Wednesday, March 14, 2007

The Unbabbling Bach

The painting says so much about the man, doesn’t it? A character, perhaps a bit of a dandy, and prone to moments of humour taken a fraction too far? A clever twinkle in his eye - and yet…the way the shadow from the brim of his hat obscures his other eye…perhaps it’s just the painter’s story…no…is there more to him?

Of course there is – he’s the eldest son of Bach.


According to Eugene Helm in the New Grove Bach Family, Wilhelm Friedemann Bach “was a greatly gifted composer who did not fully set aside his background of contrapuntal training in favour of the new style of the mid-18th Century.”

But – “He led an unstable life and never quite developed his full creative potential.”

I do not know about the latter beyond the biographical details, however, the smattering of his work I have been able to get my hands on demonstrates his remarkable compositional skills. Indeed, of the four sons of J.S. Bach who composed music, I like him the best. If that isn’t a sure sign of genius, I’m not sure what is.

Seriously, his music is quite compelling. So why is there so little of it available? Why does every reference about him talk about him failing to live to his potential, or point to his lack of success?

He has a biography, a thin 31-page work by Martin Falck, a German musicologist who died at 28 years of age, and one of the few scholars to have had access to the recently rediscovered Notenarchiv of the Berlin Sing-Akademie. (This tidbit from the great modern Bach scholar Christoph Wolff in Notes, 58.2 pgs. 259-271)

This little tome by Falck also includes a catalogue of W.F. Bach’s work, securing Falck a sliver of immortality – when citing Bach’s work, his catalogue numbers are used, along with the first initial of his last name, a time-honoured convention in the annals of musicology, rather like naming an axiom or theorem after the mathematician who discovered (or for you constructivists, invented) it.

But why does this massive talent, and J.S. Bach’s son no less, have a short bio and only a handful of journal articles to show for, in a scholarly discipline known for the resurrection and championing of truly mediocre composers?

Put another way, has no one else seen this portrait of him? Can there not be more to the man who sat for this wonderful portrait?

(a sidebar - this was about the best photo I could get of it-


I have a pet theory as to why there is so little out there around his life and work.

Despite the quality of his compositions, the history of classical music, which supplies the narratives the thing we call "classical music" relies so heavily upon, disallow W.F. Bach a place in the canon because he didn’t look after his father’s manuscripts.

I recall a story where he supposedly sold sheets of oh say, that missing St. Mark passion, to fishmongers for wrapping the day’s catch! I'm not sure I need convey the anger with which this story was retold.

How can we, we musicians and historians bound to the cult of Bach, or, to the worship of this most Hegelian of histories, perhaps the most consistently Hegelian in all of the fine arts, where music progresses and tonality develops and not despise the man, the son who didn’t look after his father’s treasures?

That it really a bit of a smirk?

I imply no pettiness on the part of musicologists here, merely the possibility that he’s been overlooked not because of his music, but on account of his actions, actions we can neither explain nor justify.

Or….is there another reason? Something that has nothing to do with his father, and indeed resides in his work? Is it that he was outside the musical styles that emerged in his time? Perhaps, just perhaps, is his style a lost path, a curious synthesis of galant style and classical forms which nonetheless retains counterpoint as an central part of music making?

Was Wilhelm Bach the Beethoven born 60 years too early, at a point in history and the development of musical styles where W.F Bach’s works just don’t make any sense?

I hear some chime in – “Maybe he wasn’t good enough. Are you just trying to pawn some supposedly underrated composer off on us?”

Well, as someone who endures hour after hour of flaccid baroque concerti performed on period instruments on the local commercial classical radio station, the classical marketplace is rarely effective in determining artistic works on their merit. So why not have a listen to him?

Better yet, would it be possible to write a biography of the man? Should I?


Or perhaps I’m just really smitten with that painting, that lovely painting, by far the best painting in the Bach family, by the non-existent Wilhelm Weitch (see note for page 134).

Or maybe it’s that we share a name, Wilhelm Friedemann and I….

You see where all this psychologizing gets you? Maybe that’s why we leave these forays into the lives of interesting people up to the Cristoph Wolffs and Maynard Solomons of the world.

Or maybe not. Hell, why not?


chris miller said...

Aha -- another epigone -- and a very nice portrait as well.

I'll look for W.F. in the shop today -- maybe I'll get to listen to him.

Otto van Karajanstein said...

Thanks - there's an excellent recording of some of his music by Toronto's own Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra on the Sony Classics label.

I wish I could have found a better version of that portrait - it's very compelling.

chris miller said...

It turns out I had four WF Bach recordings open in the store -- and I've been playing them all over the past few days.

It all strikes me as light hearted chamber music -- even the music for organ -- which is such a pleasant contrast to the stuff I remember from church.

The music for flute duets (on the Accord label) was just too precious - into exhausting -- with flutes pattering away to each other like precocious children.

I guess I enjoyed the harpichord music the most (if I can only purge my brain of associations with Lurch on the "Addams family")

Overall -- I think the portrait you've shown is an accurate depiction of this playful man.

Otto van Karajanstein said...

Chris, that's what I really like about you - no hemming and hawing, just dive right in.

There is a playfulness, and an inventiveness- he plays with the forms. Perhaps it's the strange time he was in - taught under the guidance of the living summation of the Baroque style yet reaching a maturity when that style had transformed so completely.

I'd like to see if there's some more poignant music out there by him. I have some of his scores on order from the library.

And I'm glad that you agree that this delightful painting catpures him so well.