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Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician Paperback – September 17, 2001

4.0 out of 5 stars 48 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Review

“A monumental work that must find its way into the library of every musician and every dedicated lover of music.” (Isaac Stern)

“It's unlikely that anyone will fashion a finer tribute to [Bach's] genius.” (Los Angeles Times Book Review)

“A magisterial biographical portrait…necessarily learned, but also user-friendly, helpful and entertainingly informative.” (Chicago Tribune)

“Likely to be the standard one-volume Bach biography for some time to come.” (New York Review of Books)

“A work of clarity worthy of its subject and his music.” (Wall Street Journal)

“Undoubtedly the most important Bach biography since Phillipp Spitta's life written over a century ago.” (The New Republic)

About the Author

Christoph Wolff, a Pulitzer Prize finalist, is the Adams University Professor at Harvard University and one of the world’s foremost experts on Bach and Mozart. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 599 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company (September 17, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 9780393322569
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393322569
  • ASIN: 0393322564
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1.8 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (48 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #166,349 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This book is most ostensibly not a work intended to provide a layman's knowledge of Bach. The book assumes a fair knowledge of Bach and his oeuvre, as well as a thorough knowledge of music theory and general instrumentation. Cristoph Wolff has written a thoroughly satisfying and extraordinarily comprehensive summary of Bach's professional and personal lives. I found that despite the book's intrinsically serious tone, reading it as a whole felt not like a biography, but a story that us Bach fanatics wish would never end.

This book is thoroughly impressive in both its scope and its detail, though the numerous tables cataloguing Bach's work from the various periods such as Weimar and Cothen are not as well integrated in text as one might hope. Where Wolff makes the occasional reference to the tables, I as the reader desired to see more comparison and analysis of various works in each period.

It is also immediately apparent upon even a glance through the index that Wolff dedicates much of his analysis of Bach's major works to Bach's vocal music, and notably less space to Bach's instrumental and keyboard/organ music. As we know, Bach's Fugue "the Great" in G minor, BWV 542, is a towering masterpiece of Bach's (and Baroque) organ music, but Wolff hardly affords it the analysis it demands. He also neglects to develop much depth of analysis with Bach's instrumental works. For example, we know that nearly all of Bach's solo and multiple piano concerti have their roots in previous concerti, but little attention is paid as to why Bach chose to transcribe to piano(harpsichord), why he selected the works he did, and whether there is a distinct method/pattern to Bach's transcriptions.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
This is a wonderful book for Bach enthusiasts -- incredibly detailed, but everything you have ever wanted to know about Bach is in one spot. But the Kindle version was a great disappointment because there are NO ILLUSTRATIONS. The table of contents lists dozens of illustrations that I was dying to see, but they don't appear anywhere ( at least that I can find). What a rip. They should warn you before you buy it that you aren't getting the entire book. Very disappointing.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
...I'll get my one major quibble out of the way immediately - you'll only get the best out of it if you have some musical knowledge, and I have only a little. Without some comprehension of his or her art, the life of a great artist, especially one untainted by scandals or crises, is in danger of becoming just a procession of dates, names and places. The whole appeal of J.S. Bach is bound up in his extraordinary musicianship, first as virtuoso keyboard player, then as composer of many different forms. It seems to me that, if you don't grasp this extraordinary art, you don't really grasp Bach.

Professor Wolff naturally grasps it. He is a professor of music and director of the Bach-Archiv in Leipzig. He speaks learnedly and enthusiastically of "ritornellos" and the "Oberwerk" and "Brustpositiv" of an organ and the daring dissonance in BWV38 as a result of a third-inversion dominant-seventh chord, while the musically uneducated among us (such as myself) wonder, "What's THAT?" And of course his musical examples at the end are lost on us. Professor Wolff has sought to bring Johann Sebastian Bach to us, and has succeeded very well, but he is handicapped not by his inabilities, but by ours.

Nevertheless, I think he could have done slightly better for those of us who love Bach but who lack his musical erudition - perhaps a glossary of the musical terms used therein, even a rudimentary explanation of some of the technicalities behind this extraordinary music, would have helped the reader (this one anyway) feel less at sea in parts. OK, this is not a "baroque music for dummies" book, but such additions would have helped.
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Format: Paperback
The usual view of Bach's life that I grew up with portrays him as something of a musical hermit, producing masterpieces and children at a prolific rate in relative anonymity with little or no earthly recognition. This book completely revises my view of Bach's life. Wolff shows Bach as a fantastically well-rounded and charismatic musician with a fantastic ability to create masterpieces, a great teacher, well loved and respected member of the community, a profound and simple Christian, and a fundamentally happy, joyful, complete man. Wolff also tries to show that Bach was the greatest musician who ever lived, and does a pretty convincing job at that. I always knew Bach was a great musician; this book simply reinforces and proves my intuition. His intermittant references to Newton are a little annoying and indicative of the hyperbole Wolff sometimes uses, but one gets used to them. The book also shows his human side - his mercurial temperment, his sometimes overbearing and demanding personality, and his greed. This book contains an enormous amount of personal information on Bach, far more than I knew existed. Wolff writes well and does not use an inordinate amount of musical terminology, so a musical illiterate like myself can still read and enjoy him. If you love Bach's music get this book, and you might as well the New Bach Reader along with it, as a good percentage of the quotes in Wolff's come directly from this source.
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