November 18, 2013. Wilhelm Friedemann Bach. Too many wonderful composers were born this week for us to do each of them justice. Here’s an abridged list: Carl Maria von Weber, whose operas influenced the development of the Romantic school, was born on this day in 1786; Francisco Tárrega, the Spanish composer and guitarist – on November 21, 1852; Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, Johann Sebastian’s eldest son, was born on November 22, 1710; November 22 is also the birthday of Joaquin Rodrigo, another Spanish composer, whose Concierto de Aranjuez is still one of the most popular music written in the 20th century; Rodrigo was born in 1901. Exactly twelve years later, in 1913, Benjamin Britten, probably the first really great English composer since Henry Purcell, was born; November 23rd is the birthday of another Spaniard, Manuel de Falla (1876), and finally, Alfred Schnittke, one of the most interesting Russian composers of the second half of the 20th century, was born on November 24, 1934. We’ve paid tribute to all of them except Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, so today is his turn.
Wilhelm Friedemann was born on November 22, 1710 in Weimar, were his father was the music director (Konzertmeister) and court organist for Prince Johann Ernst of Saxe-Weimar. Johann Sebastian was intimately involved in the music education of his eldest son; he even wrote Klavierbüchlein für Wilhelm Friedemann (Little keyboard book for Wilhelm Friedemann), many pieces of which ended up in the Well-Tempered Clavier, Inventions and Sinfonias. In 1723 Johann Sebastian took the position of cantor at St. Thomas church in Leipzig and Friedemann enrolled in St. Thomas School (many students were members of Thomanerchor or St. Thomas Choir of Leipzig, of which Bach Sr. was the director). When Friedemann was 16 and already a harpsichord and organ virtuoso, he started taking violin lessons. Music was not his only interest: after graduating from St. Thomas School, Friedemann went to the Leipzig University to study law and then moved to Halle to study mathematics. In 1733 he was appointed the organist at the Church of St. Sophia in Dresden. (The history of the church is interesting: built in 1331, it was the only gothic church in Dresden. Johann Sebastian Bach’s Kyrie and Gloria, which were later included in the Mass in B Minor, were presented in the church soon after Friedemann took the position there. The church was severely damaged during the Allied raid in 1945 but could’ve been restored, except that the GDR chief Walter Ulbricht decided that “a socialist city does not need Gothic churches,” after which it was demolished).
In 1746 Friedemann moved to Halle as the organist at Liebfrauenkirche (or the Market church). This was an important position: the church was prominent as a center of Pietism and Johann Sebastian was offered the same post years earlier. It was also the church where George Frideric Handel was baptized and later received organ lessons. Friedemann stayed there for the next eighteen, most of them unhappy, years. Many times he tried to find a different position but was never successful. He was despondent and drinking a lot. In 1764 he quit without securing a position elsewhere. For the rest of his life (he died on July 1, 1784) he couldn’t find a permanent position and earned meager income by teaching and giving recitals.
A major talent, Friedemann composed all his life. He wrote for the keyboard but also chamber pieces (many of them for flute) and orchestral works: symphonies and Harpsichord concertos. He also wrote a number of liturgical works, among them two Masses and a number of cantatas. Here’s his Fantasia for Harpsichord in C minor, F 15. It’s performed by the French harpsichordist Christophe Rousset. And here is Friedemann’s Concerto for two harpsichords in E-flat major. Harpsichordists are Andreas Staier and Robert Hill, Reinhard Goebel conducts Musica Antiqua Köln.
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