Resuscitating W.F. Bach

Most general histories of music blow past J.S. Bach’s eldest son like a bellows to a dust bunny. Wilhelm Friedemann (1710-84) gets a passing mention in Richard Crocker’s classic A History of Musical Style, if only to point out his failure to “find the proper stylistic framework to support a steady output.”* This is more than WF (to use Taruskin’s nickname) gets in the current edition of Burkholder, Grout, and Palisca, where his name isn’t even mentioned. Even more specialized studies, such as Giorgio Pestelli’s The Age of Mozart and Beethoven, only generalize, once again noting his stylistic waffling between Baroque and the more modern galant and empfindsamer (sentimental) styles. Pestelli also mentions WF’s quirky character (“changeable, discontented and prickly,” 22), the other bane to both his career and his legacy to history.

Enter Richard Taruskin. At the start of Chapter 9, “The Comic Style,” RT (to continue using Taruskin’s nickname system) promises that he will not follow the traditional historical path trying to connect the dots from JS Bach and Handel directly to Haydn and Mozart. Instead he will deal with the so-often-forgotten-or-at-least-hurried-through-so-we-can-get-to-the-good-stuff generation in between. He makes good on that promise right away by contributing a nine-page analysis of a keyboard sonata by—you guessed it—none other than our forgotten WF. Nine pages? you ask. In a general history of music? This must be a first.**

What is gained by RT’s detailed hash-through of the 1st movement of WF’s Sonata in F (Falck catalogue no. 6)? First, we actually get to see the stylistic hodge-podge that so many historians reference. It’s all in there: JS-like canon, galant rhythms, motivic proliferation and contrast. But most importantly to RT, there is an overall structure to the piece that plays with symmetry in structure and harmony, with periodic outbursts that destroy the prevailing texture, melody, and phrase length. This schism comes—and this is important—at the FOP (or “far out point” in the harmony—RT and his abbreviations!). After the music travels abroad harmonically and motivically, there is a double return of the “home” harmony and the opening melodic motive.

RT points out that, as opposed to D. Scarlatti, for whom it was anomalous, the double return was standard for WF. He then makes the connection (with a historical perspective that WF never had) that this was central to the thinking of Haydn’s generation: “Indeed, it would not be much of an exaggeration to dub the whole later eighteenth century the Age of the Double Return, so definitive did the gesture become.” (II, 407)

There is the connection between the dots. So maybe we should give WF another listen. His sonata in A is as fine a place to start as any:

*Richard Crocker, A History of Musical Style, 369.

**If there’s a comparable passage in a general history, I’d love to know!

5 Comments

  1. Flute players have been aware of WF’s genius for decades. I’ve often wondered why he gets neglected. So I’m glad to see someone other than a flute player acknowledge the neglected WF. And I’m also glad to see your blog post about this.

    — kp

  2. Thanks for the comment, Kim. It seems that at least part of the reason he’s been neglected is because it’s hard to make him fit within an overarching narrative of style, so historians just don’t know what to do with him—and not many have 3800 some-odd pages to work with like Taruskin.

    The other reason—his quirky personality—seems the very same that could have encouraged rather than stymied his fame not long after. I can think of at least one other “discontented and prickly” composer two generations after WF for whom it was a boon.

  3. Which sonata is this one? I was trying to find the music, and I can not find one in the A major key signature.

    Also, do you know anything about the thema regium that Friedrich gave JS Bach for the Musikalische Opfer? I have found a piece by Paisiello dedicated to Catherine the Great that uses the theme, and a sonata by Friedrich Wilhelm Rust uses the theme for the first and third movements. Who else has used this theme? Who can an inquire of?

    Thank you.

    1. Dear Tony in San Diego,
      WF’s music was catalogued by M. Falck, and he listed this piece as sonata no. 8. If you can get to a good music library, you could find it there with a bit of digging. (I’m sure UCSD’s would have it, and even if you’re not a student there you can still view it.) Here’s the citation if it’ll help:

      M. Falck: ‘Thematisches Verzeichnis der Kompositionen Wilhelm Friedemann Bachs’, Wilhelm Friedemann Bach: Sein Leben und seine Werke (Leipzig, 1913)

      I don’t know any other pieces that use JS’s theme off hand. I would search all the normal places (Grove’s, J-STOR, library catalogues). Another place you might strike gold is good liner notes for recordings of the pieces you listed. Happy hunting!

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