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J.S. Bach is universally recognised as the greatest composer of our civilization, and biographies form a significant corpus in the literature about music and musicians. Each biography, of course, is a reflection of the age in which it was written, and the year 2000 was a catalyst for biographies that were based on the latest research.

Peter Williams’s book, first published in hardback in 2007, adopts a different approach based on Bach’s Obituary, which is used as a thread running through the plethora of facts and conjectures about his imperfectly known life and work. The plan adopted is the same plan as the two main sections of the Obituary: the biographical, written by the composer’s second surviving son C.P.E. Bach, and the shorter critical evaluation by a former pupil, J.F. Agricola. Williams is the ideal person to embark on such a methodology. Not only does he have all the known facts (derived from a lifetime of study and perceptive thinking) and all the secondary literature at his disposal, but he is able to deconstruct and critically assess every paragraph of the Obituary with characteristic brilliance.

An example: in the part dealing factually with Bach’s appointment as musical director and cantor in Leipzig (1723) and the necessary relinquishment of his post at Cöthen, Williams discusses the following points: the contrast between the Obituary’s enthusiastic comments about Bach’s Cöthen appointment and the absence of similar comments about his Leipzig post; the absence of any mention of Kuhnau or the Leipzig churches, or any words suggesting a happy relationship with clergy, churches or their people; the Cöthen prince’s funeral music; the appointment procedure and contractual duties; the move to Leipzig (practical, family concerns, professional duties, first cantatas, assistants); the place of cantatas in Leipzig; domestic music (French Suites, violin sonatas, first Partita); cantata cycles; Passions; other musical activities; the Collegium Musicum and chamber repertoires; first published set of pieces (Clavierübung I).

In recognising that the Obituary had its own agenda, Williams is a master of deconstruction, asking questions and speculating on every phrase of the text in a concise and precise manner, thereby revealing lines of thought that inspire further thinking and research by the reader. Definitive answers are rarely possible, but this is a biography that inspires engagement, and is a necessary part of any library of anyone passionately interested in the life and work of this greatest of all composers.

DAVID PONSFORD Read the full review on Agora Classica

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