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ClassicsOnline Home » BACH, W.F.: Keyboard Works, Vol. 3 - Sonatas, Fk. 2, 4, 5, 9 / Suite, Fk. 24 (J. Brown)
Wilhelm Friedemann Bach was renowned as a brilliant improviser and keyboard performer. His keyboard sonatas, filled with quirky contrasts and a more adventurously chromatic and exploratory style than that of his contemporaries, attest to his individualism and virtuoso technical skill. His only Suite reworks and expands his father, JS Bach’s models, turning conventional dance movements into character pieces. WF Bach’s enthralling and unexpected twists and turns create an expressive and unique musical language, performed by the ‘wonderful’ Julia Brown. (Fanfare on 8.570530, WF Bach Keyboard Works Vol 2)
Wilhelm Friedemann Bach (1710–1784)
Keyboard Works • 3
The eldest of four composer sons of Johann Sebastian Bach, Wilhelm Friedemann was born on 22 November 1710 in Weimar. His father took great care in teaching him, preparing the Clavierbüchlein vor Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, a manuscript that was gradually filled with short pieces for instruction in playing and composing at the keyboard. He was also a violin student of Johann Gottlieb Graun in Merseburg. When the family moved to Leipzig he became a pupil at the Thomasschule and later spent four years studying at the University of Leipzig before finding employment as organist at the Sophienkirche in Dresden. His part-time post allowed him to pursue activities beyond his official duties, including appearances as keyboard soloist and composer in house concerts. In 1745 he published his first keyboard sonata and a year later moved to the university town of Halle where he became organist and director of music of the Liebfrauenkirche. In his new position he was expected to compose and perform sacred vocal works as well as play the organ. Halle was the centre of Pietism and the atmosphere was strict, where music was suffered only as means of ‘inspiring and refreshing the congregation in worship’—as stated in Friedemann’s contract. His own tendency to the freedom of thought of the Enlightenment did not endear him to his superiors and his independence of character contributed to the instability of his income and employment. In 1752 he married Dorothea Elisabeth Georgi, the daughter of a tax-collector. In 1756, with the arrival of the Seven Years’ War, Halle became an open city and Bach and his family suffered depredations from the various armies that went through. From 1764 until his death twenty years later he held no official position, although he continued to give public performances. In 1774 he moved to Berlin where he remained until his death ten years later. It is unknown how he supported himself, although he received a subsidy from Princess Anna Amalia, sister of King Frederick of Prussia.
Wilhelm Friedemann Bach’s output includes many of the common eighteenth-century genres, centering on keyboard music. He wrote a number of keyboard sonatas, fantasias and shorter dance pieces. With few exceptions, his compositions were disseminated only in manuscript form. His writing is often virtuosic, which may have prevented his music from becoming widespread and popular in a culture that catered for a growing amateur market. Friedemann is one of the most independent-minded composers of his time. His music reflects conflicts between high artistic ambitions and the necessity of making concessions to the taste and musical understanding of the public of his time. His very individual style, which combines his father’s refined counterpoint with the intensely expressive language developed in his own generation, makes him quite unique in the German musical landscape. His music is filled with contrasts which make it interesting and enthralling, with many unexpected twists and turns. His freedom, even capriciousness in the details of harmony, melody and rhythm and sudden contrasts of mood combined with intense personal expression are marks of his individual style.
Unlike his brother Carl Philipp Emanuel, Friedemann did not list his compositions in a catalogue or work list, and he also did not date his sonata autographs, and in several cases did not even sign them. Two sonatas were published; the rest remained in manuscript form. Each sonata is in three movements in the traditional fast-slow-fast. In most cases he maintains a contrapuntal texture, including canons or imitations of short motivic ideas and makes frequent use of chromaticism.
We do not know on what instruments his keyboard works were most commonly played, or whether Friedemann had a preferred instrument (as we know from Johann Sebastian and Carl Philipp Emanuel’s accounts and their estates). The titles of most of his keyboard works refer simply to “clavier” or “cembalo”, words commonly understood in the eighteenth century as generic designations for any keyboard instrument. This allowed for the possibility of performance on a variety of instruments and we can assume that Friedemann was familiar with most of the common keyboards of his time.
The Sonata in E flat is Friedemann’s second published sonata, issued in 1748 and again in 1763. The first movement, in sonata-form, has a bright, forthright character. It opens with a rising sixth (a recurring motive in Friedemann’s music) and the melodic line is divided into several small gestures of irregular lengths separated by rests. The Largo is an expressive, imitative trio in C minor. The exuberant third movement is through-composed and makes use of hand-crossing and other virtuoso figuration (Türk quotes two measures in his Clavierschule as an example of hand-crossing). The drum bass created by repeated eighth notes (quavers) in the left hand adds to this witty, brilliant closing movement.
The expressive Sonata in B flat major is filled with sudden contrasts and surprising changes. The first movement makes use of the full compass of keyboard instruments of the time, reaching a g’’’. The Grazioso, a long cantabile second movement is filled with sublime lyricism. The fantasia character of the third movement is established in the improvisatory opening Allegro passage. The movement follows with several alternations in tempo and metre, moving between brilliant arpeggio passages and lyrical Andantino sections in triple metre.
The Suite in G minor is an imaginative reworking of ideas from an older style, combining elements of JS Bach’s style with style galant features. As his father achieved in the Partitas, Friedemann expands the boundaries of each dance movement. The individual movements retain some of the traditional rhythmic character, but are closer to free character pieces. The Allemande is written in three-part texture with invertible counterpoint, thirty-second notes (demisemiquavers), dotted rhythms and wide leaps. The Courante is filled with hand-crossing passages, interlocking parts and awkward leaps. The Presto uses the technique of crossing hands combined with a reduction of the texture to a minimum. The Sarabande maintains the four-square phrasing of a simple dance, but foreshadows the Sarabande in the nineteenth century—a slow, expressive piece in triple time. Both it and the Bourée incorporate Friedemann’s characteristic chromaticism. At the end of the first trio we hear a strong allusion to Bach in the cadential formula.
The Allegro of the Sonata in C (F 2/BR A 3) resembles some of JS Bach’s textures with fluid sixteenth notes (semiquavers) and is quite a contrast to the first movement of the Sonata in E flat. The Grave is relatively short with a Sarabande rhythm and rondo-like form that revolves around several returns of the opening theme. Friedemann incorporated the slow movement and energetic Presto (with few alterations) in his Fantasia in C minor, F 15 (BR A 18).
The Sonata in D (F 4/BR A 5) is lightly voiced, with all three movements written mostly in two parts. Friedemann’s intricate contrapuntal writing is not present, and technical demands on the player are reduced. His individuality is heard in the characteristic batteries of the first movement and the clever way in which the theme returns to the tonic. The Suave is a melancholy, lyrical slow movement with a singing melodic line accompanied by the left hand. The comical third movement is a Vivace with a fragmented opening theme.
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