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Bach Books

Bach
by Martin Geck

1

Bach (Life & Times)

-

Author: Martin Geck; Introduction: John Butt; English translation: Anthea Bell

Language: English; ISBN: 1904341160

Haus Publishing

2003

PB / 176 pp

Buy this book at: Amazon.com


A new Bach biography

Peter Bright wrote (September 29, 2003):
There is a new Bach biography available (at least I think it's new) by Martin Geck (anyone know anything about him?):

Bach, by Martin Geck (Haus Publishing)

From the Guardian (27th September 2003):

"No need to ask which Bach - we are, of course, talking about the guv'nor, old JS himself, one of those apparently transhistorical, godlike figures (Shakespeare being another) whom it seems hard to believe was ever a real human being at all. Geck's little book argues that Bach was a uniquely transitional figure, looking back to the orderliness of the middle ages and forward to the individualist romanticism of Beethoven. It is easy to construct such plausible teleologies in hindsight, but Geck offers more than this Bach-as-Faust or even Bach-as-Isaac-Newton story. From the composer's childhood studies to his youth as a hotheaded Konzertmeister and his gradual evolution in Leipzig into unprecedented genius, the author makes judicious use of letters, contemporary reports and limpid accounts of harmony and counterpoint to put the man (sociable, funny, arrogant, worried about money) back into the music. The production values of the book are exquisite, too."

It's a thin book, probably more of a lightweight introduction than a comprehensive portrait but it might be worth a look...

Johan van Veen wrote (September 29, 2003):
[To Peter Bright] Martin Geck studied musicology, theology and philosophy in Münster (Germany). Since 1976 he is professor in musicology at Dortmund University. He has written about Buxtehude, Bach, Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Wagner and music sociology.

Geck has written a number of articles on Bach and his music and is interested in the 'theological Bach research', a relatively new aspect of Bach research.

Bradley Lehman wrote (September 29, 2003):
Peter Bright wrote:
< Geck's little book argues that Bach was a uniquely transitional figure, looking back to the orderliness of the middle ages and forward to the individualist romanticism of Beethoven. It is easy to construct such plausible teleologies in hindsight, but Geck offers more than this Bach-as-Faust or even Bach-as-Isaac-Newton story. >
There's a Robert Marshall essay (originally a lecture at the US Library of Congress, 1985) along that line, too: "On Bach's Universality." He argues that Bach saw himself as such a transitional figure, and a teacher by example: anyone who works as hard as Bach should (by Bach's own reckoning) be able to get as far. At one point in it Marshall recapitulates: "(...) Bach's music betrays a 'universal' ambition in its range and scope." That ambition was the synthesis of historical and national styles into a universal music for the future. Marshall cites the opening movement of cantata BWV 78 as a "spectacular demonstration of Bach's powers of synthesis, his unparalleled combinatorial genius."

Marshall also has an essay "Bach the Progressive: Observations on his Later Works"; I haven't read that one yet.

Both of these are in his book The Music of Johann Sebastian Bach: The Sources, the Style, the Significance (Schirmer Books, 1989). In some of the other essays Marshall takes us through the step-by-step compositional processes, putting us (in effect) inside Bach's mind as a composition takes shape. It's some brilliant scholarly conjecture from the evidence of the manuscripts, and closely argued.

I like Marshall's perspective: every piece of Bach's is always in flux, even after it's published. There's no such thing as a "definitive" version stamped into stone (or into a modern collected edition)...every piece can continue to be improved whenever the composer re-visits it. New circumstances call for fresh thinking. The important thing to (try to) understand is how to think like Bach.

Christoph Wolff's article "Bach's Personal Copy of the Schuebler Chorales" is like that, too: "When Bach set his indefatigably self-critical hand in motion, there seemed to be no such thing as an 'untouchable' text, whether manuscript or print."

David Glenn Lebut Jr. wrote (September 30, 2003):}
[Toi Peter Bright] I am not sure if the one is new, but I seem to remember reading in the ASU library one by Geck (I think from the 1950s, 1960s, or 1970s, I am not sure the date).

David Glenn Lebut Jr. wrote (September 30, 2003):}
[To Johan van Veen] Not necessarily if one counts Albert Schwitzer in the picture. Although he does utilize a lot of the concerns of the Wagnerians in his Bach biography, I think (from what I have read and heard) that Schweitzer could be considered the first to open up this area of Bach scholarship. Also, there is Spitta to contend with, too (who from my understanding had received training as a Kantor or other professional ecclesiastic). Nor was Bach the only one that should be held to this type of study. After all, both Telemann and Mattheson received ecclesiastical education (in point of fact, Telemann's parents had intended him to follow in the family footsteps and become a Kantor).

David Glenn Lebut Jr. wrote (September 30, 2003):}
[To Bradley Lehman] Nor were there any for Telemann and Haendel as well. The Baroque composer was not expected to think of "posterity" as much as to write a "definitive version". That said, there are some cases where there could be a definitive version. One such case are the 18 Choraele thatconsist the so-called "Leipzig Manuscript". Another is the copyist's score for the 1739-1749 reworking of the Johannespassion. While it might not be a "definitive version", it (like the later version of BWV 1080) could be considered his final thoughts on the subject, and therefore a "semi-definitive" version.

