Johann Sebastian Bach
Johann Sebastian Bach; drawing by David Levine


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.1

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,2 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 of speculation by a veteran Bach scholar who knows the territory as few others do, replete with terms like perhaps, presumably, probably, must have, would have, may have, and so on, with periodic strings of questions that teeter nervously between the direct and the rhetorical.

There is a lot to recommend this method, apart from its ingenuity. It makes for a choppy, niggling book but one that is continuously stimulating, once adjustment has been made for the author’s incessant references to Handel, whom he sees as the implicit (sometimes explicit) benchmark against whom Bach was measured. It keeps up a guard against excessive reverence, and it encourages readers not only to reconsider ideas about the composer but also to rehear his music. The arias in Cantata 115, “Mache dich, mein Geist, bereit,” for example, “are so sensuously rich as to seem well beyond the call of piety,” and the long closing chorale of the Saint John Passion is “a masterpiece of uncanny music, more than a mere hymn as it moves towards its unique expression of hope.” The so-called deathbed organ chorale “Vor deinem Thron,” being “void of notable invention and special or inimitable hallmarks,” could have been cobbled together by a competent student. It’s worth noting, however, that by throwing every datum (in principle) of Bach’s life into question, Williams levels the playing field to a point where ideas and opinions that he launches on his own—his passes, punts, end runs, and occasional fumbles, offsides, and unnecessary roughness, as with “Vor deinem Thron”—call for very alert referees.

The device of linking the narrative to the obituary works better at some times than others, as one would expect. When Bach was a student at Lüneburg “he travelled from time to time to Hamburg, to hear the then famous organist of St. Catherine’s, Johann Adam Reinken,” Emanuel says—a seemingly innocent report. Williams wonders why Rein- ken is mentioned, a venerable figure but one of less interest in the years around 1700 than Dietrich Buxtehude with his famous Abendmusik at Lübeck, not all that much farther away, and why another important organist in the immediate vicinity, Georg Böhm at St. John’s Church in Lüneberg, is not.3 Bach did indeed visit Lübeck a few years later, and stayed there longer than he was supposed to. Or was it the flourishing opera in Hamburg that attracted the young Bach? His first job was as a court musician, not an organist. “‘To hear Reinken’ is thus part of the self-taught picture” which Emanuel always advances. Emanuel wants us to believe that “Bach neither took lessons nor became an apprentice-assistant but made study visits, to a major figure in a major church of a major Hanseatic city.”


At other times the device of referring to the obituary works less well. Interestingly, it works less well after Bach, approaching forty, has moved to his highest and most public position as cantor of St. Thomas’s Church and director of music at Leipzig, in 1723. He held this position until his death in 1750. About Bach’s early years as a musician at the courts of Weimar and Cöthen, and even before that, Emanuel was happy to relay facts and stories that he had from his father, or that had been otherwise sanitized by family memory. But once we come to Leipzig Emanuel says very little, if for no other reason than that at Leipzig memories were still fresh. Obituaries are not supposed to ruffle feathers. It turns out that even with all the documentation available from sources beyond the obituary, we have only the shakiest understanding of the origins of or impetus behind some of Bach’s most important compositions.

For example, why did he compose the second book of The Well-Tempered Clavier? The first book is dedicated to “musical youth desirous of learning” as well as “those already skilled in this study”; with this book Bach supplied himself with twenty-four preludes and fugues to serve as staple teaching material. Principled teacher that he was, it’s supposed that twenty years later he wanted to supplement the first book with something more up-to-date. We are incalculably in his debt, but he could have written six new items, or twelve new items, instead of building up a matching set of twenty-four around a stockpile of older fugues that are mostly weaker than the fugues of Book 1. Williams finds “the sheer thoroughness of twice collecting preludes and fugues in every major and minor key” off-putting. “So entrenched has the Well-Tempered Clavier become that one easily forgets how strange it is.”

The sheer strangeness of the B-minor Mass project, at the end of Bach’s career, would take many paragraphs to lay out; and Williams also points to mystery at the beginning of Bach’s tenure at Leipzig. Since the cantor’s position entailed providing music for Leipzig’s churches, he set about writing new cantatas and Passions to fill out the entire church year, also drawing on and revising cantatas he had composed before. Then he wrote more, and more, and kept writing until he had assembled five complete yearly cycles, if Emanuel can be believed, over a span of just a few years. Congregations must have yearned for some relief from Bach’s forbidding music; simpler cantatas by other composers lay easily at hand and any other cantor would have drawn upon them heavily. It is no wonder that Bach’s relations with Leipzig’s church authorities soured.


In 1729 Bach took over the Collegium Musicum, one of two organizations in Leipzig that put on concerts each week, and twice weekly during the town’s important fairs. This new activity is taken to mark a sharp turn from sacred, vocal music to secular, instrumental music. It looks as though Bach had something like a midlife crisis around this time.4 But we are reminded that hardly anything is known about the constitution, logistics, or programs of the Collegium—even whether the director was paid. The programs were of course not limited to Bach’s music and it is not clear how much new music he composed for them, beyond obligatory secular cantatas for this celebration or that. Manuscripts that can be related to the Collegium contain mostly arrangements of old pieces. Increasingly Bach’s main creative energies were directed to the Clavierübung, a comprehensive, prize collection of keyboard music that he published in four volumes, spread out over fifteen years from 1726 to 1741 or 1742.

