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In Search of Bach


Johann Sebastian Bach’s life was notoriously, frustratingly, uneventful. Born in the eastern German town of Eisenach in 1685, Bach was a family man who all his life resided in small, often provincial, towns. He had a few public triumphs—acclaimed appearances as an organ or keyboard performer in Hamburg, Dresden, Berlin, and smaller German cities—but otherwise he hardly traveled. He never went abroad. Bach led a fundamentally private existence devoted to cultivating and perfecting his talent for music, an activity that he considered a divine calling. Beyond his immediate surroundings he apparently had little to do with the intellectual, cultural, or social elite of his time. He had no truly famous friends, or enemies.

To compound the problem for the would-be biographer, we probably know less about Bach’s private life (with the possible exception of Shakespeare’s) than we do about that of any of the other supreme artistic figures of modern history. The surviving documents bearing on his life, whether written by others or by Bach himself, are almost invariably “official” in character: bills, receipts, letters of application, or of appointment or resignation, letters of recommendation, complaints or reprimands to or from employers and other authorities. There are no diaries, no memoirs. Not a single letter from Bach to any of his children, or to his first wife, Maria Barbara, or his second wife, Anna Magdalena, has survived; we may assume that not many were written.1

The effort to find out whatever we can about Johann Sebastian Bach has gone on ever since the publication, four years after his death in 1750, of an obituary written by his son Carl Philipp Emanuel and a former student, Johann Friedrich Agricola. The English translation of the obituary occupies just twelve pages but it already outlines the phases of Bach’s career and recounts most of the anecdotes about him that have become familiar to music lovers. Serious Bach biography, however—indeed serious biography of a musician—was inaugurated with the publication in 1802 of Johann Nikolaus Forkel’s On Johann Sebastian Bach’s Life, Genius and Works, a volume with the subtitle For Patriotic Admirers of True Musical Art.2 This invaluable monograph, the first publication of its kind, offers a remarkably specific description of Bach’s achievements and, drawing on detailed interviews with Bach’s sons C.P.E. and Wilhelm Friedemann, describes Bach’s teaching methods and influences on his style, and portrays an altogether admirable character.

During the nineteenth century Bach biographies became increasingly scholarly, reaching a pinnacle in Philipp Spitta’s still unsurpassed (if superseded) account.3 Conceived on a monumental scale, Spitta’s book not only combined the biographical information available to the author into a readable account, it attempted as well to reconstruct the historical, social, and cultural background against which Bach’s career unfolded. Virtually every work of the master is discussed at generous length and in effusive, largely nontechnical language behind which one recognizes impressive analytical acuity. Moreover, in order to assess Bach’s historical position, Spitta felt obliged to examine the work of Bach’s predecessors. In doing so, he managed to incorporate into his study the first substantial history of seventeenth-century German organ and church music.

For the following eighty years Bach scholarship was largely a matter of adding bricks to Spitta’s seemingly unshakable edifice—that is, until it was shaken to its foundations in the 1950s.4 The two hundredth anniversary of Bach’s death in 1950 inaugurated a period that has produced some of the most impressive achievements in the history of musical scholarship. It began with the publication of a systematic thematic catalog, Wolfgang Schmieder’s Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis (BWV),5 and the decision to prepare a new complete critical edition of Bach’s works, the Neue Bach-Ausgabe (NBA). Work on that edition, only now approaching completion, also led to the development of new empirical methods of examining musical manuscripts, such as paper, ink, and handwriting analysis (previously more typical of disciplines like criminology than musicology). These were used in order to organize the materials and to give the tasks of establishing authenticity and dating sources—indispensable to preparing a responsible scholarlymusical edition—a more reliable basis than largely subjective impression. Such methods have since become indispensable for all musicological “basic” research.

