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I had only just finished reading John Eliot Gardiner’s seminal and enthralling biography-cum-musicological analysis of J.S. Bach’s life and music when these two books arrived in the post; their happy co-existence is a reminder that we live in an age rich with well-written and well- researched studies of the composer, such that anyone of any background and angle of interest is sure to be able to find a suitable introduction to Bach.

Husband-and-wife team of Robert and Traute Marshall – he an emeritus professor of music at Brandeis University in Massachusetts, she German-born and a professional writer and translator – have approached Bach’s life not chronologically or thematically, but by mapping his travels across central Europe. Their attention to detail and level of accuracy is astonishing: from Bach’s places of permanent employment all the way down to identifying possible overnight stopping points on long journeys, every place is located on maps of the local area and Germany more widely, and profiled in proportion to its importance in Bach’s life.

Thus, Leipzig receives the most attention, with Cöthen, Lüneburg and other ‘Bach towns’ following on – these are spread over double-digit numbers of pages, while smaller settlements that e.g. lay on Bach’s fabled journey to Lübeck in order to hear the organ playing of Dieterich Buxtehude are allocated perhaps half a page. In addition, there are suggested itineraries for the modern-day traveller, and guides for finding Bach-related buildings and museums in each town, all written in a clear and engaging style, and easily accessible to the non-specialist.

This small paperback (280 pages) is generously laid out with colour photos and maps, as well as detailed information on local tourism offices and other similarly useful information; for anyone interested in the geography of Bach’s life and career, or thinking of planning a trip to the areas mentioned, it is an invaluable tool.

Markus Rathey is associate professor of music history at Yale, and has penned this short introductory book (234 pages) to explain and illuminate the musical and cultural contexts of Bach’s larger- scale vocal choral works.

Rathey also pays close attention to the liturgical and theological aspects of the works, and has thus produced a volume that he hopes ‘will appeal to casual concertgoers and scholars alike’, with each reader able to appreciate the writing on his or her own level.

Rathey devotes a chapter to each major work, except for the Easter and Ascension Oratorios, which are lumped together (he also includes the cantata BWV 10 in the chapter about the Magnificat BWV 243, as it sets portions of Luther’s translation of the Magnificat). His writing style is beautifully clear, and careful to elaborate more obscure points – although without ever becoming condescending or over simplistic. Musical examples are usefully deployed, but not overly so, for his descriptions of musical passages are direct and to the point; and his explanations of Lutheran liturgical practice and its relationship with individual movements in Bach’s music certainly taught me much I didn’t previously know.

The book’s ‘postlude’ (as Rathey calls it) is particularly insightful, though the work it treats of is ‘only’ a cantata – BWV 106, ‘Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit’, also known as the Actus Tragicus; for Rathey the piece ‘is a lesson in the Lutheran art of dying (ars moriendi) and it demonstrates how the dying believer can proceed from acknowledging that she has to die to a state of consolation in which she gives herself and her fears over to Christ’.

He ends by reiterating that his – excellent, in my opinion – book is meant only as an introduction to Bach’s major vocal works, a starting point, and not as a guide all along the journey of discovery: ‘This book is an invitation to listen, to read the texts carefully, and to consider the place the oratorios, passions, and masses had in the course of the church year and the liturgy, but foremost, to enjoy and to marvel at these “small works” of Bach’s “science”.’

Adrian Horsewood Read the full review on Agora Classica

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Early Music Today, 2016 - ©Rhinegold Publishing