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Vocal: Cantatas BWV 1-224 | Motets BWV 225-231 | Latin Church BWV 232-243 | Passions & Oratorios BWV 244-249 | Chorales BWV 250-438 | Lieder BWV 439-524
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Bach Books

Johann Sebastian Bach
by Philipp Spitta

Book

-

Johann Sebatian Bach (3 Volumes)

His work and influences on the music of Ger,many, 1685-1750

Philipp Spitta / English translation by Clara Bell & J.A. Fuller-Maitland

Dover Publications

1873-1880

3 Vols. /

Buy this book at: Amazon.com [Vol. 1, BB] | Amazon.com [Vols. 2&3, PB] | Amazon.com [Bound as 2, HC] | Amazon.com [2 Bde, PB]

Spitta’s Bach

Beeri wrote (August 3, 2002):
Philipp Spitta's monumental biography of Bach is probably the most important of all his biographies, but at over 100 years old, is it still relevant?

I am in the middle of it right now. I find the tone very condescending and outdated, some of the information referring to the "present" at the time it was written. Would one be better off reading a newer work?

What I think is great about Spitta is the detailed analyses of the music. Just for that, it's probably worth reading. But biographically, I don't know.

I also read C.T. Sanford biography of Bach, but was very disappointed. It concentrates heavily on relatively insignificant events and virtually ignores the music.

Simon Crouch wrote (August 3, 2002):
Beeri wrote:
< Philipp Spitta's monumental biography of Bach is probably the most important of all his biographies, but at over 100 years old, is it still relevant? >
Yes. One has to treat some of it with caution and with a modern biography in hand but it is still useful. Spitta apparently took great care to investigate primary sources (some of which no longer survive).

< I am in the middle of it right now. I find the tone very condescending and outdated, some of the information referring to the "present" at the time it was written. >
Are you reading it in the English translation? I have heard it said that the translation is not of the highest quality and this may give it the condesending tone. German readers out there?

< Would one be better off reading a newer work? >
I think you have to read a modern biography (Christoph Wolff's is considered the best these days by most) as well. But don't pass over the wisdom of the ancients!

< I also read C.T. Sanford biography of Bach, but was very disappointed. It concentrates heavily on relatively insignificant events and virtually ignores the music. >
Do you mean C.S. Terry? This latter was considered quite important in its time because the author turned up new information that Spitta had missed.

Beeri wrote (August 3, 2002):
Simon Crouch wrote:
< Do you mean C.S. Terry? This latter was considered quite important in its time because the author turned up new information that Spitta had missed. >
Yes, I meant C. Sanford Terry. Sorry.

He has some interesting details, but concentrates disproportionately on them. And he also leaves a lot of untranslated German.

Max Schmeder wrote (August 6, 2002):
[To Beeri] Terry's biography is my favorite one of all. It's old and some of it is therefore innacurate, but in my opinion the author has an unrivalled empathy for Bach that impresses me deeply and personally. I keep two copies of his book as insurance that one's always at hand, and every so often I'll read a few pages. I can't read more than that at one sitting because I get overwhelmed. Make sure you keep your copy in case you someday you come to enjoy it as much as I do!

Charles Francis wrote (August 3, 2002):
[To Beeri] I can recommend Forkel - this was the first Bach biography and he had the benefit of corresponding with one of Bach's sons. Spitta invented a lot of things about Bach, creating a "Fifth Evangelist" tradition which persisted well into the twentieth century. For a contemporary view from a musicians perspective, try Moroney's recent biography.

Simon Crouch wrote (August 4, 2002):
[To Charles Francis] I'd be interested to hear what you think Spitta "invented". After all, he was one of the first biographers in modern times to use a "scientific" approach, returning to the primary sources, rather than simply passing on folklore.

The aspect of Spitta's writing that I find most difficult is his nationalism - He was writing at the time of ascendent German nationalism and he fitted JSB into a line of "great German heroes".

The "fifth evangelist" thing was down to a Swedish archbishop, wasn't it?

