Master Musicians: Bach

David Schulenberg
Oxford University Press
: Master Musicians series
Hardback, 448 pages, 235x156x23mm, ISBN13: 9780190936303

Bach must be one of the most written about of all composers, so the addition of another outline of his life and music needs to have something extra to offer. Bach scholarship continues to discover new works and new evidence and ideas about his life and music. Since Malcolm Boyd’s original 1983 Master Musicians Bach volume and its three revisions, understanding of Bach and his music’s historical and cultural context has shifted substantially, reflecting new biographical information and insights. So David Schulenberg’s contribution to the Master Musicians series is very welcome.

Given the dirth of real evidence, particularly about Bach’s earlier years, the book is commendably full of words like “perhaps, probably, surely, evidently” and expressions ranging from “might have, would have” to a firmer “must have”. One distinct advantage of more recent historical scholarship has been the sensible relunctance to offer firm opinions on what is merely conjectural. Schulenberg also manages to manouvre the tricky line between the scholar and the lay-reader. Footnotes are given on the same page, and the language is eminently approachable for the lay-reader. That said, the early sections on Bach’s complex family background and youthful history are rather mindboggling – I have spent what seemed like hours in front of the Bach family tree on the wall of the Bach Archive in Leipzig with increasing brain-ache.

The book is divided into chapters as follows –

1. Bach in History: Geography, Society, Culture
2. Early Years (1685-1702): Eisenach, Ohrdruf, Lüneburg, Weimar
3. Bach the Student
4. Arnstadt, Mühlhausen (1703-1708)
5. Bach the Organist: Early Keyboard and Vocal Works
6. Weimar (1708-1717)
7. Bach the Concertmaster: Chorales and Cantatas
8. Cöthen (1717-1723)
9. Bach the Capellmeister: Suites, Serenades, and Related Works
10. Leipzig: First Years (1723-1730)
11. Bach the Music Director: Church and Concert Pieces
12. Leipzig: Later Years (1731-1750)
13. Bach the Teacher: Publications and Pedagogy
14. Legacy
Appendices: A. Calendar; B. List of Works; C. Glossary; D. Bibliography

The division into an historical sequence balanced by interspersed topic-related chapters is a well-judged arrangement. Chapters can easily be read in isolation or in a themed sequence. The brief of the specific chapters is wider than the titles might suggest, demonstrating the interconnectivity of Bach’s various activities throughout his life.

The promotional blurb for the book states that “Bach traces the man’s emergence as a startlingly original organist and composer, describing his creative evolution, professional career, and family life from contemporary societal and cultural perspectives in early modern Europe … The author focuses on Bach’s evolution as a composer by ultimately recognizing “Bach’s world” in the specific cities, courts, and environments within and for which he composed. Dispensing with biographical minutiae and more closely examining the interplay between his life and his music, Bach presents a unique, grounded, and refreshing new framing of a brilliant composer.” I can only agree.

The book includes 14 figures and 44 music examples. My only quibble on the layout is that the margins of the pages are notionally the same size (c2cm) which means the the inner part of each page are reduced as they slide into the fold. Many books do this nowadays, and I don’t really understand why.

There is also a companian website here that, under ‘Resources’ has additional information, extended musical examples, audio examples and Appendix supplements. You can also read extracts from the Preface and 35 sample pages here. Further information can also be found here.