Sunday, October 29, 2006

Contrasting views of J. S. Bach

Just finished reading Christoph Wolff's excellent "Johann Sebastian Bach".

Bach led a relatively uneventful life in personal terms, moving between various appointments in what is now Southern Germany. Wolff's thorough and detailed biography succeeds in sketching the social and political environment in which JSB and his family lived and worked, which helps put the music into some kind of historical order. The 'BWV' catalogue is thematically organised, not historical and gives no help in understand the development of Bach's thinking, nor the circumstances under which he performed and composed.

So, reading Wolff was really useful, and prompted me to get a couple more works I was missing: specifically BWV 548 (Prelude and Fugue in E minor for Organ) and BWV 1014-19 (6 clavier trios).

Wolff consistently talks Bach up, even when he is at his most obsessionally obnoxious. He seems to have been an overpowering figure, and relentless in disputes. Nevertheless, his personality remains opaque (ENTJ?).

I had formerly reviewed "Evening in the Palace of Reason: Bach meets Frederick the Great in the Age of Enlightenment" by James R. Gaines here (scroll down the page). Having now read Wolff, I think Gaines goes to the other extreme, exaggerating the ups and downs of Bach's career. When some of the favourites for the post of Cantor at St. Thomas School and Director of Music in Leipzig, had dropped out, leaving Bach as one of the few remaining candidates, it isn't obvious that when one member of the selection committee said: "As the best are not available, I suppose we must take one of the second-rate men" (p. 164) that he meant Bach. Wolff has the quote referring to someone else, who was not in fact chosen.

And although Bach's beloved second wife, Anna Magdalena, died an almswoman ten years after him, it is unlikely that she had been abandoned to dire poverty. The Leipzig social network was in all probability still working according to Wolff (p. 456).

Wolff does confirm, however, that audiences of the time found Bach as challenging as people do today. He was writing for the Saxon elite in Leipzig, and made few concessions to the mass market.