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Bach Books

Johann Sebastian Bach - The Learned Musician
by Christoph Wolff


Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician


Author: Christoph Wolff

Language: English; ISBN: 0393322564

W. W. Norton & Company


PB / 624 pp

Buy this book at:

Definitive Bach Biography now in Paterback

Thomas Braatz wrote (November 21, 2001):
The Bach biography entitled "Johann Sebastian Bach - The Learned Musician" by Christoph Wolff is now available at a lower cost (paperback c. $15.00). I just received my copy.

Anthony J. Olszowy wrote (November 22, 2002):
[To Thomas Braatz] Just some comments from a very timid lurker

I am so glad to see someone else on the list (especially someone of Mr.Braatz' knowledge) opine that this is a definitive biography. If my memory serves me correctly, a number of list members panned this text on several grounds. The Bach-Newton analogy was a bit strained; fortunately, it does not permeate the book. For the most part, the nay sayers could not abide Dr. Wolff's rather traditional interpretation of the use of multiple voices in what purport to be HIP recordings/performances. A real shame, I believed, since the erudition and sense of scholarship of Dr. Wolff shine through the text. And I'm glad he was the one to point out diplomatically that the emperor has no clothes.

I'm glad it's in paperback.

So as not to appear too fawning, I can't say the same about the still available first volume (and which apparently will be the only volume available in English) of The World of the Bach Canatas, which Dr. Wolff edited. Reminded me very much of food from a so-so Chinese restaurant. I left the book dissatisfied, still hungry, but quite unable to tell anyone what of substance I had just consumed.


C. Wolff

Peter J.B. wrote (April 25, 2002):
Has anyone on the list read Christoph Wolff's (fairly) new book, 'JS Bach: The Learned Musician'? I am considering buying it, but thought I would see if could rustle up an opinion or two here. I did read his previous book of essays with some considerable enthusiasm.

Kevin Sutton wrote (April 25, 2002):
[To Peter J.B.] Absolutely Brilliant! Don't miss it. It's the best musicological read in twenty years.

Alexei Zouboff wrote (April 25, 2002):
First, thank everybody for advices conserning my question on buying Complete JSB Cantatas.

[To Peter J.B.] I have it - it seems a really good book containing a lot of information - it, as I understand, in many ways reflects some last investigations on JSB, too. The only remark I'd like to do: you also should "The New Bach Reader" as a companion to it - it is very important.

Tim Hitchner wrote (April 25, 2002):
[To Peter J.B.] I've had the book since last December and find it very readable. Also very compact. This is a subject that can get very long-winded (if the author wanted to) and Mr. Wolff keeps his subject matter approachable.


Andreas Bach Book and Moller Manuscript

Francis Browne wrote (April 26, 2002):
Christoph Wolff's biography of Bach has just been published in paperback in England, and I am reading it with great interest.

In discussing Bach's musical beginnings Wolff stresses the role of Bach's brother Christoph in teaching him clavier, and mentions two manuscript anthogies of keyboard music compiled by Christoph, now known as the Andreas Bach Book and the Moller Manuscript. They contain music by - among others - Buxtehude,Lully, Marais and Albinoni and represent, according to Wolff 'the most important extant German manuscript collection of keyboard music from around 1700.'

They also of course must be the music that Bach first learned for keyboard, and so the place from where his own keyboard writing starts. It would be fascinating to hear such music.

Does any member of the list know if anyone has had the obvious idea of recording a CD based on these collections?

Many thanks for any help on this.

Riccardo Nughes wrote (April 26, 2002):
[To Francis Browne] If I'm not wrong it was recorded 3-4 years ago by Joseph Payne on the Koch International label, it was a budget price cd.

Francis Browne wrote (April 26, 2002):
[To Riccardo Nughes] Many thanks Riccardo.
I found these details:
Andreas Bach Manusrcipt

Anon Auf meinen lieben Gott - Bach Fantasia,BWV570 - Fugue,BWV949 - Overture Suite,BWV 820 - Prelude Fantasia,BWV 921 - C. Ritter Sonatina - Suite - G. Böhm Prelude, Fugue and Postlude - Armsdorff Fugue - Buttstedt Prelude - Fugue - Küchenthal Chanberceau - Pestel Gavotte - Pollarolo Capriccio Joseph Payne org Joseph Payne hpd Koch Discover International DICD920591 (60 minutes)

But the recording is unavailable according to HMV!

If anybody else has made a similar CD, I would be grateful for details.

