Johann Sebastian Bach: Life and Work
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Johann Sebastian Bach: Life and Work

by Martin Geck
     
 

Two hundred and fifty years after his death, Johann Sebastian Bach remains one of the most compelling figures in the history of classical music. In this major study of the composer's life and work, Martin Geck follows the course of Bach's career in rich detail--from his humble beginnings as an organ tuner and self-taught court musician to his role as Kapellmeister

Overview


Two hundred and fifty years after his death, Johann Sebastian Bach remains one of the most compelling figures in the history of classical music. In this major study of the composer's life and work, Martin Geck follows the course of Bach's career in rich detail--from his humble beginnings as an organ tuner and self-taught court musician to his role as Kapellmeister and cantor of St. Thomas's Church in Leipzig. Geck explores Bach's relations with the German aristocracy, his position with regard to the Church and contemporary theological debates, his perfectionism, and his role as the devoted head of a large family.

The focus in this comprehensive, thoroughly researched book is on the extraordinary work that came of the composer's life. From the Goldberg Variations to the Brandenburg Concertos to the Art of the Fugue, Geck carefully analyzes Bach's innovations in harmony and counterpoint, placing them in the context of European musical and social history. Always fresh and stimulating, this definitive work reintroduces Bach's enormous oeuvre in all its splendor.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

PRAISE FROM GERMANY FOR JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH

"It's often said that you can't learn to love music by reading books. This book is the exception."--Die Welt

"Fascinating from beginning to end."--Berliner Zeitung

James R. Oestreich
Mr. Geck’s telling of Bach’s biography is lively. He finds drama where he can, taking special relish in Bach’s many clashes with his employers, from his days as a “young hothead” in Arnstadt to “the crises of the 1730s” in Leipzig, which resulted in his “withdrawal from public life.” … For readers of English, the other great Bach book that appeared in 2000, Christoph Wolff’s magisterial Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician (W. W. Norton), remains the essential starting point. Mr. Geck’s tome, read with some care, is a most welcome and useful companion.
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Surprisingly little is known about the domestic and professional life of the man many consider the greatest composer who ever lived, and even this monumental study by a German musicologist has to fall back on a great deal of supposition of the kind all too familiar from some Shakespearean biographies. If it is scant on personal details, it is brilliantly all-encompassing on the music and on the place of Bach in the musical pantheon, both in his own time and in the present. Geck devotes at least two-thirds of his book to an exhaustive examination of Bach's technique and accomplishment in all his major works, and their impact on the listener. This analysis is not overwhelmingly technical and can be readily appreciated by an educated enthusiast. In a final section called "Horizons," in which Geck meditates on Bach's art, religion and philosophy as displayed in the music, he offers some remarkable insights. Bach's "overwhelming density" in places can inspire "shock and awe," as well as "laughter over the infinity of creation, and tears at one's own insignificance." For Bach, he says, "every work of music has to be conceived as a perfect likeness of divine creation." (Dec.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Geck (musicology, Univ. of Dortmund, Germany; Ludwig van Beethoven) adds to the voluminous literature on Baroque master Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) with this monumental tome intended for musical scholars and informed lay readers. He first highlights the composer's personal development, conflicts with authorities, relations with patrons and family, and reasons for moving several times before finally settling in Leipzig. He then thoroughly examines Bach's music (and texts for vocal works), offering an accomplished analysis and a plethora of musical examples. Geck includes quotes from the earliest sources through modern philosophers and literary giants, and his scholarship appears well grounded if somewhat cautious (he is hesitant to make judgments where documentation is lacking a good thing). The book is expertly translated by Hargraves and contains an exhaustive bibliography and black-and-white illustrations throughout. This title complements and brings some newer ideas to bear on Christoph Wolff's excellent Johann Sebastian Bach, which admirably integrates the musical discussions into the life chronology. Highly recommended for academic and music collections and also suitable for public libraries with a knowledgeable clientele. (Index and list of works not seen.) [See Prepub Alert, LJ 8/06.] Barry Zaslow, Miami Univ. Libs., Oxford, OH Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780151006489
Publisher:
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:
12/04/2006
Edition description:
First Edition
Pages:
752
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.47(d)

