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.)
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