Charles Francis wrote (August 4, 2002):
[To Simon Crouch] Didn't Spitta invent an entire Bach image? One notes that Forkel in his biography of Bach, is silent regarding Bach's religious beliefs, but, as George B. Stauffer put it in a New York Times article of April, 2000:
( http://www.nytimes.com/library/music/040200bach-music.html )

"Philipp Spitta, writing in the midst of the Protestant church-music revival of the 1870's, presented a different image. In his monumental "Johann Sebastian Bach," he drew a vivid portrait of the St. Thomas cantor as the Fifth Evangelist, proselytizing for the Lutheran faith through his church cantatas and Passions. Spitta's view held sway until the 1950's, when a redating of the church cantatas revealed that Bach had written most of his sacred works during the first six years of his Leipzig tenure and then, for the next 21 years, turned to different endeavors.

It seems the "scientific" approach was Spitta's undoing !

PS Was the "Swedish archbishop" Nathan Soederblom?

Simon Crouch wrote (August 4, 2002):
Charles Francis wrote:
< Didn't Spitta invent an entire Bach image? >
Ah, I'll give you that - I thought you were suggesting that he'd made up some facts but I see now that I was misreading you! Still, I'm not so sure that he invented all of it - more amplified it because of the success of his biography. Bach was already revered amongst the cognoscenti (there had been earlier biographies post-Forkel).

< [Charles' stuff snipped] It seems the "scientific" approach was Spitta's undoing ! >
He used the tools that were available to him at the time and developed some of them himself. What Spitta lacked was the ability to analyze the manuscripts in the detail that was achieved after WWII. Given the tools that were available to him at the time, he did a remarkable job of historical reconstruction. We have to remember that all historical reconstructions are contingent on later facts (and hermeneutic, iI suppose) becoming available.

I think it best to consider Spitta a giant on whose shoulders later giants stand. (Or possibly the ladder upon which later builders have stood and have later managed to kick away because they've built the new building!)

< PS Was the "Swedish archbishop" Nathan Soederblom ? >

Sybrand Bakker wrote (August 4, 2002):
[To Charles Francis] This is beginning to get really boring. It is a fact, though denied by some Bach scholars, that Bach didn't write much new vocal sacred music (mark the stress) after 1730. He did continue to write organ music though.

So what does this say about Bach's religious beliefs? Exactly nothing.

There is no proof whatsoever that Bach became religiously indifferent after 1730. In fact he bought his Calov Bible presumably in 1732, and definitely not before 1730.

The claim that Bach became religiously indifferent or, proposed by one newsgroup member, a heretic, by composing so-called Catholic masses, can't be substantiated at all. Which is quite well known by the aforementioned newsgroup member, yet he continues to spread this nonsense. Doing so, hehas chased away several people from this newsgroup and he might chase away more.

Charles Francis wrote (August 5, 2002):
Sybrand Bakker wrote:
< ... > The claim that Bach became religiously indifferent or, proposed by one newsgroup member, a heretic, by composing so-called Catholic masses, can't be substantiated at all.
Now who told us "any use of number alphabets and other kabbalistic devices would have been viewed upon as a heresy by the Lutheran Church" ?

Sybrand Bakker wrote (August 6, 2002):
[To Charles Francis] You have always been a big bore in this group, and you continue to confirm the validity of this judgment.

Also you are definitely the only here keep archives of peoples posting to slam it in their faces, making claims you can't substantiate. Your behavior has always been disgusting. Please go annoy people somewhere else.

In the mean time I will pray for your wicked soul.

Riccardo Nughes wrote (August 7, 2002):
Sybrand Bakker wrote:
< In the mean time I will pray for your wicked soul. >
Amen.

Davyd wrote (August 7, 2002):
[To Sybrand Bakker] Is it possible that JSB wrote more sacred music after 1730, but it has not survived? I read somewhere that something like 100 cantatas got lost over the years.

Sybrand Bakker wrote (August 8, 2002):
[To Davyd] No. This is completely unlikely. Bach composed his cantatas in annual cycles. There are known to be to have 5 annual cycli, all of them being composed between 1723 and 1730. Supposedly, 2 of those cycles are lost, but IIRC, all cycles are incomplete.

Alfred Dürr demonstrates this problem was being caused by the division of the works between CPE and WF Bach. There have been scores and performing material. The division was inconsistent, so the score could end up with one son, and the performing material with another. Dürr argues WF got more scores than performing materials,as he disposed of his scores. According to Duerr it is very difficult and time-consuming to make new copies of the performing material. Assembling a score from performing materials is straightforward. So the scores without performing materials were useless to him. And, yes, WF did have an alcohol and money problem.

Stephan Heijker wrote (August 5, 2002):
[To Beeri[ To be more up to date, I recommend Christoph Wolff, Martin Geck or Klaus Eidam.

