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Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician

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Although we have heard the music of J. S. Bach in countless performances and recordings, the composer himself still comes across only as an enigmatic figure in a single familiar portrait. As we mark the 250th anniversary of Bach's death, author Christoph Wolff presents a new picture that brings to life this towering figure of the Baroque era. This engaging new biography po Although we have heard the music of J. S. Bach in countless performances and recordings, the composer himself still comes across only as an enigmatic figure in a single familiar portrait. As we mark the 250th anniversary of Bach's death, author Christoph Wolff presents a new picture that brings to life this towering figure of the Baroque era. This engaging new biography portrays Bach as the living, breathing, and sometimes imperfect human being that he was, while bringing to bear all the advances of the last half-century of Bach scholarship. Wolff demonstrates the intimate connection between the composer's life and his music, showing how Bach's superb inventiveness pervaded his career as musician, composer, performer, scholar, and teacher. And throughout, we see Bach in the broader context of his time: its institutions, traditions, and influences. With this highly readable book, Wolff sets a new standard for Bach biography.


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Although we have heard the music of J. S. Bach in countless performances and recordings, the composer himself still comes across only as an enigmatic figure in a single familiar portrait. As we mark the 250th anniversary of Bach's death, author Christoph Wolff presents a new picture that brings to life this towering figure of the Baroque era. This engaging new biography po Although we have heard the music of J. S. Bach in countless performances and recordings, the composer himself still comes across only as an enigmatic figure in a single familiar portrait. As we mark the 250th anniversary of Bach's death, author Christoph Wolff presents a new picture that brings to life this towering figure of the Baroque era. This engaging new biography portrays Bach as the living, breathing, and sometimes imperfect human being that he was, while bringing to bear all the advances of the last half-century of Bach scholarship. Wolff demonstrates the intimate connection between the composer's life and his music, showing how Bach's superb inventiveness pervaded his career as musician, composer, performer, scholar, and teacher. And throughout, we see Bach in the broader context of his time: its institutions, traditions, and influences. With this highly readable book, Wolff sets a new standard for Bach biography.

30 review for Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician

  1. 5 out of 5

    Michael Finocchiaro

    I think that if you are going to read one biography of Bach (and if you like music - any kind of music - you owe it to yourself to read at least one), then this one is it. It is engaging, interesting, not overly intellectual and gives you a real appreciation for the genius of the artist and the complexity of the human being. Christoph Wolff is probably the preeminent scholar at this point on "old Bach" and this biography is truly one of my favourite composer biographies. A must read. I think that if you are going to read one biography of Bach (and if you like music - any kind of music - you owe it to yourself to read at least one), then this one is it. It is engaging, interesting, not overly intellectual and gives you a real appreciation for the genius of the artist and the complexity of the human being. Christoph Wolff is probably the preeminent scholar at this point on "old Bach" and this biography is truly one of my favourite composer biographies. A must read.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Mary

    Reading this book exposed a lot of my own failings. I don't know German or have a sophistocated understanding of music theory and history. But I really like to listen to the works of J.S Bach. So I read this biography in the hope of gaining a better understanding of the man and his music. Wolff's biography is designed for music scholars or for someone with a better understanding of music theory and composition than I have. Wolff spends a great deal of time and effort explaining how changes made b Reading this book exposed a lot of my own failings. I don't know German or have a sophistocated understanding of music theory and history. But I really like to listen to the works of J.S Bach. So I read this biography in the hope of gaining a better understanding of the man and his music. Wolff's biography is designed for music scholars or for someone with a better understanding of music theory and composition than I have. Wolff spends a great deal of time and effort explaining how changes made by Bach changed music itself. To get the most out of this book, you need some expertise. Since Bach was German, all of the titles of the works appear in German with an occasional translation. However the major works like Mass in B minor, St. Matthew's Passion, The Well Tempered Clavier,and The Goldberg Variations are all referenced in English. Wolff uses Bach's obituary as a touchstone through out the work. Obviously, it is very difficult to write a biography of someone who lived in the 1700's. Wolff has throughly researched his subject by combing through business records, correspondence, newpaper articles, and letters to learn about Bach. As a reader, you appreciate Bach's genius but also become aware of the politics of the time and the living conditions in the 1700's. It is sad that when Bach died, his widow and remaining minor children were not better taken care of by the town fathers. It is also tragic that so much of what Bach wrote has been lost. He was recognized as a genius in his own time. Yet his estate was divided among his adult children and his widow. His widow had to sell the compositions that he had left to her so she would be able to take care of herself and the children. Bach had 13 children. His first wife died young and left him with four young children. He remarried and had nine children with his second wife. He died when he was 66. Bach passed his musical gifts on the a couple of his sons. Like Bach they secured postions as cantors or organists for the Luthern churches in Germany. His son Carl Phillip Emmanuel Bach is responsible for much of Bach's music that survived the centuries. Reading this biography, makes one wish that just for a Sunday, they could hop in a time machine and be present to hear Bach the organ virtuoso play some of his own compositions in church at Lepizig!

