A shilling life will give you all the facts, wrote Auden, and many have echoed him, including more than one writer in The New York Review, but when it comes to Johann Sebastian Bach what you get for twenty-two dollars in the Cambridge Musical Lives Series is a tissue of excellent speculation. Like Shakespeare—and many have made the comparison, including the composer’s latest biographer, Peter Wil-liams—Bach suffers from underdocumentation. The accumulation of every piece of paper mentioning or concerning him during his lifetime, ranging from official documents penned by himself to reviews, lists, testimonials, receipts, and mere name-drops, fits onto two hundred pages in the basic source book, updated a few years ago as The New Bach Reader.
Underdocumentation is almost a leitmotif in Williams’s Life of Bach, which makes as best a virtue as it can out of biographical contingency as a necessary condition for its existence. The sources are particularly chary of personal indications—what Bach was like, why he did what he did—and the crowd of references to him in the years after his death that fill out the Bach Reader are, for Williams, deeply questionable. His skepticism about one fundamental document permeates and indeed organizes his book. This is the obituary written by Bach’s son Carl Philipp Emanuel. Emanuel was Europe’s leading composer of his generation, a writer and intellectual ensconced at the court of Frederick the Great in Berlin, a friend of Lessing’s and a correspondent of Diderot’s. Later Emanuel became a chief informant of J.N. Forkel, author of the vastly influential biography of Bach published in 1802, and translated into English only six years later.
Emanuel had his own agenda, as Williams exhaustively shows. His obituary plants hardy seeds for the reverence that will practically choke Bach biography for 250 years and more. Although Williams wants to break out of this thicket (“perhaps a more realistic approach to his occasional weaknesses can be quite as instructive”), for all the nuances provided by his book the traditional image of Bach the Master remains essentially intact. When this biographer addresses his subject’s ag- grieved, contentious, sometimes almost paranoid character, the main concern seems to be to soften the blows of recent iconoclasts. All Bach wanted, Williams suggests, was for people to get out of his way so he could work, so he could realize his grandiose musical visions. This is hardly a new picture of Bach.
Since authors in the Musical Lives Series do not have a great deal of space to fill—around 80,000 words—Williams has found it possible to structure his whole book around Emanuel’s ten-page obituary. He goes through it paragraph by paragraph, sentence by sentence, extracting subheads for his narrative; this allows him to draw his narrative directly from source material and simultaneously question that material point by point (“interrogate” is the current term of choice). The result, as I have said, is a subtle tissue …