Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician Summary

Christoph Wolff


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 24)

Johann Sebastian Bach is one of the most famous composers and musicians in the history of Western music. His music is synonymous with the Baroque musical style using complex polyphony and counterpoint. Writing a biography of Bach, however, is a difficult task. Although the main outlines of his life are known, the documentary evidence is spotty. In addition, Bach left few personal statements about his life and work; his music was his primary vehicle for communicating his thoughts and ideas.

Christoph Wolff is eminently qualified to wrestle with the complex problems that a biography of Bach presents. He is a German musicologist who has taught for almost twenty-five years at Harvard University where he is now the William Powell Mason Professor of Music. He is a leading Bach scholar whose numerous publications and editorial work on Bach’s music include Bach: Essays on His Life and Music (1991).

The approach that Wolff takes in writing a Bach biography has two aims. First, he presents a narrative of Bach’s life; and second, he develops a thesis about Bach as a “learned” musician. This biography chronicles Bach’s life from his birth in Eisenach in 1685 until his death at Leipzig in 1750. The first three chapters look at his academic and musical education, especially in the context of the large Bach family, most of whom were musicians. Subsequent chapters discuss his early career, primarily as an organist with positions in Arnstadt and Mühlhausen. Wolff examines how Bach’s career opportunities, especially as a composer, expanded with appointments to two princely courts, first at Weimar, then at Köthen. The last five chapters focus on Bach’s most extended position as cantor at the St. Thomas school and music director of several city churches in Leipzig.

Wolff treats the unfolding narrative of Bach’s life in rich and extensive detail. To compensate for the often terse nature of sources such as brief newspaper notices and business and other official documents, Wolff develops the biographical material in two ways. First, he provides ample contextual detail. For example, for the early years, he gives much attention to Bach’s extended family, their musical milieu, and the way that the family members used their interconnections to secure employment for one another. For each position that Bach held, Wolff delves into the political, social, and artistic setting. The organization, activities, and interests of the princely courts at Weimar and Köthen are explained fully and include extensive information about the personnel and architectural reconstructions of the court chapels in which Bach’s music was performed. Wolff explains the relationships at Leipzig among the St. Thomas school where Bach was cantor, the city government, and the famous University. In most cases, photographs, engravings, architectural renderings, and tables giving the organization of court and academic musicians present this information in a variety of formats. Ultimately, the value of this approach lies in the way that it enables the reader to understand Bach’s daily activities and professional responsibilities and, most important, how Bach’s compositions were created, in part, to satisfy the differing needs and requirements of types of music for different situations.

A second way that Wolff fills the gaps left by the primary sources is that he allows himself a certain degree of interpretative freedom. For instance, he speculates on what led Bach to break established patterns and to leave his homeland at an early age to advance his musical education at Lüneburg. In another case, Bach was traveling when his first wife, Maria Barbara, died rather suddenly. Wolff imagines what it would have been like to break the news to Bach, as well as how her death affected him. While none of these motives and reactions can be proved, they make Bach appear less remote and more humane.

Wolff directs most of his interpretative arguments toward his key thesis that Bach was a learned musician. Through analysis of some of Bach’s compositions, Wolff demonstrates the intellectual dimensions that inform major projects that Bach undertook, such as ambitious cantata cycles for the Lutheran liturgical year that he composed early in his tenure at St. Thomas’s at Leipzig, or the development and eventual publication of keyboard collections such as The Well-Tempered Clavieror The Art of the Fugue. These works take each genre to new heights and not only display high levels of technical proficiency but also reveal a vision of “musical science.” Wolff consistently points to this conceptual aspect of Bach’s approach to music...

(The entire section is 1895 words.)