Janick Taillandier wrote (April 26, 2002):
[To Francis Browne] I have bought it around the end of 2000 from
It seems to be still available from them; see: JPC

I hope this helps.

Thomas Radleff wrote (April 27, 2002):
[To Francis Browne] One of these discs that you find either by chance, or not at all - as most of these in Koch“s remarkable cheap DiscOver series; recorded 1997 (details see below). Joseph Payne playing harpsichord and historical organs in Thuringia and Saxony - the whole record is in a rather modest, silent, chamber-dimensioned tone. Most of the unknown composer“s works are easy to follow, probably no great milestones in musical history, but charming, and they give an attractive impression of current musical skill & taste in that time & region, and listening to these pieces can be a refreshing contrast for us addicts of JSB“s ingenious complexity. Thanks to Joseph Payne & his producers ! If you ever find the record, don“t hesitate...

Please, Francis, could you tell me the edition where Wolff“s biography has been published in paperback? Thanks in advance...

P.S. Thank you, Kirk, for your off-topic, but mouthwatering review of Belder“s Scarlatti. I“ll grab it as soon as possible - maybe here“s away for me to the original versions. Until today i preferred arrangements for accordion, two guitars, even brass band, and some piano recordings.

Francis Browne wrote (April 27, 2002):
[To Thomas Radleff] Thank you for the information. The paperback details are:
Paperback - 620 pages new edition (April 2002)
Oxford University Press; ISBN: 0199248842

I obtained my copy from Amazon,uk

Dr. Assen Kantchev wrote (May 3, 2002):
[To Francis Browne] Some excerpts from Andreas Bach Book have been recorded on CD by Joseph Payne. The disc is cheap, and the quality excellent. I have obtained about 10 months ago and I have reviewed it online.

The following link should take you to it:

Hope you will find it useful. I have no idea about the Moeller Manuscript, but I would love to learn about it myself as well.


Where to next?
Where to next?- Wolff’s Learned Musician

Paul England wrote (November 29, 2003):
Having just joined this forum at, seemingly, a particularly turbulent time I would like to know where I should go next in my Bach journey and what recordings members would recommend. I am a keyboard player and have enjoyed GG's performances of the 48. I also have some organ music and the Brandenburg's. I am not a fan of the harpsichord for extended periods, my ears need dynamic variation so I favour the piano for keyboard works. Also, which biography of Bach could members recommend?

Riccardo Nughes wrote (November 29, 2003):
< Also, which biography of Bach could members recommend? >
C.Wolff, J.S.Bach the learned musician

Nessie Russel wrote (November 29, 2003):
[To Paul England] I second Riccardo's recommendation of the Christoph Wolff book.

I also enjoy Glenn Gould's recordings. Do you have any of Bach's harpsichord concertos? GG and Angela Hewitt are two who recorded some on piano.

You might enjoy Rosalyn Tureck on piano.

Bradley Lehman wrote (November 29, 2003):
< Also, which biography of Bach could members recommend? >
<< C.Wolff, J.S.Bach the learned musician: >>
Yes, a good book. But be sure to read also John Butt's review of that book, in The New Republic July 10, 2000. Overall his review is favorable. But, he also points out a one-sidedness in Wolff's writing (the tendency to read current American entrepreneurial ideals back into Bach's character), and raises serious objections to Wolff's patterns of speculation. He especially takes Wolff to task for the construction of arguments based on a lack of evidence; and for Wolff's refusal to take a critical stance toward the music (simply assuming, instead, that it is all indiscriminately great)....

[READ Butt's review; don't just rely on my summary of it!]

Stephen Benson wrote (November 29, 2003):
Bradley Lehman wrote:
< Yes, a good book. But . . . >
Despite Butt's criticism, is there a better one-volume introduction that YOU would recommend? Clearly, there is a vast amount of literature on Bach that must all be taken into account to get as complete a picture as one can, but for a basic introduction is there anything more suitable?

David Glenn Lebut Jr. wrote (November 29, 2003):
[To Paul England]

I would recommend the series "Bach: Made in Germany" (an 8-volume set) which you could find in its entirety on I would also recommend you to read my ListMania! List on that site called "Bach für Anfaengen" ("Bach for Beginners"). In addition, here are some other recommedations I would make:

1.) The 5-volume set of Bach's Kantaten as conducted by Karl Richter.

2.) The series "Bach 2000".

3.) (somewhat trepadatiously) The series "Edition Bachakademie".

4.) Karl Richter's Matthaeuspassion (especially the 1979 version), Orchesterwerke, Messe h-Moll, and Weinachtsoratorium.

