Yoël L. Arbeitman wrote (December 23, 2006):
Books of The Times
Bach's Rich Résumé: Hothead to Royal Composer
By JAMES R. OESTREICH
Published: December 22, 2006
"Bach was not a prolific composer." Coming from Martin Geck, a musicologist who has immersed himself thoroughly and productively in sheaves of Bach's music for decades, this is an astonishing statement, even taken in context. The context is a quick quantitative comparison of Bach's output of instrumental music at the German court of Cöthen from 1717 to 1723 with the dozens and hundreds of pieces that Georg Philipp Telemann, Gottfried Heinrich Stölzel and others wrote under similar circumstances.Skip to next paragraphJürgen Wassmuth
JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH
Life and Work.
By Martin Geck. Translated by John Hargraves.
738 pp. Harcourt. $40.
The point is made, but the statement is insupportable, as Mr. Geck surely knows better than most. If any measure of quality is applied to such a comparison, as it must be, Bach was one of the most prolific composers who ever lived; that meager output from Cöthen, for example, includes the "Brandenburg" Concertos, the orchestral suites, other concertos and the astounding solo works for violin and for cello. Literally, in the quotation above, something has been lost in the translation.
Mr. Geck, a professor at the University of Dortmund in Germany who has written extensively about Bach, is a committed and erudite scholar, and his "Johann Sebastian Bach: Life and Work" - published in German in 2000, the 250th anniversary of Bach's death, and now translated into English by John Hargraves - is a consummation of much of his own life and work. It adds original scholarship to an exhaustive survey of other studies of Bach. And although it is often dense with information, it is just as often entertaining: rich in anecdotes and scintillating in its conjectures.
Mr. Geck's discussion is broadly divided into three sections - "The Stations of Bach's Life," "The Vocal Music" and "The Instrumental Works" - with assorted essays at either end.
Bach's life, by superstar standards, was uneventful. The main stations in his mature years were Weimar, where he was court organist from 1708 to 1717; Cöthen, where he was kapellmeister, or music director; and Leipzig,
where he was cantor at the St. Thomas Church from 1723 until his death in 1750. Through all of this he maintained a houseful of children, those of his 20 who survived infancy; that he was a prolific progenitor, no one would argue.
Mr. Geck's telling of Bach's biography is lively. He finds drama where he can, taking special relish in Bach's many clashes with his employers, from his days as a "young hothead" in Arnstadt to "the crises of the 1730s" in Leipzig, which resulted in his "withdrawal from public life."
Mr. Geck gets at the nub of that recurrent problem in typically down-to-earth terms: "A pragmatist in the post of St. Thomas cantor would reason as follows: I have the school's pupils, the council musicians, and a few students at my disposal; I will adapt my music to those resources. Bach's reasoning goes this way: I have the school's pupils, the council musicians, and a few students at my disposal, and the 'St. Matthew Passion' in my head; therefore I need better conditions."
Mr. Geck's analysis of music and texts is trenchant and sometimes almost painfully detailed. If you don't know anything of the contemporary conflict between Pietism and orthodox Lutheranism going in, you will by the end of the sections on the sacred cantatas, or you will die trying.
Throughout, Mr. Geck is intent on disposing of the standard mythology. "Insisting that Bach was unappreciated during his lifetime has become part of the Bach hagiography," he writes, "mostly thanks to self-important
Those who have followed the recent wars over the size of Bach's chorus - was it a chorus as we know it or simply the sum of the soloists on hand for a given performance? - will be interested to know that Mr. Geck leans toward the minimalists. "Lean staffing may be the rule rather than the exception," he writes, while allowing that "perhaps there is no such thing as the Bach choir; perhaps he conducted performances with choirs of varying sizes."
Mr. Geck relies heavily on use of the historical present, which can sometimes seem offhand or casual to the English-speaking reader. But his inconsistency - at least in translation - can occasionally lead to
momentary confusion when tenses collide in a single sentence.
In addition, Mr. Geck has not been entirely well served by his English-speaking handlers. The mystery of how Bach, having died in 1750, could have called Johann Gottfried Bernhard Bach an "alas misbegotten son" - or for that matter, anything else - in 1783 is easily solved by referring to the German edition: it was 1738.
Far more serious is a blatant mistranslation in a discussion referring to the famous collegium that performed in Gottfried Zimmermann's coffeehouse in Leipzig. "Zimmermann," the English text reads, "who in 1721 already owns an impressive collection of instruments, will host the collegium - directed by Bach after 1729 - until the time of Bach's death in 1741." The German says simply "his" death in 1741, clearly referring to Zimmermann's. How could so bald a misstatement of so elementary a fact as Bach's death date have eluded everyone connected with this epochal project?
That "prolific" matter is subtler. The word Mr. Geck uses for what Bach is not - "Vielschreiber," or one who writes much - can carry the sense not only of prolific but also of overprolific. It is often used in a pejorative sense. What Mr. Geck seems to be saying on this occasion is not that Bach was not prolific, but that he was no mere scribbler (however unfair that may be to Telemann and Stölzel).
"Above all," he writes of Bach in Leipzig, "he is destined to be chronically overworked, a man whose productivity we register only with disbelief and amazement."
For readers of English, the other great Bach book that appeared in 2000, Christoph Wolff's magisterial "Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician" (W. W. Norton), remains the essential starting point. Mr. Geck's tome, read with some care, is a most welcome and useful companion.