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Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician (Norton Paperback) Paperback – 29 Oct 2001
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A monumental work that must find its way into the library of every musician and every dedicated lover of music.--Isaac Stern
It's unlikely that anyone will fashion a finer tribute to [Bach's] genius.
A magisterial biographical portrait necessarily learned, but also user-friendly, helpful and entertainingly informative."
Likely to be the standard one-volume Bach biography for some time to come.
A work of clarity worthy of its subject and his music.
Undoubtedly the most important Bach biography since Phillipp Spitta's life written over a century ago.
A magisterial biographical portrait...necessarily learned, but also user-friendly, helpful and entertainingly informative.
About the Author
Christoph Wolff, a Pulitzer Prize finalist, is the Adams University Professor at Harvard University and one of the world's foremost experts on Bach and Mozart. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
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Facts I found most interesting:
Bach came from a family of talented and respected musicians
He was an incredibly talented and respected organist. Churches would have him come to examine and inspect their newly built organs. (Makes his organ compositions more interesting)
He had 20 children (from two wives - the first died suddenly of illness) 10 made it to adulthood. While living in Leipzig his family lived in a large home by the time's standards - 803 square feet!
Much of Bach's work was lost after his death. He divided his manuscripts among his four musical children, and only Carl Philipp Emanuel managed his inherited music with care - the others sold theirs piecemeal.
I am completely un-educated when it comes to the technical side of the music, so a lot of the discussion of the music itself went over my head. Still, I enjoyed the book immensely.
Tracing his life chronologically, the book's theme is one of a composer/virtuoso/organ expert who develops out of self-interest and passion for music and especially his family background of musicians. He certainly had some ins because of this family heritage, but certainly on the same hand earned his way by his demonstrated abilities on the organ, pipe organ construction and maintenance and finally composition.
Revolutionizing the music craft by his counterpoint and harmonization, his influence both to those who come after him including his two older sons, this man continues to play vital role in unfolding world of music.
Minor missing element which certainly is understandable for the non-theologically inclined is the major influence that Bach's theology played in his music. From the surviving Cavlov Bible that we have from J.S., we know this as certainty.
This book is thoroughly impressive in both its scope and its detail, though the numerous tables cataloguing Bach's work from the various periods such as Weimar and Cothen are not as well integrated in text as one might hope. Where Wolff makes the occasional reference to the tables, I as the reader desired to see more comparison and analysis of various works in each period.
It is also immediately apparent upon even a glance through the index that Wolff dedicates much of his analysis of Bach's major works to Bach's vocal music, and notably less space to Bach's instrumental and keyboard/organ music. As we know, Bach's Fugue "the Great" in G minor, BWV 542, is a towering masterpiece of Bach's (and Baroque) organ music, but Wolff hardly affords it the analysis it demands. He also neglects to develop much depth of analysis with Bach's instrumental works. For example, we know that nearly all of Bach's solo and multiple piano concerti have their roots in previous concerti, but little attention is paid as to why Bach chose to transcribe to piano(harpsichord), why he selected the works he did, and whether there is a distinct method/pattern to Bach's transcriptions.
Wolff does do, however, an exquisite job of analysis of Bach's vocal music, exploring the depth of Bach's passion for writing cantatas, and how skillfully he was able to interpet his vision of the words into music. Wolff provides numerous glimpses of Bach's organ expertise, especially in the field of repair and construction. These descriptions do require some prior knowledge of how an organ produces sound and how it is played in order to be enjoyed to the fullest. The book also does a magnificient job of exploring and relating the various and primary influences on Bach's musical development and style. Wolff provides an insight into the influence of Dietrich Buxtehude especially, as well as that of Johann Pachelbel and the numerous older Bach relations. Much has been heaped upon Mozart's child prodigy fame, but even those of us for whom Bach is a perpetual favorite, know little about Bach's formative years, and Wolff gives a very comprehensive look at Bach's musical training.
Wolff's small digressions notwithstanding, this book is truly one every lover of Bach should keep in his library. (And reread every so often!)
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