Wilhelm Friedemann Bach (November 22, 1710–July 1, 1784), the second child and eldest, and by common repute the most gifted, son of Johann Sebastian Bach and Maria Barbara Bach, was a German composer and performer who, despite his acknowledged genius as an organist, improviser, and composer, was unstable and died in poverty. Wilhelm Friedemann was born on November 22, 1710, in Weimar, Thuringia, Germany, where his father was employed as organist and chamber musician to the Duke of Saxe-Weimar. In July 1720, when Friedemann was nine, his mother Maria Barbara Bach died suddenly; Johann Sebastian Bach remarried in December of 1721. J. S. Bach supervised Friedemann’s musical education and career with great attention. The graded course of keyboard studies and composition that J. S. Bach provided is documented in the Clavier-Büchlein vor Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, with entries by both father and son. This education also included the French Suites, Two-Part Inventions, Three-Part Sinfonias (popularly known as “Inventions”), the first volume of The Well-Tempered Clavier, and the six Trio Sonatas for organ. At the age of sixteen Friedemann went to Merseburg to learn the violin with his teacher Johann Gottlieb Graun.
In addition to his musical training, Friedemann received formal schooling beginning in Weimar. When J.S. Bach took the post of Cantor of the St. Thomas Church at Leipzig in 1723, he enrolled Friedemann in the associated Thomasschule. On graduating in 1729, Friedemann enrolled as a law student in Leipzig University, a renowned institution at the time, but later moved on to study law and mathematics at the University of Halle. After graduation he worked as a musical assistant for his father. He maintained a lifelong interest in mathematics, and continued to study it privately during his first job in Dresden, where he was appointed in 1733 to the position of organist of the St. Sophia’s Church. This was a part-time position, allowing him time for more math studies, and composition of operas and ballets for the local Court. Among his many pupils in Dresden was Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, the keyboardist whose name is enshrined in J. S. Bach’s 1742 publication, “The Goldberg Variations.”
In 1746 Friedemann became organist of the Liebfrauenkirche at Halle. In 1751, he married Dorothea Elisabeth Georgi (1721–1791), who was 11 years his junior and who outlived him by seven years. The couple produced two sons and a daughter, Friederica Sophia (born in 1757), who was the only one of their offspring to live past infancy. With his father’s death in 1750, the stabilizing influence in Friedemann’s life seems to have disappeared, and Friedemann was deeply unhappy in Halle almost from the beginning of his tenure. In 1749 he was involved in a conflict with the Cantor of the Liebfrauenkirche. In 1753 he made his first documented attempt to find another post, and thereafter made several others. All these attempts failed. Friedemann had at least two pupils during this time, Friedrich Wilhelm Rust and Johann Samuel Petri.
In 1762, he negotiated for the post of Kapellmeister to the court of Darmstadt, but for some reason he did not accept the position and was appointed Hofkapellmeister of Hessen-Darmstadt, a title he used in the dedication of his Harpsichord Concerto in E minor. In June 1764, Friedemann left the job in Halle without any employment secured elsewhere. His financial situation deteriorated so much that in 1768 he re-applied for his old job in Halle, without success. He thereafter supported himself by teaching. After leaving Halle in 1770, he lived for several years (1771–1774) in Braunschweig where he applied in vain for the post of an organist at the St. Catherine’s church. Then in 1774 he moved to Berlin, where he initially was welcomed by the princess Anna Amalia, the sister of Frederick the Great. Later, no longer in favor at court, he gave harpsichord lessons to Sarah Itzig Levy, the daughter of a prominent Jewish family in Berlin and an avid collector of Bach and other early 18th centiury music, who was also a “patron” of Friedemann’s brother C. P. E. Bach. After that, he lived meagerly by giving recitals and teaching.
Friedemann died on July 1, 1784 in Berlin, Germany, aged 74, from a pulmonary disease. He was renowned for his improvisatory skills, and his compositions, very few of which were printed, include many church cantatas and instrumental works, of which the most notable are the fugues, polonaises, and fantasias for clavier, the duets for two flutes, and an interesting sextet for strings, clarinet and horns.. Several of his manuscripts are preserved in the Royal Library at Berlin; and a complete list of his works, so far as they are known, may be found in Eitner’s Quellen Lexikon. A commonly-used numbering system is that of Martin Falck, who published a catalog of Friedemann’s music in 1913. For example, F. 12 stands for the celebrated “Twelve Polonaises” that were completed by 1765; he also composed several symphonies and chamber works and an opera.
His music fell generally into the transitional period between Baroque and Classical styles, but it was distinctive and personal. He incorporated more elements of the contrapuntal style learned from his father than any of his three composer brothers, and his use of the style has an individualistic and improvisatory edge which endeared his work to musicians of the late 19th century, when there was something of a revival of his reputation. Friedemann is known occasionally to have claimed credit for music written by his father (such as the Organ Concerto, BWV 596; because Friedemann wrote his own name on J.S. Bach’s autograph score, it was mistakenly attributed to Friedemann when it was first published in the 19th century), but this was in keeping with common musical practices in the era. Wilhelm Friedemann Bach is not to be confused with Wilhelm Friedrich Ernst Bach, his nephew, also a composer.
The following work by Wilhelm Friedemann Bach is contained in my collection:
Suite/Overture No. 5 in gm, BWV 1070 (formerly attributed to Johann Sebastian Bach).
—material selected, adapted, and edited from several different sources