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On-line Book Review


TITLE The New Bach Reader: A Life of Johann Sebastian Bach in Letters and Documents. Edited by Hans T. David and Arthur Mendel. Revised and Enlarged by Christoph Wolff 
PUBL. DETAILS New York and London, W. W. Norton, 1999, liv + 551 pp; paper back. Price: £12.95; US$18.95.
ISBN 0-393-31956-3
TO ORDER W.W.Norton & Company Ltd, 10 Coptic Street, London WC1A 1PU
DESCRIPTION A classic collection of letters and documents by Bach and  his contemporaries, as well as those significant references published after Bach's death, including Obituary (1754) and Forkel's biography (1802); all translated into English.
WORKS COVERED BWV 9, 21-3, 38, 53, 61, 65, 66a, 71, 75, 81, 106, 130, 132, 144, 178, 182, 198, 205, 208, 212, 215, 225-9, 232, 243a, 244-5, 247, 253-507, 525-30, 543, 552, 565, 573, 582, 590, 599-650, 654, 668-89, 728, 739, 769, 772-817, 825-831, 851, 846-93, 903, 906, 924-30, 933-8, 971, 988, 991-3, 995, 1001-12, 1014-19, 1027-35, 1046-65, 1072-80, 1086-7; Anh.5, 9, 13, 167.
READERSHIP It appeals most widely to all those interested in Bach, esp. those who do not read German.
No spectacular new information therein, but it will continue to serve as one of the most important reference book for English-speaking scholars for many years to come.

Since it was first conceived in 1945, the Bach Reader has become an indispensable reference tool for scholars and music lovers in English-speaking world. Unlike many other biographies, it was primarily conceived as a collection of all the important early material supplemented with the editors’ helpful commentaries, through which Bach was "revealed in his own words, in testimony of his contemporaries, and the judgements of the generations immediately following his own."

Surprisingly, this original claim still retains validity today. In the revised edition of 1966, the editors corrected many of the errors and incorporated the information that has come to light since 1945. This appeared whilst Bach Dokumente (1963-74) was being prepared -- a more systematic project to house all the known letters and relevant documents in the original language. Yet the attractiveness of the Bach Reader remained mostly intact, as it provided us with convenient access to all the oft-needed information in excellent translation, including Bach's obituary provided by CPE Bach (1754) and the first biography of Bach by JN Forkel (1802).

above: paper-back edition (1999), pp.230-1
below: hard-back edition (1998), pp.230-1

Bach scholarship was not idle in the last three decades. It is natural to expect, therefore, that many recent discoveries are integrated into this New Bach Reader. Indeed, the improvement made to the revised edition of 1966 is extensive; while retaining the basic philosophy of the original conception and much of the translated material, it is now thicker by some 80 pages, incorporating 118 new items, which includes those discovered after the German counterpart appeared in print, such as Bach's first letter to Georg Erdmann in 1726.

Unlike Bach Dokumente, the New Bach Reader does not attempt to include everything, but restricts its membership to 412 important items, compared to 1863 listed in Bach Dokumente in three volumes. This may sound very limited in comparison, but the improvement from the 1966 edition is crystal clear, especially in the section under "Bach's life in his own writing and other documents", where the New Bach Reader includes all the significant items. Many entries are now accompanied by more detailed commentary with up-to-date information, which is a particularly welcome feature.

There are many cosmetic changes, too, that enhance its usefulness as a reference tool. With regard to the previous edition, I felt the need for concordance between Bach Reader and Bach Dokumente. Now this feeling is a thing of the past. The New Bach Reader gives all the references to their sources of origin (often the Bach Dokumente), so it is very handy for consulting the original material via this book. Almost all the illustrations, facsimiles of manuscripts and early editions are also replaced with those of scholarly interest. It is good to know that since I reviewed the first hardback edition of this book for the Musical Times in 1998, the quality of some of facsimile reproductions is greatly improved (as shown in the image above).

Being an important reference book, I feel it is essential that any errors in this book are to be corrected in future revision. So far I noticed one minor error in index in both Bach Reader (R/1966) and New Bach Reader (1998): on page 549, the entries of CG Schröter are mixed up erroneously with those of JG Schröter (organ builder in Erfurt).

Published online on 28 February 2000

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