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Christoph Wolff's Bach Biography


Johann Sebastian Bach
Portrait by Haussmann
Used as Title Picture
by both Publishers

While the English original of this work was published by W.W. Norton Publishing, New York, in January 2000, I had an opportunity to review a reading sample of its German translation (for a presentation in the August issue of the German-Canadian monthly newspaper Albertaner) that Bettina Obrecht rendered in close consultation with Wolff, and that was published by S. Fischer in Germany in April, 2000.   With this new Bach biography, Wolff presents us with his thorough establishment of an updated Bach image that might well become the new standard work!

Although Wolff's writing style is very readable, it might be a good idea to thoroughly study the Appendix and the Table of Contents of this book before venturing into reading.

Thus equipped, one will find that Wolff proceeds very systematically and logically.  Let me not describe to you what this book is not but rather what it is:  An excellent biography of the development of Bach's musical mind and of all his musical gifts--those of the harpsichordist, organist, organ expert, music teacher, composer, conductor and music director, as this is also reflected in the sub-title of the English original:  The Learned Musician.

Wolff relies on original documents, early records such as the Necrologue (started by Bach, completed by his son C.P.E. Bach and Agricola), Forkel's biography of 1802, still relevant findings of Spitta and later writers, however, also on his own research of several decades, including his 1999 discovery of the Bach family documents in Kiew.

In tracing the musical heritage of the Bach family, Bach's own development during his childhood at Eisenach, his youth at Ohrdruf and Lunenburg, Wolff carefully develops before us a picture of the basis upon which Bach could build his musical career as an adult.

Also in his further description of Bach's development as organist at Arnstadt, Mühlhausen and at the Weimar Court, in his Weimar promotion to Concert Master, in his work as Kapellmeister at Köthen, and right into his activity as Leipzig Thomaskantor, Bach's musical growth and maturation is described to us in a clear, systematic and understandable manner, since the development of every pre-requisite of ever musical progress is described just as systematically and understandably.

As a serious musicologist Wolff concentrates--of course!--mainly on the history of Bach's musical development, and in doing so, the biographical-anecdotal is only referred to in such a manner as it, first of all, can be considered reliable and, secondly, is relevant.  Since the appendix also provides a thorough time table, one never needs to be at a loss with respect to mere bare-bone facts of Bach's curriculum vitae.  Wolff's manner of proceeding, however, ensures that the musical-biographical tension of his argument never lets up!

Thus we learn easily how Bach, during his early adult years (at Arnstadt, Mühlhausen, Weimar and Köthen), developed into a master composer and music teacher who would also continue to challenge himself in his (by others often considered a 'decline' of sorts) position as Leipzig Thomas Cantor, such as in his extensive Cantata work and the Passion works of the 1720's, but also his additional activity as Director Musices  of the Collegium Musicum during the 1730's.

Wolff argues very convincingly and understandably that Bach's alleged stubbornness might have been mainly motivated by his striving for musical excellence and only rarely left those boundaries.

Only after the description of Bach's career up to 1740 do we find a chapter on his family life which I enjoyed very much both on the basis of its factual accuracy as well as on that of its great sense of tact.

The Musical Biography finds it conclusion with the description of Bach's last decade in which he mainly concentrated on the Mass in B and on the Art of the Fugue.

The entire biographical core is framed in by Wolff's preface, prologue and epilogue.  One of the main ideas presented in these sections is that of Bach's role as musical equivalent to Isaac Newton's striving as a physicist in this era of exploration of the turn of the 17th to the 18th century.

If it should be allowed that a lay reader may recommend an excellent new composers' biography, then the question would be, who this work that, in the humble opinion of this lay reader, does Bach great justice, should be recommended to?   Perhaps to all friends of Bach's music who are not afraid to have their comfortably-established Bach image shaken up by a competent writer!  In an online search at the library of the University of Alberta, this reader was surprised that she was not yet able to find this title among the new acquisitions.  Therefore, it is also her hope that professional sources do not have to miss out on it due to whatever reason!

Copyright July 2000
Ingrid Schwaegermann.

Christoph Wolff's career as a musicologist speaks for itself and is briefly referred to below:

Born in Germany in 1940; 1963 - 1969: Lecturer at the University of Erlangen, to 1970 at the University of Toronto, to 1976 at the Columbia University in New York (additionally, also guest professorships at Princeton and Basle), from 1976 on as Professor for Musicology at the  Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, there from 1980 - 1988 Chair of the Music Department, 1991 - 1992 acting head of the University Library, and from 1992 - 2000 Dean of the Graduate School of Arts. Since 1990, Wolff has also been an Honorary Professor of the University of Freiburg i.Br., he is also a member of the board of editors of the New Bach Edition, Co-Editor of the Bach-Jahrbuch, President of the Central Institute for Mozart Research (Zentralinstituts für Mozartforschung in Salzburg), and since 1982 an official member of the  American Academy of Arts and Sciences. For his research, he received the following awards:  In 1978, the Dent Medal of the Royal Musical Association in London, 1992 the Staatspreis des Landes Nordrhein-Westfalen and 1996 the Forschungspreis der Alexander-von-Humboldt-Stiftung. Some of his previous works are:   Bach: Essays on His Life and Music (Cambridge 1991, 3/1996), Mozarts Requiem (Kassel 1991, 2/1995), Die Bach-Familie (Stuttgart, 1994), and as editor: Die Welt der Bach-Kantaten (3 Bände, Stuttgart 19996 - 1999), Die Gegenwart der musikalischen Vergangenheit: Meisterwerke in der Dirigentenwerkstatt (Salzburg 1999), Über Leben, Kunst und Kunstwerke: Aspekte musikalische Biographie (Leipzig 1999) and, together with Reinhold Brinkmann, "Driven into Paradise: The Musical Migration from Nazi Germany to the United States (Berkeley 1999). We have already referred to Wolff's 1999 Kiew discovery in our book review.