Thursday, March 15, 2018

Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician, by Christoph Woolf

This thick scholarly biography, Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician, by Christoph Woolf (2000), has moments of interest but is tedious.  Since there is limited documentation of Bach’s life, especially his personal life, the biographer devotes considerable time to providing historical context and explanations of musical form and structure that are beyond my ken.  The book is the product of prodigious knowledge and research. We learn much about the structure of Lutheran church services, the architecture of cathedrals, Bach’s earnings at various points in his career, the allotments he received for beer, the size of his residences, his daily work schedules, the routines of life in an 18th-century German small town.  He explains the innovative advances made by various Bach compositions. He of necessity has to make informed assumptions and conjectures, but he supports them with historical records. This book must have been intended for musical history scholars, not for the general reading public. One shock from this book came in the revelation that approximately half of all Bach’s compositions have been lost.  At the time of his death, Bach’s will apparently divided his compositions among his three oldest sons and his wife.  Bach’s wife, with little to live on, tried to sell some of the scores she inherited and donated others to the St. Thomas School where Bach taught in Leipzig from 1723 to his death.   His oldest son Freidemann lost or sold much of what he received. Carl Emmanuel, the most musically accomplished of Bach’s sons, carefully preserved what he received.  Although Bach was well regarded in Europe at the time of his death, his wife and sons had no way to know that over two hundred and fifty years later he would be regarded as one of the greatest of composers, a man responsible for developing and promoting many of the forms that make classical music what it is today.

I hoped for revelations in this biography about Bach’s inner life, his emotional being, his parents and his wives and children.  There are records of birth and death dates, scant records of what members of his family did during the years of his life (1685-1750), but there are few personal documents—journals, letters, and so on.  The rare letters that do remain of Bach’s life mainly concern professional matters.  There is some testimony from friends and several of his sons about what he was like.  Woolf suggests that he was a good father but capable of fits of anger.  He chafed at authority.  He was always on the lookout for better positions and more income (given the size of his family, he needed income). He was ambitious. He collaborated well with fellow musicians whom he liked and respected. Only one or two likenesses of Bach were made during his lifetime.  What we truly “know” of him comes from his music: His Toccata and Fugue in D minor and other organ music, the Brandenburg ConcertosFrench Suites, Goldberg Variations, MagnificatSt. Matthew’s PassionMass in B minor—these are the ones I have enjoyed the most. 

Bach was a genius both born and made.  He was born into a family of musicians, and three of his four surviving sons became composers and/or musicians.  His family tree is a lineage of musicians.  So, there must have been some genetic component in the family line that came to fruition in him.  Bach himself was a virtuoso performer at the keyboard (whether organ or harpsichord) and played many other instruments as well.  He helped design, repair and inspect organs installed in churches and cathedrals around Germany. But what made him the genius he became was also a matter of time and place. He was born into a family in a time of religious turmoil and deep religious faith.  The Reformation was barely over.  Music was a major component of Church services and daily life. Even small towns hired cappelmeisters to oversee, compose, conduct, and perform music for worship services and secular events.  City councils debated and voted on matters of musical form and policy.  Because of his family history, Bach probably expected from an early age to be a musician, to compose, and to play some musical role in churches or towns where he found positions.  He wrote some secular music (the Brandenburg Concertos, for instance), but for the most part his compositions were religious in motivation, substance and form.  He adapted many of his secular compositions into forms suitable for worship services. He wrote that his purpose in life was to compose “well-regulated church music to the glory of God.” Elsewhere he wrote: “The aim and final end of all music should be none other than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul.” What he was free to write in part depended on the positions he held.  During the 1820s, in his position as cappelmeister in Cöthen, he often composed a new cantata every week. Most of all he lived in a time and a place that valued music highly in everyday and religious life. Woolf praises him as a profound innovator who mastered, worked within, and expanded what was possible with traditional musical forms.

Opportunities for women were limited in Bach's time.  Very little is known about his first wife.  He left her in good health when he departed for a trip, but when he returned she was dead and buried.  His second wife, Anna Magdalena, was a gifted soprano, and she and Bach performed a number of times together prior to their marriage.  But after marriage, especially as children were born (one a year, a total of thirteen, only six of whom survived), she gradually withdrew from professional work, though she continued to play a role in household performances. After her husband’s death, she lived on a small inheritance which didn’t last long.  Bach made no long-term plans for her support. She lived with three of her unmarried daughters.  In the end, she died in poverty.

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