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Bach Books

Oxford Composers Companion - J.S. Bach
edited by Malcolm Boyd



The Book


Oxford Composer Companion – J.S. Bach

Encyclopedic coverage of Bach’s life, music, and influence

Edited by Malcolm Boyd / Consultant editor: John Butt

Oxford University Press


626 pp

Book Review - Oxford Composer Companion to J.S. Bach

Kirk McElhearn wrote (December 1, 2000):
J. S. Bach
Oxford Composer Companion
Edited by Malcolm Boyd
1999, Oxford University Press

For those curious about the life and context behind the music, there are two ways to approach a composer with such a rich life and a diverse musical output such as Bach: the first is through a biography, which tells a linear story of the man, his music, his family and his times. We can follow his life through the different cities in which he lived, and look at his music chronologically, seeing how he built on each stage of his life to create increasingly complex and beautiful music.

The other way, which is apparent in a book like the Oxford Composer Companion to Bach, is the artificial, yet none the less useful method of providing information in encyclopedic form. Here, there is no chronology, but each name, each work, each city and episode in his life is listed in alphabetical order. Granted, for readers approaching Bach's life for the first time, a biography would likely be more useful and efficient. Yet browsing a book like this, allowing chance to take over as you flip from page to page, yields a unique glimpse of Bach's life and music.

I must confess to being a book-lover, and, especially, a dictionary lover. I enjoy browsing encyclopedias and dictionaries, and have bookcases full of them. (I can trace this back to when I was about 8 years old, and my mother won an encyclopedia on the television game show, Jeopardy. I recall with great pleasure the afternoons spend leafing through the 20 volumes of that storehouse of knowledge.) While not all
people may share this passion, those who do, and who are interested in Bach, will find this book to be ideal.

With entries on people, places, instruments, and, of course, all of Bach's works, this book contains everything you could want to know about Bach's life and music, and then some. Leaping from entry to entry, one can wander through an explanation of Suites to read about Minuets, how they are played Alternativement, questions of rhythm, and how Bach treats these questions. Each place Bach lived incites the reader to explore the entries for the works he composed there and the musicians he met and
worked with. With more than 600 pages, this encyclopedia of all things Bach, with entries by more than thirty of the world's most esteemed Bach scholars, will delight all true lovers of his music.

Bach's key works are treated in longer articles, but there are many entries that deal with general musical questions and instruments. The book also has entries for each of Bach's cantatas (something no other currently available book has) as well as a full listing of Bach's works in an appendix.

In spite of its price, I cannot praise this book too highly - it is the book I refer to the most when curious about any aspect of Bach's life and works, and it belongs on the shelves of all Bach-lovers.

Buy from

Buy from Amazon UK

Peter Bright wrote (December 1, 2000):
[To Kirk McElhearn] I agree with Kirk. Their decision to include separate sections on every cantata has made this book particularly special. Whenever I buy a cantatas disc containing works I am unfamiliar with, I always listen to them with this book open - it really is very useful and offers concise but illuminating information on many aspects of Bach's life and works. I also appreciate the information on when and how Bach became popular in different countries, and also the changes to how Bach's music was perceived and played across different periods.

Michael Marissen wrote (December 6, 2000):
<<< Darryl Clemmons wrote: This is not accurate. There are many books which discuss every cantata in detail. >>>
<< Kirk McElhearn wrote: Can you cite one available in English? >>
< Darryl Clemmons wrote: The Dürr book is probably the best but it is in German - still waiting for a translation. >
An excellent translation of this book, with updated information, has recently been completed and should appear from the UK office of Oxford University Press next year.

Darryl Clemmons wrote (December 6, 2000):
<< Darryl Clemmons wrote: I also have a book at home by an English guy who reviews each of the cantatas >>
< Michael Zapf wrote: Sounds like Murray Young's 1989 book on The Cantatas of J.S. Bach. >
Very good! It is sad I forgot the author's name. I really enjoy perusing the book. Also, he seems to like the same cantatas as me.

There is also a great website by Simon Crouch which has a detailed summary of each of the Cantatas even the dubious ones! He has rated each Cantata. I highly recommend the site - and not just because he gave me some credit (too much IMHO) as a co-contributor.

