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Bach, Wilhelm Friedrich Ernstlocked

  • Christoph Wolff
  •  and Ulrich Leisinger

Member of Bach family

(84) (b Bückeburg, May 24, 1759; d Berlin, Dec 25, 1845). Keyboard player and composer, son of (11) Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach. He was baptized on 27 May, with Count Wilhelm von Schaumburg-Lippe standing godfather. W.F.E. Bach was musically educated by his father and Christian Friedrich Geyer, Kantor of the Stadtkirche, Bückeburg. In 1778 he went with his father to London and remained there in the care of his uncle (12) J.C. Bach, making a name for himself as a pianist and keyboard teacher. He appeared at one of the Bach-Abel concerts in Hanover Square as early as 6 December 1778, playing a sonata of his own, and his first keyboard and chamber works were published by leading English firms. Some time after the death of his uncle on 1 January 1782, W.F.E. Bach returned to Germany. His route took him through Paris and the Netherlands, where he met the publisher J.J. Hummel in Amsterdam, and then to north Germany, where he gave concerts in Oldenburg and elsewhere. According to his own account, he stayed for some time with his uncle (9) C.P.E. Bach in Hamburg before settling in 1784 in Minden, near Bückeburg. He seems to have given himself the title of Musikdirektor, since there is no evidence that such a post actually existed. His position, however, allowed him to perform dramatic works and cantatas (probably including compositions by his father). He received particular encouragement from the Kammerpräsident Franz Wilhelm Traugott von Breitenbauch (1739–96), whose daughter Antoinette (b 1766) was probably his pupil. Cantatas in celebration of the royal house of Prussia, performed in 1786 and 1788, secured for Bach a post in Berlin, where he arrived at the end of March or beginning of April 1789. There he succeeded Christian Kalkbrenner (1755–1806) as Kapellmeister to the widowed Queen Elisabeth Christine and he also taught keyboard to Queen Friederike. From 1798 at the latest he was employed as teacher ‘to the reigning Queen [Luise] and all the brothers and sisters of the King [Friedrich Wilhelm III]’, as he put it in a letter to W.C. Müller on 14 May 1830.

Bach’s salary in Berlin was a modest one, and in a letter of 15 October 1809 to the privy councillor and Oberpräsident von Altenstein, now lost, he dwelt on his poverty-stricken situation. It was improved only by a pension of 300 thaler thought to have been granted by Prince Heinrich in 1811 after the death of Queen Luise. Thereupon Bach, who had previously played an active part in Berlin concerts as a keyboard virtuoso and violinist, retired from public life. In 1843 he was present at the ceremonial unveiling of the J.S. Bach monument in Leipzig. He was twice married and had four children. He was survived by his second wife and an unmarried daughter from each marriage, one of them a good soprano and the other an alto.

W.F.E. Bach was a stylish if not outstandingly talented composer. His extant works are varied and substantial, but too many have been lost for a true assessment to be made. Apart from the few that were printed, they remained confined to the courts of Berlin and Bückeburg, which he regularly supplied with compositions until the death of Princess Juliane in 1799. Contrary to previous assumptions, most of the surviving works date from his Berlin period. Those written in London show him as a typical representative of the early London pianoforte school in the tradition of J.C. Bach and Clementi, while of the occasional cantatas written in Minden, only one survives (in vocal score). In Berlin he composed, as well as orchestral works for Queen Christine Elisabeth’s Kapelle, a great many pedagogical keyboard pieces for two, four or occasionally even six hands. The keyboard works are typical of early Romantic music, while the vocal compositions in particular are notable for a sense of humour and irony; they include, for instance, a Concerto buffo, probably composed for his royal pupils, which employs toy instruments and features a singing Kapellmeister, probably Bach himself. Some of the songs and keyboard pieces which circulated at the turn of the century, either singly or in collections, were very popular. From his Minden period onwards Bach was associated with freemasonry, and wrote several masonic songs. He apparently closed his career as a composer in 1822 with the publication of 12 grandes variations on the folksong ‘Gestern Abend war Vetter Michel da’, bearing in the autograph manuscript the title Reminiscences, ou XII Grandes variations sur un air allemand populaire, with a dedication to two of his former royal pupils. However, he is said to have written an overture of rejoicing for Prince Heinrich the year before his death.

The extant compositions do not support claims by Ledebur and others that Bach was an adherent of the strict style and despised modern music; there has probably been some confusion here with Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, who was almost certainly also the composer of the strongly contrapuntal Trio in G major for two flutes and viola, published as W.F.E. Bach’s by Rudolf Ermeler. Bach’s modest and unassuming nature was an obstacle to a wide distribution of his compositions, and he was soon forgotten after his retirement in 1811.


