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8.570571 - BACH, W.F.: Organ Works (J. Brown)
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Wilhelm Friedemann Bach (1710–1784)
Organ Works


Born in Weimar in 1710, Wilhelm Friedemann Bach was the eldest son of Johann Sebastian Bach by his first wife, Maria Barbara. When his father moved to Cöthen in 1717 as Court Kapellmeister to the young Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen, Wilhelm Friedemann presumably studied at the Lutheran Latin School in Cöthen. His mother died in 1720 and his father, with four surviving children, remarried in 1721. His new wife, Anna Magdalena, was the mother of thirteen more children, of whom six survived to reach maturity. In 1723 Johann Sebastian moved to Leipzig as Thomascantor and Wilhelm Friedemann studied at the Thomasschule, where his father taught, until at least 1726. In 1729 he matriculated at the University of Leipzig, studying Law, Philosophy and Mathematics, embarking on a course of study that had been denied his father. Wilhelm Friedemann’s musical training came from his father and is recorded in the Clavier-Büchlein vor Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, covering the years 1720 to 1726 and including various compositions and exercises, as well as the first of Wilhelm Friedmemann’s own compositions. As a boy he assisted his father as a copyist and accompanied Johann Sebastian to Dresden on several occasions. In 1729 he visited Halle, entrusted with a message from his father to Handel. In these years he developed his abilities as an organist and harpsichordist, establishing his reputation as a virtuoso performer.

In he summer of 1733 Wilhelm Friedemann entered the audition for the position of organist at Halberstadt, but failed. In the summer, however, he competed successfully for the position of organist at the Sophienkirche in Dresden, an appointment that was ill-paid but allowed the possibility of outside work. Dresden, the Saxon capital, was an important musical centre and brought him contact with musicians working there, including Vivaldi’s pupil Pisendel, the opera composer Hasse and the lutenist Sylvius Weiss, and with others in court circles. The period in Dresden brought a number of compositions, keyboard concertos, string symphonies, trio sonatas and solo harpsichord sonatas. In 1746 he applied successfully for the position of organist at the Liebfrauenkirche in Halle, his change of employment echoing that of his father 23 years earlier. As Johann Sebastian had abandoned what had been, until his patron’s marriage, a happy position at court for employment under the city council in Leipzig, so his son left the court society of Dresden for municipal employment in Halle, the birth-place of Handel, who had briefly served as organist there. The new position brought a significant increase in salary as in duties. He maintained close contact with his father in Leipzig and accompanied him in 1747 on his journey to Potsdam, where his younger brother, Carl Philipp Emanuel was employed as court harpsichordist. After his father’s death in 1750 he undertook a second journey to Potsdam to bring his youngest brother, Johann Christian, to Carl Philipp Emanuel, staying there several months, without leave from his employers in Halle. While Pietism in Cöthen had allowed Johann Sebastian freedom to concentrate his attention largely on secular composition for the court, the same restrictive brand of Lutheranism in Halle found Wilhelm Friedemann in a less conciliatory frame of mind. His interest in the ideas of the Enlightenment and in the philosophical speculation of Christian Wolff at Halle University was hardly calculated to suit the authorities and during the following years he made repeated attempts to find a position elsewhere. In 1751 he married, but only one of his six children survived infancy. Eventually in 1762, he was seemingly offered the position of Court Kapellmeister at Darmstadt, but for some reason failed to take up the appointment, while retaining only the title, and it seems there were negotiations in 1764 with Fulda. Whether with this in mind or not, Wilhelm Friedemann resigned his position in Halle in 1764, but remained in the city without official employment until 1770, earning a living through teaching, and compelled, over the years, to sell off his share of his father’s legacy, manuscripts that were thus lost to posterity. In 1770 he moved to Brunswick and four years later to Berlin, taking pupils, performing and, in Berlin, at least, winning the favour of Princess Anna Amalia, sister of Frederick the Great. He retained a reputation as perhaps the greatest organist in Germany, but at his death in Berlin in 1784 he left his wife and daughter in straitened circumstances.

Wilhelm Friedemann’s prowess as an organist was principally attested by his improvisations, which are, inevitably, lost to posterity. The surviving compositions for organ include seven chorale preludes and a series of fugues, and canons, with other contrapuntal exercises. The first of the fugues included here is the [1] Fugue in G minor, Fk. 37, its numbering taken from the listing of 1913 by Martin Falck. It is based on a very short subject, which lends itself to treatment in sequence. [3] The triple Fugue in F major, Fk. 33, dated to a period between 1740 and 1745, is a much more elaborate display of counterpoint, introduced by a much longer subject. [5] Like the preceding fugue, included among works for harpsichord and dated to between 1740 and 1745, the Fugue in C minor, Fk. 32, can be played on the manuals only. It again opens with a statement of the extended subject. [6] In the same key, the Fugue in C minor that follows, not listed by Falck, starts with the statement of its extended subject in the tenor, answered in the alto, followed by the soprano and finally the bass, in the pedals. [8] The Fugue in F major, Fk. 36, ‘Tripelfuge’, has an opening subject that lends itself to sequential treatment. It is presented over a second subject, with a third subject added. The final section is preceded by a passage over an octave dominant pedal, before a conclusion that finds a place for a brief cadenza. [10] The following Fugue in C minor , not acknowledged by Falck, has a double subject, skilfully developed. It ends with a passage over a dominant pedal followed by a final Grave that seems to come from a new age rather than from the world of Johann Sebastian Bach so often reflected in these works. [12] The Fugue in B flat major , its authenticity doubted by Falck, makes full use of a descending countersubject and seems, once again, to suggest a new age in its final bars. [14] The Fugue in D major , not listed by Falck, is relatively short. It opens with the brief subject in the bass. [16] The last two fugues included here are the Fugue in B flat major, with a double subject and [17] the Fugue in A minor, neither listed by Falck. The latter makes a fitting conclusion, its closing section over a long-sustained dominant pedal.

Wilhelm Friedemann’s seven Chorale Preludes make skilful use of the traditional form in which he had been trained by his father. [2] Jesu, meine Freude, is based on a chorale that Johann Sebastian had used at the ending of his Cantata No. 87. [4] Nun komm der Heiden Heiland, used by Johann Sebastian to end Cantata No. 62, is similarly treated, each line of the chorale presented contrapuntally. [7] Durch Adams Fall ist ganz verderbt ends Johann Sebastian’s Cantata No. 18, the chorale prelude reflecting something of Adam’s fall in the pedal part, but lacking the drama of Johann Sebastian’s own chorale prelude on the same theme. [9] Was mein Gott will, das g’scheh allzeit, the chorale familiar from its use in the St Matthew Passion, is treated initially with great freedom. [11] Wir Christenleut han jetzund Freud takes as its basis a version of the chorale included in Johann Sebastian’s Cantata No. 40, and [13] Wir danken dir, Herr Jesu Christ takes his Choralgesänge II, 217, the prelude again offering imitative entries, phrase by phrase. [15] Christe, der du bist Tag und Licht, its given source Choralgesänge III, 245, follows the traditional pattern, leading to an impressive conclusion over a tonic pedal.

Keith Anderson

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