The Organ Music of J. S. Bach

By Archbold, Lawrence | Notes, December 2004 | Go to article overview

The Organ Music of J. S. Bach


Archbold, Lawrence, Notes


The Organ Music of J. S. Bach. By Peter Williams. 2d ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003. [x, 624 p. ISBN 0-521-81416-2. $110 (hbk.); ISBN 0-521-89115-9. $40 (pbk.)] Music examples, glossary, bibliography, indexes.

When Peter Williams' magisterial The Organ Music of J. S. Bach first appeared nearly twenty-five years ago (Cambridge University Press, vols. 1 and 2 in 1980, vol. 3 in 1984), a new era in the scholarship of Bach's organ music was opened. This study pointedly avoided the celebratory tone so typical of previous books on the topic, and it refused to allow mere speculation about these pieces to assume the status of accepted fact. It drew great attention to sources, particularly since ongoing close study of them at the time was making problematic much received wisdom about this repertory. The volumes were loaded (even overloaded) with lists of manuscripts, quotations of opinions from previous generations, richly detailed formal analyses, and an extravagant number of musical examples which supported the myriad connections drawn by the author to Bach's organ works from a wide range of composers of organ music (and other keyboard, instrumental, and even vocal music). In the end, however, Williams preferred to pose questions rather than offer answers, and the reader learned much about how to formulate such questions and what might constitute a reasonable answer or, perhaps more likely, why it would not be reasonable to expect an answer.

The appearance of the second edition of this book cannot help but interest anyone concerned with Bach's organ music, if only for the promise that it will provide as valuable a guide to the specialized scholarship on this topic that appeared in the 1980s and 1990s as the first edition did for that of the 1960s and 1970s. That, and much more, awaits the reader. Indeed, the claim, made early in the preface, that "the text is now largely new" (p. vii) is, if anything, an understatement. The thirty-two pages of additions and corrections to the first and second volumes that appeared near the end of the third volume may have served as a starting point for the second edition, but fail to explain the scope of the changes. Volumes 1 and 2, which provided piece-by-piece discussions organized by Bach Werke Verzeichnis (BWV) number, have been combined into this single book. (Volume 1 covered the "Preludes, Toccatas, Fantasias, Fugues, Sonatas, Concertos and Miscellaneous Pieces" while volume 2 treated the remaining "Works based on Chorales." Volume 3, "A Background," discussed questions of liturgy, instruments, and performance practices, among other topics; according to the second edition's preface, it will require "a separate revision" [p. vii].) The some seven hundred pages of the previous volumes 1 and 2 have been reduced to the some six hundred pages of the present single volume; a new, significantly larger type face makes the second edition noticeably easier to navigate; and the new text is much more gracefully paragraphed.

These striking changes are possible because the original text has been simplified in many ways: the discussions of many individual pieces have been shortened, and a few even severely truncated; the number of sources listed for individual pieces has often been greatly reduced, with the author's advice to consult instead the second edition of the Bach Werke Verzeichnis (Thematisch-systematisches Verzeichnis der musikalischen Werke von Johann Sebastian Bach, Wolfgang Schmieder, ed. 2d ed. [Wiesbaden: Breitkopf und Härtel, 199O]); the proliferation of content footnotes has been all but eliminated; and many musical examples have disappeared, while those that remain have been shrunk.

More importantly, much new material is included. The bibliography-a new feature of the second edition-reveals the large amount of new work that has been taken into account. True to form, Williams is skeptical of the conclusions promulgated by much recent scholarship. …

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