Research is helping to rediscover J.S. Bach

[26 April 2007]

By Paul Horsley

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

When he was 13 years old, J.S. Bach copied out Dietrich Buxtehude’s most complicated organ work in the same florid, sophisticated music script that we know from his adult years.

But it took scholars nearly 250 years to rediscover the copy in an archive in Weimar, Germany, a few years ago.

What it reveals about Bach—that he was already an accomplished musician as he entered his teens—is just a piece of a vast picture that is only now forming of a composer whose life has remained frustratingly obscure.

In fact, if Bach is the greatest composer Western civilization has produced, he is also the major figure we know least about. About his youth we know next to nothing. A new generation of scholars is changing that before our eyes.

The driving force is Christoph Wolff, a German-born Harvard University professor whose writings and editions devoted to Bach would fill a small library.

Wolff’s biography of the composer published in 2000, “Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician,” was at once a capstone of 40 years of Bach research and a springboard for more.

The 66-year-old Wolff said that only since the 1990s fall of communism have scholars had access to the archives where most Bach material resides, which lay under East German rule since 1945.

And many of the tools of modern scholarship were not available before World War II.

Now, thanks to a renewed push beginning in 2002 by the Bach-Archiv in Leipzig, which Wolff heads, we are learning things about Bach practically every week.

In five years 120 Bach-related items have been discovered by a team of scholars that has spread out over the German states of Thuringia, Saxony and Saxony-Anhalt like a pack of FBI agents hunting a fugitive.

“Some of the effect of this work is pulling Bach down to earth,” Wolff said. “It makes him a more credible human being than the abstract composer close to heaven he is so often portrayed as.”

Partly because of the sketchy materials that have formed our image of Bach, Wolff said, musicians and even scholars have been too quick to rush to speculation.

“The Mozart family letters give us detailed information about every stage of that composer’s life,” Wolff said. “We don’t have anything like that for Bach. He has been less accessible biographically as a human being because we have so little material on him.”

The team recently uncovered two of the longest Bach letters extant, which, with other items, are helping fill in more about Bach’s personality.

Earlier documents have shown, for example, that Bach sometimes liked to have a glass of schnapps at his composing desk and that he had a large dinner table with 12 chairs (only for adults), suggesting a vibrant social life.

“He was a gregarious person with an open house,” Wolff said. “(His son) Emanuel Bach writes that every musician who was traveling through Leipzig wanted to see his father.”

Musical materials are coming to light as well, most notably a hitherto unknown celebratory aria, written in 1713 for the Duke of Weimar’s 53rd birthday. It had remained hidden because it was filed with a stash of memorabilia and birthday cards. The aria was revealed to the world immediately and has already been recorded twice.

Perhaps the most telling aspect of Bach’s life coming into focus is the tension between workaday musicians and a composer pushing music into an unknown realm.

There’s a famous anecdote about Bach throwing his wig at an errant musician. Wolff said that might be an exaggeration, but it reinforces the real Bach we are starting to know.

“He expected the utmost of his musicians, and that must have made it difficult for everyone around.”

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