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On-line Book Review


TITLE Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician by Christoph Wolff.
PUBL. DETAILS Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000, xvii + 599 pp; hard back. Price: £25.00.
ISBN 0-19-816534-X
TO ORDER Oxford University Press, Great Clarendon Street, Oxford OX2 6DP
DESCRIPTION Very informative biography of J. S. Bach, reflecting the latest research.
WORKS COVERED BWV 1-14, 16-52, 54-140, 144-59, 161-88, 190-201, 203-8, 210-16, 225-7, 232-8, 243-5, 247-52, 318, 439-507, 515, 524-531, 535, 537-42, 544-5, 548-9, 552, 562, 564-6, 570, 572-4, 579, 582, 592-6, 599-689, 715, 728, 739, 742, 749-50, 756, 764, 766-7, 769-70, 772-817, 820, 825-33, 846-93, 896, 900, 903, 906, 913, 921, 924-32, 946, 950-1, 954, 965, 966, 971-88, 992, 998, 1001-12, 1014-19, 1021, 1023, 1025-35, 1038-9, 1041, 1043-58, 1060-9, 1072-3, 1075-80, 1087, 1093, 1096, 1105, 1108, Anh.3, 5-9, 11, 20, 23, 159, 193, 196-7, 205.
READERSHIP Everyone, from music lovers to scholars.
The most important biographical study ever produced since Philipp Spitta's ground-breaking attempt in 1873.

Is this the so-called ‘Second Spitta’, a long-awaited biography of J. S. Bach that not only gives an enormously comprehensive account of his life and works but also revolutionises our approach to Bach Studies? The same questions must have been asked many times in the past whenever a new biography appeared, but we never had such an excellent opportunity to revisit this question, for this is a book by the author of unmatchable reputation, who is perhaps the best candidate of our generation to accomplish the task.

In reality, however, it is naïve to expect a definitive ‘yes’, for we know that Bach is currently researched by hundreds of dedicated scholars specialised in various aspects of his life and works; this makes it almost impossible for any single scholar to read and comprehend everything that was written, let alone to come up with a powerful, original method to reassess the mass of information already in the public domain and to produce a radically different image of the composer. The only realistic hope for the ‘Second Spitta’ would perhaps be fulfilled by a meticulously well-programmed collaborative project in the future. Thus it seems sensible to redefine our expectation of this biography something like the following: does it reflect all the important recent researches relevant to the biographical sketch of the composer, while, at the same time, offering something new and exciting for us to read?

I am pleased to say that my answer to this is ‘yes’. What impresses me most is the way Wolff depicts Bach’s life so vividly and intimately. The way he uses a wealth of historical facts is exemplary: instead of becoming pedantry, they are used felicitously in the right context to acquire a strong narrative drive that is important for a biography. The author certainly has a profound interpretative insight into Bach’s life and works. Much of the core information he manipulates is found more fully in his New Bach Reader (1998), a reference collection of historical documents that speak to us directly (but only if we have enough knowledge of their historical background as well as imaginative power to do this!). Based on virtually the same information, this book unfolds a rich account of Bach’s life captured through Wolff’s careful and imaginative spectacles.
All the chapter headings are appetisingly worded, too. Once started, reader will be glued to it from the beginning to the end.

Some of his interpretation will inevitably be open to debate, however. For example, one may not agree with Wolff’s suggestion that the fair copies of the Well-Tempered Clavier and Aufrichtige Anleitung (= Inventions and Sinfonias) as well as the title-page of the Orgel-Büchlein “were conceived in conjunction with Bach’s application to the cantorate”, which “would have gone a long way toward impressing the authorities in Leipzig”. 

Chapter Structures

Prologue: Bach and the Notion of Musical Science

  1. Springs of Musical Talent and Lifelong Influences - Eisenach, 1685-1695
  2. Laying the Foundation - Ohrduff, 1695-1700
  3. Bypassing a Musical Apprenticeship - From Lüneberg to Weimar, 1700-1703
  4. Building a Reputation - Organist in Arnstadt and Mühlhausen, 1703-1708
  5. Exploring 'Every Possible Artistry' - Court Organist and Cammer Musicus in Weimar, 1708-1714
  6. Expanding Musical Horizons - Concertmaster in Weimar, 1714-1717
  7. Pursuing 'the Musical Contest for Superiority' - Capellmeister in Cöthen, 1717-1723
  8. Redefining a Venerable Office - Cantor and Music Director in Leipzig: The 1720s
  9. Musician and Scholar - Counterpoint of Practice and Theory
  10. Traversing Conventional Boundaries - Special Engagements Highlight the 1730s
  11. A Singing Bird and Carnations for the Lady of the House - Domestic and Professional Life
  12. Contemplating Past, Present, and Future - The Final Decade: the 1740s

Epilogue: Bach and the idea of 'Musical Perfection'
Notes; Music Examples

Places of Bach's Activities
Money and Living Costs in Bach's Time
Movable and Fixed Feasts in the Lutheran Church Calendar
Bibliography; Index
Although his interpretation seems plausible, it is equally possible that these historical facts were unrelated, i.e. these beautiful fair-copies were the fruit of his highly engaged pedagogical activities in Cöthen, and nothing more than that. Well, this is precisely the area where Wolff’s arguments become exciting, as he courageously presents his forthright interpretation to fill the missing pieces of jigsaw.

Turning to Wolff’s discussions of Bach’s works themselves, it is clear that he concentrates on selected pieces, and in no way does he attempt to cover all the works in equal weight. As expected from his specialisation, he discusses cantatas, passions and the B-minor mass more extensively than any other works. Among the non-vocal works, his engaged discussions are generally restricted to the published works, such as Clavierübung series, the Musical Offering and the Art of Fugue that are also discussed in his excellent collection of essays (1991). So, instead of covering Bach’s works evenly, it seems that his main concern here was to focus on those works for which there is sufficient biographical or historical evidence, so that the discussions could be fed into his tale of Bach’s life. In this Wolff is very successful. Yet if there is scope for future expansion, it is this area; very few details are discussed on the Well-Tempered Clavier II, for instance. General absence of analytical as well as speculative approaches to Bach’s works may account for the lack of materials to be discussed; yet it has to be said that the inclusion of these somewhat incompatible approaches would potentially produce a negative effect, weakening the narrative focus of the book. After all, his editorial principle is clearly reflected in every aspect of the book, e.g. in his use of numerous illustrations, which are all dedicated to the interest of historical value, such as buildings, maps, portraits and facsimile of manuscripts. Likewise, his index ignores the names of the 20th century scholars.

It is undeniably the most important biography on Bach ever written since 1873. While being very informative, it does not lend itself to technical or pedantic display of knowledge, which is in itself a marvellous achievement.

Published online on 14 April 2000

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