Tuesday, 7 December 2010

The Enigmatic Bach

You might be forgiven for imagining that Wilhelm Friedemann Bach is another invention of “Professor” Peter Schickele. However in a superb new study of the music of the eldest of J S Bach’s composer sons, David Schulenberg argues that we should afford his music more respect. In this extract from the book, we see how Wilhelm Friedemann differed from his more famous brothers:

In 1774, one of the most accomplished living European composers arrived in Berlin, the prosperous capital of the powerful Kingdom of Prussia. The composer’s works included a dozen or so extraordinary keyboard sonatas, a half dozen startlingly original concertos for one or two keyboards and orchestra, and perhaps two dozen or more vocal works for virtuoso soloists and ensemble. The list of compositions is small for a musician of his time and stature, but the surviving works are remarkably original, and we do not know how many have been lost. By any measure, it is a notable oeuvre.

Nevertheless, it was unusual for a musician of his age—he was in his sixties—to be traveling in search of a position, if indeed that was his purpose. By this point in their lives, most German musicians of his abilities had been long ensconced in lifetime court appointments, or, like Johann Sebastian Bach, as municipal employees in a church or school. Why Wilhelm Friedemann, Bach’s oldest and by many accounts most talented son, was seeking a position is just one of the many enigmas that surround this peculiar yet extraordinary figure.

Other questions also loom: Where was he and what was he doing during the decade before his arrival in Berlin? Why did he leave his two previous positions, as organist first in the bustling musical capital Dresden, then in the university town Halle? Why, despite his great gifts, did his career diverge so radically from those of his younger brothers Carl Philipp Emanuel and Johann Christian, who went on to fame if not fortune as royal court musicians in Berlin and London (and later, in Emanuel’s case, to a prestigious cantorship at Hamburg)? Distinct too was the life of the less well known Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach, who spent his entire career working quietly but apparently happily at the minor ducal court of Bückeburg.

No less puzzling than these biographical enigmas are those raised by the music itself. How did this son of Bach, who presumably received more or less the same training as his younger brothers, come to write compositions so very different from theirs? For whom did he write his often extravagantly difficult music? Where and by whom was it heard? How are we to make sense of it today?

Although never completely forgotten, especially in the German cities where he lived, the music of Friedemann Bach was never widely distributed. It remains little performed or published by comparison with that of Emanuel and Christian, and writings devoted to it have been few and far between. Hence, even for those that know something of him—flutists and violists fascinated by his challenging and rare duets for their instruments, adventurous keyboard players seeking things to complement the better-known sonatas and fantasias of Emanuel Bach—Friedemann has been something of a footnote in music history.

Yet 300 years after his birth, there are good reasons for taking a closer look at his music. Recent years have seen renewed interest among performers as well as musicologists in the music of his brothers Emanuel and Christian, and more generally in works of the so-called galant age. Musically speaking, this is the period that lies between the Baroque and the Classical; in terms of social history it corresponds to the last decades of monarchial absolutism, preceding the French Revolution. This was the period during which the foundations were laid for the European musical structures and institutions of the nineteenth century, many of which—the star performer, the composer as popular icon, the public concert hall—are still with us. Friedemann played at least a minor role in creating that world, not only as (perhaps) an early touring virtuoso but also as teacher of Sara Levy, great-aunt of Felix Mendelssohn and an important figure in her own right in Berlin concert life of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

Still, had Friedemann not been born into the most famous musical family in European history, he probably would be remembered merely as one of many honorable but obscure musicians from a particularly busy period of music history. Like his younger contemporaries Johann Friedrich Kleinknecht and Johann Gottfried Müthel, he would be known for a few unusual compositions—in their cases, a couple of extraordinary flute sonatas and several astonishing keyboard sonatas and concertos—that command respect but perhaps not a great deal of affection, if only because they are so difficult to perform and to interpret.

Problematic, too, would be the seemingly narrow character of his output, which, although encompassing most of the familiar eighteenth-century genres, centers on music for keyboard. Stylistically, Friedemann’s best-known works seem limited to what is known today as the empfindsamer style. The German term, translatable as “sensitive” or “hyperexpressive,” implies a rhapsodic, proto-Romantic manner now associated especially with his brother Emanuel Bach. In fact, Friedemann’s music shows greater range than has just been suggested. But it is indeed less diverse than that of other major composers of his time, either because he actually wrote less or because less has survived.

Therein lies another enigma: Was Friedemann truly reluctant to write his music down, preferring to improvise at the harpsichord or organ, as was already reported by his contemporaries? Or was he such a perfectionist that he allowed only a small number of highly refined, carefully worked-over compositions to leave his studio? At a time when social conditions for musicians (and audiences) were changing significantly, did he fail to understand the need to produce more popular types of music—and more of it—if he was to attain the good repute and material well-being enjoyed by both his father and his younger brothers, who better recognized the need to adapt?

The Music of Wilhelm Friedemann Bach by David Schulenberg has just been published by the University of Rochester Press, and is available now from your favourite bookseller. A piece from the author and a further extract will follow over the coming weeks.

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