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.

Wolff takes little notice of modern developments in biographical writing about creative genius, such as the psychological approaches pioneered by Freud and Erik Erikson and applied to composers by Maynard Solomon (Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert), Stuart Feder (Ives), and others. Perhaps he believes that in view of the dearth of primary personal documents such an interpretation would be futile. Perhaps, like many other Bach admirers, he considers it offensive. After all, Bach intimidates us as no other composer does. His supreme, iconic stature makes us unwilling or unable to assess him or his music critically.

The present volume, then, like most of the vast literature, makes little attempt to demythologize Johann Sebastian Bach—that is, to sympathetically recognize his frailties. To be fair, in dealing with Bach’s career Wolff recognizes his powerful ambition, his preoccupation with money and status, his worldly acumen, and his willingness to advance his self-interest by all available means (usually through his extensive family connections). But we are surely ready by now for a more probing inquiry; the surviving documents, as recalcitrant as they are, can be made to shed more light on Bach the man than might at first appear.

To begin with, we must not cleanse the sources. For example, in 1705, Bach was brought before the church consistory in Arnstadt to answer a complaint that he had drawn his sword against a student named Geyersbach and called him a Zippelfaggotist. This term is translated by Wolff as “greenhorn bassoonist,” a phrase that fails to capture the pungency and vulgarity of the original. According to the Deutsches Wörterbuch of the Brothers Grimm (the OED of the German language), Zippel, in Thuringian dialect and elsewhere, was a designation for the male member.9 Bach was calling Geyersbach, to his face, “a prick of a bassoonist.”

Moreover, Wolff informs us that a youthful wedding composition, the “Quodlibet,” BWV 524, has “a parodistic text and a plethora of coarse allusions.” He refrains, however, from providing any examples. Nor does he even report that Bach wrote a wedding poem, in doggerel, of rather dubious taste; this was entered by Anna Magdalena Bach into her famous musical album.10

As the Geyersbach incident reveals, there was an unmistakably harsh edge to Bach’s personality. He was in fact confrontational and insubordinate all his life. The documents, including his own letters, reveal from the beginning a pervasive sense of persecution and an attitude of spiteful defiance toward authority. While still in Arnstadt he was reprimanded for overstaying a four-week leave by twelve weeks. In requesting his dismissal in 1708 from his next, rather good, post in Mühlhausen after only a year, Bach complains about inadequate pay (another constant theme in the Bach correspondence, although, as Wolff shows, he usually was far better paid than his predecessors or colleagues in the same position) and about working in the midst of “hindrance” and “vexation” (a term he would again use decades later).

In Leipzig Bach was clearly the servant of too many masters. One by one he antagonized them all. The first dozen years or so of his tenure as the Thomas Cantor seem to have been a succession of bureaucratic battles over turf. In 1725 he was at odds with the university, in 1728 with the church authorities, in 1736 with the school administration. More than once Bach was willing not only to confront his superiors but to carry his complaints to the King, who no doubt wondered whether the Thomas Cantor was mad, bothering him with parochial grievances about payments for university performances or the choice of hymns for the service. In 1730 Bach was formally criticized by the city council for neglecting his teaching duties. One Burgomaster reported that he had “spoken with the Cantor, Bach, but he shows little inclination to work.” Bach was sulking in his tent. In October of that year he writes to a childhood friend that “I must live amid almost continual vexation, envy, and persecution.” Even in the letter of 1733 accompanying his dedication of the B-minor Mass to King Frederick Augustus II, Bach complains that he has “had to suffer one injury or another.”

Wolff faithfully reports all these events in detail. But like his predecessors, he is fundamentally an apologist for the Cantor and, taking Bach’s own cue, describes him as an unjustly wronged, embattled hero. He leaves us asking how we are to account for the repeated pattern of belligerence, distrust, and defiance in Bach’s life. Ascribing it to the prerogatives and idiosyncrasies of genius will not do. Like Joseph Haydn, Bach spent much of his life in tenured security, a system predicated on unquestioned deference to powerful authorities. Yet Haydn remained genial enough.

The decisive fact about Bach’s formative years is that he was an orphan. By the time he was ten both parents were dead: they had died within a year of each other. Shortly after the death of his father the family broke up, and the ten-year-old Sebastian, along with his thirteen-year-old brother, were taken in by his brother Johann Christoph, the oldest of the surviving siblings. The catastrophic loss of his parents—no doubt experienced by the child as abandonment and betrayal—understandably put the boy on his guard; for the rest of his life evidently he had a “basic distrust,” to use Erik Erikson’s phrase, of an unreliable, even treacherous world. Under such circumstances, it is readily apparent, too, why Bach would have been drawn to religion, especially to the Lutheran religion with its message of personal faith and salvation, along with its determined rejection and distrust of the world, its pleasures, covenants, rules, and rulers.