An unexpected and, as it turned out, epochal consequence of this sorting activity was published before the end of the 1950s when Alfred Dürr and Georg von Dadelsen (the Crick and Watson of Bach research), working in friendly rivalry, succeeded in constructing a chronology of virtually the entire corpus of Bach’s vocal music. The chronology was precise enough to date most of Bach’s vocal compositions to within a week.6

The two scholars demonstrated among other things that most of Bach’s Leipzig church cantatas, consisting of some 150 compositions, were not—as had been traditionally thought since Spitta—composed at an even pace during his twenty-seven years in Leipzig as the city’s director of church music, the prestigious “Thomas Cantor.” They were actually written during the first four years of his tenure there. That is, most of them were composed between 1723 and 1727, often at the breathtaking rate of one, sometimes two or even three, compositions per week. These findings completely overturned the conventional view of how a major stretch of Bach’s career developed. It seemed almost as if Bach had been in a hurry to get the job of composing cantatas over with. But if he hadn’t been spending a substantial part of those twenty-seven years composing church music, then what had he been doing? The prevailing understanding of Bach’s life and outlook and artistic development clearly had to be reconsidered.

For the most part, however, Bach scholarship during the next twenty years was devoted mainly to examining systematically the musical and documentary sources, an effort that has added substantially to our knowledge of Bach’s whereabouts, his activities and routines, as well as the origin and evolution of many compositions. By the time of the tercentenary celebrations of Bach’s birth in 1985 these efforts could claim major achievements, although none quite so spectacular again as the chronology of Dürr and Dadelsen.

While all the new information was being amassed and digested, the task of producing a comprehensive reassessment of Bach’s life and work was postponed. In reality, Bach scholars were avoiding this challenge, and they knew it. Inevitably, of course, they would have to risk interpretation. Efforts to understand how all the new discoveries had affected our fundamental conception of Bach’s achievement, in fact, began to appear in the mid-1970s and have been gathering momentum since.

But in the more than forty years since the publication of the new chronology only two significant full-length Bach biographies in English have appeared until now. Both Karl Geiringer’s Johann Sebastian Bach: The Culmination of an Era7 and Malcolm Boyd’s Bach8 are respectable works that acknowledge the state of knowledge at the time of their publication. But neither author possessed sufficiently the familiarity and firsthand involvement with the highly specialized and voluminous research of recent decades that would have been necessary to do justice to the project.


Christoph Wolff, an eminent figure (some might say the preeminent figure) in present-day Bach scholarship, has been at the center of international Bach research and is one of the most prolific contributors to it. He also has had a part in every major discovery of materials bearing on Bach—and controversy over them—of the past twenty-five years. These include Bach’s personal copy of The Goldberg Variations, containing fourteen hitherto unknown canons; thirty-three organ chorale settings dating from Bach’s earliest years; and, most recently, the discovery in Cracow of over five thousand manuscripts missing since World War II and containing important Bach material yet to be fully investigated. While Wolff’s precise contribution to the discovery of these documents has been a matter of often stormy debate, there is no question that it was he who best understood their significance and could demonstrate their authenticity. All in all, no one was better equipped to undertake the by now long overdue full-length and fully rethought biography of Johann Sebastian Bach. His Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician appears in the year that the world commemorates the 250th anniversary of the composer’s death.

Wolff’s volume abundantly succeeds in meeting a major desideratum: integrating the factual findings of the past fifty years into a coherent narrative. His twelve chapters are framed by two complementary essays: a prologue, “Bach and the Notion of ‘Musical Science,”’ and an epilogue, “Bach and the Idea of ‘Musical Perfection.”’ The ultimate purpose of both essays is to justify the book’s subtitle, showing how Bach was “The Learned Musician.”