  3. 5 out of 5

    ♥ Ibrahim ♥

    I used to spend lots of money on cassette tapes and CDs of Arabic music, but when I discovered Bach I never looked back or missed the cheesy, sorrow-laden music I grew up with. I can’t have enough of Bach music and I want to read as much as I can about his life as a person.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Samuel Gutterman

    Holy crap I finished it. I have to imagine it's rough writing a biography of someone for whom nothing but the barest facts of his day-to-day life exist. Unfortunately, when this is all you have, this is all you can talk about, and as a result The Learned Musician gets awfully caught up in the minutiae, including charts of concert schedules, extensive details of Bach's salary, and on and on. Of course what you *want* is insight into his creative process, and a peek into a type of life (and lifelo Holy crap I finished it. I have to imagine it's rough writing a biography of someone for whom nothing but the barest facts of his day-to-day life exist. Unfortunately, when this is all you have, this is all you can talk about, and as a result The Learned Musician gets awfully caught up in the minutiae, including charts of concert schedules, extensive details of Bach's salary, and on and on. Of course what you *want* is insight into his creative process, and a peek into a type of life (and lifelong pursuit) that largely no larger exists, but such it is. Perhaps in the future, when historians are resignedly poring through our blogs and facebook pages, people will wish we had just written down how many pails of beer we earned in the calendar year 2007.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Lucy Pollard-Gott

    This biography is both a compelling narrative--of Bach's training, career, creative output, and important musical and personal relationships--and deep scholarship. Wolff's angle is to emphasize Bach as scholar, first of Latin, and then of the complexities of instrument building and musical architecture, which he advanced considerably. Hard to recommend it enough! Bach's birthday is March 21st, so a good time to learn more about this unmatched, complete artist. This biography is both a compelling narrative--of Bach's training, career, creative output, and important musical and personal relationships--and deep scholarship. Wolff's angle is to emphasize Bach as scholar, first of Latin, and then of the complexities of instrument building and musical architecture, which he advanced considerably. Hard to recommend it enough! Bach's birthday is March 21st, so a good time to learn more about this unmatched, complete artist.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Carolina Morales

    The man was simply outstanding. In his lenghty life, Bach had 2 wives, 20 children (9 of it survived to adulthood) and lived in the most important cities of what we call today Germany: Berlin, Weimar, Dresden, Leipzig, Köthe, Hamburg. He worked incessantly and set standards to all classic musiciand than came along after him. A life devoted to Arts, thy name is Johann Sebastian Bach.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Josh Friedlander