Sybrand Bakker wrote (August 8, 2002):
[To Stephan Heijker] Eidam wrote the worst biography I have ever tried to read. Being a former DDR citizen he sees musicologist and other complots everywhere. This is the book Charles has probably under his cushion.

Charles Francis wrote (August 8, 2002)
[To Sybrand Bakker] Unfortunately, I have not read this book. But it does strike me that someone living where Bach lived (i.e. in former 'East Germany') might arrive at insights missed by someone in Harvard.

Sybrand Bakker wrote (August 8, 2002):
[To Charles Francis] Mr. Eidam is seeing phantoms, just like you use to do.

Riccardo Nughes wrote (August 8, 2002):
[To Charles Francis] Charles, do you need Ghostbusters?

Charles Francis wrote (August 8, 2002)
[To Riccardo Nughes] As a result of Mr. Bakker's intercessions with the omnipotent being, we may hope that any such phantoms will be banished.

Tom Hens wrote (August 12, 2002):
< Sybrand Bakker wrote: Eidam wrote the worst biography I have ever tried to read. Being a former DDR citizen he sees musicologist and other complots everywhere. This is the book Charles has probably under his cushion. >
I've just finished Eidam's book (this thread made me curious enough to get it out of the library), and it is indeed pretty awful, although unlike Sybrand I think it is so awful it becomes highly amusing in some places. Eidam indeed sees machinations and dark plots everywhere. One small but typical example is when he deals with Bach's problematic resignation from the court at Weimar, when the Duke didn't want to let him go and Bach ended up spending some time in prison. The record of Bach finally being released from the Duke's service in the Weimar archive ends with the note: "(vide acta)", which translates as "see separate file", since there was obviously a certain amount of paperwork and correspondence that had already gone into this matter. This file, however, is lost. Nobody with any common sense, or any historical training, would think that some paperwork concerning a minor conflict over a court employee having gone missing from an archive, nearly three centuries after the facts, is in itself significant. Not so Eidam: he states with this one trivial fact as only evidence that it shows the Duke harboured a deep and continuing grudge against Bach even after his departure, and ordered all documents concerning him to be removed from the archives so his name would be wiped from Weimar's history completely. One must probably have been deformed by working for a stalinist state like Eidam did to take something like that seriously (and one also wonders why in that case the record that refers to this now-lost file wasn't also removed.)

He also spends many, many mind-numbingly boring pages not writing about Bach at all, but simply railing against pretty much everybody who's ever written about Bach before, who he thinks are all pretty much complete idiots with no understanding of music -- especially musicologists. What makes that so funny is that on the few occasions he himself tries to say something specific about music, he is often hilariously inept. For instance, he repeatedly claims that Bach invented equal temperament (without offering any grounds for this -- he simply equates "wohltemperiert" with equal-tempered without further explanation), and in the process talks complete nonsense about Werckmeister and other authors. He apparently thinks Werckmeister made an attempt to achieve equal temperament but failed to do so, and that Bach then triumphed where Werckmeister had failed. In this context he also shows at one point that he doesn't know how a harpsichord works: he thinks harpsichords have frets and use one string for several different notes.

On the positive side: he has unearthed some mildly entertaining stuff about how the small-town politics of Leipzig worked during Bach's tenure there, by plowing his way through all the minutes of the town council meetings (and according to Eidam, he was the first biographer since Spitta to do this). His to him apparently surprising find is that Bach was hardly ever mentioned, except on the occasions that Spitta had already found and quoted in his book. Eidam notes, with considerable disgust, that instead of constantly talking about Bach's music the city council over all those years almost exclusively discussed matters such as the state of the city finances and who to give municipal jobs to. The fiends!

 

Philipp Spitta: Short Biography | Johann Sebastian Bach (3 Volumes) [by Philipp Spitta]

Bach Books: Main Page / Reviews & Discussions | Index by Title | Index by Author | Index by Number
General: Biographies | Essay Collections | Performance Practice | Children
Vocal: Cantatas BWV 1-224 | Motets BWV 225-231 | Latin Church BWV 232-243 | Passions & Oratorios BWV 244-249 | Chorales BWV 250-438 | Lieder BWV 439-524
Instrumental: Organ BWV 525-771 | Keyboard BWV 772-994 | Solo Instrumental BWV 995-1013 | Chamber & Orchestral BWV 1014-1080


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