciful nineteenth-century novel, is entirely fictional. But in one scene, which can be downloaded from YouTube, the composer plays for an aristocratic gathering. Here the soundtrack incorporates fragments from three of Friedemann’s actual fantasias, which in turn consist of fragments from his sonatas and other pieces. Hence the composer’s improvisations may actually have been in part medleys drawn from his existing compositions. Amazingly, the harpsichord seen in the film seems to be an actual instrument by Michael Mietke still preserved at Charlottenburg Palace in Berlin, although what one hears on the soundtrack is a jangly early twentieth-century instrument.

Returning to the two questions that I posed at the beginning of this essay: I don’t know whether Friedemann was a drunk, and whether he or Emanuel was the better composer can have no simple answer. Friedemann is a more rigorous composer than his younger brother, maintaining three- or four-part imitative counterpoint and intensively developing a few memorable motives throughout many compositions. Emanuel’s textures are lighter and his decorative approach to composition, which I’ve called “composition as variation,” can be more facile. Many of Emanuel’s simpler pieces are frankly trivial, something that cannot be said of anything by Friedemann, who never wrote simple songs, pedagogic pieces, and the like.

Yet at his best, I think that Emanuel is more imaginative and more capable of moving the listener. Despite the fame of his improvisations, Friedemann’s fantasias are less rhetorical and less imaginative in their form and expressive trajectory than Emanuel’s. Whereas Emanuel in his old age was rethinking the very idea of the keyboard sonata and rondo, Friedemann by that point seems to have been merely recycling and revising earlier works.

Nevertheless, Friedemann is capable of amazing, almost Beethovenian strokes in works like his F-major keyboard concerto (as yet unrecorded and unpublished in a modern edition). Even more extraordinary is a keyboard concerto in G minor, which only recently has been assigned unequivocally to him and which is almost completely unknown. Here again one hears pre-echoes of Beethoven, particularly in its alternatingly meditative and rhetorical slow movement. I haven’t yet mentioned Friedemann’s famous flute duets, probably completed in his Berlin years. These surpass anything else written for the instrument in the eighteenth century in their florid melodic writing and the density of their two-part counterpoint, not to mention their technical challenges.

Friedemann himself will remain an enigma. Thanks to the loss of essential documents, we will never know much about him or his motivations. Even his personal appearance before his last years is mysterious. A widely reproduced portrait showing a lively figure of forty or so actually depicts his pupil Johann Christian Bach of Halle (not to be confused with his brother of the same name). The only reliable images are two drawings by a P. Guelle about whom little is known.

Yet Friedemann’s music, such of it as we have, is invaluable. If his adherence to his father’s tradition may have limited his creativity to some degree, it is also a continuing reason for interest in his music, which contains a fascinating and always original combination of stylistic elements belonging to both his father’s generation and his own. More important, however, is Friedemann’s uncompromising commitment to writing music that is at once rigorous and free, enlivened by wit as well as passion, challenging to both listener and performer and never satisfied with being merely pleasing.

David Schulenberg is a harpsichordist and author of Music of the Baroque and The Keyboard Music of J. S. Bach. He teaches at Wagner College in New York City. His website is here.

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  1. David’s concert program can be found here:

    Comment by Paul Cienniwa — December 10, 2010 at 7:57 am

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