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EXPLORING MUSIC: A Transitional Composer

The MHS Review 392 Vol. 11 No. 14 1987

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David M. Greene


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Even in this day when the idea of family is little more than a conven­tion, according to Allan Bloom's frightening book The Closing of the American Mind, the all-too-common collapse of marriages often renders children (who assume that parents ex­ist for their personal benefit) cranky, distrustful of their own abilities, and hostile for the rest of their lives. When Friedemann Bach was 10 years old, his father went away on a business trip and his mother died suddenly a few days later; one guesses the seeds of Friedemann's later willful failures.

There is no question that Friedemann, the eldest son and second-born of that first marriage, was the apple of his father's eye. Sebastian trained him himself in music, sent him off to study violin with Johann Gottlieb Graun, and saw him through a law degree at Leipzig U. It is clear that the youngster was bright and gifted, and there were those who thought him a better organist and improvisateur than his father.

At 23 he landed a job as organist of St. Sophia in Dresden. It was not a prestigious post nor a lucrative one, but the work load was light. In short, it was a decent place to begin. But a decade went by and he had landed nothing better. Finally, with Sebastian running interference for him, he became organist at the important Church of Our Lady in Halle. But Halle did not set well with him. The approach to the Faith there was rigid and bluenosed-and he inclined more and more to the secular rationalism of the day. His surviving cantatas suggest that he went at his compositional duties halfheartedly, and he increas­ingly took time off to seek employ­ment elsewhere.

In 1751 he married; three children followed in quick succession. (Only the last, a daughter, survived infancy.) Within five years of the wedding the Seven Years War broke out. Halle declared itself an open city. It was repeatedly occupied by enemy troops who levied backbreaking taxes on the citizenry. At this point Friedemann sent his employers a formal request to be relieved of the taxes and to be given a raise. It was not received kind­ly. The very next year he had an of­fer from Darmstadt. Asked to come immediately, he haggled over his con­tract. In the end all he got was an emp­ty title. In 1764, for reasons we don't know, he quit his Halle employment cold.

After six years of scraping by on teaching, he and his wife sold her pro­perty and, in effect, hit the road. In 1774 they came to rest in Berlin, from which his brother Emanuel had decamped seven years earlier. Friedemann won the patronage of Princess Anna Amalia, Fred the Gross' musical sister, and promptly blew it by trying to oust his father's old pupil Kirnberger, her house composer. Ten years later, aged 74, he died in dire poverty.

Falck's catalog of Friedemann's compositions lists just over a hundred, a good many of them known only from contemporary references. The most interesting are the nine sinfonias, which have a place in the early history of the symphony, a handful of harp­sichord concerti, and a number of keyboard sonatas and other works. These all show in some degree a tran­sitional composer capable of suc­cessfully bottling new wine in old containers. The pieces on this recor­ding are well played on two organs built around Friedemann's own day, and nicely reproduced.

Review of The Complete Organ Music by Wilhelm Friedemann Bach PG 25

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