No composer has been the subject of so much study as Johann Sebastian Bach. A vast array of articles, books, editions, dissertations, symposia, recordings, and websites give ample support to the idea of Bach at the center of the "Sun of Composers" as suggested by Augustus Frederick Christopher Kollmann's 1799 engraving, Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung. Kollmann's "Sun" is included in Christoph Wolff's Prologue to his biography, Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician (New York, 2000) published for the two hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the composer's death. Wolff's tome stands as an auspicious beginning for twenty-first century Bach studies.
The depth, breadth, and detail of Wolff's knowledge and experience are skillfully woven into the most biographically rich account of Bach's life this writer can imagine. Wolff's Bach is not a remote unapproachable idol, but rather a very real living, feeling, thinking man who grew up in a family rich in musical traditions and skills.
Wolff's biography is rich in quotations, illustrations, and examples. To wit, there are forty-three illustrations and thirteen pages of examples—the latter placed in the back of the book so as not to interrupt the flow of the text. Appendixes include "Chronology," "Places of Bach's Activities shown on a map of Germany," and the "Lutheran Church Calendar." There is also a clear presentation of "Money and Living Costs in Bach's time," so that the pfennig, groschen, gulden, taler (reichstaler), dukat, and louis d'or no longer remain a mystery to the modern reader. Selected examples of financial equivalents to the US dollar with references to the New Bach Reader are given. For example, Bach's salary as capellmeister in Cothen is given as 400 reichstalers, about $28,000; an average pastor's salary is given as 175 reichstalers, which would be $12,600; a quart of milk would be five pfennings or $ 1.25, but a ream of paper was 20 groschen, 8 pfennings or $62. Ten pages of bibliography follow the Appendixes. There are genre and title indexes of Bach's works and a general index.
The preface to this book is important for an understanding of the author's perspective on writing this biography. Wolff notes the significance of the term "learned": "More than a mere formula, the word provided this essay with a strong focus on the atmosphere of learning and the spirit of discovery that determined much of Bach's musical orientation and philosophy, distinguishes it so significantly from that of other major musicians, and helps reveal his aesthetic goals." Wolff's knowledge of the letters and documents of Bach's life, gathered in the New Bach Reader, "is largely responsible for the contours and contents of this study and for the interpretive aspects that cannot and should not be avoided."
The remarkable family influences on Sebastian Bach are eloquently presented in Wolff's first chapter and make the tragedy of the deaths of Sebastian's parents in 1694 and 1695, when he was nine years old, seem more profound than one might have suspected. Sebastian moved to the home of his older brother in Ohrdruf, where Johann Christoph assumed "the most decisive role in Sebastian's musical upbringing" and "furthered Sebastian's professional musical development during the most formative years of his life." While living with his brother, Sebastian excelled as a student, and this led to his decision to go to St. Michael's School in Luneburg (1700-1702). This "decision to complete academic studies and pass up a musical apprenticeship indicates the priorities Sebastian set for himself." The "Learned Musician's" development is well under way.
Bach's young years as he moves to Luneburg and then via Weimar to Arnstadt are chronicled with interesting detail. By 1703 Bach already had a reputation for his depth of knowledge about organ building. We learn that his "travel to and from Arnstadt [July 1703] was arranged by private coach, he received a decent per diem..., and he was paid a reasonable honorarium for the examination" and testing of the new organ. He was paid an additional fee for playing the dedicatory recital of the organ. As we read of the Arnstadt services for which Bach was in charge of the music, it is hard not to anticipate the much more complicated tasks he would face in Leipzig, where he would be responsible for the music of not one but four churches.
Details of Bach's wedding to Maria Barabara in the village church at Dornheim, of his trip to hear Buxtehude in Liibeck, and of his earliest cantatas, written for Miihlhausen, follow. We find that in the latter position Bach is responsible for the music in six services during the week, working not only at St. Blasius's Church, but also at St. Mary and Magdalen's Church and at St. Kilian's, All Saints, and Holy Cross. His responsibilities—and income—have increased.
Bach's extended stay in Weimar working for Duke Wilhelm Ernst were highly productive years, both in output and growth of his professional reputation. Much was lost to posterity when the Wilhelmsburg castle in which he worked burned in 1774; only its tower remained. The Orgel-Buchlein spans his entire time in Weimar (1708-1717). The author provides considerable information about these 164 chorale settings as well as the cantatas of the period, and vividly depicts the "high and low points" of the Weimar years. Those years end with four weeks in the castle's jail.
