Form and Content
Carmel Berman Reingold’s Johann Sebastian Bach: Revolutionary of Music is a linear biography that follows the composer’s life from his birth in Eisenach to his death sixty-five years later in Leipzig. The book is as valuable for its vivid presentation of Bach’s life and his influence on music during and after his lifetime as it is for its portrayal of the historical, social, and cultural conditions in Germany at the end of the seventeenth and the beginning of the eighteenth centuries. The first seven chapters correspond to the major stations in Bach’s life. Each is associated not only with a different geographical location but also with a different social context.
Bach’s youth in Eisenach and Lüneburg elucidates contemporary family conditions and schooling, his clash with the Pietists of Mühlhausen provides the substance for a discussion of religious attitudes, and his experiences at the courts of Weimar and Anhalt-Cöthen offer historically informed glimpses of the nobility, their attendant political rivalries and petty intrigues. The final decades in Leipzig, where Bach served as cantor at the renowned St. Thomas School, or Thomasschule, supply the background for a reasonably detailed picture of eighteenth century urban society. Reingold examines how Bach’s creative energies and the musical traditions that he represented came into direct conflict with the neohumanist educational ideals of the Thomasschule headmaster, Johann August Ernesti. The martinets of the Leipzig City Council, for their shortsightedness and inability to recognize the genius before them, are presented as suppressors of Bach’s talent and conspirators with Ernesti.
In closing chapters, Reingold offers thumbnail biographical sketches of Bach’s best-known children—Wilhelm Friedmann, Carl Philipp Emanuel, and Johann Christian—and describes how the composer’s influence grew enormously following the rediscovery of his music by Felix Mendelssohn and Robert Schumann one hundred years after Bach’s death.
The book contains more than a dozen black-and-white illustrations, which are notably well chosen. In addition to the standard iconographic depictions, these illustrations include contemporary etchings of the Weimar castle, the famous Promenade at Leipzig, and the St. Thomas Church, as well as reproductions of music manuscripts. A glossary of musical terms and a well-constructed index enhance the book’s accessibility. Reingold has also appended a chronology.