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Johann Sebastian Bach: Life and Work Hardcover – December 4, 2006

3.9 out of 5 stars 8 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Surprisingly little is known about the domestic and professional life of the man many consider the greatest composer who ever lived, and even this monumental study by a German musicologist has to fall back on a great deal of supposition of the kind all too familiar from some Shakespearean biographies. If it is scant on personal details, it is brilliantly all-encompassing on the music and on the place of Bach in the musical pantheon, both in his own time and in the present. Geck devotes at least two-thirds of his book to an exhaustive examination of Bach's technique and accomplishment in all his major works, and their impact on the listener. This analysis is not overwhelmingly technical and can be readily appreciated by an educated enthusiast. In a final section called "Horizons," in which Geck meditates on Bach's art, religion and philosophy as displayed in the music, he offers some remarkable insights. Bach's "overwhelming density" in places can inspire "shock and awe," as well as "laughter over the infinity of creation, and tears at one's own insignificance." For Bach, he says, "every work of music has to be conceived as a perfect likeness of divine creation." (Dec.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

*Starred Review* More than a century ago, Albert Schweitzer indicted Bach biographers for a fixation on the composer's technical mastery, contending that such a focus blinded them to his poetic genius. In 2000 a perceptive German musicologist finally published a life study so perceptive and capacious that even Schweitzer would have applauded, and now a gifted translator has made that award-winning biography accessible to English-speaking readers. Writing for both the scholar and the general reader, Geck delivers a portrait of Bach--as man and as musician--more carefully nuanced and complete than those of any of his predecessors. In his portrait of the young Bach, for instance, Geck teases from a mere handful of documents clues as to how a self-taught organ-tuner won exceptional privileges from Arnstadt authorities. And in probing the repeated metamorphoses in Bach's artistic styles, Geck shows how Bach's rare creative talent fused devotion to tradition with experimental daring. The same analytical sophistication reveals how Bach's music reflects a Christian faith inspired by Lutheran mysticism and Pietist devotion. But even as he unveils the origins of Bach's sublime spirituality, Geck reminds readers of the rooted humanity of a boon companion who relished a mug of hard cider. Ordinary lovers of music will join specialists in praising this book. Bryce Christensen
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 752 pages
  • Publisher: Harcourt; 1 edition (December 4, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0151006482
  • ISBN-13: 978-0151006489
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.5 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #718,469 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is a very thorough biography that does a good job of tracking the evolution of this composer's creative genius. It has a lot of biographical detail and this is both a plus and minus. There is so much material that unless you are a very serious music person with a strong interest in Bach, you may drown in detail. A lot of the content is not new and one wouldn't say this is a revisionist biography.

If you are looking for musical details this book delivers. It analyzes many compositions and does so in-depth. Casual readers will most likely find this a problem, musicians with an interest in music theory will most likely love it. What is a potential problem, however, is paralysis by analysis. I don't think Bach's genius can be fully understand by analyzing his music just as the beauty of a sunset can not be fully understood by graphing the intensity and wavelength of the various colors in it.

This could be a great book or a dud depending upon what you are looking for in a biography. If you are a non-musician with a casual interest in Bach, you might be better off with something else. If you are doing a thesis on Bach, you probably don't want to miss this one. Ditto if you are a serious musician who wants to understand his music more deeply on a theoretical level.

I am a big Bach fan and a musician and I found the detail overwhelming. For my purposes, this is a good reference to augment what I already know about the composer, but it's a bit too detailed for me as a thoroughly enjoyable read. That is not to say the book is bad, just that it seems to be trying to appeal to two different audiences and that is a difficult task to pull off.
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Format: Hardcover
It's strange that with someone as famous as Bach that we really know very little about his personal life. In this book Martin Geck has written as much as we know, and has had to expand that with some of the generally accepted rumors. He has done a very good job in this area. That takes about a third of this book.

The other two thirds of the book is on Bach's music. In this area, the book is absolutely supurb. Mr. Geck has been a professor of musicology at Dormund University. He has written about the other German major composers and now has produced this masterpiece on Bach.

He covers every aspect of Bach's music from technique, to the impact on the listener. Surprisingly his analysis is not too technical so the average enthusiast can understant what he is saying. The last section of the book is called Horizons, and while fairly short (30 pages or so) he offers some opinions on Back's art, theology, symbolism and other aspects of his work that are seldom covered.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This book is a strange combination of some interesting content (especially the part about the works; the biographical information is dry and gives no idea what kind of a person Bach was), and some very misguided choices in translation. Aside from the occasional translation error, the translator seems not to realize that the "historical present", which is used in German, does not exist in English (other than rarely). This gives, as another reviewer pointed out a sensation of cognitive dissonance. As I translator myself, I'm used to seeing this is French (the language I work from), but when I read a French book using this, it is rarely as disturbing as it is here. The translator should have normalized this into English, that is, using the past, but also should have normalized the disturbing shifts of time from the past to the present that occur on nearly every page.

The biographical section is, as I mentioned, dry and static; you get no feeling that Bach ever ate a meal or went to the bathroom. It is fact after fact, date after date, written document after written document. The parts about the music itself are more interesting, but the overall feeling this book leaves is one of confusion. The decision to separate Bach's life and work is curious; the two were intertwined (especially because the author talks so little about Bach as a person, there's nothing else to hold up to the light).

All in all, this is not a good book for someone wanting to understand Bach's life. Alas, in spite of the many books about Bach, not many of them do so. Others are also plagued by translation errors, or academic prose, and a real humanist biography of Bach is needed.
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Format: Hardcover
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) is given an expansive and detailed treatment in Geck's 2000 book. It is filled with details, ranging from the minor (e.g., according to a cousin of his, Bach "has a taste for hard cider and 'yeast brandy'") to the major ("The Lutheran faith is of the utmost significance for Bach's creative work").

Bach was unappreciated, and "Few of Bach's works appeared in print during his lifetime." Geck sheds some signficant insight as to why Bach was only given the position as Cantor of the Thomaskirche at Leipzig after it had first been offered to Telemann, Graupner, and Fasch (and turned down): "he does not come from Leipzig and, unlike the others, has no university training. What matters here is Bach's own plan for his life: although he chooses advanced schooling and an education over an apprenticeship, thereby keeping important doors open, he is, to a much greater degree than the three other kapellmeisters, a self-made man, one who set his sights high early on and is willing to work hard to achieve his goal. This ethos grows out of the craftsman's approach and will inform that of the educated artist."

Still, as a court musician in the chapel of Duke Johann Ernst in Weimar, "When Bach performed his music for religious services at court, he could count on an alert and knowledgeable audience---rather than narrow-minded, frivolous aristocrats interested only in hunting." Yet later on he fell out of favor, and was actually imprisoned for a month, composing "The Well-Tempered Clavier" in "a place where dismay, boredom, and the lack of any sort of musical instrument made this way of passing the time essential."

Geck notes that Bach's later position as Cantor of St.
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