5.) The following Complete Orgelwerke sets: Rübsam, Hurford, Stockmeier, and Vernet.

6.) The CD "Bach: The Unrecorded Works (1700-1717)"(?)

7.) The Christophorus recording of the Keiser/Bruhns Markuspassion (this because of the fact that this recording is of the Bach Weimarer Passionspasticcio of this work, which was the first Bach wrote)

8.) Any ofthe recordings of the Thomanerchor Leipzig.

9.) Rilling's Complete recording of the Johannespassion (not the 2-CD ones but the 3-CD ones) because it is the only one to give recordings of all versions of the work.

10.) Peter Neumann's recording and Hermann Max's of the Johannespassion (Neumann's being of the 1725 version and Max's of the 1749 version).

11.) Hermann Max's recording of the Passionspasticcio "Wer ist der, so von Edom koemmt", which contains 3 movements by Bach.

12.) Roy Goodman's recording of Bach's Markuspassion and Helbich's recording of the Anonymous Lukaspassion (formerly attributed to Bach).

There are many more, but these would do for starters.


Schweitzer, Spitta, Geiringer, New Grove's Bach Family, and Wolff.

David Glenn Lebut Jr. wrote (November 29, 2003):
"But, he also points out a one-sidedness in Wolff's writing (the tendency to read current American entrepreneurial ideals back into Bach's character)"
And Bach wasn't an entrepreneur? All that I have read and heard about Sebastian Bach would favor that opinion that he was an entrepreneur. All musicians had to be until the advent of the latter part of Beethoven's career, when the musician and the artist-composer separated.

Keep in mind that Bach (like other musicians of his time), when he was employed, was not only responsible to the organization to which he was attatched (i.e., the Thomaskirche zu Leipzig, the Neukirche zu Arnstadt, the courts of Weimar, etc.), but was also responsible the all the musical life of the city/town in which he was employed. This meant the public concerts, the church music, etc. Therefore he (and other musicians of his time) were expected to print tickets, publish music, lead the orchestras and choirs, etc. Therefore we would have been considered an entrepreneur, not out of choice but rather because of his terms of employment. One could even get the sense of this from his official title at Leipzig: "Cantor of the Church of St. Thomas and Director Musices of Leipzig".

Bradley Lehman wrote (November 30, 2003):
[To Stephen Benson] The New Bach Reader (the original was by David & Mendel; and now revised and enlarged by Wolff).

Bradley Lehman wrote (November 30, 2003):
[To David Glenn Lebut Jr.] I'm not going to defend John Butt against your speculations of what he wrote. Go read his review, and read his books.

Stephen Benson wrote (November 30, 2003):
[To Bradley Lehman] Having recently finished The New Bach Reader as a followup to the Wolff biography, I found your recommendation particularly intriguing. For myself, I found that, as a pair, they complemented each other nicely. The primary materials included in the Reader provide a wonderful foundation against which to measure the narrative of Wolff, which, in turn, provides a framework for much of the detail of the Reader. I suspect, however, that a newcomer to Bach might find the Reader by itself somewhat daunting, if only in the variability of the availability of primary source material. In addition to those two sources, I think it would be helpful for a reader to find something devoted to the music itself, something along the lines of Laurence Dreyfus's Bach and the Patterns of Invention, a book which despite its relative complexity is remarkably accessible, and really gives some insights into Bach's compositional processes. A reader embarking on the great Bach adventure could do far worse.I know this is getting away from the original discussion of a single-volume introduction, but this package of three books accomplishes what one book doesn't.

Again, as a relative newcomer to Bach, but one who has read a fair amount of Bach literature, this sequence worked for me. Does it make sense to you? Would you suggest anything different?

Zev Bechler wrote (November 30, 2003):
[To Bradley Lehman] I tried to get Butt's review in that journal's website but failed. would you have a link by any chance ?

Uri Golomb wrote (November 30, 2003):
Regarding the debate about the Bach biography: certainly, Wolff's is probably the best biography currently avaialble, whatever its flaws. However, I don't always find biographies, as such, the best introudction to a composer's *music*.

There are two introductory books that you should also consider -- both called "Companions". There's the Oxford Composer Companion: J. S. Bach, edited by Malcolm Boyd ( This is a Bach lexicon, with alphabetically arranged entries on Bach's works (including one for each cantata, by name; joint entries for groups such as "violin concertos"; etc.); on important people in Bach's life, music and reception; notes on his instruments and ensembles; and so forth.The Cambridge Companion to Bach ( is arranged in self-contained articles, covering aspects of Bach's life, music and reception.