Another point to keep in mind in this issue is the contemporaemous idea of the "Composer". The modern concept was not to be born until ca. 1790s in the person of the "Spaniard" Ludwig van Beethoven. In Bach's day, all musicians were expected to write music of one form or another. This was for many reasons. One was for the recreation of the magistrate and his court. Another was for the religious services of the local Church. Another was for instructional use (for either amateur musicians or for those students that wish to take up a professional musical career). In the Imperial Free cities and/or largercities, another purpose for such functions was to celebrate the incoming of new legislators and Burghers. Another was for incidental festivities such as Name Days, Weddings, Funerals, Birthdays, etc. At any occasion, the musicians were expected to perform music.

Also, the composer of the time had to compose for the available resources. That is why there are 5 versions of the Johannespassion, for instance. What was appropriate for a smaller church as the Nikolaikirche might not be appropraite for a larger church as the Thomaskirche. Nor would something that is appropraite for the Thomaskirche be appropraite for the Koethen Agnuskirche. In other words, a work like the final version of the "Leipzig Choraele" would not be appropraite for the Koethener Agnuskirche (since the organ was much smaller than the ones Bach dealt with in Leipzig), whereas 45 of the 46 Choraele of the Orgelbuechlein would have been deemed inadequate for the Leipzig organs since they were bigger and had more capabilities.

Another factor on the composer is the tastes of the intended audience. As all on the list are probably aware, Bach had much difficulty in this area. Especially in his younger (tis pre-mature) period, his congregations and/or audiences for his music were ultra-conservative, whereas Bach himself was totally the opposite in musical regards. When, after his return from Luebeck, he played Choralvorspielen in the style of Buxtehude, the congregation in Arnstadt vehemently protested to his employers about their shock at his new playing style. Emmanuel Bach encountered the same situation under Friedrich "der Grosser".

Bradley Lehman wrote (September 30, 2003):
“Definitive”

David Glenn Lebut Jr.wrote:
< (...) there are some cases where there could be a definitive version. One such case are the 18 Choraele thatconsist the so-called "Leipzig Manuscript". Another is the copyist's score for the 1739-1749 reworking of the Johannespassion. While it might not be a "definitive version", it (like the later version of BWV 1080) could be considered his final thoughts on the subject, and therefore a "semi-definitive" version. >
A "Fassung letzter Hand" is frequently (and I'd venture: "usually") only "letzter" according to the circumstances: the composer stopped having the time/inclination/occasion to keep fussing with it. There are pieces (Goldberg Variations, Schuebler Chorales, partitas, &c) where Bach kept making improvements and corrections to his personal copies of the print, post-publication.

And, in the case of the Art of Fugue (BWV 1080 as you mentioned), he had already finished a perfectly reasonable version of the piece in autograph MS, and then over the next years he thoroughly reorganized both the structure and details in preparation for the print. It is so different that these two versions are really separate pieces, in some sense anyway. And the experts are still not sure that the print really represents his final intentions, either: especially as to the sequence of the movements, and the "missing" completion of one Contrapunctus. The sons responsible for the print may have messed things up in various ways, probably not deliberately.... The point there is: we don't know his final thoughts on this work, for sure, but can only go from the extant clues (such as the engraving and correction process itself, and surviving materials from that). We wouldn't have some of those clues at all if the print hadn't been put together as soon after his death as it was. Who knows how many Bach works are entirely lost, or final revisions lost, due to circumstances beyond anyone's control?

Heck, I know that some of my own work (some music, some not) is circulating in less-than-final form, and I've misplaced some of my own later thoughts about things; and there are some things I've rewritten or revised anew at least three times, having lost the earlier copies.

That's probably true of anybody in any creative field. "Definitive," I feel, is a concept that exists more in the minds of hagiographers and positivistic cataloguers than in the minds of creators. A "letzter Hand" version of something may simply indicate the state of something where the creator got weary of dealing with it, and wanted to move on to other work. Everyone's busy and has multiple irons in the fire.

If we didn't have to do tax forms every year, would any of us have a "definitive" record of his/her own finances? It takes more time to do that cataloguing than simply to live with a less exact record and a "close enough" budget...who wants to waste that much time in record-keeping, as opposed to doing the things that are being recorded? (Likewise, the preparation of a CD is about 10% practicing/studying the music, 5% session work, and the other 85% all the rounds of editing and managing and packaging the results, pulling it into a "letzter Hand" version to go out.)

For the 18 Leipzig chorales, check out Werner Breig's article "The 'Great Eighteen' Chorales: Bach's Revisional Process and the Genesis of the Work".

David Glenn Lebut Jr. wrote (October 1, 2003):
[To Bradley Lehman] Which was my point, too. However, in the cases I mentioned, they could be considered Bach's final thoughts on the subject. My point was that in many cases there is no "definitive version" of a work. However, to my mind that does not apply 100% to all works. The three works I mentioned represent a period in his life when he was aiming for definitive versions. He sensed his time was coming and wanted to leave the world some standards in regards to composition. That is why I chose the works/versions I did: because they do represent "definitive" versions of earlier works: the Johannespassion (in the Copyist's score version of 1739/1749), the Die Kunst der Fuge (although the latter version was left incomplete at his death), and the so-called "Leipziger Choraele". Even the Einige Veraenderungen ueber das Weynachts-leid "Vom Himmel hoch da komm' ich her" BWV 769 could be considered a "definitive version" of an earlier work (BWV 769a).

 


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