J.S. Bach: A Life in Music

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Peter Williams approaches afresh the life and music of arguably the most studied of all composers, interpreting both Bach's life by deconstructing his original obituary in the light of more recent information and his music by evaluating his priorities and irrepressible creative energy. How, even though belonging to musical families on both his parents' sides, did he come to possess so bewitching a sense of rhythm and melody and a mastery of harmony that established nothing less than a norm in Western culture? In considering that the works of a composer are his biography, the book's title A Life in Music means both a life spent making music and one revealed in the music as we know it. A distinguished scholar and performer, Williams re-examines Bach's life as an orphan and family man, as an extraordinarily gifted composer and player and as an ambitious artist who never suffered fools gladly.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
2007 Outstanding Academic Title — Choice Magazine

"… its freshness of approach and practical knowledge of the music are enthralling."
—The Herald

"Peter Williams' observations in this … well-written volume add an imaginative and fresh dimension that will keep the 'little grey cells' charged. … This … volume could be a useful 'precursor' and we are the beneficiaries as a result."
—The Journal of the London Bach Society

"...Williams is a master of deconstruction, asking questions and speculating on every phrase of the text in a concise and precise manner, thereby revealing lines of thought that inspire further thinking and research by the reader. Definite answers are rarely possible, but this is a biography that inspires engagement, and is a necessary part of any library of anyone passionately interested in the life and work of the greatest of all composers."
—Choir & Organ

"… Williams is a writer both erudite and compelling … this is a biography unafraid to raise awkward questions and make a gallant attempt to answer them. … William's study, a substantial read, fills an important place in English language Bach literature."
—BBC Music Magazine

"Williams's book is dense and challenging ... a rewarding read, certain to enthral equally any lover of Bach's music and admirer of the techniques of forensic enquiry."
—Musical Times

“...It is in this combination of musicology, common-sense psychology and an almost Shakespearean sense of drama that I find Williams at his best”.
—Newsletter of the American Bach Society

Library Journal
Williams (The Organ Music of J.S. Bach, 2d ed.) has created a well-rounded portrait of Johann Sebastian Bach that leavens erudition with entertaining turns of phrase. Williams takes as his starting point the obituary notice published in 1754; relying chiefly on that and other contemporary accounts, he interweaves life stories with sparingly used but helpful musical examples in a chronological framework with more specific evaluative chapters at the end. Williams betrays his love for the organ by including many digressions on the construction and qualities of the instruments Bach encountered while detailing his relations with performers and methods of teaching and providing interesting tidbits about the locales in which he served as court or church musician. Williams wisely avoids idle speculation but does include comments phrased as questions to encourage more thought from the reader. A glossary, bibliography (almost exclusively devoted to primary-source material and historical titles), and indexes round out the volume. Williams's book falls between Martin Geck's recent exhaustive Johann Sebastian Bach: Life and Work and Christoph Wolff's earlier and still valuable Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician. Highly recommended for academic and music collections and for public libraries with a knowledgeable clientele.-Barry Zaslow, Miami Univ. Libs., Oxford, OH Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780521870740
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press
  • Publication date: 1/31/2007
  • Pages: 418
  • Sales rank: 943,621
  • Product dimensions: 5.98 (w) x 9.02 (h) x 1.06 (d)

Meet the Author

Peter Williams held the first Chair in Performance Practice in a British university (Edinburgh), where he was also first Director of the Russell Collection of Harpsichords and latterly Dean of Music, and the first Arts and Sciences Distinguished Chair at Duke University, North Carolina. His books include The European Organ (1966), Bach: The Goldberg Variations (Cambridge University Press, 2001), Figured Bass Accompaniment (1970), The Organ in Western Culture, 750–1250 (Cambridge University Press, 1993), The Chromatic Fourth During Four Centuries of Music (1998) and The Organ Music of J. S. Bach (Cambridge University Press, second edition 2003).

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Table of Contents

1. Early years, 1685–1703; 2. First appointments, 1703–8; 3. Weimar, 1708–17; 4. Cöthen, 1717–23; 5. Leipzig, the first years; 6. Leipzig, the middle years; 7. Leipzig, the final years; 8. Observations, descriptions, criticisms; Epilogue; Postscript.

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