The links are provided are to the publishers', rather than Amazon (which does stock and sell both books). One advantage of these links is that they contain the table of contents (you can also find Wolff's table of contents, on, which should give you some initial
idea of the book's content.

In my view, if you look for information about the music, the Oxford Companion is probably the first port of call. It's easier to find what you want there by going directly to the relevant entry. Of course, the biography, and the articles in the Cambridge Companion, are more suited to continuous reading.

About the reservations on Wolff: I would simply say that it's never a good idea to get all your information about a composer (or any person, for that matter) from one biography. There is usually a slant, a certain prism through which the author has viewed the subject's life; Wolff declares one of his slants in the sub-title to his book and in the introduction. Other biographes would have different slants. So by all means read and enjoy Wolff's book -- and then, when you have the time and inclination, seek out other points of view as well. The two Companions do have the advantage of being multi-authored -- each article or entry is by one author (and probably with some degree of editorial intervention), but the books in their entirety present a more varied

Hope this helps,

PS -- I still find much value in the old monographs by Spitta (3 volumes) and Schwietzer, which are not always easy to access... They have their own slants, of course, and their research -- done in the late 19th- and early 20th-century respectively -- is out of date (Spitta's chronology of Bach's works, which Schweitzer also relies on, is severaly flawed). However, these are both life and works studies (unlike Wolff's, which is more specifically focused on "life"; Wolff says as much in the introduction, and he's planning a complementary volume which would focus more on the music. And I think both Spitta and Schweitzer have valuable insights to offer about the music.

Bradley Lehman wrote (November 30, 2003):
[To Steve Benson] Steve, those three taken together (NBR, Wolff's Learned Musician, and Dreyfus' Patterns of Invention) make the best recommendation of all. Good suggestion. (And I hope to finish reading Patterns of Invention soon; started it a few weeks ago.)

Something I especially like about the New Bach Reader is that it is up to date and comprehensive. It has things that the NBA's Bach-Dokumente does not: material that came to light in the past 20 years, plus (most crucially) the reception history of the 19th century. Bach-Dokumente has the fatal flaw of its arbitrary cutoff date, 1800: omitting (for example) the letters of Forkel about the first publication of Bach's keyboard works (the ones Bach had not published himself).

New Bach Reader also has reliable translations by professional musicologists (not generalists making misleading connections or biased "translations", reading their own foregone conclusions into the material). Most of the translations were done by Arthur Mendel, Alfred Mann, and Christoph Wolff, all of whom were/are eminently qualified to do so. With this book in hand, one need not read anything on the Internet.

I also have the two other books Uri mentioned: the Cambridge Companion and the Oxford Companion. Very fine as well. My primary reason for NBR as single first choice is that we can see the Bach materials first-hand that way, as Bach and his contemporaries and early fans saw him and his music. That piecemeal narrative appeals to me, in ways that sweeping unified (and somewhat fictitious filling in the necessarily sketchy bits, as Wolff's) narrative does not. A biographer has to make things interesting and have a forward sweep: a performance of a life. NBR's presentation lets us draw our own conclusions more readily. (Lets us do our own thinking from the source material, instead of telling us what to think.)

Bradley Lehman wrote (December 1, 2003):
Zev Bechler wrote:
< I tried to get Butt's review in that journal's website but failed. would you have a link by any chance ? >
[The New Republic, July 10 2000 issue] I'd be surprised if it were freely available on the Internet, as it is copyrighted material. Periodicals often require (at least) a subscription login for full text, if the texts are available in electronic formats at all...not to be secretive, but to protect the integrity of published and copyrighted work. (Repeat, everyone: "The Internet is not a library!") I got access to the article in the time-honored method: through the research assistance of a librarian doing his job. And don't overlook the other time-honored methods of microfiche and microfilm and interlibrary loan....

Zev Bechler wrote (December 1, 2003):
[To Bradley Lehman] Thanks. As you know, they often offer their stuff for sale, which is what I intended to do, since the 2$ which is the usual fee, is cheaper ten times over than the trip and time to the university library. Anyway, their archive browser is sham, so a trip seems inevitable.

Thanks again,

Anna Vriend wrote (December 1, 2003):
[To Zev Bechler & Bradley Lehman] I just found and printed the article from the internet, made available through library subscription services. Incidentally I work in a library, but this subscription service is available to anyone who is a member of the library.

Check out the possibilities with your local library; you may not know what is available to you.

