Review of Matthew Dirst, Engaging Bach: The Keyboard Legacy from Marpurg to Mendelssohn (Cambridge University Press, 2012)

By Brody, Christopher | Music Theory Online, September 2013 | Go to article overview

Review of Matthew Dirst, Engaging Bach: The Keyboard Legacy from Marpurg to Mendelssohn (Cambridge University Press, 2012)


Brody, Christopher, Music Theory Online


[1] Historical research on Johann Sebastian Bach entered its modern era in the late 1950s with the development, spearheaded by Alfred Dürr, Georg von Dadelsen, and Wisso Weiss, of the so-called "new chronology" of his works.(1) In parallel with this revolution, the history of the dissemination and reception of Bach was also being rewritten. Whereas Hans T. David and Arthur Mendel wrote, in 1945, that "Bach and his works ...[were] practically forgotten by the generations following his" (358), by 1998 Christoph Wolff could describe the far more nuanced understanding of Bach reception that had arisen in the intervening years in terms of "two complementary aspects":

on the one hand, the beginning of a more broadly based public reception of Bach's music in the early nineteenth century, for which Mendelssohn's 1829 performance of the St. Matthew Passion represents a decisive milestone; on the other hand, the uninterrupted reception of a more private kind, largely confined to circles of professional musicians, who regarded Bach's fugues and chorales in particular as a continuing challenge, a source of inspiration, and a yardstick for measuring compositional quality. (485-86)

[2] In most respects it is with the latter (though chronologically earlier) aspect that Matthew Dirst's survey Engaging Bach: The Keyboard Legacy from Marpurg to Mendelssohn concerns itself, serving as a fine single-volume introduction to the "private" side of Bach reception up to about 1850. Yet with a growing focus in its later chapters on performance trends for this "private" repertoire, it satisfyingly sets the stage for the emergence of the "public" Bach, stitching the two narratives together. Copiously footnoted and engagingly written, the book collects in one place many compositional, critical, and performative responses to Bach that have previously been detailed in monographs, book chapters, and German-language sources.(2)

*

[3] The breadth of Engaging Bach can be seen in the topics of the three chapters of Part I, "The posthumous reassessment of selected works." Chapter 1, "Why the keyboard works?", is an overview of critical reaction to Bach from well before his death to about the turn of the nineteenth century. The answer to the titular question, then, is less that Dirst wished to focus on the keyboard works to the exclusion of other repertoire, and more that Bach reception in those first decades was largely reception of the keyboard works. While the 1720s and -30s saw controversy around Bach's sacred vocal music in well-known polemics involving Johann Mattheson and Johann Adolph Scheibe, advocates of Bach's music from his death onward mostly chose to make their case on works such as The Art of Fugue and The Well-Tempered Clavier. Berlin-based critics and theorists such as Friedrich Wilhelm Marpurg and Johann Friedrich Agricola constructed entire systems of aesthetic virtue around qualities they perceived in Bach's music, in which "naturalness" became equated with "unity in diversity." At chapter's end, Friedrich Rochlitz's writings for his Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung foreshadow what the new century would make of Bach, with a renewed interest in the intellectual and didactic value of his works, a thread that is picked up in the second half of the book.

[4] By contrast, Chapter 2, "Inventing the Bach chorale," is about the nexus of the world of music publishing in the later eighteenth century and the transformation of the practical, sacred genre of the harmonized chorale into a type of piece whose value lay in its exemplification of harmony and voice leading, and which was expected to be more studied than performed. The key figures here are Marpurg, C. P. E. Bach, and Johann Philipp Kirnberger, who in various combinations collaborated to produce two early editions of the chorales-a selection of 200 published by Birnstiel (1765-69) and the famous complete Breitkopf edition (1784-87)-both of which suffered from nearly nonexistent sales. …

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