Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Herzliche Glückwünsche zum Geburtstag, Wilhelm Friedemann!

As 2010 comes to an end, lovers of keyboard music will remember the bicentenaries observed during the year for Chopin and Schumann. Some will look forward to that of Liszt in 2011, while others will recall Mendelssohn's in 2009. Before 2011 is over, all these composers will have been the subjects of numerous symposia, festivals, and publications. Yet it would be a shame, in the midst of these celebrations, to overlook the fact that the present year has marked the three-hundredth birthday of another composer arguably of comparable merit: Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, born at Weimar on Nov. 22, 1710.

Friedemann, the oldest son of the great Johann Sebastian Bach, has often been described as the most brilliant of his father's children. No fewer than five of the latter became professional musicians; four are known to have been composers. Of these, Sebastian's second son Carl Philipp Emanuel, born in 1714, is now probably the best known, his music the most frequently performed. But Emanuel has long been rivaled by Johann Christian, the youngest of all (born 1735), thanks in part to his influence on the young Mozart. Friedemann has never been so well known or appreciated, and although a new critical edition of his works began to come out in 2009, before the appearance of my recent book he and his music had been the subject of only a single monograph, published in German in 1913.

Unlike some Bach specialists, I've always been interested in the music of the sons as well as the father, not to mention other members of the family. Virtually all of them were, of course, keyboard players, writing substantial quantities of music for harpsichord, organ, clavichord, and (in some cases) early pianos. Most, including Friedemann, also made important contributions to chamber, orchestral, and vocal repertories. A keyboard player myself, since my college days I have been fortunate enough to have had access to their music, and to good instruments on which to play it.

But even on a good clavichord or fortepiano, Friedemann's music, although often very expressive, is challenging for both player and listener. His friend J. N. Forkel (Sebastian's first biographer) even said of one piece that the difficulties of learning to play it were incommensurate with the rewards of hearing it. Nevertheless, as Friedemann's tercentenary approached, I felt that the time was ripe to test this and other perceptions of his music by subjecting it to a careful critical review. Even if some of the music is indeed not worth the challenges of learning it—a position far from certain—the question of how Friedemann's distinctive style might have emerged within the Bach household was certainly an intriguing one. Therefore, about three years ago I set out to examine and write about all of his surviving works.

Having previously done something similar for all of Sebastian's keyboard works, I knew what I was getting into. In the case of Friedemann, the task did not appear to be as difficult. True, only about half his music was available in modern editions, and some of these are quite old and not terribly reliable. But the German scholar Peter Wollny, in his Harvard dissertation of 1993 and subsequent publications, had laid the groundwork for a critical re-examination of Friedemann's music. And virtually all of the music was available at least in microfiche facsimiles of eighteenth-century manuscripts, many of these the composer's autographs. Best of all, Friedemann left only about one hundred works, making it possible to study and write about his entire surviving output much more quickly than would be the case for, say, Emanuel, whose collected music comprises perhaps ten times as many compositions.

When I began the process, I thought I knew Friedemann's music reasonably well. After all, I had performed a number of his sonatas and fantasias, and I knew his famous flute duos as well as recordings of several of his concertos and vocal works. I had examined the manuscript of his flute concerto almost as soon as it had become available in Berlin in 2002. The general impression I had from these was, as various scholars had observed previously, of a style that combined elements of his father's contrapuntal manner with the so-called galant style popular in the mid-eighteenth century, and more specifically the so-called empfindsamer version of the latter associated with Emanuel.

As I worked on the book, however, it became clear that this was an over-simplification. And although I found myself confirming some of the oft-repeated assertions about the peculiar challenges of Friedemann's music—and of his own personality—I realized that he was far more his own composer than I had realized, distinct from Emanuel and other contemporaries in certain aspects of his approach to both composition and performance. Forkel had reported that both brothers, realizing the impossibility of equalling their father, had determined to be original, musically distinct from Sebastian. Clearly they had also turned out to be distinct from one another as well.

How could two brothers, born in the same town into the same family just four years apart, have turned out so differently, in their music as well as in their careers and personalities? The biographical side of this question must remain obscure, for we simply lack the requisite documents, especially with respect to Friedemann. This is so despite the survival of unique sources such as the famous Little Keyboard Book for Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, a manuscript (now at Yale University) prepared for the young Friedemann by his father, or several pages of counterpoint studies that Friedemann, now a young professional in his twenties, wrote out jointly with Sebastian. These naturally deserved close consideration in the book, and I decided to devote a chapter to Friedemann's musical upbringing.

