The Magazine

Bach to the Future

Why Johann Sebastian appeals to moderns.

Feb 26, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 23 • By GEORGE B. STAUFFER
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Johann Sebastian Bach

Life and Work

by Martin Geck

Translated by John Hargraves

Harcourt, 752 pp., $40

J.S. Bach

A Life in Music

by Peter Williams

Cambridge, 418 pp., $35

It was the biologist and popular author Lewis Thomas, writing in Lives of a Cell, who proposed that mankind use Bach's music to say hello to any sentient life in the universe. Thomas recommended beaming Bach--all of Bach--into outer space, over and over again, so that if by chance another civilization were to tune in, mankind would have put the best possible face on the encounter.

If extraterrestrials do indeed respond, let's hope they stick to the music and don't ask about Bach's life, for although we can reconstruct the professional stations and main events of the great contrapuntist's career, we know painfully little about the day-to-day doings and inner thoughts of the man who wrote the "St. Matthew Passion," the B-Minor Mass, and other monuments of Western music.

The extraterrestrials would surely be shocked at our ignorance.

The biographical gaps stem partly from the age--composers were still viewed as craftsmen rather than artists during the Baroque era--and partly from a man who was so preoccupied with writing music (more than a thousand works!), with teaching (more than 80 students!), and with procreating (20 children!) that he had little time for daily correspondence or personal reflection. Documents revealing Bach's nature and personality are few and far between. We have no idea how tall he was, or how large his hands. We suspect he ate well, to judge from the robust figure that looks out from the famous Haussmann painting (the only extant portrait) completed a few years before his death.

We can be sure from complaints recorded by church and town councils that Bach was willful, and we know he had a rich sense of humor, once saying that a non-musical "Rec-tor" had a "Dreck-ohr," or filthy ear--a remark so irreverent that its meaning was noted in French when the comment was recounted later in a German publication. But how Bach ran rehearsals, or what hours of the day he used for composing, or when he met his first wife, Maria Barbara Bach (a cousin)--we know nothing.

For Mozart and Beethoven, there are volumes of letters and contemporary reports to tell us about the inner man. Mozart wrote of going out for large ice at the Palais Royal and then saying the Rosary after a surprisingly successful performance of his "Paris" Symphony. Beethoven described for posterity his inner torment at the prospect of impending deafness before penning the "Eroica" Symphony. With both composers, richly written biographies, created from early sources, have shed revealing light on their works. In the case of Bach the opposite is true: The works are the most critical surviving document, and they must be used to flesh-in the life.

This has led to highly interpretative studies of Bach in the past, accounts in which the biographers sometimes re-create their own image in the biographee. Johann Nikolaus Forkel, Bach's first biographer and an early advocate of German independence and unity, portrayed the composer in 1802 as a Teutonic national hero. Philipp Spitta, a theologian writing 70 years later, presented Bach as the "Fifth Evangelist," spreading the word of God in his cantatas, passions, and oratorios. With Albert Schweitzer, a musician greatly enamored of Wagner's operas, Bach became a "poet-musician." And most recently Christoph Wolff, university professor at Harvard, has portrayed Bach as a "learned musician," a composer whose intellectual prowess would seem to have made him a strong candidate for employment at, well, Harvard. (The university was open for business at the time but passed up the opportunity.)

So it is with some trepidation that one picks up the two latest entries in the world of Bach biography, a long volume by Martin Geck, professor of musicology at the University of Dortmund, and a shorter profile by Peter Williams, emeritus professor of music at Duke. Geck candidly points out the pitfalls at the start of his book, acknowledging the "Grand Old Men of Bach Biography" before surveying the life, works, and special issues (such as number symbolism in the music) in a highly readable 752-page overview. Geck has no axes to grind. Rather, he reconstructs Bach to the fullest extent possible while never losing sight of the music and the magical paradox of its parochial origins and its universal appeal. The book is a pleasure to read.