Magazine article Musical Times

From Death to Life

Magazine article Musical Times

From Death to Life

Article excerpt

From death to life J. S. Bach: a life in music Peter Williams Cambridge University Press (Cambridge, 2007); xi, 405pp; £19.99, $35. ISBN 978 o 521 87074 0.

IN A RADICALLY NEW APPROACH to Bach biography, Peter Williams subjects the composer's life to both microscopic and telescopic perspectives. Under the microscope goes the Obituary written by CPE Bach and JF Agricola, published four years after his death. Taking excerpts from this, Williams probes the sources of the authors' information, and analyses the document for reliability, bias, inclusion and omission. His telescope - perhaps wide-angled lens would be more accurate - is trained on the music, and not just on Bach's music, but that of his contemporaries, including relatives, colleagues, friends and rivals, which shaped both the substance and the manner of Bach's output. A life in music follows the structure of the Obituary. Seven chapters correspond to Emmanuel Bach's contribution, dealing with the life and music, constantly interwoven, in which Williams looks not so much for cause and effect, but rather at opportunities and access to models and influences. An intriguing aspect of this part of the Obituary is the presumption that Emmanuel Bach obtained much of his information from family conversation, its topics indicating Bach's preoccupations - those scenes and incidents most vigorously retold, or triumphs and irritations most deeply stamped on his memory. The eighth chapter, paralleling Agricola's evaluation of Bach's standing, delves into a variety of critical issues. In an Epilogue, freed from the topics dictated by the Obituary, Williams ponders the inadequacy of the evidence to account for the miracle of Bach.

It is a masterly study. Williams probably knows as much about his subject as any scholar alive, yet (or perhaps therefore) his method is to explore doubt. He constantly poses questions, indeed, the text sometimes dissolves into a list of conjectures that force us to confront the limitations of our knowledge - knowledge of the exact sequence of events in the competition with Marchand in 1717, for example, which looms large in the Obituary, the known facts of which (such as they are) must have originated from Bach's own account of the incident. Similarly his recital (or was it an audition?) three years later in Hamburg, when Bach seems to have memorised and relished recounting Reinken's compliments. Do these episodes relate serious aspirations to posts in Dresden and Hamburg respectively, or were they told in order to authenticate Bach's proficiency in the styles of French harpsichord music and traditional German organ music? In Williams's cautious formulation, certain inferences are not necessarily to be made, but are possible.

Although much of Bach's career path is familiar ground, there are many incidental issues rarely probed in earlier biographies. His weakness for court titles, for instance, is revealed the use he made of the purely titular posts of Capellmeister to the Duke of Weissenfels, and Composer to the Royal Polish and Electoral Saxon Court at Dresden. The route to such honours was not straightforward, and where the dedication of the Kyrie and Gloria of the Mass in B minor to the Dresden Court had failed in 1733, three years later the impact of 'several' organ recitals (according to the Obituary) eventually won him the coveted title of Court Composer. There are insights into Bach's family relationships too, with his proud boast that his sons were all 'born musicians', his affectionate provision of instructional music for them, and his tireless support for them in their careers, even including sorting out Gottfried Bernhard's contractual problems and consequent debts. …

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