The years as Capellmeister in Cothen were an ideal musical situation for Bach. Wolff laments that many details of musical life at the court there—and much music—are missing. Sadly, in 1720, while he was on a trip to Carlsbad with the Prince, Bach's wife, Maria Barbara, died. Four months later he traveled to Hamburg, perhaps to consider a position there. His own obituary would later refer to this trip and stress his "continuing preeminence as an organ virtuoso." He married Anna Magdalena on December 3, 1721. Soon thereafter came the Clavier-Buchlein vorAnna Magdalena Bachin; only twenty-five of about seventy-five pages of this work survive.
Wolff has given us much information about Bach's move to Leipzig, both in this biography and in previous writings. The major musical monuments all receive loving attention here. He notes that "the climate of the university town of Leipzig must have had a particularly influential effect on Bach's daily work, on the development of his musical mind, on his artistic orientation, and on his aesthetic choices." In Leipzig, the "compositional treatment of sacred texts in motets and cantatas in particular offered numerous points for discourse that was both musi cally and theologically informed. Hence, Bach's instruction would have closely resembled that of his academic colleagues; at the same time, the pressure of a relentless performing schedule probably forced the cantor to take a pragmatic stand and stress drill and practice over intellectual dialogue." In spite of the well-documented difficulties Bach had with Leipzig town officials, it would seem that Leipzig was a splendid place for the "learned musician," a man so musically and intellectually gifted and skilled, to apply his gifts to the practicalities of life and work.
Wolff writes, "A discourse on Bach's development as a composer, integrated with a more detailed discussion of individual works, would be the subject of a separate study that I hope to undertake later in order to complement the present book." We hope soon to see that publication from Wolff.
The electronic age has made Bach information available to people as never before. The Bach Bibliography, compiled and maintained by Yo Tomita of the School of Music at Queen's University Belfast, is a huge resource, with some 20,000 entries. It has logged nearly a quarter of a million visitors as of August 2004. Tomita's introduction gives very brief snapshots of Bach and musicological research, the history of bibliographical research, weak area[s] in the research, and information on Tomita's online Bach Bibliography service. In "Scope of Data," Tomita limits the contents of his database to:
Published books of scholarly contents and reviews
Published articles of scholarly
contents (including reviews and correspondence)
Unpublished dissertations (Master and Doctor) from universities
Unpublished papers read at [a] recognized conference or meeting
Excluded from the database are:
Printed editions of music and scores (except those of highly scholarly nature)
Recordings and reviews (except
accompanying book or booklet of highly scholarly nature)
Books for children
biography has been the dominant Bach publication thus far in this decade, the
reader is well advised to examine Tomita's "New Publications," where
he lists recent "Books, Dissertations, Articles, and Conference Papers."
Of special note are two publications by Peter Williams: The Life of Bach (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 2003) and The Organ Music of]. S. Bach. 2nd
Edition, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2003).
He also includes lists of publications that are forthcoming including:
Erickson, Ray, ed. Aston Magna Bach Book. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, forthcoming.
Leaver, Robin A., and Renate Steiger, eds. "Sound" Theology: Studies in Bach's Liturgical Music. Lanham, MD and London: Scarecrow Press, forthcoming.
Dirst, Matthew. Bach as Musical Icon: Reception and Significance to 1850. Cambridge: CambridgeUniversity Press, 2005.
Schulze, Hans-Joachim and Christoph Wolff, eds. Bach Cowpewdf/Mra.Analytisch-bibliographisches Repertorium der Werke Johann Sebastian Bachs. (BC). Volumes 5,6, & 7 (Peters, forthcoming).
Oxford University Press lists in its catalogue an important publication due in March 2005: Alfred Diirr's highly esteemed Die Kantaten von Johann Sebastian Bach has been translated into English by Richard Jones, editor for the Associated Board of the Royal School of Music, as Bach's Cantatas. Also of interest will be Hearing Bach's Passions, by Daniel R. Melamed, dean of graduate studies in music at Indiana University, to be published February 2005.
Tomita's Bibliography database lists eighty English and one hundred and twenty-two German entries for Christoph Wolff. Readers may especially enjoy the audio interview with Christoph Wolff by Mick Sussman, books producer of The New York Times on the Web, April 5, 2000 (http://partners.nytimes.com/books/00/04/09/specials/ wolff.html).
Readers will have different goals in their search for information about J. S. Bach, depending on whether they are looking for basic historical information, guidance for creating or listening to performances of his music, studies of music of a particular genre, or simply new material on a favorite composer. Wolff's book covers all of these areas of interest. Tomita's bibliography is a huge help to anyone looking for sources of information and for material planned for publication in the near future. The websites listed in the box below are very useful both for their content and their links (fairly frequently updated) to other resources. The Bach Home Page also includes recommendations of recordings that most readers will find useful.
Donald Oglesby teaches at the University of Miami and is the artistic director and the conductor of the Miami Bach Society.