    Bach was an intensely religious, modest scion of a well-known musical family, making a career as Church cantor in a part of Europe still scarred by the Thirty Years War. Despite not being university-educated, he was able to absorb and improve on pretty much all the contemporary music of his time. We know few details about his life, but Wolff squeezes out everything we have (sometimes making for dry reading). This book doesn't explain much about Bach's techniques, and the musically ignorant reade Bach was an intensely religious, modest scion of a well-known musical family, making a career as Church cantor in a part of Europe still scarred by the Thirty Years War. Despite not being university-educated, he was able to absorb and improve on pretty much all the contemporary music of his time. We know few details about his life, but Wolff squeezes out everything we have (sometimes making for dry reading). This book doesn't explain much about Bach's techniques, and the musically ignorant reader may be slightly at sea. But it is a reverent, detailed biography, likely to remain the gold standard.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Lemar

    Bach is a giant in music and Christoph Wolff successfully explains why. Wolff's book is an excellent work of scholarship. His thesis is that Bach worked within historical musical frameworks to let his original musical genius emerge. He worked to become a virtuoso of several instruments and then had the humility to put in the untold hours in took to become a true master of counterpoint and the fine art of composition. Not every musician has the spark of ability to create a melody, guess who had i Bach is a giant in music and Christoph Wolff successfully explains why. Wolff's book is an excellent work of scholarship. His thesis is that Bach worked within historical musical frameworks to let his original musical genius emerge. He worked to become a virtuoso of several instruments and then had the humility to put in the untold hours in took to become a true master of counterpoint and the fine art of composition. Not every musician has the spark of ability to create a melody, guess who had it. Bach worked tirelessly and one is amazed at the unflagging effort and devotion he gave to music. Every assertion made by Wolff is backed up immediately with primary source material and explained clearly in prose understandable to the musician and listener alike. As a character from Tom Wolfe's books is often defined by his time, friends and surroundings, Bach emerges here as the man who successfully incorporated all he learned about music and musical instruments, all that was going on in neighboring regions (particularly Vivaldi), and systematically applied his knowledge through his innate genius to composition. He then frequently revisited his work, making minute but important improvements. In introducing Bach as a man emblematic of his time, Wolff succeeds in portraying life in the early 18th century especially as lived by musicians. Life in Europe was heavily dominated by the Church and music was revered as a pathway to praising God's creation and to revealing something of the glory of God. This prevailing attitude gave musicians a chance to have their works heard and to earn a living as musician in a way that is no longer viable today. It is not necessary to believe in the same or any God to admire the pursuit of Godly perfection that motivated Bach's music but that was the genesis for much of it. I came in loving the music and came out of this read liking the man tremendously as well. I listened to Bach's music often on CD and also frequently on youtube during this (two month) read which enhanced this read considerably.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Buzdugan Alexandru

    The book helped me understand the genius and importance of Johann Sebastian Bach in musical history (He was very dedicated to his craft and also a good husband and friend beside the genius part). Such a combination of traits is surely hard to encounter throughout history. I feel that he is an example and a model for men in general not only in the musical field. The book itself is quite hard to read, the author being very knowledgeable and giving a lot of details about his life. Overall it was a The book helped me understand the genius and importance of Johann Sebastian Bach in musical history (He was very dedicated to his craft and also a good husband and friend beside the genius part). Such a combination of traits is surely hard to encounter throughout history. I feel that he is an example and a model for men in general not only in the musical field. The book itself is quite hard to read, the author being very knowledgeable and giving a lot of details about his life. Overall it was a nice read (a little too detailed for the average reader) and it surely helps to understand what drove a person such as Bach becoming who he became.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Julie Kuvakos

    What a wonderful comprehensive and factual guide to the life and works of Bach. I found the author did a great job giving a thorough insight into his works and balanced nicely a look at his personal life and the lives of other Bach family members. As a piano teacher this will be a staple for me that I’ll plan to re read in the future as well!