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Read an Excerpt


THE GRAND OLD MEN OF BACH BIOGRAPHY:
FORKEL, SPITTA, SCHWEITZER
Johann Nikolaus Forkel publishes the first book on Johann Sebastian Bach in 1802, an eighty-two-page work entitled On Johann Sebastian Bach’s Life, Art, and Work: For Patriotic Admirers of True Musical Art. The author was born in 1749, while Bach was still alive, in a village near Coburg, and in 1779 became Göttingen University’s director of music. For years he maintained lively contact with Bach’s sons and benefited from their direct, though far from complete, knowledge of their father. On one occasion, Forkel sends Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, presumably his most generous informant, several mettwursts to show his gratitude for notes the younger Bach turned over to him.1 Yet his sketch of Bach’s life is supplemented with all sorts of anecdotal material. Although Forkel made a name for himself with a General History of Music, he seems less interested in determining Bach’s place in music history than in paying tribute to him as a national hero.
Forkel writes his book at a time when the Germans are resisting the ideas of the French Enlightenment and Napoleon’s push for political hegemony, striving instead to establish the concept of a German nation. They find a guiding principle in the notion of cultural unity—Germany as the nation of poets and thinkers. They assert that what distinguishes the Germans from other peoples is their penchant for thoroughness, profundity of thought, moral earnestness, and passion for ideals. Thus Bach is the right man to become a musical national hero in this period.
When Forkel characterizes his hero as “the greatest master of musical expressiveness who ever existed,” as a composer whose works are “full of character and feeling” in spite of all their complexity and intricacy, he is drawing on his understanding of music as a rhetorical art form, yet at the same time he is introducing the possibility of viewing Bach from other perspectives: not exclusively as the great organ virtuoso, teacher, and master of the fugue, the splendid contrapuntalist and powerful harmonist but also as an artist whose “musical poetic spirit” never lacked for “adequate expressive means for portraying his emotions.”2
According to Forkel, Bach’s genius and originality tower over the artistic spirit of the present. Because of its exemplary nature, Forkel calls the music of “the first classic composer” a “priceless national heritage, the equal of which no other people can claim.” Bach’s works are intended not merely to delight for the moment; they are directed toward all that is “great and noble” and constitute, “one and all, true ideals and immortal exemplars of art.” The “incomparable wealth of ideas gathered therein” will allow future generations to continue discovering something new, even after thousands of encounters.3 Forkel does not confine himself to general observations, however; he also provides concrete information. He reports respectfully on six generations of musical Bachs; sketches Johann Sebastian’s life and character, primarily on the basis of the 1754 obituary, supplemented with information provided by the sons; and offers an assessment of him as an astounding pianist, organist, and teacher. He goes on to formulate thoughts on Bach’s compositional style and his tendency to continue altering and improving his compositions throughout his life, thoughts still worth reading today. While Forkel’s survey of Bach’s oeuvre is cursory and devotes too much space to the keyboard works, it displays an admirable desire for accuracy.
Although it may seem somewhat unfair to call Forkel’s small book “more a manifesto than a biography,” as does the Bach scholar Friedrich Blume,4 the work certainly appears rudimentary when compared with the two-volume biography published in 1865 by Carl Heinrich Bitter, a Prussian government official and later minister of finance. For its use of sources and the breadth of its evaluation of Bach’s music this book is a significant scholarly achievement. Yet, for all its inadequacies, the work of this “dilettante,” who was nonetheless well versed in music history, did not receive the recognition it merited. It was overshadowed by another biography, almost two thousand pages in length, that followed on its heels: the Spitta, as it is still respectfully called today. This work, published in two volumes in 1873 and 1880 by Breitkopf and Härtel, is one of a number of great musical biographies in multiple volumes that appeared in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—one thinks of Friedrich Chrysander’s Handel, Ferdinand Pohl’s Haydn, Otto Jahn’s Mozart, Carl Friedrich