Wilhelm Friedemann Bach (22
November 1710 – 1 July 1784), the second child and eldest
son of Johann Sebastian Bach and Maria Barbara Bach, was a
German composer and performer. Despite his acknowledged
genius as an organist, improviser and composer, his income
and employment were unstable and he died in poverty.
Friedemann (hereafter Friedemann) was born in Weimar, 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 (modern
spelling: Klavierbüchlein für Wilhelm Friedemann Bach), with
entries by both father and son. This education also included
(parts of) 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 16 he went to
Merseburg to learn the violin with his teacher Johann
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 in Leipzig (in
1723), he enrolled Friedemann in the associated Thomasschule.
(J.S. Bach—who had himself been orphaned at the age of
10—said that he took the position in Leipzig partly because
of the educational opportunities it afforded his children).
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. He maintained a lifelong interest in
mathematics, and continued to study it privately during his
first job in Dresden.
Friedemann was appointed in 1733 to the position of organist
of the St. Sophia's Church at Dresden. In competing for the
post he played a new version of his father’s Prelude and
Fugue in G Major, BWV 541. The judge described Friedemann as
clearly superior to the other two candidates. He remained a
renowned organist throughout his life. Among his many pupils
in Dresden was Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, the keyboardist
whose name is erroneously enshrined in the popular nickname
given to J. S. Bach's 1742 publication, “Aria with Diverse
Variations”—that is, “The Goldberg Variations.” The scholar
Peter Williams has discredited the story linking the work to
Goldberg, stating that J. S. Bach wrote the work for the
Russian Ambassador Count Hermann Carl von Keyserlingk, who
would ask his employee, Goldberg, to play variations for him
to ward off insomnia. Williams instead has argued that J.S.
Bach wrote the variations to provide a display piece for
In 1746 Friedemann became organist of the Liebfrauenkirche
at Halle. In 1751, Friedemann married Dorothea Elisabeth
Georgi (1721–1791), who was 11 years his junior and who
outlived him by seven years. Dorothea was the daughter of a
tax collector. The landed estates she inherited caused the
family to be placed in a high tax bracket by Halle
authorities, who were raising taxes to meet the revenue
demands of the Seven Years War. To raise cash for these
payments, she sold part of her property in 1770. 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. The descendents of Friederica Sophia eventually
migrated to Oklahoma.
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, Gottfried
Mittag, who had misappropriated funds that were due to
Friedemann. In 1750 the church authorities reprimanded
Friedemann for overstaying a leave of absence (he was in
Leipzig settling his father's estate). In 1753 he made his
first documented attempt to find another post, and
thereafter made several others. All these attempts failed.
Bach had at least two pupils, Friedrich Wilhelm Rust and
Johann Samuel Petri.
In 1762, he negotiated for the post of Kapellmeister to the
court of Darmstadt; although he protracted the negotiations
for reasons that are opaque to historians and did not
actively take the post, he nevertheless 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; not surprisingly, he died in penury.
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 he
moved to Berlin, where he initially was welcomed by the
princess Anna Amalia (the sister of Frederick the Great),
but later fell into disgrace under still opaque
circumstances. He died in Berlin.
Earlier biographers have concluded that his “wayward” and
difficult personality reduced his ability to gain and hold
secure employment, but the scholar David Schulenberg writes
(in the Oxford Composer Companion: J.S. Bach, ed. Malcolm
Boyd, 1999) that “he may also have been affected by changing
social conditions that made it difficult for a
self-possessed virtuoso to succeed in a church- or
court-related position” (p. 39). Schulenberg adds, “he was
evidently less willing than most younger contemporaries to
compose fashionable, readily accessible music”.
Friedemann Bach was renowned for his improvisatory skills.
It is speculated that when in Leipzig his father's
accomplishments set so high a bar that he focused on
improvisation rather than composition. Evidence adduced for
this speculation includes the fact that his compositional
output increased in Dresden and Halle.
Friedemann’s compositions include many church cantatas and
instrumental works, of which the most notable are the
fugues, polonaises and fantasias for clavier, and the duets
for two flutes. He incorporated more elements of the
contrapuntal style learned from his father than any of his
three composer brothers, but 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's students included Johann Nikolaus Forkel, who
in 1802 published the first biography of Johann Sebastian
Bach; Friedemann, as well as his younger brother Carl
Philipp Emanuel Bach, were major informants for Forkel.
Friedemann has in earlier biographies been called a poor
custodian of his father's musical manuscripts, many of which
he inherited; however, more recent scholars are uncertain
how many were lost. It is known that Friedemann sold some of
his father's collection to raise cash to pay debts
(including a large sale in 1759 to Johann Georg Nacke).
Also, his daughter took some of the Sebastian Bach
manuscripts with her when she moved to America, and these
were passed on to her descendants, who inadvertently
destroyed many of them. Others were passed on through his
only known Berlin pupil, Sarah Itzig Levy, the daughter of a
prominent Jewish family in Berlin and great-aunt of Felix
Mendelssohn; it was she who gave Mendelssohn the manuscript
of the St. Matthew Passion, which she had received from
Friedemann. Some of his scores were collected by Carl
Friedrich Christian Fasch and his pupil Carl Friedrich
Zelter, the teacher of Felix Mendelssohn and through them
these materials were placed in the library of the Sing-Akademie
zu Berlin, which Fasch founded in 1791 and Zelter took
charge of in 1800.
Friedemann is known occasionally to have claimed credit for
music written by his father, 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.
Friedemann himself may have been one of the models for
Diderot's philosophical dialogue Rameau's Nephew (Le Neveu
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