  11. 5 out of 5

    Christian Richardsøn

    In line with all the other reviews: this is a real hard yakka read. Not to say it doesn't come with its rewards though. There are some really intriguing elements, though the trouble that I'd assume presents most readers is: awareness of Bach's comprehensive catalogue. In all honesty this book would be perfect in multimedia format on an iPad (or similar) allowing readers to hear audio examples as they read. Until that day comes though I begrudgingly (out of respect for the author) have to limit my In line with all the other reviews: this is a real hard yakka read. Not to say it doesn't come with its rewards though. There are some really intriguing elements, though the trouble that I'd assume presents most readers is: awareness of Bach's comprehensive catalogue. In all honesty this book would be perfect in multimedia format on an iPad (or similar) allowing readers to hear audio examples as they read. Until that day comes though I begrudgingly (out of respect for the author) have to limit my rating in line with its current presentation.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Billy

    While listed as a biography, the author acknowledges that there is a great deal not known about Bach's life. The book therefore is more about musical theory than about the man himself. The style is pedantic, and more than a passing knowledge of music and organs is needed to keep up with this tome. While listed as a biography, the author acknowledges that there is a great deal not known about Bach's life. The book therefore is more about musical theory than about the man himself. The style is pedantic, and more than a passing knowledge of music and organs is needed to keep up with this tome.

  13. 5 out of 5

    John

    Actually, I'm still slowly making my way through this, but nothing could induce me to knock down its five stars on what I've read so far. I think the WSJ reviewed it by saying that its writing was well-suited to its subject matter. It's true: Christoph Wolff writes the book a bit like Bach composes music. It's definitely becoming one of my favorite books. Actually, I'm still slowly making my way through this, but nothing could induce me to knock down its five stars on what I've read so far. I think the WSJ reviewed it by saying that its writing was well-suited to its subject matter. It's true: Christoph Wolff writes the book a bit like Bach composes music. It's definitely becoming one of my favorite books.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Alexander Lochard

    Just outstanding and beautifully written. It did take me some time to read because I patiently took my time to listen to all off the music that are mentioned in this book by Bach on YouTube. For me it was a lot of fun to read and listen to.I hope others can enjoy it the same as way as it was for me.

  15. 4 out of 5

    John

    A fascinating book, full of detail that clarifies a lot of Bach's music and the time/place he lived in. Bach has been a major influence on m,y writing. I also learned that I may be distantly related to him! A fascinating book, full of detail that clarifies a lot of Bach's music and the time/place he lived in. Bach has been a major influence on m,y writing. I also learned that I may be distantly related to him!

  16. 5 out of 5

    Snævar Hreinsson

    Very informative, but due to the fact that we have so little first hand knowledge of Bach's live the book is a bit dry. However, it bothered me less how little information we about his personal life in contrast with the many references to music he wrote, but have been lost. Very informative, but due to the fact that we have so little first hand knowledge of Bach's live the book is a bit dry. However, it bothered me less how little information we about his personal life in contrast with the many references to music he wrote, but have been lost.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Richard Pohl

    This unique biography offers the most comprehensive treatise on the Master and his work. Assembling the widest possible material, it´s publishing was a major event and it rightly deserves all its prize. Must read for any music lover and musician above all.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Linh Pham

    Extremely detailed work studying the life of one of the greatest composers of all time. I enjoyed not only the music materials but also all the interesting events happening in Bach's life and family. A great book for music people! Extremely detailed work studying the life of one of the greatest composers of all time. I enjoyed not only the music materials but also all the interesting events happening in Bach's life and family. A great book for music people!

  19. 4 out of 5

    Annm

    I learned a trmendous amunt about the man and the composer from reading this book. Not that any of that helps me play his violin music, but it certainly helps me appreciate the genius and hard work that went nto creating that music.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Mini Mags [Margaret]

    Very thorough coverage of Bach's life. The musical examples and analysis are especially useful. Written in a scholarly fashion, this is not a book for the casual biography reader. Very thorough coverage of Bach's life. The musical examples and analysis are especially useful. Written in a scholarly fashion, this is not a book for the casual biography reader.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Barbara

    I read this for a music history class in which I had to imagine a luncheon meeting of Brahms, Bach and Copland. Got a great deal of information on Bach, his life, and his era.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Laura♥

    I learned what Bach did and how he came so famous.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Kevin

    So far an excellent read! 2/17/11 - I learned a great deal. An excellent read.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Dgg32

    Tons of details from the contemporary letters, documents and press releases. A nice reconstruction of the life of the most important composer.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Courtney

    I really did enjoy this book. There were some spots that got bogged down in lists of details which is the only reason I gave it 4 instead of 5 stars. Overall though a very well written biography.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Ray Duncan

    Best book I've read on Bach. Far more accessible than the recent "Castles of Heaven." Best book I've read on Bach. Far more accessible than the recent "Castles of Heaven."

