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Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician Hardcover – March, 2000

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Editorial Reviews Review

The Learned Musician is an apt subtitle for this intellectual biography, which assesses the career of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) with the scholarly rigor one would expect from a Harvard professor. Opening with a 1737 attack by a critic who labeled Bach a pedant who spoiled the natural beauty of his creations with "an excess of art," Christoph Wolff cogently compares the German composer to English scientist Isaac Newton. Both men "brought about fundamental changes and established new principles" in their chosen fields, he argues; both sought to reveal God's harmonious ordering of their world. While Wolff conscientiously covers the basics of Bach's life, including his two marriages and the musical achievements of his gifted family, the author's primary focus is on his performing (Bach was an unrivaled organist) and composing. From the Goldberg Variations through the Brandenburg Concertos to Art of the Fugue, Wolff carefully analyzes Bach's innovations in harmony and counterpoint, placing them in the context of European musical and social history rendered in nicely atmospheric detail. Casual readers may find this dense tome a bit daunting, but serious music lovers will relish the deeper understanding it conveys of a genius who transformed Western music. --Wendy Smith

From Publishers Weekly

Since this year is the 250th anniversary of the death of the composer now widely regarded as perhaps the most consummate musician who ever lived, it is an opportune moment for a major study of the man and his work by one of the leading authorities on both. While shedding no new light on Bach's life, Wolff, a Harvard professor of music, does offer the lay reader a thorough picture of the composer as both a technician and a surpassing artist. He describes how Bach (1685-1750) made a living in his early years traveling around testing and repairing church organs. Wolff devotes a great deal of space to examining how Bach was viewed by his contemporaries, to whom, of course, the idea of a musician as an artist--as opposed to a sort of scientist of sound (there are valuable comparisons of Bach's achievement to that of his contemporary, Isaac Newton)--was quite foreign. Wolff has excavated contemporary documents, giving remarkable detail on Bach's earnings and on the disposition of his manuscripts after his death to the various members of his multitudinous family; also included are charming examples of the musician's youthful zeal, such as his journey, 250 miles on foot, to see and hear the admired organist/composer Buxtehude. So much of the composer's life is shrouded in mystery--what exactly caused the death of the remarkably healthy Bach in his 66th year, and just where is he buried? (no tombstone marks the spot)--that although this study is certainly the last word in current Bach scholarship, the man behind the music remains infuriatingly elusive. (Mar.)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 599 pages
  • Publisher: W W Norton & Co Inc; 1st edition (March 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 039304825X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393048254
  • Product Dimensions: 1.5 x 6.5 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #953,778 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

CHRISTOPH WOLFF is Adams University Research Professor at Harvard University in Cambridge, MA and Visiting Professor at the Juilliard School in New York. Born and educated in Germany, he studied organ and historical keyboard instruments, musicology and art history at the Universities of Berlin, Erlangen, and Freiburg, taking a performance diploma in 1963 and the Dr. Phil. in 1966. He taught the history of music at Erlangen, Toronto, Columbia, and Princeton Universities before joining the Harvard faculty in 1976. At Harvard he served as Chair of the Music Department (1980-88, 90-91), Acting Director of the University Library (1991-92), and Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (1992-2000). He currently serves as Director of the Bach-Archiv in Leipzig and President of the Répertoire International des Sources Musicales.

Recipient of the Dent Medal of the Royal Musical Association in London (1978), the Humboldt Research Award (1996), an honorary professorship at the University of Freiburg, and several honorary degrees, he is an elected Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, and the Sächsische Akademie der Wissenschaften. He has been awarded the Commander's Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany, honorary membership by the American Musicological Society, the American Bach Society, and the Mozarteum Foundation Salzburg.

He was a Pulitzer Prize Finalist in biography for "Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician" (New York, 2000), which won the Otto Kinkeldey Award of the American Musicological Society for the best musicological book published in 2000.

Customer Reviews

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See all 10 customer reviews
I found it extremely interesting, both the biography and the music analysis.
Declich Paolo
Bach was truly a sort of scientist or natural philosopher, and Wolff lets you appreciate how Bach was both a philosopher and composer of beautiful music.
Gerald J. Nora
This is unquestionably the single volume Bach biography for non-specialists, although musicologists will find it invaluable as well.
Kindle Customer

