Dimension: 24 x 16 x 3.3 cm
||The True Life of J. S. Bach by Klaus Eidam. Translated
by Hoyt Rogers.
||New York: Basic Books, 2001. xviii+413p. Hardback US$35
12 Hid's Copse Road, Cumnor Hill, Oxford, OX2 9JJ, UK. email: email@example.com
||A biography of JS Bach, originally published in German
as Das wahre Leben des Johann Sebastian Bach (München: Piper
||Numerous passing reference to Bach's
||Bach lovers; general readers; scholars
will be offended!
||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.
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.
|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...
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
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