Bradley Lehman wrote (December 1, 2003):
With The New Bach Reader in hand, it's also worthwhile to keep the older edition (1966) of The Bach Reader around, for comparison (even though my copy of it has almost fallen apart...). It does have some illustrations that the new one does not. And most notably, from NBR Wolff omitted the "Precepts and principles for playing a thorough bass" musical examples, and some canon resolutions, since those are now readily available separately. (He says in the preface where to get them.)

And Wolff the whitewasher-of-the-hero's-character *is* in evidence (Wolff's tendency, as Butt pointed out in his review of The Learned Musician), here in this book as well. For example, on p26 of the old one, where David and Mendel wrote about Bach's wig, they interjected the perhaps flippant question "(did it cover a bald head?)"; but Wolff has removed that question from that same passage on page 9 of the new one.

But, of course, the greatest value of this new one is the way it includes newest findings (as I pointed out) not available in 1966, and not available to the NBA's compilers of Bach-Dokumente. And, of the materials that *are* in BD, NBR tells us exactly where to find them in _BD_ so anyone interested in the original German can find them readily. It also points to everything in the NBA, the BWV (Schmieder's catalog), and Bach-Jahrbuch; so, this book really is a first-stop-shopping entry for a reader who wishes to dig further into the materials.

Two of the most important (in my opinion) completely new bits are #263 and 264, from Bach's last years in Leipzig. They are his professional recommendations of Johann Nathanael Bammler, who had been Bach's choir trainer for several years, and his deputy conductor of the cantatas (as Bach called them, "motets"...this is explained elsewhere). Bammler directed all of the church music when Bach was absent. Bach had known him for ten years already, as a trusted colleague. These letters came to light barely in time for inclusion here in NBR: published in Bach-Jahrbuch 1997.

The new map is also very helpful: showing the places Bach lived, visited, had family connections, or are otherwise referenced in this book.

In my compI was especially interested to see if Wolff kept the David/Mendel description of Bach's personal character, or toned it down. He kept it, word for word. "Our knowledge of Bach's personality in action, apart from music making, is sparse indeed. He seems to have thoroughly enjoyed a good battle of words when he felt that someone was trying to take advantage of him. He was apt to be impatient and quick-tempered with incompetents. His sense of humor was apparently more vigorous than subtle and, in keeping with the temper of the time, somewhat on the coarse side." (p7-8)

[Not surprisingly, that description of Bach has served me well over the years, and especially in discussions here. As I've pointed out before, that's one of my role models; and I react the same way that (I believe) Bach did when dealing with people around him: correcting obvious misinformation, and becoming increasingly agitated and coarse with people who refuse to (or are who unable to) do the work carefully.]

There's also the anecdote #403: "Peaceful, quiet, and even-tempered though Bach was at all unpleasantnesses he encountered at the hands of third persons, so long as they concerned only his own personality, he was, however, quite another man when, no matter in what form, anyone slighted art, which was sacred to him. In such cases it doubtless happened at times that he donned his armor and gave expression to his wrath in the strongest ways. The organist of St Thomas's, who was in general a worthy artist, once so enraged him by a mistake on the organ, during a rehearsal of a cantata, that he tore the wig from his head and, with the thundering exclamation 'You ought to have been a cobbler,' threw it at the organist's head."

In the old edition, p291, the translation was worded slightly differently (and, notably, not quite as strongly/directly as the new one!): "Peaceful, quiet, and even-tempered though Bach was at all unpleasantnesses he encountered at the hands of third persons, so long as they concerned only his own personality, he was yet quite another man when, no matter in what form, anyone slighted Art, which was sacred to him. In such cases it would doubtless happen at times that he would don his armor and give expression to his wrath in the strongest ways. The organist of the Thomas-Kirche, who was in general a worthy artist, once so enraged him by a mistake on the organ, during a rehearsal of a cantata, that he tore the wig from his head and, with the thundering exclamation 'You ought to have been a cobbler,' threw it at the organist's head."

So, that anecdote is another case where Wolff the editor of NBR tightened things up: to present Bach as an even stronger heroic character than the previous generation of musicologists had done. That's what a biographer does: sharpen the edges of the character to present him as firmly in control of his life and thoughts, and recasting possible weaknesses as strengths. (The same type of thing a good performer of music does: bring out the material's character strongly and definitely, with nothing indecisive or ambiguous about it.) As John Butt pointed out in his review of The Learned Musician: "In Wolff's biography, the unedifying aspects of Bach may as well not exist. It would seem that, for Wolff, the discussion of these unheroic perspectives would distance us from the ideal modern Bach who emerges fully formed and perfect out of the music."


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