Johann Sebastian Bach
The Learned Musician - The biography by Christoph Wolff
W W Norton & Co,
Hardcover, 544 p., March 2000.
[added on February 14, 2002: get the 2001 edition
Article based on the German edition, S. Fischer.
by Johann Sebastian Bach.
Article added in June 2000
After 26 years in the service of the German city
of Leipzig, Johann Sebastian Bach died on July 28, 1750. The Bach-year is still
young but has already produced two highlights: Mischa
Maisky's recordings of Bach's six suites for solo violoncello as well
as the most complete Bach-biography until today, written by Christoph Wolff.
Christoph Wolff is modest and stresses the fact
that the research on Bach is far from finished. At any time, new sources
can be found, as happened during his writing of the biography Johann
Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician. Regarding the composer's works,
Wolff estimates that only 15 to 20% of his music has survived. For his time in
Weimar alone, around 200 compositions have probably been lost forever. 40% of
his cantatas written in Leipzig have never been found.
Wolff concentrates his narrative on the life of
Bach, but stresses at the same time the important lack of significant information. He states that it would be possible to write entire chapters on
what we do not know or on what is questionable in our knowledge about Bach.
Still, Wolff was able in his more than 600 pages, to bring to life the essence
of Bach and his personality. The author renounces a detailed analysis of
Bach's compositions. This will follow in a separate book to be published on
Bach's stylistic and technical developments which will complement the now
presented biographical portrait.
The author, Christoph Wolff has been a professor of music at Harvard University, Cambridge,
Massachusetts since 1976. From 1963 to 1969, he taught at the University of Erlangen
(Germany) and also spent a year as guest professor at the University of Basel
(Switzerland). Since 1990 he has been a professor at the University in Freiburg i.Br.
(Germany). Therefore, Wolff is at ease with the German language. At the same
time, he is one of the best specialists on Bach. He is part of the editorial
team of the New Bach Edition and co-editor of the Bach Yearbook. Among Wolff's
publications are: Bach:
Essays on His Life and Music (Cambridge 1991, 3/1996), Die Bach Familie
(Stuttgart 1994) and, as editor Die Welt der Bach Kantaten in three
volumes (Stuttgart 1996-99).
Johann Sebastian Bach was born into a family of musicians with
many branches which had existed for several generations and continued
after Bach's death. Based on the rare available sources, Wolff asserts that
Bach's early work even before 1705 shows that Bach gained an early mastery as a composer as well as a musician. This constitutes a new assessment of
his early work, not based on new research results or discoveries but on a
reinterpretation of the available sources.
The subtitle of Wolff's biography, The Learned
Musician, tells us to what extent Johann Sebastian was different from his
relatives and how he saw himself. At the same time, it is an objective
characterization of Bach. His musical philosophy was based on a scientific
atmosphere of research and teaching, connected with a spirit of an explorer
and inventor. Bach saw himself not as a musician, but as a "musical
scientist" who wrote works of "musical science". At the
age of 15, he chose an academic education over a musical apprenticeship and, in
his last decade in Leipzig, he reduced his duties as cantor and director of music
at the city's principal churches in favor of his work as a composer.
Bach maintained close relations to the University of Leipzig
and professors in very different fields. A professor of
philosophy was godfather to one of his sons, the wife of a
professor of theology was
godmother to one of his
daughters. A professor of logic
and physics wrote the libretto for
one of his cantatas and a professor of law commissioned a cantata, etc. In
short, the academic world mirrored the themes Bach himself was preoccupied
with: the relationship between logic and religion, nature, science and god.
Unfortunately, there are no material sources illustrating what Bach's thoughts
and convictions were, but Wolff's study makes clear that Bach's relation to
the academic world was unusually close for a choirmaster and organist of his
time. Although Bach went far beyond being a "musical craftsman", he
was still a child of his era. He was not an independent composer as they emerged
in the 19th century, but a man in the service of a Prince or representatives
of German cities. He fought many battles with his superiors and even spent a month in
jail for this reason.
Wolff agrees with Daniel Schubart, a
18th-century critic and musician, who once said that what Newton means to physics, Bach means to music. He elevated it to a science that he
systematically explored. Musical instruments and musical theory where his
laboratory. Although Bach hardly left the Weimar and Leipzig region and never
went abroad - in contrast to his cosmopolitan contemporaries Händel and
Telemann - his compositions reflect better the encounter with the musical
world of his time because they were based on the scientific study of music.
According to Wolff, if Bach has created a revolution, it is based on his
theory of composition which integrated the up to then separated principals of
general bass, harmony and counterpoint. The most important compositions on the
didactic level are in this regard the Well-tempered Piano and
the collection of more than 370 four-voice chorals, because they uncover the
perspectives of harmonic tonality, according to Wolff.
See also the Bach-biography by
Boyd, still interesting and a complement to Wolff for its analysis of
the compositions by Bach.
by Johann Sebastian Bach.