While Wolff meticulously records the deaths of Bach’s parents, siblings, children, and first wife, he does not examine the powerful presence of death in Bach’s consciousness or its importance in his church music. Indeed, he pays little attention to the texts of Bach’s two hundred church cantatas, nor—more surprisingly still—does he deeply explore Bach’s religious views. Some of the most impressive Bach research in recent years has been devoted to Bach’s treatment of the theological issues addressed in his church music—and even in his instrumental music.11 Wolff largely ignores this line of inquiry—paying scant attention, for example, to Bach’s own annotated copy of a Lutheran Bible commentary (a three-volume work that came to light during the 1960s in, of all places, the library of Concordia College, St. Louis.)12 Examining Bach’s religiosity very closely seems to make Wolff almost as uncomfortable as inquiring too closely about the composer’s erotic life or his use of vulgar language.


For the most part Wolff discusses Bach’s music in general terms, offering intelligent surveys of his different repertoires rather than detailed analyses of particular works, although some major works, such as the Saint John and Saint Matthew Passions, The Goldberg Variations, The Art of Fugue, and the B-minor Mass, receive particular attention. His summary characterizations, moreover, can be illuminating.

In describing The Well-Tempered Clavier, for example, Wolff remarks that one of the goals of this celebrated collection of preludes and fugues in all twelve major and minor keys is to juxtapose “two fundamentally different kinds of polyphonic musical settings:improvisatory and free-style scoring in the preludes versus thematically controlled and strict contrapuntal voice leading in the fugues.” Regarding the cantatas written during Bach’s first year in Leipzig, he notes that “a major focus” was “the development of his opening cantata choruses…. In these expansive movements, the orchestral and choral sections become fully integrated (as opposed to the traditional separation of instrumental introduction and choral complex).”

However, Wolff’s discussion of the Trias harmonica (harmonic triad), BWV 1072—a brief eight-part canon derived entirely from the first five notes of the C-major scale rendered in order from C to G and back—is the analytic tour de force of the volume. While not entirely avoiding over-interpretation, Wolff brilliantly argues that the canon should be construed as a scientific treatise, Bach’s “philosophy of music as governed by the principle of counterpoint.” It is a demonstration of the nature of musical con-sonance and dissonance, of the nature of musical time and space, and of

how counterpoint generates harmony and rhythm and how the abstract philosophical concepts of space and time coalesce in a concrete musical subject to create the trias harmonica naturalis, the C-major triad, which is the only truly perfect chordal harmony.

The analysis in fact functions as a major intellectual and ideological pillar in Wolff’s case for Bach the Learned Musician.

What is missing here, as from virtually all writing on Bach’s music, is a willingness to make critical judgments. Superlatives abound. But not all of Bach’s music is equally perfect. We need to dare to uncover and to contemplate Bach’s shortcomings as a composer. Of course we all know that great composers never write bad music: they write great music and sometimes pieces that are “problematic.”

That said, we must acknowledge, for example, the uneven quality of much of Bach’s solo vocal music, particularly the Italianate arias in operatic style that predominate in the cantatas of the early Leipzig period. This is a subject that can only be touched on here. Part of the explanation for their unevenness is really an obvious and valid excuse: they were written under the unimaginable time pressures of the weekly rate of composition—a severe strain, we can be sure, even on the inspiration and imaginative powers of Johann Sebastian Bach. But there is more to it. Bach’s early training was as a choirboy; he was brought up on motets and hymns. Unlike Handel he never went to Italy—why not? we may ask—and was never immersed in the operatic style that was about to invade German church music. Moreover, like Haydn and Beethoven, as opposed to Handel and Mozart, Bach was by predisposition an instrumental composer, and an instrumental composer’s natural inclination—to oversimplify—is to generate compositions out of a single motif or governing idea, such as a ritornello theme. The procedure can become tedious when the motif or theme is connected to words or phrases that are then repeated verbatim numerous times.

Throughout his book Wolff puts much of his emphasis on Bach as a “learned musician,” the musical “academic”—a “scholar,” even a “scientist,” engaging in “musical research.” The characterizations seem exaggerated, more a symptom of a modern professorial identification with Bach than a historical observation. There is no question about the intellectual complexity of Bach’s music. Bach himself characterized it as “incomparably harder and more intricate” than that of his contemporaries. Moreover, it is true that Bach was already compared with Isaac Newton in the eighteenth century. But this was really only to acknowledge that he was a “genius of the highest order”—just as brilliant people today are sometimes compared with Einstein. When the eighteenth-century critic Christian Friedrich Daniel Schubart asserts that “what Newton was as philosopher, Bach was as musician,” he is not implying that Bach was a scientist any more than that Newton was a musician. It is no different from the cliché that “Beethoven is the Shakespeare (or Rembrandt) of music.” More telling is C.P.E. Bach’s report to Forkel that his father “was no lover of dry mathematical stuff.”