Bach, then, was now looking beyond Leipzig to the musical world at large. At the end of his life, with works like the B-minor Mass and The Art of Fugue, he was looking beyond the here and now altogether.


Clavierübung translates as “Exercise of the Keyboard” or “Keyboard Studies” (I wish Bach had called it “Keyboard Art,” or “The Art of the Keyboard Player”). Though the music was all newly composed, up to a point it fell into genres he had practiced before coming to Leipzig: thus the clavier suites (called Partitas) of Part 1 look back to the sets of English and French Suites written in Cöthen, and the Italian Concerto of Part 2 puts Bach’s creative stamp on the keyboard transcriptions of Vivaldi concertos, so deeply influential on his own style, which he had labored over at Weimar. Part 3 revisits and rethinks the great repertory of organ chorales and fugues dating from the Weimar years and even earlier.5

Part 4 of the Clavierübung, however, the Goldberg Variations, comes like a bolt out of the blue. There is nothing like it anywhere else in Bach’s output. The work’s great phalanx of devotees will need no convincing of that, nor is this the place to spell out its novelties and differences from other Bach variation works mentioned by Williams—the Passacaglia and Fugue for organ, the Chaconne for violin solo, and Cantata No. 4, “Christ lag in Todesbanden.” And there is nothing even in the other parts of the Clavierübung that approaches the Goldberg in the demands made on the performer’s virtuosity. According to a famous anecdote, it was written for a Russian diplomat, Count von Keyserlingk, who had the keyboard prodigy J.G. Goldberg play bits of it to put him to sleep; the anecdote, it has been shown, must be wrong, but the impetus behind it—to account for the Goldberg on the basis of a special commission or other circumstance—must be right. Williams thinks Bach wrote it for his beloved oldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann, who by then had made an impression as a keyboard virtuoso as well as the composer of some unusually difficult harpsichord music. Friedemann had a position in Dresden, where Keyserlingk was posted at the time, and if he really was Goldberg’s teacher, as unconfirmed reports have it, that would go some way to explain the anecdote.

Peter Williams broaches this possibility in a handbook he has written on the Goldberg Variations6 and returns to it in The Life of Bach. In a cool or, if you prefer, brazen appendix to the book subtitled “A Sample Hypothesis,” he first scoffs at efforts by unnamed if readily identifiable scholars to argue “from the music to the person,” and then turns around and offers just such an effort of his own. The hypothesis turns on Wilhelm Friedemann. “There are many if inconclusive signs that father and son remained close for forty years,” Williams begins, and soon works his way up to the notion that the son had some sort of breakdown at the death of his father, prelude to the distressing collapse of his career thereafter:

Had he been overencouraged—outwardly or inwardly—by a driven and driving father, overburdened by living up to expectations, over-dependent on him, and over-afflicted by his death?… Was it a case of special love for a first son, recognition of an unusual talent, a keen desire to discern one? Anxiety to compensate for the early loss of his mother, doubt that he was robust or had the stamina or killer instinct required for great success? Inadvertent domination, making such success impossible?

Among the “many if inconclusive signs” of closeness listed in the appendix are that Bach apparently recopied a brilliant early piece of his own for his son’s audition when he applied for the Dresden position (the applicant might have been expected to show off a piece of his own). Once there, “Friede” was engaged by his father in a joint canon- and fugue-writing project—not the sort of thing many twenty-three-year-olds leaving home for the first time would think of getting into right away. Later Bach transcribed one of Friedemann’s concertos for two claviers, most probably for them to play together, as we know they sometimes did. The old man may have been angling for another position for his son when he took him along on his famous visit to Frederick the Great in 1747 (or did Friedemann come to Berlin on his own accord?). On good authority Bach is said to have written his set of six organ sonatas specially for Friedemann, who eventually gained (and squandered) a reputation as the best organist in Germany.

Williams, safe under the cover of his “sample hypothesis,” proposes that this was the case with the Goldberg Variations, too. As is well known, Bach belonged to a multitudinous clan of musicians, to which he had every reason to feel very closely bound. Orphaned at the age of nine, he was taken in, educated, and put on his career path by his organist brother, a family obligation he himself would accept for several less-close relatives. He found time to draw up an elaborate family tree with over fifty biographical squibs; he took special care of manuscripts containing the work of earlier Bachs and selected a motet by one of them, his second cousin Johann Christoph (not to be confused with his brother, his uncle, or several other Johann Christophs), for use at his own funeral. The persistent efforts he made to advance his sons’ careers have a dynastic aspect to them, one feels. When Bach was a boy the clan held yearly reunions, at which, after some pious preliminaries,

they sang popular songs, some comic, some bawdy, all together and extempore, but in such a manner that the parts made harmony of a sort, though the text in every part was different. They called this kind of harmony a Quodlibet and laughed heartily at it….7

We have this story from Forkel, who had it from Emanuel, who had it from Sebastian, so Friedemann knew about it too, and so he must have gasped when he came to the end of the Goldberg Variations—to Variation 30, the Quodlibet (so labeled), with its melange of overlapping folk songs, after a great whirl of virtuosity has subsided, and before the sarabande theme puts in its almost weirdly tranquil second appearance. He understood the Quodlibet as Keyserlingk and Goldberg never could. He also must have, would have, may have understood that the Variations had given him the greatest accolade any virtuoso might ever receive, and at the same time another instrument that bound him to the Bachs.

This Issue

April 28, 2005