Magazine article Musical Times

Decoding Bach 2: Clouds of Witness

Magazine article Musical Times

Decoding Bach 2: Clouds of Witness

Article excerpt

PETER WILLIAMS questions critical attitudes to evidence about Bach's life in three new publications

EVERYONE KNOWS that when Bach was a young organist, he was told off for taking a `strange maiden' into the organ-- loft; that as a little boy he copied music by moonlight and had his work confiscated by an SOB elder brother; and that on his deathbed, he dictated an appropriately pious chorale. Anecdotes can say a lot when critically interpreted, and a question to ask about books on Bach is not so much whether they `involve the latest thinking' in the sense of adopting some fashionable line of conjecture but whether they are looking critically at what passes for evidence, anecdotal or otherwise.

Take these three instances. On the `strange maiden': well, in German organists' contracts of the day, the rule was not to admit unauthorised people to the gallery containing property for which the organist had signed to be responsible. The girl was fremd, meaning 'unauthorised', not 'strange'. On the moonlight episode: now quite apart from various good reasons why a book should be confiscated, one has to realise that studying by moonlight is a motif found elsewhere in German biography (for instance, of the great reformer Melanchthon) and may or may not have the face-value given it by hero-worshipping obituaries. On the deathbed chorale: here, note that the one good source for this refers not to the composer's deathbed but merely to his blindness, and even if there were not other problems with the story (as there are), dictation need not be heavy with implication, as Handel knew.

The point would be not whether these anecdotes are true or false, only whether they have clouds of possible significance and tell us much about the tellers. In the present instance, the three books under consideration are knowledgable and circumspect, but whether they are 'critical' in the sense I am asking for is less certain.

An irony striking me at the Bach Competition 2000 in Leipzig this summer was how much better off in all material respects are so many performers and academics today than the man on whose prodigious energy and creativity they have founded their careers. Though not unique, the Bach case is especially striking because of the disparity between the massive amount of known music and the puny amount of known biography, a combination that leaves room for many personal conjectures and committed interpretations (`selling points') - both by today's performers of all this music, and by today's academics searching the scant documentation. Unsurprisingly, disagreements abound, and while performers seldom hold back from playing in public or recording this music (even claiming to be `Bach specialists'), few scholars would be brave enough to write a Bach life or be sure they have grasped everything.

IF there is a scholar whose own prodigious energies might justify the attempt, it must be Christoph Wolff who, despite duties as a dean at Harvard and not being a native English-- speaker, produces in both languages an almost incredible amount of basic research on Bach. Wolff's researches have filled in many of the gaps in the life-and-works by drawing on a very intimate knowledge of both, matching in its way the work of the full-time musicologists in the German institutes. Proof-reading alone of this big book, with all its names, dates, sources, appendices, lists and tables, requires conditions - such as time, assistance and funding - that most scholars outside the USA could only dream of, and Wolff has made good use of them to produce what will be at least pro tem the first thing of its kind to consult. Music features less in itself than as part of the life-story of the composer (its chronology, purpose, personal development), and one welcomes the preface's promise that there will be a closer look at the music in a future volume.

Based on primary documentation around Bach himself (including duties, payments, living conditions, influences) and other topics both closely relevant (life as an orphan, as a town organist, at a ducal court, as city cantor, as celebrity) and more distantly (other personnel, locations, institutions, books), the account largely ignores the speculative research, pretentious and otherwise, that has become familiar in Bach-study, and indeed refers to the editor's own publications more, I think, than any others. …

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