  • Christoph Wolff


4 Progressive Lessons and 2 Duets (London, 1782) [also attrib. J.C. Bach]

5 Sonatas and 1 Duett (London, c1785) [also attrib. J.C. Bach]

6 sonates (Berlin, ?1796)

16 pieces, in F.F. Franz, ed.: Musikalisches Journal (Berlin, 1799–1800)

Tempo di minuetto, with 7 variations, S-Smf* (Berlin, ?c1800), print lost

2 pieces, in Apollo, v (Stockholm, 1805–6)

12 pieces, in Monatsfrüchte für Klavier (Berlin, n.d.)

XII grandes variations sur un air allemand populaire (Berlin, 1822)

Amusement [Sonata, Andante with variation, Sonatina, Walzer, Sonatina], D-B*; Das Dreyblatt, pf 6 hands, GB-Lbl*; Divertimento, Lbl*; Doppelsonate, by 1805, lost; Variations on God save Frederick our King, doubtful, Lbl; Grand Sonata, E♭, 1778, Lbl*; Grand Walzer, D, D-B*; Le melancholique, GB-Lbl*; Minuet, D, CH-SObo; Variations, C, GB-Lbl*; 6 Waltzer, D-B*, 3 ed. K. Geiringer (Vienna, 1936)


6 sonates, C, D, B♭, E♭, F, G, pf, vn (Berlin, c1781)

3 sonates, C, B, E♭, pf, vn (Berlin and Amsterdam, c1789)

6 Sonatas, C, D, F, B, E, A, pf, vn, vc (London, n.d.)

nos.1, 2 ed. F. Goebels (Wolfenbüttel, 1986)

Divertimento, E♭, cl, 2 hn, vn, va, vc, GB-Lbl*; Fantasia, E♭, fl, cl, 2 hn, 2 vn, va, vc, D-B; Parthie, E♭, 2 fl, 2 ob, 2 cl, 2 bn, 2 hn, GB-Lbl*; Sestetto, E♭, cl, 2 hn, vn, va, vc, D-B,GB-Lbl*, ed. K. Janetzky (Halle, 1951)

Sinfonia, C, D-B*; Sinfonia, C, GB-Lbl*

Lost, listed in Bückeburg inventory, 1799: Divertimento, E♭; Qt, ? pf, str


Ballet-pantomime (ov., 43 dance movts), GB-Lbl*; Conc., E, 2 kbd, orch, D-B; Overture, D, 1793, private collection, USA; Sinfonia, C, private collection, USA; 2 syms., C, G, GB-Lbl*


3 concs., G, E, E♭, kbd, orch, formerly D-B; Jubel-Ouverture, 1844, mentioned in obituary; Sinfonia, C, listed in Bückeburg inventory, 1799

2 intermezzos, C, D, listed in Bückeburg inventory, 1799

Largo, A, kbd, orch, doubtful, formerly D-B; 2 ovs., B♭, E♭, doubtful, listed in EitnerQ


Auswahl [7] deutscher und [2] französischer Lieder und Arietten (Berlin, c1798)

Etwas lieben und entbehren (An Lauren), in Blumenkranz dem neuen Jahrhundert (Berlin, 1800)

Berlinade, oder Lindenlied (F. Monti) (Berlin, n.d.)

Freude, schöner Götterfunken, ode (F. Schiller) (Berlin, n.d.), lost

Rheinweinlied (C. Müchler) (Berlin, n.d.)

Ruf zur Freude, Lbl*; Seid gegrüsst, ihr grün bemooste Hügel (C.F.D. Schubart), in J.C.F. Bach, ed.: Musikalische Nebenstunden (Rinteln, 1787)

1 other in J.M. Böheim: Auswahl von Maurer-Gesängen, iii (Berlin, 1814)

Cavatines, ?S, orch, lost, listed in Bückeburg inventories, 1799, 1865

6 It. arias (Metastasio and others), S, orch, by ?1799, lost, listed in Bückeburg inventory, 1865, some listed in estate catalogue of J.F. Reichart (Berlin, 1815)

Oue des maux loin de toi, S, orch, by ?1799, lost, listed in Bückeburg inventory, 1865

3 romances, lost, listed in Bückeburg inventories, 1799, 1865


Als einst die Gottheit Völker zu beglücken (Martini), cant. for birthday of Queen Luise of Prussia, ? perf. Berlin/Minden, 10 March 1793/4, music lost

Er segnet Au, er segnet Felder, cant., D-BO; 3 Gedichte (Kahlert), T, pf (Leipzig, n.d.), ? by A.W. Bach; Lobsingt dem Gott der Ernte, cant., BO; song, in F.F. Hůrka, ed.: Auswahl maurerischer Gesänge (n.p., c1803)


