Return to Homepage

On-line Book Review



Dimension: 21.5 x 13.7 x 0.9 cm

TITLE The life of Bach by Peter Williams
PUBL. DETAILS Cambridge University Press (Cambridge, 2004); viii+219 pp; £14.99 (US$22.00) paperback [£40.00 / US$60.00 hardback]
ISBN 0-521-53374-0 (paperback) [0-521-82636-5 (hardback)]
TO ORDER Cambridge University Press, The Edinburgh Building, Shaftesbury Road, Cambridge CB2 2RU, UK. Phone +44 (0)1223 312393; Fax +44 (0)1223 315052
DESCRIPTION A concise but critical monograph on the life of J. S. Bach.
WORKS COVERED BWV 4, 7, 12, 18, 21-3, 31, 34-6, 51, 54, 61-3, 70-1, 75, 77, 106, 115, 131, 135, 140, 146, 150, 156, 161-3, 174, 182, 185, 188, 194, 196, 198-9, 201, 203, 205, 208, 210-5, 232, 233-6, 243, 244-5, 246-9, 524, 525-530, 531-32, 538, 540-42, 544-5, 547-9, 552, 562, 564-5, 582, 592-4, 596, 599-644, 645-50, 651, 653, 659, 668, 669-89, 720, 733, 739, 766-8, 769, 772-801, 802-17, 820, 825-30, 831, 836, 846-93, 903, 910-16, 921, 963, 965-6, 971-987, 988, 989, 992-3, 1001-12, 1014-21, 1031, 1041-3, 1046-57, 1060-69, 1076, 1079, 1080, 1087, 1090-1120, Anh. I 12-13.
READERSHIP Bach scholars.
RESEARCH CONTRIBUTION Fresh approach to Bach's biographical studies.


ublished in 2004, this book is the latest addition to the very long list of Bach’s biographies. It is not surprising, therefore, that such an eminent author as Peter Williams would take a radically different approach from all the earlier authors, producing a unique contribution to the Bach literature.

Instead of reconstructing the life of Bach in a literary sense, Williams chose to write a book in the form of an extended critical commentary of Bach’s obituary published 1754. In it he comments what the authors (C. P. E. Bach and J. F. Agricola) implied in the text, what the author knew / did not know / avoided (deliberately or accidentally) mentioning: he basically attempts to explore everything that an experienced Bach scholar would do, not only throwing questions after questions when reading any historical documents, but also extending his observations and thoughts by relating them to the other established knowledge (e.g. the documents reprinted in the Bach-Dokumente) and drawing parallel from the contemporary documents (e.g. Handel’s biography written by Mainwaring in 1760). In all, it powerfully demonstrates Williams as the scholar of the first rank.


List of illustrations



1. Early years, 1685-1703
2. First appointments, 1703-1708
3. Weimar, 1708-1717
4. Cöthen, 1717-1723
5. Leipzig, the first decade
6 Leipzig, the second decade
7. Leipzig, the final years, and the first personal descriptions

Appendix 1: a sample hypothesis

Appendix 2: some terms

List of references

BWV index

Index of names

refreshing and satisfying reading experience

Throughout the book, I am impressed by Williams’ abilities to exhibit his sound understanding of Bach’s works from a wider context, such as nationalistic issues reflected in the keyboard suites or orchestral suites (p.23) that Bach could have learned in Lüneburg. He particularly excels when coming to depict Bach’s world through the vivid description of organ and the church (p.28).

While the reading of this book is a very refreshing and satisfying experience for me, I am not sure how useful and helpful it will be for a particular group of readers, esp. students. While I have little doubt that they will gain many useful hints for their further studies, the general lack of reference herein means that it is not an easy task for them to find the next step of their research, or even to find the origin of various theories put forward herewith by Williams. It is strange, to say the last, as to why Williams avoids giving reference (credit) to the works of his own students, Mary Oleskiewicz and Tushaar Power, where he respectively refers to the discussions of the musical influence Bach may have received from the Dresden musicians and the issue of divine proportions. This is, of course, a trivial point, when compared to how much he offers in this small but very informative volume.

Published online on 9 May 2006