Like most previous Bach biographies, the book can be characterized as primarily an institutional history and the chronicle of a career. Anyone who has read any of its predecessors will generally know what is going to happen next in this one; from a discussion of Bach’s musical ancestors to his blindness and death, including the well-known anecdotes—from the youthful pilgrimage in the year 1705 to hear the great organist and composer Dietrich Buxtehude in Lübeck to the triumphant appearance at the court of Frederick the Great at Potsdam in 1747. It is by now a familiar tale, although the telling here is certainly more comprehensive and its scholarship more up to date. Wolff describes the elaborate network of the Bach family clan and introduces us to the composer’s colleagues and students. He gives an informative account of Bach’s routines, duties, and sources of income at his various posts, and he supplies much detail about the structures, functions, and dramatis personae of the church, municipal, and court establishments Bach worked for. We are provided with the particulars of school curriculums, church liturgies, archival repertories.

Wolff is particularly resourceful in reconstructing Bach’s early whereabouts and musical experiences. He credits the Hamburg composer Johann Adam Reinken with having had a much greater influence on Bach’s early development than has hitherto been recognized, particularly in improving Bach’s command of invertible counterpoint and presumably introducing him to the musical repertoire of the North German composers. He stresses that the young musician’s accomplishments as an organist and a composer before obtaining his first professional position at Arnstadt in 1703 must have been far more considerable than previously recognized. He argues plausibly that the Brandenburg Concertos, despite the date of 1721 on the title page, were not composed while Bach lived in Cöthen, between 1717 and 1723, but years earlier, in Weimar, along with many other, now lost, instrumental ensemble compositions.

Wolff is also imaginative in detecting the motives and machinations of colleagues and employers. He describes, for example, “a scheme” by which Bach’s patron at the court of Cöthen, Prince Leopold, arranged a job offer from a distant court for Bach’s predecessor as Kapellmeister, Augustin Stricker, in order to “ease him out of Cöthen to make room for Bach”—a princely maneuver eminently worthy of an Ivy League dean.

In its account of the composer’s personality and character Wolff’s book belongs squarely to the nineteenth-century tradition of inspirational, indeed hagiographical, composer biographies. It portrays Bach as a sym- pathetic hero endowed not only with almost superhuman abilities but with a virtuous and largely unblemished character; and it sees Bach as a man repeatedly misunderstood, mistreated, and unappreciated.

  1. 1

    Some years ago the American Bach scholar Arthur Mendel was asked by a film producer to serve as an expert consultant for a projected movie about Bach. Mendel advised him not to bother. You could not make a film about Bach’s life: there was nothing exciting about it—except for his fathering of twenty children, and you couldn’t show that.

  2. 2

    Both the obituary and Forkel’s biography are published in The New Bach Reader, originally edited by Hans T. David and Arthur Mendel, recently revised and enlarged by Christoph Wolff (Norton, 1998).

  3. 3

    Philipp Spitta, Johann Sebastian Bach (Leipzig: Breitkopf & Härtel, 1873- 1880). An English version was published soon after (London: Novello & Co., 1884-1885; reprinted Dover, 1951).

  4. 4

    Among the notable works in the Bach literature of that period are the biographies by Albert Schweitzer (Leipzig: Breitkopf & Härtel, 1908), and the English Bach scholar Charles Sanford Terry (Oxford University Press, revised edition, 1933), as well as the numerous articles and books written during the 1920s through the early 1940s by Arnold Schering, the longtime editor of the authoritative Bach Jahrbuch.

  5. 5

    Bach’s works have been identified ever since by their “BWV” or (identical) “S” numbers.

  6. 6

    Alfred Dürr, Studien über die frühen Kantaten Johann Sebastian Bachs (Wiesbaden: Breitkopf & Härtel, 1951) and Zur Chronologie der Leipziger Vokalwerke J.S. Bachs (first published in the Bach-Jahrbuch, 1957), and Georg von Dadelsen, Beiträge zur Chronologie der Werke Johann Sebastian Bachs (Trossingen: Hohner, 1958).

  7. 7

    Oxford University Press, 1966.

  8. 8

    Schirmer Books, 1983; revised 1997.

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