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

189 of 192 people found the following review helpful By Richard Konzen on April 5, 2000
Format: Hardcover
Of all of the books on Bach that I have in my library, the new biography by Christoph Wolff is first rate. In addition to presenting a full biography of Bach's life, Wolff also gives us other interesting information such as tables showing the plan of the Orgelbüchlein or one of the annual cantata performance schedules. We are also given insight into what Bach's working day might have been like in Leipzig, balancing the duties at St. Thomas with the Collegium musicum and all of his private students. There are also some pictures of the churches where Bach was employed that are often not included in other sources, including a couple of computer enhanced pictures showing what the gallery of St. Thomas might have looked like in Bach's time. The book includes the latest research on recent Bach discoveries such as the Neumeister Chorales.
This is a book that deserves to be in every library and in the hands of everyone interested in J. S. Bach.
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77 of 77 people found the following review helpful By Dennis W. Johnson on May 31, 2000
Format: Hardcover
For those who have read the many earlier works by Prof. Christoph Wolff on Bach, this is the long-anticipated culmination of the author's immense scholarship. Wolff, the dean of Bach scholars, gives us a detailed, sympathetic narrative, filled with interesting details. I now know how much a pint of beer costs in Arnstadt in the early 1700s, what Bach must have felt like when thrown into the clinker for youthful insubordination, and how disappointed Bach must have been when Louis Marchand failed to show up for the much-anticipated organ shoot-out. Wolff gives us many useful tables and charts, putting music, musicians, family history, and other complicated matters into context. Many of the stories familiar to students of Bach are richly and vividly retold: Bach's 250-mile trek to hear Buxtehude, his bouts with small-minded city bureacrats and smaller-minded princes and dukes, the desperate, but futile attempt to save his eyesight during the last months of Bach's life. What I came to appreciate most was the author's ability to put the corpus of Bach's work into persepctive. Wolff is most impressive in his final chapter, putting Bach rightly in his place: the creative genius, the foundation of Western music. If you love Bach, you will definitely cherish this book.
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85 of 88 people found the following review helpful By Gerald J. Nora on May 14, 2002
Format: Hardcover
J.S. Bach has been my longtime favorite classical composer, but while I knew he was one of the most influential composers in history, I never quite knew why. Moreover, he always seemed to have a tacit reputation as being rule-bound and stern, unlike the more dynamic, perhaps more charismatic, figures of Mozart and Beethoven (the latter's horrible temper notwithstanding). Cristoph Wolff's book has at last provided me with a fuller picture of Bach and his influence.
The subtitle "The Learned Musician" sets a primary theme for the work, namely Bach as the scholar-musician, who was able to pass rigorous theology exams in Latin and whose mastery of organ building was a significant achievement of engineering, math and acoustics, to say nothing of raw musical genius. A motif that crops up in this book is the comparison between Bach and Newton (which was made in Bach's time). Bach thought that there were rules of causality in canons just like there is causality in Nature, and used other musical pieces to explore theological concepts. Musical science is no mere metaphor applied by Wolff to Bach, but is something that the composer himself took very serious, and this was realized even by some of his contemporaries. Likewise Wolff also points out that this does not mean that Bach was some soulless theoretician either. Rather, Bach's work worked within rules of composition, but also broke and surpassed them when necessary. Bach refused to divorce theory from practice, so his collections of music like the Well-Tempered Clavier and the Art of the Fugue served to show how a particular form of music (e.g., the keyboard or the fugue) could be applied in just about any combination imaginable. These compositions were theoretical statements, albeit ones without words.
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49 of 51 people found the following review helpful By Kindle Customer on July 18, 2000
Format: Hardcover
This is unquestionably the single volume Bach biography for non-specialists, although musicologists will find it invaluable as well. Wolff has done a lot of debunking of various Bach myths (i.e., "Bach died while writing the final fugue in Art of Fugue, and dictated the chorale in his last breath"), but stilll has never lost his sense of wonder about this giant. Wolff also does a better job than most of placing Bach in European intellectual history as a whole, not just musical history. His comparison of Bach to Newton, while not original, is apt and insightful. The best thing about this book, however, is that it led me back to the music with several new insights. For example, Wolff's analysis of the famous d minor tocatta (BWV 565) led me to realize just how advanced this very early work is. Highly reccomended.
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37 of 38 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on July 3, 2000
Format: Hardcover
With this new Bach biography, Wolff presents us with his thorough establishment of an updated Bach image that might well become the new standard work! Although Wolff's writing style is very readable, it might be a good idea to thoroughly study the Appendix and the Table of Contents of this book before venturing into reading. Thus equipped, one will find that Wolff proceeds very systematically and logically. Let me not describe to you what this book is not but rather what it is: An excellent biography of the development of Bach's musical mind and of all his musical gifts--those of the harpsichordist, organist, organ expert, music teacher, composer, conductor and music director, as this is also reflected in the sub-title of the English original: The Learned Musician. Wolff relies on original documents, early records such as the Necrologue (started by Bach, completed by his son C.P.E. Bach and Agricola), Forkel's biography of 1802, still relevant findings of Spitta and later writers, however, also on his own research of several decades, including his 1999 discovery of the Bach family documents in Kiew. In tracing the musical heritage of the Bach family, Bach's own development during his childhood at Eisenach, his youth at Ohrdruf and Lunenburg, Wolff carefully develops before us a picture of the basis upon which Bach could build his musical career as an adult.Read more ›
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