But as intriguing as Friedemann's personal development and character may be, our questions about it are largely unanswerable except within the realm of fiction—which may be one reason why he, alone of his brothers, has been the subject of a novel, plays, and even two operas. These largely ignore historical realities, although the 1941 film Friedemann Bach is surprisingly true to life in some respects. For instance, one scene depicts him improvising for an aristocratic audience; he performs fragments of three actual works, on a real eighteenth-century harpsichord that the historical Friedemann may have known, now in Charlottenburg Palace, Berlin.

The really interesting things in the life of a musician, however, are his or her works. I therefore chose to focus my book on Friedemann's compositions, which fall into three categories: keyboard works, music for instrumental ensemble, and vocal music. The last category was the most difficult to write about, for relatively few of the compositions are published. At first I intended to consider only representative examples—mostly sacred cantatas—especially as they were more or less dismissed by most commentators. Yet as I studied them, often in Friedemann's own barely legible manuscripts, I realized that—like the equally underestimated vocal music of Emanuel—they too deserve careful consideration. Particularly notable was a large secular cantata or serenata in honor of King Frederick the Great of Prussia—a musical monarch more frequently associated with Emanuel, yet important at least indirectly in the life of Friedemann, who, after starting his career in Saxon territory, eventually followed Emanuel (and Christian) to Prussia and its capital Berlin. Indeed, the journey of this son of Bach from Dresden, with its musical culture dominated by Italian opera, to a more northerly region where subtle chamber music reigned supreme, became an important theme of my book.

One challenge that I had to overcome in writing the book was the absence of legible or accurate scores for many of Friedemann's major works. Without such scores, it was simply impossible to evaluate works such as the serenata for Frederick or a keyboard concerto in G minor whose attribution to Friedemann had been dismissed by previous scholars. Nor could readers get a good idea of what these works are like. For this reason I found it necessary to create my own scores of many unpublished works, some of which I have put online. Some other works can be found in passably accurate editions at the International Music Score Library Project website, and all will eventually appear in the ongoing collected edition.

Nevertheless, in view of the difficulty of accessing this music, I determined to place far more musical examples within the book than is customary. I am grateful that my editors at the University of Rochester Press were able to accommodate me, and even secured a subvention from the American Musicological Society, for which I am grateful, to facilitate publication of what turned out to be a somewhat larger book than they originally bargained for. Of course, such examples create an additional challenge for many readers: lacking recordings of many of these works, how can they evaluate what they read about them or adequately judge what the music sounds like?

My solution to this problem has been to include on my website audio versions of all the music examples in the book. These audio versions are no substitute for recordings of actual performances; they're synthesized versions of the scores, generated automatically by my music notation software. But I hope they will help make the examples more usable for readers.

When I perform my own recitals of Friedemann's music, I am always asked two things: Was he really a drunk (as was alleged), and who was the better composer, he or Emanuel? I don't know the answer to the first question, and I don't think the second can have a 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 pedagogic pieces, strophic songs, and the like.

I think that Emanuel, at his best, is more imaginative and more capable of moving the listener. But 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 the G-minor concerto, which remains almost completely unknown, although in my book I restore it to Friedemann's list of works. Here again one hears pre-echoes of Beethoven, particularly in its alternatingly meditative and rhetorical slow movement. Friedemann's famous flute duets, probably completed in his Berlin years, 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. Even his personal appearance before his last years is mysterious. A widely reproduced portrait showing a lively figure perhaps forty or so of age actually depicts his pupil Johann Christian Bach of Halle—not to be confused with his brother of the same name. Yet Friedemann's music is invaluable. If his adherence to his father's tradition restricted him 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.

We don’t usually run two posts on the same subject over two weeks but couldn’t resist the opportunity to wish this ‘enigmatic Bach’ a happy birthday. In addition to writing The Music of Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, David Schulenberg is author of The Keyboard Music of J. S. Bach and Music of the Baroque, both now in their second editions. He also has edited several volumes of sonatas and concertos by C. P. E. Bach. He plays clavichord, harpsichord, and fortepiano and is professor and chair of the music department at Wagner College on Staten Island, N.Y.

Happy birthday, Wilhelm Friedemann.

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