As we mark the birthdays of Chopin, Mahler and Schumann, Fabrice Fitch makes the case for a less famous anniversary composer
In this year of multiple commemorations, there is a composer who deserves not to be overshadowed by more famous successors. For 2010 marks the tercentenary of one of the most interesting sons of famous composers. Indeed, the listing in the latest online edition of the New Grove Dictionary describes Wilhelm Friedemann Bach as "one of the major composers representing the period between Baroque and Classical composition". That’s quite a claim.
Friedemann was Johann Sebastian’s eldest son by his cousin and first wife, Maria Barbara, born in Weimar on St Cecilia’s Day (22 November), 1710. He appears to have been his father’s favourite; at any rate, Sebastian is said to have regarded him as the most talented of his sons, and took particular pains over his education, both musical and general. He helped him in other ways, too, for example by writing his letter of application for his very first post, as organist at the Sophienkirche, Dresden. Thereafter, details of his professional life are disappointingly mundane, in marked contrast to the dandyish self-confidence one glimpses from the much-reproduced portrait, made in mid-career before disappointment had begun to take its toll. His reputation as the most accomplished improviser organist of his time persisted until his death in 1784, but his public career never really matched his aspirations, let alone his father’s hopes. Posts in Halle, Brunswick, and, latterly, Berlin; sporadic publications; an opera that was begun, but never completed; the sale of his father’s autographs, necessitated by growing poverty, and the alienation of at least one influential patron due to an increasingly difficult character in later life. Many of the reports of his personal instability aren’t entirely reliable, and in some cases demonstrably biased; but almost inevitably, they’ve lent colour to subsequent discussions of the work.
Is this entirely realistic? It’s true that some of Friedemann’s music tends towards the facile character typical of the galant style of his day, as heard in some of the concertos, symphonies, and chamber music. But the same could at times be said of his brother Carl Philip Emmanuel (the “Berlin” Bach), and even more of his half-brother Johann Christian (the “London” Bach). It’s certainly true that Friedemann often veers between the learned style inherited from his father and a more contemporary immediacy of expression, sometimes within the same work. But that’s just it – the pieces in which this happens include some of his best music, for example the late Fantasias, several of which are included on the recitals by Maude Gratton (Mirare) and Anthony Spiri (Oehms Classics - download from Amazon / buy CD from Amazon). It’s possible to psychologize these sudden shifts in terms of conflicting tensions within the composer – on the one hand the desire to express his own time, and on the other a genuine interest in, and loyalty to, the old style embodied in the work of a father whom he must have revered. But in the case of the Fantasias, the conflict between the two idioms is so up-front that it can hardly have sprung from his unconscious; and as an exercise in self-exorcism, so obvious a mise-en-scène can hardly have been very effectual. In any case, these tensions, this sense of being on the cusp of a new expressive world whilst retaining a foot in older traditions, is perhaps more congenial to present-day sensibilities than it would have been a century or so ago, when the re-discovery of Friedemann’s music began in earnest. And so it’s probably easier to accept these pieces’ underlying premises nowadays, and to hear in them a playful imagination at work rather than the abortive expressions of (say) a strongly marked Oedipus complex. It’s possible, therefore, to exaggerate the unevenness of his surviving output (always remembering that a great deal has been lost). As was suggested before, Friedemann falls short far more often by playing safe than by taking risks; where he courts failure, he usually succeeds.