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Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician [Format Kindle]

Christoph Wolff
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The Learned Musician is an apt subtitle for this intellectual biography, which assesses the career of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) with the scholarly rigor one would expect from a Harvard professor. Opening with a 1737 attack by a critic who labeled Bach a pedant who spoiled the natural beauty of his creations with "an excess of art," Christoph Wolff cogently compares the German composer to English scientist Isaac Newton. Both men "brought about fundamental changes and established new principles" in their chosen fields, he argues; both sought to reveal God's harmonious ordering of their world. While Wolff conscientiously covers the basics of Bach's life, including his two marriages and the musical achievements of his gifted family, the author's primary focus is on his performing (Bach was an unrivaled organist) and composing. From the Goldberg Variations through the Brandenburg Concertos to Art of the Fugue, Wolff carefully analyzes Bach's innovations in harmony and counterpoint, placing them in the context of European musical and social history rendered in nicely atmospheric detail. Casual readers may find this dense tome a bit daunting, but serious music lovers will relish the deeper understanding it conveys of a genius who transformed Western music. --Wendy Smith

From Publishers Weekly

Since this year is the 250th anniversary of the death of the composer now widely regarded as perhaps the most consummate musician who ever lived, it is an opportune moment for a major study of the man and his work by one of the leading authorities on both. While shedding no new light on Bach's life, Wolff, a Harvard professor of music, does offer the lay reader a thorough picture of the composer as both a technician and a surpassing artist. He describes how Bach (1685-1750) made a living in his early years traveling around testing and repairing church organs. Wolff devotes a great deal of space to examining how Bach was viewed by his contemporaries, to whom, of course, the idea of a musician as an artist--as opposed to a sort of scientist of sound (there are valuable comparisons of Bach's achievement to that of his contemporary, Isaac Newton)--was quite foreign. Wolff has excavated contemporary documents, giving remarkable detail on Bach's earnings and on the disposition of his manuscripts after his death to the various members of his multitudinous family; also included are charming examples of the musician's youthful zeal, such as his journey, 250 miles on foot, to see and hear the admired organist/composer Buxtehude. So much of the composer's life is shrouded in mystery--what exactly caused the death of the remarkably healthy Bach in his 66th year, and just where is he buried? (no tombstone marks the spot)--that although this study is certainly the last word in current Bach scholarship, the man behind the music remains infuriatingly elusive. (Mar.)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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1 internautes sur 1 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
4.0 étoiles sur 5 Exigeant mais éclairant 17 janvier 2014
Plus qu'un livre sur la musique de BACH en elle-même, ce que certains lui reprochent, c'est un livre qui lève le voile sur l'approche musicale de ce génie dans son contexte historique. Une approche musicale orientée vers la gloire de Dieu, s'inscrivant volontairement dans l'histoire de la musique, et au delà du souci de transmission, notamment à ses fils, profitant de la moindre occasion, le moindre prétexte pour apprendre, se perfectionner, cultiver les liens, se faire reconnaitre et continuer à se dépasser.

Même si, contrairement à certains, je ne trouve pas que ce livre requiert de solides connaissances musicales pour être compris, je dois avouer qu'il est ardu à lire (et pas seulement parce qu'il est en anglais), très précis avec les multiples relations, dates, preuves, éléments historiques listés d'une manière qui ne rend pas forcément la lecture la plus fluide possible. Je l'ai d'ailleurs laissé pendant plusieurs années en sommeil dans ma bibliothèque avant de la redécouvrir la semaine dernière "à la faveur" d'un problème de santé qui m'a forcé à rester alité et qui m'a permis de me plonger dans cette somme indispensable.
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46 internautes sur 46 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
5.0 étoiles sur 5 A scholarly masterpiece worthy of your intelligence! 16 septembre 2003
Par Un client - Publié sur
Format:Broché|Achat vérifié
This book is most ostensibly not a work intended to provide a layman's knowledge of Bach. The book assumes a fair knowledge of Bach and his oeuvre, as well as a thorough knowledge of music theory and general instrumentation. Cristoph Wolff has written a thoroughly satisfying and extraordinarily comprehensive summary of Bach's professional and personal lives. I found that despite the book's intrinsically serious tone, reading it as a whole felt not like a biography, but a story that us Bach fanatics wish would never end.

