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ClassicsOnline Home » BACH, W.F.: Keyboard Works, Vol. 4 - Keyboard Sonatas, Fk. 1b, 3 and 202 / Concerto for 2 Harpsichords, Fk. 10 (J. Brown, Baird)
Wilhelm Friedmann Bach was significant in developing the relatively new keyboard sonata form between the baroque and classical periods. Combining stylistic elements from his father’s generation and his own, the ambitious Sonata in D major was admired as “the most significant before Beethoven”. The scale of the substantial Sonata in F for two keyboard instruments, one of WF Bach’s best-known compositions, is such that it is sometimes referred to as a Concerto. Julia Brown’s recordings give WF Bach’s keyboard works “a liberty and sense of fun and engagement that make the music come alive” (Classical Net on Vol 3, Naxos 8.572814).
Wilhelm Friedemann Bach (1710–1784)
Keyboard Works • 4
Four of Johann Sebastian Bach’s children developed successful careers in music. They were all keyboard players who wrote substantial quantities of music for harpsichord, organ, clavichord and the early piano. Wilhelm Friedemann also made important contributions to chamber, orchestral and vocal repertories. Friedemann was the eldest son of Johann Sebastian Bach, born in Weimar on 22 November, 1710. His father took great care in his musical education, as evidenced by the famous Clavierbüchlein vor Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, a manuscript carefully prepared by Johann Sebastian in 1720 for instruction of his ten-year-old first-born; interestingly, this collection includes several counterpoints developed by both Friedemann and his father. Although there are many unknowns in Friedemann’s life, character and style, we do know that he studied mathematics, philosophy and law at the University of Leipzig. He also studied violin with JG Graun in Merseburg, and worked as Johann Sebastian’s assistant by providing private instruction, conducting of rehearsals and music copying. In 1733 he took his first post as organist at the Sophienkirche in Dresden, where he was exposed to court life, opera and ballet. From there he took a post in Halle at the Liebfrauenkirche in 1746. By this time he was widely regarded as the best organist in Germany, his improvisations seen as the last surviving traits of the Baroque organ tradition. His cantatas date from these years, as his duties involved musical productions with orchestra in three principal churches in Halle. This was his last formal place of employment. The family moved to Brunswick in 1770 and by 1774 he was in Berlin. It is not clear what Wilhelm Friedemann did during the decade between his resignation from his position in Halle and his settling permanently in Berlin. It is possible that he deliberately chose to earn money and fame as a traveling virtuoso on extended concert tours.
Wilhelm Friedemann was one of the major composers active during the period between the Baroque and Classical periods. In the 1720s and 1730s there was a shift in musical taste and pedagogical philosophy resulting in a change from contrapuntal writing toward a gallant repertoire that favoured a more melodically pleasing and technically undemanding language. Friedemann continued his contrapuntal writing at the same time that he explored these new ideas, adding a decidedly virtuosic tendency. He was well known as an improviser and he probably developed his musical ideas while playing or improvising at the keyboard. Forkel wrote that Friedemann “loved more to play from his fancy, and to seek after musical delicacies only in improvisation, than to write”. His most original creations were probably improvised, and these obviously have not been preserved.
Wilhelm Friedemann composed many sonatas; his output, however, is small if compared to that of his younger brother Carl Phillip Emanuel. The keyboard sonata was a relatively new form and Friedemann is considered one of the important figures in its development (The Sonata in D major was described by Hubert Parry in the first Grove Dictionary as the most significant sonata before Beethoven); it is a form that Friedemann began exploring in the 1720s and 1730s and continued to write through his mature years. The sonatas, together with the fantasies and polonaises represent the principal works of Wilhelm Friedemann. They left their mark on the development of his compositional style and contributed greatly to his public reputation in the eighteenth century. These works are consistently aimed at connoisseurs, as they quite often demand the player’s highest technical skill.
Probably an early work, the Sonata in F (F 202, BR A 10), incorporates thematic substance derived at least partially from Johann Sebastian’s Italian Concerto. It opens with and Allegro in sonata form. The beautiful Siciliana is a slightly modified version of the middle movement of the composer’s Flute Sonata in E minor (which also exists in a keyboard version). The brilliant Presto begins with a syncopated main theme incorporating octave leaps.
The Sonata in C (F 1b, BR A 2a) exists in two versions. In this early version, the middle movement is a brief, ten-bar Grave, linking the two outer movements. In Friedemann ’s later version he substitutes this Grave for two Minuets (the outer movements are essentially the same). In the opening Allegro Friedemann elaborated the original harmony of several passages by inserting chromatic steps into the inner voice and bass. The sonata closes with an energetic Vivace in 3/8 metre.
One of Wilhelm Friedemann’s best-known compositions both in the eighteenth century and in our own time, is the Sonata in F for two keyboard instruments (F 10, BR A 12). This sonata, sometimes referred to as a Concerto, opens with a movement in a fully developed sonata form. It begins with a syncopated main theme, followed by a contrasting second subject, and a fairly substantial development section. The second movement (Andante) is shorter and beautifully lyrical. The brilliant last movement has the character of a solo concerto with orchestral accompaniment. It has a rondo-like alternation between tutti and solo episodes much in the style of Johann Sebastian. Since there are copies in the latter’s handwriting and a late eighteenth-century copy that erroneously attributes the work to JS Bach, there have been doubts as to the real author of this work. Johannes Brahms edited the Concerto in 1864 as a composition of Wilhelm Friedemann, but it was included in the Bach Gesellschaft published in the late nineteenth century.
The Sonata in D (F 3, BR A 4) was Wilhelm Friedemann ’s first publication, but it was not received very well by the amateurs for whom it was intended. It was technically too complicated, and its expression was also probably too personal to appeal to the average keyboard player. It was meant to be the first of a series of six sonatas, but no further sonatas were printed. It is of large proportions, with greater complexity and difficulty than other sonatas, as he was possibly trying to create a landmark in the history of the keyboard sonata. It is a masterful piece in its use of contrapuntal three-part texture that is fully integrated into the modern sonata form. Within the contrapuntal writing Wilhelm Friedemann incorporates refined treatment of harmony with suspensions, chromaticism, fermatas and deceptive cadences. In particular the middle movement (Adagio) is harmonically unsettling by its repeated modulations. The third movement resembles a gigue in 12/8 metre.
Most of Wilhelm Friedemann’s sonatas circulated in manuscript form, with only two published in his lifetime. These sonatas include some of his best writing, with sudden contrasts and surprising changes, containing a fascinating and original combination of stylistic elements of his father’s generation and his own. He consistently writes polyphonic imitation in an idiomatic keyboard texture, and is committed to writing music that is both structured and free, enlivened by playful imagination as well as passion. We do not know for which keyboard instrument these works were intended. They are playable on all, and whichever keyboard instrument a player chooses for this music, it is never dull and is frequently challenging to both listener and performer. The harpsichord, the clavichord and the early piano all add their distinct and idiomatic expressive qualities to Wilhelm Friedemann’s highly original music.
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