Wilhelm Friedemann Bach

Wilhelm Friedemann Bach

Wilhelm Friedemann Bach was born on 22 November 1710 and was the eldest son of Johann Sebastian Bach. He received an extensive education at first the Lutheran grammar school in Köthen (from 1717) and then St Thomas’s School in Leipzig from 1723, followed by the University of Leipzig, where he enrolled in 1729 to study law, philosophy and mathematics. In around 1727, he took violin lessons with Johann Gottlieb Graun, and six years later he was appointed organist at St Sophia’s Church in Dresden. However, his first attempts at composition began in his childhood, when he received music lessons from his father. As a result, by the age of just ten he was able to write the Clavier-Büchlein vor Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, which contained subsequent entries until 1725/26. Between 1724 and 1726, he is also known to have worked as a copyist for his father’s cantata parts.


W. F. Bach’s nickname »the Halle Bach« is owed to his decision to accept the job of music director and organist at the Church of Our Lady in Halle in April 1746 – a position which was very similar to that of his father in Leipzig; indeed, he even performed some of his father’s cantatas. He also taught in Halle (just as he had in Dresden, where one of his pupils had been Johann Gottlieb Goldberg). And in addition, he was placed in charge of the Stadtsingechor, the town choir.


With his first wife, Dorothea Elisabeth Georgi (c.1725–1791), W. F. Bach had three children, of whom only his daughter Friederica Sophia reached adulthood; Wilhelm Adolf and Gotthilf Wilhelm died when they were children.


In 1763, Wilhelm Friedemann Bach received an offer to succeed Christoph Graupner as kapellmeister in Hesse-Darmstadt. Despite turning it down and remaining in Halle, he was still permitted to use the title »Hessen-Darmstadt Kapellmeister«. Initially, his talent for improvisation was sufficient to earn him fame and glory, including within his family. For example, we know that Carl Philipp Emanuel once declared that Wilhelm Friedemann was better able to replace their father than the rest of his offspring put together. In terms of his originality of thought, he was stylistically closer than his brothers to J. S. Bach. This is doubtless partly due to the fact that between 1736 and 1739, Wilhelm Friedemann was the only one of his siblings to perform sophisticated counterpoint exercises and discuss compositional problems with their father.


Nevertheless – or perhaps because of this – in 1764 W. F. Bach resigned his post in Halle as his dissatisfaction grew. However, his desire to earn a living without permanent employment by means of recitals, teaching and compositions led to the rapid deterioration of his finances. He used his new-found freedom to move from place to place in quick succession. For example, he moved to Brunswick in 1770, went to Berlin in 1774, and visited Johann Nikolaus Forkel in Göttingen. However, he failed to find his feet there, applying in vain for positions as organist in both Brunswick and Wolfenbüttel. Bach can hence be regarded as one of the first people to try and make a living as a freelance musician, even if not necessarily by choice. At that time, the social conditions for freelance musicians in Germany were still in their infancy – and Bach never managed to escape his straitened finances.

He saw a glimmer of hope in the period spanning 1774 to 1776, when he performed several successful organ recitals, boosting his excellent reputation, and Princess Anna Amalia, the sister of Frederick the Great of Prussia, pledged to support him. Hoping to be offered a permanent position at the court, he is said to have plotted against Johann Philipp Kirnberger, Prussian kapellmeister and Anna Amalia’s composition teacher. However, this attempt to drive Kirnberger from office resulted in the Princess’s financial assistance being withdrawn. Wilhelm Friedemann’s attempts to satisfy Anna Amalia’s conservative musical tastes meant he was cold-shouldered by his contemporaries. Denied recognition, in 1784 the destitute composer died in Berlin at the age of seventy-three and was buried in Luisenstadt Cemetery. The position of his grave, which was lost when the graveyard was levelled after the Second World War, is now marked by a stela bearing a portrait of Wilhelm Friedemann Bach.


After his death, Wilhelm Friedemann Bach’s name suffered from the one-sided view that many of his contemporaries had had of him in his autumn years. Albert Emil Brachvogel’s novel Wilhelm Friedemann Bach insinuated that he was no stranger to absentmindedness, belligerence or drunkenness, and that he was rather immodest – fabrications under which the composer’s reputation suffered for a long time to come. It wasn’t until the rediscovery of a large section of his work, part of a long-lost archive from the Berlin Singakademie which was tracked down in Kiev by Christoph Wolff in 1999, that significant progress could be made to find out more about Wilhelm Friedemann Bach and his works.


To mark the tercentenary of the birth of Johann Sebastian’s eldest son in 2010, an eleven-volume scholarly critical edition of all the surviving works of Wilhelm Friedemann Bach was published by Peter Wollny and the Leipzig Bach Archive with the kind support of the Packard Humanities Institute. And two years later, a new thematic and systematic catalogue of his works also compiled by Peter Wollny was published, replacing the previous index by Martin Falck.