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Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician Paperback – 14 Apr 2005
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The Learned Musician is an apt subtitle for this intellectual biography, which assesses the career of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) with the scholarly rigour one would expect from a Harvard professor. Opening with a 1737 attack by a critic who labelled Bach a pedant who spoiled the natural beauty of his creations with "an excess of art", Christoph Wolff cogently compares the German composer to English scientist Isaac Newton. Both men "brought about fundamental changes and established new principles" in their chosen fields, he argues; both sought to reveal God's harmonious ordering of their world. While Wolff conscientiously covers the basics of Bach's life, including his two marriages and the musical achievements of his gifted family, the author's primary focus is on his performing (Bach was an unrivalled organist) and composing. From the Goldberg Variations through the Brandenburg Concertos to Art of the Fugue, Wolff carefully analyses Bach's innovations in harmony and counterpoint, placing them in the context of European musical and social history rendered in nicely atmospheric detail. Casual readers may find this dense tome a bit daunting, but serious music lovers will relish the deeper understanding it conveys of a genius who transformed Western music. --Wendy Smith --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
eminently readable, at times even colloquial. Wolff is one of the foremost Bach scholars today, and his comprehensive knowledge of the source materials equips him admirably to write such a book ... all sorts of interesting details emerge. (John Kitchen, Early Music Today, Oct.-Nov. 2000)
Drawing on a lifetime's involvement with Bach's music, Professor Wolff has written what is undoubtedly the most authorative and up-to-date survey of the composer's life and works in English, and probably in any language. (Malcolm Boyd, The Gramophone)
Musical biographies don't come much better than this ... no-one seriously interested in Bach should pass it by. (Bettina Neumann, Piano, July-Aug 2000)
this is a learned and satisfying account of Bach's work, temperament and milieu which will disappoint neither specialist nor general music lover. (Nicholas Anderson, BBC Music Magazine)
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My one serious complaint is against the publishers, the 'esteemed' Oxford University Press. They allowed the typesetters to get away with having the same margin on the inside of the pages as on the outside. Surely something a first-year printer's apprentice would know to avoid. The book has 600 pages and I have to force-bend the book open to be able read the text on each page as it nears the centre.
This lack of care is an insult to the memory of a genius who ranks with Shakespeare, Rembrandt and Newton; and, pertinently, an insult to the dedicated research and writing of the author, Christian Wolff.
Professor Wolff naturally grasps it. He is a professor of music and director of the Bach-Archiv in Leipzig. He speaks learnedly and enthusiastically of "ritornellos" and the "Oberwerk" and "Brustpositiv" of an organ and the daring dissonance in BWV38 as a result of a third-inversion dominant-seventh chord, while the musically uneducated among us (such as myself) wonder, "What's THAT?" And of course his musical examples at the end are lost on us. Professor Wolff has sought to bring Johann Sebastian Bach to us, and has succeeded very well, but he is handicapped not by his inabilities, but by ours.
Nevertheless, I think he could have done slightly better for those of us who love Bach but who lack his musical erudition - perhaps a glossary of the musical terms used therein, even a rudimentary explanation of some of the technicalities behind this extraordinary music, would have helped the reader (this one anyway) feel less at sea in parts. OK, this is not a "baroque music for dummies" book, but such additions would have helped.
Shorn of musical technicalities, what's left, even for the ignorant, is the story of an extraordinary talent emerging from a family of musicians (there were so many of them that, in Thuringia, people commonly referred to a musician as a "bach"). It follows Sebastian Bach, tragically orphaned at 9, as he develops not only formidable keyboard technique but also outstanding compositional skills, ever keen to develop his art, never afraid to learn from others and from other countries (the famous trip to see and hear Buxtehude, where he was given release for four weeks and stayed for four months, is an example). It follows his ever-upwards trail from Lüneburg to Arnstadt to Weimar to Cöthen, and finally to Leipzig. Professor Wolff's profound research illuminates a world very different from ours, right down to salaries and expenses typical for the 18th century.
I confess to having thought of Bach as an obscure figure in German country churches and small local courts, and perhaps even a bit of a musical fuddy-duddy. Professor Wolff makes it clear that, not only were Bach's extraordinary abilities indeed widely appreciated at the time, but also that he was a daring musical innovator. However, it seems to me that here there arises an odd disconnect. Brilliant, widely-appreciated musician he was, but his style fell completely out of fashion after his death, and by the time the young Felix Mendelssohn resurrected the St. Matthew Passion in Leipzig, the only memory left of Bach was that of a great organist.
Why were Bach's compositions so completely forgotten for so long among the general public? One explanation was Albert Schweitzer's; Bach represented the apotheosis of contrapuntal composition - Bach had said everything there was to say, so music changed. Another was that the idea was that music was improving all the time, and that old stuff was irrelevant and unworthy of attention. I would have liked Professor Wolff's take on this.
One of the sad aspects of this account is the indication of just how much of Bach's output has been tragically lost, largely because of the way the estate was split up after his death among his various offspring - Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach was a careful custodian of his father's work, Wilhelm Friedemann Bach was not. For a cantata lover such as myself, his lists of the five annual cantata cycles and just how much of them we no longer have are especially saddening, but I guess we have to see the glass as half-full rather than half-empty.
In summary, apart from the minor problems for the musically uneducated, Professor Wolff has done us all a great service by making the great cantor of Leipzig so much more accessible, and enjoyably so.
A huge amount of background knowledge about Bach, Bach's time, Bach's environment is required in order to understand this book. One would wonder what is the Obituary, how lengthy is it, and where it is now?
It reads as a textual transcription of the paper records from Bach's time - his receipts, his invoices, his salary slips, newspapers etc. No much, if any, was said of the NBR, the BD, and other references made in the book. The author spent no time in mentioning the research sources.
A large section of Glossary would have helped set the background for the readers, but it does not exist.
For the most part, it reads as 'might have', 'could have', 'probably have' as Bach did not write much personal letters, and the author had to make general statement on the probability of what had actually happened. This is in no way of the author's fault.
All in all, this is a very difficult book for general and average music lovers; and at times disappointing. On the other hand, specialists and music scholars would have find it useful.
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