Along with listening to all of Bach’s extant music via the Bach Edition I wanted to learn more about the man, and hopefully understand the music a little bit better. Johann Sebastian Bach was born in 1685 to a musical family in Eisenach. By the time he was eighteen he was a respected organologist and received appointments as church organist first in Arnstadt (in 1703) and then in Mühlhausen (1707). In 1708 he was appointed organist and chamber musician in Weimar, and later became concertmaster there. His next position was in Cöthen from 1717 to 1723 where he served as capellmeister. His final position was as cantor at St. Thomas School in Leipzig where he remained until his death in 1750. Along the way he was married twice (his first wife died in 1720) and had twenty children, ten of whom survived into adulthood.
Christoph Wolff’s biography is a very good scholarly introduction to what we know about Johann Sebastian Bach. Wolff is a well respected Bach expert, directing the Bach-Archiv in Leipzig and author and editor of many other Bach publications. This expertise really comes through in the book, which is filled with scholarly discussion and excerpts from what little remains from Bach’s life. Because most of Bach’s letters, writings and music are gone, a biography of Bach is more like a series of reasoned hypotheses that can never be fully rejected. Wolff does an excellent job leading us through these arguments.
I was most surprised by how much of Bach’s life is simply unknowable because so much of what he wrote, both musically and personally, has been lost. He wrote five complete cantata cycles during his first years in Leipzig, but almost all of the final two series are lost. And the lack of personal writings means that we know almost nothing about how Bach lived his life day to day, or what he thought about his music. Wolff writes in his introduction:
Bach’s biography suffers from a serious lack of information on details, many of them crucial… Indeed, it would not be difficult to devote entire chapters to what it not known about Bach’s life. Thus, conjectures and assumptions are unavoidable, and this book necessarily calls for numerous occurrences of “probably,” “perhaps,” “maybe,” and the like. Yet, as I try to demonstrate in these pages, it is not impossible to reveal, even in the case of Bach, the essence of a life.
He goes on to say that what we do know about him comes to us in the form of his music, music which Bach used to explore the boundaries of what was known about musical science at that time. Although I lack the musical training to understand what was so revolutionary about Bach’s explorations (for example, writing about The Well-Tempered Clavier, Wolff writes “In demonstrating that the tonal system could be expanded to twenty-four keys not just theoretically but practically, Bach set a milestone in the history of music whose overall implications for chromatic harmony would take another century to be fully realized.”), Wolff’s analyses of Bach’s music in the book only increases my appreciation for Bach’s music.