Bach: The Learned Musician
As we research each volume in our series, Brandon and I make our way through stacks of books and encyclopedia articles. Some resources offer only bits of pertinent info, and thus we read only selected chapters or sections. But others tell such a comprehensive story about not only the main figure but also the scope of private life in that era that they beg to be read in full. Working on volume 1, it was J.N.D. Kelly’s Jerome: His Life, Writings, and Controversies and Philip Freeman’s St. Patrick of Ireland: A Biography that drew me in. Mark Galli’s Francis of Assisi and His World hooked me while researching volume 2. For volume 3 it was Diarmaid MacCulloch’s Thomas Cranmer: A Life and Kate Caffrey’s The Mayflower. Research for volume 4 is ongoing, but so far the award for compelling-enough-to-read-in-full goes to Christoph Wolff’s outstanding biography Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician.
Wolff is the author of numerous scholarly studies of Bach; this volume, published in 2000 in honor of the 250th anniversary of Bach’s death, and in light of ongoing discoveries of Bach manuscripts and letters, intends “to update and adjust the image of Bach in order to bring it in line—as objectively as possible and as subjectively as legitimate—with the current state of scholarship.” In 12 chapters, Wolff works through the periods of Bach’s life, from his baptism in the Lutheran church at the foot of Wartburg Castle (where in exile Luther translated the Bible into German) to his appointments as capellmeister and royal court composer.
Wolff’s theme is that Bach was much more than a talented music maker; he was the quintessential musical scholar. As Newton was to natural philosophy, so a generation later was Bach to musical scholarship. (In fact, the pinnacle of Bach’s career was at the university in Leipzig, the center of Newtonian thinking in Germany in Bach’s day.) Bach pursued the idea of “musical perfection”; he was an expert in the science of instrument building and the ergonomics of performance; he studied the theology behind the texts of his cantatas and set new standards for composition; he taught students by welcoming them into his home, writing exercises to strengthen their particular weaknesses, and renting them his own instruments and musical scores. He had both the passion for beautiful music and the scientific mind to understand and construct it.
As you would expect, the book includes considerable technical discussion, but it is organized and lucid, and written with a balance of admiration and candor. The back matter includes extensive notes, bibliography, music examples, indices of Bach’s works by title and genre, and four appendices: Chronology, Places of Bach’s Activities, Money and Living Costs in Bach’s Time, and the Lutheran Church Calendar. No doubt it was a Pulitzer Prize Finalist for all these reasons.
I was glad to have access to a piano as I read so I could learn one of Bach’s three-part inventions; I haven’t spent much time with his compositions since studying pipe organ in college. Too bad I can’t give this much attention to researching all the historical figures in our series! But it’s certainly fun to look at one or two of them on this level.