Glasenapp’s Wagner, Max Kalbeck’s Brahms, and Alexander Wheelock Thayer and Hermann Deiter’s Beethoven. Within this company, Philipp Spitta sets a new standard for the biography of an artist—with respect not to length but to thoroughness. He aims to be as comprehensive as possible; in the era of the Monumenta Germaniae historica, he sees it as a matter of honor to document and analyze Bach’s life and works exhaustively, in the spirit of modern scholarship; to capture them for posterity; and, wherever possible, to reconstruct them, as components of a “grand” German history. If Spitta shows less interest in satisfying his contemporaries’ desire to know something about Bach than in doing justice to Bach, whom he wants to rescue once and for all from oblivion, he nonetheless speaks in the spirit of his age and to his age when it comes to aesthetics. Here he takes the same approach as Forkel, viewing Bach’s art as the epitome of what art should be.
Born in 1841 in Hoya, in the marches of the Weser, as the son of a poetry-writing pastor known for his collection of hymns Psalter and Harp, Spitta began his career in Reval, where he taught Greek and Latin at a gymnasium. He had written his doctoral dissertation on sentence structure in Tacitus, but from early on music was his real love. As a student in Göttingen he had made the acquaintance of Johannes Brahms, eight years his senior. It was the beginning of a friendship that endured over many years. Despite “some disappointment” with certain works by Brahms and certain features of his compositions, Spitta embraced Brahms’s ideal of music, in which north German reserve mingled with features of classicism and Romanticism.5 Brahms, himself an ardent admirer of the older German tradition represented by Heinrich Schütz, Dietrich Buxtehude, and Johann Sebastian Bach, in later years informed his learned correspondent half playfully, half seriously, that he would love to undertake musical research himself, if only he were as clever as Spitta and capable of more than composing.6 In Sondershausen, where Spitta lives after leaving Reval, he completes the first volume of his Bach. In 1875, after a brief interval at a gymnasium in Leipzig, he becomesan adjunct professor of music history and secretary to the Royal Academy of the Arts in Berlin. Now he has the leisure not only to undertake the research for the second volume of his Bach biography but also to edit the complete works of Schütz and a selection from the compositions of Frederick the Great. Together with Friedrich Chrysander and Guido Adler, he edits the Vierteljahrsschrift für Musikwissenschaft (Musicological Quarterly), and he publishes articles on music history.
When it comes to philological analysis, Spitta has a more difficult time of it with Bach than his colleagues have writing on Handel, Mozart, or Beethoven. The biographical material is sparse, and the surviving works provide little evidence of the original dimensions of Bach’s oeuvre. Thus Spitta can feel triumphant when, with the help of a friend from Reval, he manages to track down the famous Erdmann letter of 1730, the most significant document of Bach’s private life, in the state archives in Moscow. He undertakes an intensive correspondence to obtain necessary source materials from pastors, cantors, archivists, music researchers, Bach lovers, and others. His posthumous papers include 296 letters from informants who between 1867 and 1873 provided him with material for the first volume of his biography.7
At least Spitta has access to the beginnings of serious research on Bach sources. In the anniversary year of 1850, the Leipzig Bach Society is established and launches an edition of Bach’s collected works, produced according to scholarly editorial standards. Spitta is able to make use of the first volumes of the series, which will continue to appear until 1900. He can also draw on the extensive corpus of Bach manuscripts under the care of the music librarians in Berlin. Even with these advantages, he deserves credit for his essentially pioneering achievements.

Copyright © 2000 by Rowohlt Verlag GmbH
English translation copyright © 2006 by John Hargraves
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.
Requests for permission to make copies of any part of the work should be submitted online at www.harcourt.com/contact or mailed to the following address: Permissions Department, Harcourt, Inc., 6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887-6777.

Meet the Author


Martin Geck is the author of numerous works on classical music, including a survey of its history from Beethoven to Mahler. He is a professor of musicology at the University of Dortmund in Germany.

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