This book is thoroughly impressive in both its scope and its detail, though the numerous tables cataloguing Bach's work from the various periods such as Weimar and Cothen are not as well integrated in text as one might hope. Where Wolff makes the occasional reference to the tables, I as the reader desired to see more comparison and analysis of various works in each period.

It is also immediately apparent upon even a glance through the index that Wolff dedicates much of his analysis of Bach's major works to Bach's vocal music, and notably less space to Bach's instrumental and keyboard/organ music. As we know, Bach's Fugue "the Great" in G minor, BWV 542, is a towering masterpiece of Bach's (and Baroque) organ music, but Wolff hardly affords it the analysis it demands. He also neglects to develop much depth of analysis with Bach's instrumental works. For example, we know that nearly all of Bach's solo and multiple piano concerti have their roots in previous concerti, but little attention is paid as to why Bach chose to transcribe to piano(harpsichord), why he selected the works he did, and whether there is a distinct method/pattern to Bach's transcriptions.

Wolff does do, however, an exquisite job of analysis of Bach's vocal music, exploring the depth of Bach's passion for writing cantatas, and how skillfully he was able to interpet his vision of the words into music. Wolff provides numerous glimpses of Bach's organ expertise, especially in the field of repair and construction. These descriptions do require some prior knowledge of how an organ produces sound and how it is played in order to be enjoyed to the fullest. The book also does a magnificient job of exploring and relating the various and primary influences on Bach's musical development and style. Wolff provides an insight into the influence of Dietrich Buxtehude especially, as well as that of Johann Pachelbel and the numerous older Bach relations. Much has been heaped upon Mozart's child prodigy fame, but even those of us for whom Bach is a perpetual favorite, know little about Bach's formative years, and Wolff gives a very comprehensive look at Bach's musical training.
Wolff's small digressions notwithstanding, this book is truly one every lover of Bach should keep in his library. (And reread every so often!)
27 internautes sur 27 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
5.0 étoiles sur 5 Best book ever on Bach 11 décembre 2002
Par Mike Duffy - Publié sur
The usual view of Bach's life that I grew up with portrays him as something of a musical hermit, producing masterpieces and children at a prolific rate in relative anonymity with little or no earthly recognition. This book completely revises my view of Bach's life. Wolff shows Bach as a fantastically well-rounded and charismatic musician with a fantastic ability to create masterpieces, a great teacher, well loved and respected member of the community, a profound and simple Christian, and a fundamentally happy, joyful, complete man. Wolff also tries to show that Bach was the greatest musician who ever lived, and does a pretty convincing job at that. I always knew Bach was a great musician; this book simply reinforces and proves my intuition. His intermittant references to Newton are a little annoying and indicative of the hyperbole Wolff sometimes uses, but one gets used to them. The book also shows his human side - his mercurial temperment, his sometimes overbearing and demanding personality, and his greed. This book contains an enormous amount of personal information on Bach, far more than I knew existed. Wolff writes well and does not use an inordinate amount of musical terminology, so a musical illiterate like myself can still read and enjoy him. If you love Bach's music get this book, and you might as well the New Bach Reader along with it, as a good percentage of the quotes in Wolff's come directly from this source.
23 internautes sur 23 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
4.0 étoiles sur 5 Beware of the Kindle version 14 novembre 2010
Par S. Ferguson - Publié sur
Format:Format Kindle|Achat vérifié
This is a wonderful book for Bach enthusiasts -- incredibly detailed, but everything you have ever wanted to know about Bach is in one spot. But the Kindle version was a great disappointment because there are NO ILLUSTRATIONS. The table of contents lists dozens of illustrations that I was dying to see, but they don't appear anywhere ( at least that I can find). What a rip. They should warn you before you buy it that you aren't getting the entire book. Very disappointing.
36 internautes sur 39 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
4.0 étoiles sur 5 Great book, but... 30 mars 2010
Par Teemacs - Publié sur
Format:Broché|Achat vérifié
...I'll get my one major quibble out of the way immediately - you'll only get the best out of it if you have some musical knowledge, and I have only a little. Without some comprehension of his or her art, the life of a great artist, especially one untainted by scandals or crises, is in danger of becoming just a procession of dates, names and places. The whole appeal of J.S. Bach is bound up in his extraordinary musicianship, first as virtuoso keyboard player, then as composer of many different forms. It seems to me that, if you don't grasp this extraordinary art, you don't really grasp Bach.