  27. 4 out of 5

    Juko

    A thorough and indepth description of the life and works of this composer. Long with some musical examples and scores as well this is an bsolute must read for every bach lover.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Davidberlin

    Not an easy book - I use it more for reference. But I couldn't live without it! Not an easy book - I use it more for reference. But I couldn't live without it!

  29. 5 out of 5

    Brien Henderson

    I suspect this book will not do a whole lot for any reader who isn't a trained musician. However, if you're comfortable with the speculative and the uncertain, the biographical knowns and unknowns of Bach's life that Wolff lays out in great detail will be of interest. Perhaps the most informative parts of the book, for a non-musician, are about the general life and prospects of livelihood a musician in 18th-century Germany might have available to them, whether it's Bach or anyone else. Even for I suspect this book will not do a whole lot for any reader who isn't a trained musician. However, if you're comfortable with the speculative and the uncertain, the biographical knowns and unknowns of Bach's life that Wolff lays out in great detail will be of interest. Perhaps the most informative parts of the book, for a non-musician, are about the general life and prospects of livelihood a musician in 18th-century Germany might have available to them, whether it's Bach or anyone else. Even for the musician, there is a lot of stuff that it's hard to imagine being of interest to anyone who isn't really, really obsessed with Bach, as I'm sure Wolff is. After all, you don't get to be the preeminent Bach scholar by NOT being the one person on earth who is most obsessed with Bach. I will say that anyone who hopes to gain an understanding of Bach's creative process will get almost nothing out of this book. But, that is not Wolff's fault. If anyone is to blame, it's J.S. himself. While some of his contemporaries wrote treatises, in plain German, about musical theory and composition, Johann did no such thing. Instead, he wrote his treatises in the form of music, his compositions. It's incredibly frustrating for someone who wants to try to get inside Bach's music, but they don't have the means to do it (i.e. musical training). If you want to know something about Bach's creative process, though, you should ask a living composer about it. They might be able to actually tell you something useful.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Gavin

    Very tough to pick a star rating on this book! The musical insights are very solid, whether on the micro level of picking apart 3 measures of a canon, the mid-level of the B Minor Mass, or the macro level of Bach's musical thought, including a great afterword about how Bach's music represents the ideal of unity in diversity. But... the biography itself is much more of a mixed bag. Bach remains the enigma at the center of any biography of him, because in the end we have so few documents directly by Very tough to pick a star rating on this book! The musical insights are very solid, whether on the micro level of picking apart 3 measures of a canon, the mid-level of the B Minor Mass, or the macro level of Bach's musical thought, including a great afterword about how Bach's music represents the ideal of unity in diversity. But... the biography itself is much more of a mixed bag. Bach remains the enigma at the center of any biography of him, because in the end we have so few documents directly by him, and not much aside from official documents (so, for example, we know that as a 17-year-old he got into a brawl with a 20-year-old bassoonist after insulting the man, but some biographers draw the idea that Bach was generally irascible from this event, others that he was insecure, others that he could be a bully. It's impossible to really know.) Wolff has compiled a lot of details to try fill the vacuum, but many of them aren't so interesting -- a list of possible acquaintances at Leipzig University, a list of court appointees in Anhalt-Cothen, etc. So, what's good is very good, but the rest is very skimmable. For anyone really into Bach's music (and who among us isn't? :-) ), it's very worth the time to read through the musicological parts. The good biographical parts are also very good (such as the account of Bach's visit with Frederick II). And the rest? At least it's easy to skim :-).

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