In Search of Bach

Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician

by Christoph Wolff
Norton, 599 pp., $39.95


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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only – subscribe at this low introductory rate for immediate access!

Online Subscription

Unlock this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, by subscribing at the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue – that’s 10 issues online plus six months of full archive access for just $10.

One-Week Access

Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on

If you already subscribe to the Online or Print + Online Edition, please be sure you are logged in to your account.