John Hartford wrote (December 6, 2000):
[To Michael Marissen, regarding the tranlation of Dürr's book] Great news. Thanks for the info!

Oxford Composer Companion

Pablo Fagoaga
wrote (March 15, 2001):
I heard a lot about Boyd's book, and now it comes again with Thomas' comments about his recent acquisition.

I own the ultra-rare Spanish version of Oxford's Music Dictionary, and I consider it maybe the very best single volume music dictionary I know. Really outstanding (I recomend you all to try to get it). I understand the "companion" could be just another expresion of the high quality of this editor. The name "Companion" leads me to think it is the kind of book you gladly carry around!!!

I'm considering ordering it, but first I'd like to have some impressions from List Members that already own it. I will appreciate any comments on this book, and it's true value as a "Companion".

Kirk McElhearn wrote (March 16, 2001):
[To Pablo Fagoaga] Have a look at my review:

Jane Newble wrote (March 16, 2001):
[To Pablo Fagoaga] Dear Pablo If you can afford it, get it. I don't know if it is the best of its kind, but I use it a lot, and find it very helpful. It is not perfect, but the few things I found missing, have been amply offset by the wealth of information in alphabetical order. There may be others, who think differently, but it is definitely a companion to Bach's music as far as I am concerned.

Pablo Fagoaga wrote (March 17, 2001):
[To Jane Newble] Thanks Jane!!! I don't know if I "can" afford it, but I "will" afford it. From time to time, instead of getting 5 or 6 full-priced CD's, I have the habit of dispose of the equivalent money and I search for a good book about music. I think of it as a complement as important as my CD collection itself. It helps to make sense to the discs you already own. Sometimes, I get into a frenzy of "buy till you reach to four thousend", and I forget to let mature, and get to know in-deep the ones I own!!

You know, to own 4 versions of the Cello sonatas and a book about Bach's chamber music makes much more sense to me than having 8 versions and no book. From your words I can see that the scope and value of the book is similar (with the logical differences, because the companion is by definition narrower in it's subject) to the Music Dictionary (I recommend it AGAIN). Extremely useful, and beyond the average expectations created by other single volume books.

Harry J. Steinman wrote (March 17, 2001):
(To Pablo Fagoaga) I have the opus ("Oxford Composer Companions J.S. Bach", ed. Malcolm Boyd, Oxford University Press, 1999. Available from for US $50). It is NOT a book that you would carry around-companion in that sense!-as it is 636 pages long! But what makes it valuable to me is several things. First of all, the editor comments on all of Bach's works and this gives you a brief technical description of all of the compositions. Next, the volume includes definitions of about all of the musical terms you'll find in the book. Some of these are brief definitions; they are a few paragraphs. But some of them are quite encyclopediac. For example, the definition of "concerto" runs 5 pages and includes several sub-topics such as 'origin and development'; 'The Vivaldian concerto' and two topics on Bach's concerto arrangements and original concertos.

One of the most useful parts of the book is the appendices. There are four: "List of Bach's works" (This is divided into several catagories, such as "church cantatas" "secular cantatas" "organ works" "canons" etc. and follows the BWV listings in numerical order. This valuable appendix also includes the titles of the works, the dates of the works, the scoring, the NBA volume and source of an autograph score.

Appendix 2 is the "Text Incipits" which, as near as I can figure, is an alphabetical list of the vocal works listed by the first line of the libretto. This appendix cross-references the scoring, BWV number and something called "BC" but I haven't figured out what that is.

Appendix 3 is a chronology of Bach's life and the date references include domestic events in JSB's life; his music (except for sacred cantatas which are shown by date in appendix 1); events pertaining to other musicians and contemporary world events.

Appendix 4 is a glossary with very brief definitions of various terms.

Anyway, Pablo, I see that you've already decided to buy the book. I believe that you-and anyone who purchases it-will get a lot of value out of it. I read the selection on the cantata of the week each time I'm about to listen to the cantata and when I'm writing my contribution. Whenever I come across a musical term, this book helps me out. I believe that it is worth the hefty price, because it's a hefty book with a great deal of value and an organization that makes the value accessible.

