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On-line Book Review


Dimension: 24 x 16 x 3.3 cm
TITLE The True Life of J. S. Bach by Klaus Eidam. Translated by Hoyt Rogers.
PUBL. DETAILS New York: Basic Books, 2001. xviii+413p. Hardback US$35 / £24.99
ISBN 0-465-01861-0
TO ORDER Basic Books, 12 Hid's Copse Road, Cumnor Hill, Oxford, OX2 9JJ, UK. email:
DESCRIPTION A biography of JS Bach, originally published in German as Das wahre Leben des Johann Sebastian Bach (München: Piper Verlag, 1999).
WORKS COVERED Numerous passing reference to Bach's major works
READERSHIP Bach lovers; general readers; scholars will be offended!
RESEARCH CONTRIBUTION The author claims that he uncovered lots of new information from archive; but no details of these records were given, and thus we cannot verify his claim.

n many respects this is very different from all the other Bach biographies that I have read so far. That it was written by a commercial playwright and not a full-time musicologist is perhaps the single most important factor: the author ignores our academic conventions and values, and on this different foundation he achieves something sensational; while it may be his natural reaction to his surroundings, this is his strength as well as weakness. 
 offers many fresh and illuminating readings, but...
The strength of his book is his power of story telling. By revisiting historical facts afresh and by using his common-sense imagination, he brings to life many historical events and imaginary scenes successfully as if they were reconstructed visually. Such a simple fact as travelling on foot for a long distance becomes the author’s source of imagination; it must have offered Bach wonderful opportunities for not only familiarising himself with many different organs and accumulating his encyclopaedic knowledge on the instrument, but also getting information about job vacancies and spreading his own reputation as a fine organist. Eidam’s reading of Geyersbach incident is another fine example: he tells us that Geyersbach’s relative is the mayor, who steered clear of the matter entirely differently from Bach’s expectation. So instead of the six gangs receiving punishments, Bach was effectively reprimanded for his lack of consideration to others. But the most illuminating part of Eidam’s story telling must be the vivid depiction of Bach’s deteriorating relationship with the duke towards the end of his Weimar period: Bach was given no paper even to compose music. There are numerous fascinating reconstructions of events, and in the way Eidam tells us, his story often sounds convincing, even though he does not present evidence at all. This lack of references means that there is no way for us to verify Eidam’s claims, which is extremely regrettable.

Turning to the negative side of Eidam’s book, what I am concerned most is with his stance that his claim is ‘The True Life’. This is ludicrous. He seems to suggest that the commonly painted pictures of Bach by many other historians and musicologists were all untrue, and he is offering the ‘true picture’ of Bach. I am particularly disappointed with his approach that he often ridicules other scholars for arriving at different views from his. This is deplorable. In my view, it is embarrassing for him to say that Bach began composing the Orgelbüchlein ‘about 1716’ (p.87), and continue to unfold ungrounded argument without first checking what other scholars have said recently and what evidence they presented. The lack of current musicological knowledge is evident in many pages of this book, which is quite contrary to what one may find from the author’s flat rejection of other scholar’s claims (which were mostly made many decades ago).

While this book offers many fresh and illuminating readings to well-known facts, the total omission of references and the narrowly biased ways in which he evaluates others’ views and historical information often mars otherwise a fascinating account of Bach’s life he depicts.

Published on-line on 29 January 2002

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