It is significant, in this connection, that Bach, unlike his Weimar colleague and cousin Johann Gottfried Walther, did not write a dictionary of music or, like his son Emanuel, a treatise on playing keyboard instruments. Bach realized that he was not a writer or academic intellectual. His prose is unusually awkward and convoluted, even by the standards of his day; and it is no surprise that he found a surrogate, the rhetorician Johann Abraham Birnbaum, to fight his literary battles for him and reply to the criticism leveled at him by the music journalist Johann Adolph Scheibe. Surely in accord with Bach’s wishes, Birnbaum referred to him in his polemical articles not by his academic title as the “Thomas Cantor”but as the “Royal Court Composer and Capellmeister.” (Bach also liked to be characterized as a “virtuoso.”)

During his Leipzig years Bach was indeed nominally an “academic”: a member of the faculty of the St. Thomas School and even what we would describe today as an “adjunct professor” at the university. He belonged to the same professional social class as his academic colleagues and had daily contact with them. Some of them served as godparents for his children—very likely a matter of expediency, and perhaps social opportunism as well. Godparents had to be willing and able to provide for a child’s moral, and material, welfare, especially in the event of a parent’s death. Therefore it is not surprising that Bach sought, in addition to responsible relatives, people of high social standing and moral character for this honor. Along with professors and clergymen, Prince Leopold of Cöthen served as the godfather for one of Bach’s children. In general, Bach was clearly more comfortable in the company of practicing musicians and even some dukes and princes—his relationship with Prince Leopold was most cordial, almost fraternal—than that of academics and other professional intellectuals.

The comparison with Newton, however, does have a validity that goes beyond the metaphor for intellectual brilliance. But here Wolff’s understanding misses an essential difference between the two geniuses. Bach’s universe, like Newton’s (i.e., God’s), reflected and embodied eternal, God-given principles and truths. Bach, however, unlike Newton and other scientists, was not just trying to understand and describe the universe; he was creating one. Moreover, a scientist’s method is inductive: he derives general underlying laws from the observation of phenomena. The method of a composer like Bach is more deductive:he knows the “laws” (actually not God-given laws but rather man-made rules and conventions) in advance and creates the “phenomena”—his musical works—in accordance with them. But unlike anyone trying to defy Newton’s laws of motion, a composer can transgress against the “laws” of musical composition whenever he deems it to be justified. For Bach, finally, the purpose of “true music” was not scientific discovery but, as Bach said and as Wolff acknowledges, “the honor of God and the recreation of the soul.”

Wolff comes closer to the mark in his epilogue, where he suggests that many of Bach’s most ambitious works, especially those that make up systematic collections—such as The Well-Tempered Clavier, the four volumes of the Klavierübung, the Musical Offering, and The Art of Fugue—can be understood as “demonstrations”—indeed intellectual demonstrations. But they are demonstrations in that they offer exemplary models, the demonstrations of the master craftsman and accomplished artist, not those of the scientist or mathematician. To the extent that they demonstrate “truths,” they are theological truths expressed by symbolic or allegorical means.13

In his thoughtful conclusion Wolff identifies the essential features of Bach’s achievement. He argues that “the overall development of Bach’s musical language…reflects his…open-ness toward change and power of integration” and observes that

in more than fifty years of intense compositional activity, Bach underwent an evolution that is without parallel among his contemporaries. Comparing the first fruits of early mastery such as the Passacaglia in C minor…with such late works as The Art of Fugue or the B-minor Mass exposes an extraordinarily broad spectrum of artistic development and technical and stylistic advances, continually setting new benchmarks.

Wolff finds a constant in Bach’s “thoroughly virtuosic disposition”:

More often than not, his technical requirements push the limits of both performance and compositional complexity…. The high standards and demands are typical of the young, middle, and old Bach—in fact, they represent one of his most characteristic trademarks.

Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician is likely to be the standard one-volume Bach biography for some time to come. It is a solid, richly informative treatment, presenting the copious details of Bach’s life in a coherent, readable narrative. The book can be seen as the capstone of a long tradition of musical biography—a fundamentally nineteenth-century heroic tradition. It is time now to bring Bach biography into the twentieth century—not to mention the twenty-first.

This Issue

June 15, 2000