Thomas Braatz wrote (March 17, 2001):
(To Harry J. Steinman) I, too, enjoy the appendices. In regard to "BC" as you stated:
< Appendix 2 is the "Text Incipits" which, as near as I can figure, is an alphabetical list of the vocal works listed by the first line of the libretto. This appendix cross-references the scoring, BWV number and something called "BC" but I haven't figured out what that is. >
Check B.C. in the main body of book. It refers you to 'Bach Compendium' which is then fully explained. The Teldec Harnoncourt/Leonhardt series uses these numbers at the top of each cantata listing.

Pablo Fagoaga wrote (March 17, 2001):
(To Harry J. Steinman) Thanks Harry. If I needed any more arguments to buy the book, you certainly gave them.

Regarding the price, living in Argentina makes you get used to prices even greater than US $50. As a sampler, I tell you that if this book were available in Buenos Aires stores, I would reasonably expect AND pay $100 for it. But don't get confused. It doesn't mean the average argentinian can pay $100 for a book. On the contrary, the fact is that this kind of books are out of reach for the majority. To me it's no bargain, you can bet on it, buy I can permit myself the "luxury".

So, it may seem like a hefty price in international terms, but I find it appealing !!! I'm definitely going for it.

Boyd's "Oxford Companion" to Bach (was BWV 21)

Michael Butera wrote (November 21, 2001):
Tom Braatz wrote: "A very good reference book to answer most questions of this sort is the Oxford Composer Companions: J.S.Bach [Malcolm Boyd, editor]."
I heartily second the recommendation of the Boyd book and note that in my Oxford Holiday Sale catalog that arrived in the mail today, the price has been cut from $55 to $25. This is an EXCELLENT price for this book (of course, I have no connections to Oxford, etc.) If you did not receive the catalog in the mail, the book can be ordered online ( Either type "Boyd" in the search window at the top, or click "Music & The Performing Arts" in the banner at the top and look on the third page of specials.

Oxford Composer Companion

Ron Shaffer wrote (January 2, 2003):
Is anyone familiar with the Oxford Composer Companion for J. S. Bach edited by Malcolm Boyd? I'd be interested in comments about the value of the book, and ways in which it can be used ... since it's an alphabetical listing of articles or entries, it's not conducive to just sitting down and reading from page one. I have noticed the articles relating to the cantatas are really quite good and with a good amount of detail.

Thomas Braatz wrote (January 3, 2003):
[To Ron Shaffer] It's a fairly up-to-date reference with handy listings at the end of the book and a few in depth articles. It has been offered on sale throughout the past year and would be a worthwhile acquisition at less than the list price.

Kirk McElhearn wrote (January 3, 2003):
[To Ron Shaffer] A must-have book for any Bach lover.

Jane Newble wrote (January 3, 2003):
[To Ron Shaffer] I really enjoy using it as a reference book. Because it is alphabetical, things are easy to find, and there is a lot of information about all aspects of Bach's music.

Bradley Lehman wrote (January 3, 2003):
[To Thomas Braatz] I have the hardback edition that I got somewhere on sale for USD 12.50 sometime in 2002...but it's sat on the shelf, I don't think I've even opened it once yet! (Other than flipping through for two minutes just now when I saw it on my shelf.)

Kirk McElhearn wrote (January 3, 2003):
[To Bradley Lehman] I guess you know everything. :-)

I've used it quite often...

Drew Pierce wrote (January 3, 2003):
[To Kirk McElhearn] I also find it indispensable. Although I do not agree with all the entries (for example, the one I mentioned several weeks ago concerning the "Echo Aria" of the Christmas Oratorio), they are generally very useful and, at the very least, thought-provoking.

When I am "into" a particular work, I turn to the volume for additional information (not included in the CD booklet) and am seldom disappointed. I especially like the fact that there is a detailed entry for each cantata. The cantata entries alone are worth the full price of the hardback version. But, like Brad, I was lucky and found it on sale for around $12.