Professor Wolff naturally grasps it. He is a professor of music and director of the Bach-Archiv in Leipzig. He speaks learnedly and enthusiastically of "ritornellos" and the "Oberwerk" and "Brustpositiv" of an organ and the daring dissonance in BWV38 as a result of a third-inversion dominant-seventh chord, while the musically uneducated among us (such as myself) wonder, "What's THAT?" And of course his musical examples at the end are lost on us. Professor Wolff has sought to bring Johann Sebastian Bach to us, and has succeeded very well, but he is handicapped not by his inabilities, but by ours.

Nevertheless, I think he could have done slightly better for those of us who love Bach but who lack his musical erudition - perhaps a glossary of the musical terms used therein, even a rudimentary explanation of some of the technicalities behind this extraordinary music, would have helped the reader (this one anyway) feel less at sea in parts. OK, this is not a "baroque music for dummies" book, but such additions would have helped.

Shorn of musical technicalities, what's left, even for the ignorant, is the story of an extraordinary talent emerging from a family of musicians (there were so many of them that, in Thuringia, people commonly referred to a musician as a "bach"). It follows Sebastian Bach, tragically orphaned at 9, as he develops not only formidable keyboard technique but also outstanding compositional skills, ever keen to develop his art, never afraid to learn from others and from other countries (the famous trip to see and hear Buxtehude, where he was given release for four weeks and stayed for four months, is an example). It follows his ever-upwards trail from Lüneburg to Arnstadt to Weimar to Cöthen, and finally to Leipzig. Professor Wolff's profound research illuminates a world very different from ours, right down to salaries and expenses typical for the 18th century.

I confess to having thought of Bach as an obscure figure in German country churches and small local courts, and perhaps even a bit of a musical fuddy-duddy. Professor Wolff makes it clear that, not only were Bach's extraordinary abilities indeed widely appreciated at the time, but also that he was a daring musical innovator. However, it seems to me that here there arises an odd disconnect. Brilliant, widely-appreciated musician he was, but his style fell completely out of fashion after his death, and by the time the young Felix Mendelssohn resurrected the St. Matthew Passion in Leipzig, the only memory left of Bach was that of a great organist.

Why were Bach's compositions so completely forgotten for so long among the general public? One explanation was Albert Schweitzer's; Bach represented the apotheosis of contrapuntal composition - Bach had said everything there was to say, so music changed. Another was that the idea was that music was improving all the time, and that old stuff was irrelevant and unworthy of attention. I would have liked Professor Wolff's take on this.

One of the sad aspects of this account is the indication of just how much of Bach's output has been tragically lost, largely because of the way the estate was split up after his death among his various offspring - Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach was a careful custodian of his father's work, Wilhelm Friedemann Bach was not. For a cantata lover such as myself, his lists of the five annual cantata cycles and just how much of them we no longer have are especially saddening, but I guess we have to see the glass as half-full rather than half-empty.

In summary, apart from the minor problems for the musically uneducated, Professor Wolff has done us all a great service by making the great cantor of Leipzig so much more accessible, and enjoyably so.
34 internautes sur 42 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
1.0 étoiles sur 5 Don't buy on Kindle 29 janvier 2011
Par plhgg - Publié sur
Someone else has warned that the Kindle edition lacks the illustrations that appear in the book. For me a far more serious flaw is that the Kindle edition lacks this book's substantial index (one can view the index in the Amazon "search this book" function, but it's not possible to print it out. It's true that an index in a Kindle book won't have page numbers as locators, but the index should still be included as a way of seeing what information is available. Yes, one can do a search in the Kindle, but that's not good enough. Amazon claims that the book only contains what the publisher sent them. Fine, then this is the publisher's fault; however, buyers should be warned if/when the Kindle edition does not contain the whole book.
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