Stabat mater, ? by 1784, lost, mentioned in Meusel

Colma (Ossian), perf. Minden, 1 May 1785, music lost

Der edelsten Freude geweihet (S.F. Martini), cant. for birthday of Friedrich II of Prussia, perf. Minden, 24 Jan 1786, music lost

Liesst von unsrer Wang herab (Martini), cant. for birthday of Friedrich II of Prussia, perf. Minden, 10 Sept 1786, music lost

Kommt vor sein Angesicht mit Jauchzen (Martini), cant. for installation of Friedrich Wilhelm II of Prussia, perf. Minden, 28 Oct 1786, music lost

Triumph, Triumph, Westphalia (Martini), cant. for visit of Friedrich Wilhelm II, perf. Minden, 5 June 1788, A-Wn*, vs (Rinteln, 1791)

Wer spricht es aus, was wir verloren haben (Martini), funeral cant. for Pastor Wesselmann, perf. Minden, 6 Feb 1789, music lost

Vater unser (S.A. Mahlmann), T, B. choir, orch, by 1799, GB-Lbl*; ed. in Stuttgarter Bach-Ausgaben, ser.A, v, suppl. (Stuttgart, c1977)

Der Theaterprinzipal, by 1809, lost, mentioned in AMZ, xii (1809–10)

Auf muntere Zecher, T, B, pf, D-B

Columbus, oder Die Entdeckung von Amerika (after F. Schiller), T, B, chorus, orch, GB-Lbl*

Concerto buffo, B, pf, toy insts, *Lbl

Der Schmerz, der Trost (Erinnerung an Schillers Sterbetag), 4vv, pf, Lbl*

Der Wechselschlag, lost, listed in estate catalogue of W.H. Cummings (London, 1917)

Durchs Leben führt so mancher Pfad (Der Pfad des Lebens), T, T, B, pf, D-B, GB-Lbl*

L’amour est un bien suprême; Ninfe se liete: S, orch, Lbl*

Schön o schön ist diese Welt (Die Ruhe des Lebens) – Sie lebt (Der Dichter und der Komponist), T, B, pf, *Lbl

Wie sehr lieb ich mein Mädchen nicht (Der Vorsatz), 4vv, pf, Lbl*


  • C. von Lederbur: Tonkünstler-Lexicon (Berlin, 1861/R)
  • J.G. Meusel: Teutsches Künstlerlexikon (Lemgo, 1778, 2/1808–14)
  • Neuer Nekrolog der Deutschen, 23 (Weimar,1847)
  • H. Miesner: ‘Urkundliche Nachrichten über die Familie Bach in Berlin’, BJb 1932, 157–63
  • G. Hey: ‘Zur Biographie Johann Friedrich Bachs und seiner Familie’, BJb 1933, 77–85
  • K. Geiringer: The Bach Family: Seven Generations of Creative Genius (London, 1954; Ger. trans., enlarged, 1958; enlarged 2/1977)
  • H. Wohlfahrt: ‘Wilhelm Friedrich Ernst Bach: Werkverzeichnis’, Schaumburg-Lippische Mitteilungen, 16 (1964), 27–32
  • J.K. von Schroeder: ‘Verschollene Werke von Wilhelm Friedrich Ernst Bach, Musikdirektor in Minden’,Mindener Mitteilungen 1965, 171–2
  • M. Jahrmärker: Ossian, eine Figur und eine Idee des europäischen Musiktheaters um 1800(Cologne, 1993)
  • U. Leisinger: ‘Wilhelm Friedrich Ernst Bach, der letzte musikalische Enkel Johann Sebastian Bachs’,Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach (1732–1795): ein Komponist zwischen Barock und Klassik, Niedersächsisches Staatsarchiv, 8 June – 11 Aug 1995 (Bückeburg, 1995) [exhibition catalogue], 71–82, 127–34 [incl. list of works]
  • A. Rockstroh: ‘Der Hofkapellmeister, Cembalist und Musiklehrer der Königlichen Familie: zum 150. Todestag von Wilhelm Friedrich Ernst Bach, dem letzten musikalischen Enkel Johann Sebastian Bachs’, Neue berlinische Musikzeitung, 10/2 (1995), 97–102
Solothurn, Bischöfliches Ordinariat der Diözese Basel, Diözesanarchiv des Bistums Basel
E.L. Gerber: Neues historisch-biographisches Lexikon der Tonkünstler
E.L. Gerber: Historisch-biographisches Lexikon der Tonkünstler
Vienna, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Musiksammlung
London, British Library
Bollstedt, Evangelische Kirchengemeinde, Pfarrarchiv
Stockholm, Stiftelsen Musikkulturens Främjande