Also the appendices are extremely helpful. Appendix 1 lists Bach's complete works, with supposed date of composition, instrumental scoring, first publication, and location of autograph score (if any). Appendix 2 lists all arias, ensembles, and choruses in vocal works. Appendix 3 offers several chronologies. I used 3:b (chronology of cantata performances) the other day because I wanted to listen to all of Bach's cantatas known to be composed for New Year's Day. That was a lot of fun, thanks to this great resource.

Jim Morrison wrote (January 3, 2003):
Quote ". I especially like the fact that there is a detailed entry for each cantata. The cantata entries alone are worth the full price of the hardback version. "
I think I've said before on this list that so much of this interesting and informative book is taken up with the Cantatas that the publishers should have more appropriately titled it something like "The Oxford Composer Companion to Bach's Cantatas and some other Bach related stuff that will enhance your appreciation of the Cantatas." ;-)

As good as this book is with the vocal works, I think it's remarkable poor with the instrumental entries, the area of Bach's music that I'm most interested in.

Nevertheless, it's an indispensable book, I think, to people like me who have never studied Bach formally or don't have time/energy to work through Wolff's bio.

Bradley Lehman wrote (January 3, 2003):
[To Kirk McElhearn] Naw, I just buy a lot of books on sale and get around to reading them much later (if at all).

Here are some other Bach books I look at more frequently:

Wolff, Bach: Essays on his Life and Music
Marshall, The Music ofJohann Sebastian Bach
Little & Jenne, Dance and the Music of J. S. Bach
Boyd, Bach (from The Master Musicians Series)
David & Mendel, The Bach Reader
Herz, Essays on J. S. Bach
Dreyfus, Bach's Continuo Group
Wolff, Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician (borrowed from a friend)

And record and CD notes....

And (of course) the scores, as wherever possible I'd rather read and play the music myself to form an opinion than rehash someone else's published opinion. Historical facts and critical analyses, while they are often very helpful and add fresh insights, are inherently less interesting to me than encountering the music for myself. It's music. Words don't do it justice. Neither do recordings, generally: they just freeze-dry one possible interpretation out of many. Bach's music itself is great enough that one can find new things in it at almost every encounter, and no single performance exhausts it. Part of the joy is in comparing many different approaches, and experiencing the same music in as many ways as possible.

Ron Shaffer wrote (January 4, 2003):
[To Kirk McElhearn] $12.50 is a GREAT price. It's "on sale" now in the United States at for $25 .... list price of $55. They also have the Oxford Companion to Music at $35 (list price of $60).

Bradley Lehman wrote (January 4, 2003):
[To Ron Shaffer] Yep, great price. I got mine (and a couple hundred other books) at the Green Valley Book Fair here in the Shenandoah Valley. It's open only a few weeks a year, but they have half a million books. Not half a million different books, but plenty of good stuff. Decent music section and sometimes some rare's always an adventure seeing what turns up there.

They used to have cassettes there also until about two years ago. I got some of Anthony Newman playing Bach....

Ron Shaffer wrote (January 4, 2003):
[To Bradley Lehman] "couple of hundred"?? ..... damn no wonder you haven't spent much time with the Bach Companion ......

Bradley Lehman wrote (January 4, 2002):
[To Ron Shaffer] Well, many of those "couple hundred" books aren't about music....

Anyway, some of the especially good music books that turned up at that Book Fair in 2002 were The Oxford Dictionary of Opera, and Kevin Bazzana's Glenn Gould: The Performer in the Work ($10 each), and The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz ($14). I'd already had that Gould book for several years so I didn't buy it again, but maybe I should have: the included CD of musical examples is itself worth at least $10!

Oxford Comp. JS Bach, ed. M. Boyd

Francine Renee Hall wrote (February 16, 2003):
I just received the Oxford Companion that everyone on the Cantatas list has been raving about. I really do find the cantatas section a real tool and helpful to a relative novice as myself. And Aryeh, I read your impassioned plea to get the Herreweghe set at Berkshire. I will try next month. It's the usual problem: lots of health bills, lack of Bach fuel $$ !! Thanks again for your suggestion; and I'm also learning a lot from your lovingly cared for Cantata site!

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