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Book Review

The Worlds of Johann Sebastian Bach

The Worlds of Johann Sebastian Bach by Erickson
Raymond Erickson, ed
Amadeus Press, 2009 xvi + 344
ISBN-10: 1574671669
ISBN-13: 9781574671667
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It's all but axiomatic that – as with Shakespeare – it's unnecessary to be familiar with the life of Bach in order for the universality of his music to appeal. Yet there are several creditable biographies and studies of his "career", interpretations of his musical development in the context of the German Baroque and, of course, musicological examinations which draw on what's known about contemporary performance practice specifically to throw light on the way Bach's music works. One topic that hasn't received the same degree of scrutiny until now is the influence of the immediate geographical and cultural environment in which he lived and worked.

The Worlds of Johann Sebastian Bach deals with such areas. And deals very well indeed. Raymond Erickson has assembled a team of ten specialists who set out to answer questions about the extent to which, and ways in which, life in a relatively restricted (less than a hundred miles square) region in southeast Germany provided cultural, social and political contexts in and from which Bach emerged as arguably the single most influential figure in Western music.

As access to archival and other documentary material has become easier after the reunification of Germany, insights, which this book presents, unavailable even as recently as in the Bach Year (2000) now abound and make invaluable contributions to Bach scholarship, which no serious lover of his music can afford to ignore. The book has been made possible in part thanks to the Aston Magna Foundation for Music and the Humanities, whose mission is to enrich the appreciation of music of the past and the understanding of the cultural, political, and social contexts in which it was composed and experienced. Schubert's Vienna, also edited by Erickson (ISBN-10: 0300070802 ISBN-13: 978-0300070804) does analogous work for that composer.

Note, The Worlds of Johann Sebastian Bach is not an insipid biography or travelog of Thuringia and Saxony. Such hard-to-get books as Auf Bachs Spuren in Thüringen by Hartmut Ellrich (ISBN-10: 3897029456 ISBN-13: 978-3897029453) meet that need; though they are also substantial. Although necessarily and appropriately illustrated with over 200 contemporary plates, engravings, maps, plans, score excerpts and so on, The Worlds of Johann Sebastian Bach is a scholarly study which sets out to answer important questions about the many influences on Bach. It succeeds. It's also a fascinating read: there are insights into many aspects of daily life and specific contemporary "customs" and pre-occupations… hunting, coffee, Turkish fashion and so on. This is not so mundane as it may seem: it is Erickson's generally well-sustained contention that it was in Bach's nature to observe and absorb much of the culture and traditions which were prevalent during his life.

Perhaps rather perversely, Erickson identifies as an important goal an understanding of just why Bach has been so highly regarded for so long in the English-speaking world, particularly North America. Perhaps this is because, as stated, the current book is ultimately the outcome of a series of "Academies" (more than 120 events) held in 1985 over three weeks at the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University in New Jersey. Erickson also includes as his opening chapter a 50 page (over 25% of the book's length with references: The Worlds of Johann Sebastian Bach is well-footnoted) introduction examining the legacies of Bach, looking at ways in which these reflect his life, family, posts held, the organ amongst other instruments, his education, Lutheranism, contemporary philosophical and religious trends and – not least – the musical traditions of the Middle Ages and Renaissance in France and Italy as well as Germany.

The defining attribute of this enterprise was its multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary natures: specialists from the worlds of history (social and political), religion, politics, architecture, literature, dance and drama as well as musicology took part. So there are studies of religion and religious currents in greater depth, the physical and architectural milieus of the cities, courts and churches which Bach knew. These first four chapters take up over half the book (at a total of 175 of 300 or so pages).

Stephen Rose next has a fascinating study of the novels from the German Baroque which discuss music to any significant degree and/or are by musicians themselves. Interesting is the emphasis in the authors whom Rose examines on satire and humor– Bach was far from the staid figure he's often portrayed to be. Simon Williams looks at the theater in Leipzig; the emphasis on spoken drama, not opera, on the part of the companies which thrived there in Bach's time may well illuminate the ways in which the composer's attachment to drama developed. Similarly, Meredith Little, whose own Dance and the Music of J.S. Bach (ISBN-10: 0253214645 ISBN-13: 978-0253214645) is the standard work on the subject, emphasizes just how dominant were the traditions of courtly, social and theatrical dance.

Part 2 of The Worlds of Johann Sebastian Bach occupies its last third in length. Rather confusingly, it groups three more essays under the rubric "Bach in Context" when Part 1 has been "The Context for Bach". Here Robert Marshall examines Bach as Lutheran. He attempts to explain Bach's "profound veneration" for the earlier theologian; his analysis runs the risk of a somewhat circular argument while his conclusion ("Martin Luther, quite literally, has done nothing less than justify (even glorify) Bach's existence as a musician and indeed defined his earthly mission") may be considered contentious – particularly when set alongside later research on the origins and perhaps even the first performance in Catholic Vienna [p.x] of the B Minor Mass. George Stauffer is more persuasive on the constant attractions which Bach felt towards the "big city". He scrupulously documents Bach's known journeys to Hamburg, Berlin, Dresden and of course Leipzig. Like Marshall's contribution, this is a self-standing monographic chapter. It makes its impact and adds to the worth of The Worlds of Johann Sebastian Bach as much by its very specificity as any attempt to conform with anything other than the overall brief of the volume. This is largely true of most of the other chapters too.

The final substantive chapter (Hans-Joachim Schulze has a short afterword on Bach's standing in the early 21 st century) is by Christoph Wolff on Bach's time in Leipzig itself. It examines the composer's daily and weekly/seasonal routines and how the prevailing climate in the city influenced Bach's life and work. Specifically and significantly, Wolff demonstrates how Bach's innate characteristics and priorities at times differed from those otherwise prevailing; he contrasts Bach's "style" with that of his predecessor, Kuhnau, for instance. By this point in the book, the reader has a clear view of the complex, changing and utterly vital interplay between Bach and his worlds. This is possible not least because the multiplicity of disciplines and approaches "triangulates" on each topic in turn, and in sum.

The book is a clean and appropriate mixture, then, of individual theses and a common theme. It's a more than serviceable compendium of its subject matter and one that can be recommended to Bach lovers. The Worlds of Johann Sebastian Bach is well-indexed, produced to a generally high standard (it appears as though there may be some minor misattributions and proofing errors, though). For all that several of the essays are (revised) versions of material that appeared elsewhere, the book makes a significant and timely contribution to our appreciation of Bach.

Copyright © 2011 by Mark Sealey.