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Anna Magdalena was Bach’s second wife. Before her marriage at the age of 20 she was a highly regarded singer and an accomplished keyboard player. In this book David Yearsley corrects the ‘rosy and one-sided view of Anna Magdalena as a model of German feminine domesticity’, to quote from the dustjacket. The publishers also claim that this is ‘the first in-depth study of these notebooks and their owner’.

The correction of the ‘one-sided’ view is the most valuable aspect of the book, especially as works of fiction proliferated in the 20th century – novels, films, etc – perpetuating that domestic image. One particular book from 1925 – The Little Chronicle of Magdalena Bach by Esther Meynell – became widely popular, in the manner of all such sentimental and comfortable accounts of a great composer’s domestic life. Chapter One: ‘Magdalena Mania’ explores how this myth has been stubbornly maintained.

The author examines each piece contained in the 1725 Notebook (only about a third of the 1722 book is extant), as well as the more idiosyncratic entries, and provides context. Though the book is excellently researched, Yearsley does tend to be discursive. On the age difference between the 36-year-old Bach and the 20-year-old Anna Magdalena, Yearsley is rather obsessive, devoting about seven pages to the subject. The sub-heading ‘Musical Couples and Dirty Old Men’, like the title of the book, is sensationalist. Does this sort of trivial, tabloid language really help to sell specialist music books? I have no problem with the exposure of the risqué elements which sit alongside the intellectually challenging music in the 1725 Notebook. Throughout this volume Yearsley shows Bach and his wife as flesh-and-blood creatures. Should we be surprised that they – and some of their otherwise high-minded associates, such as Picander, librettist of the St Matthew Passion – did not shun bawdy or irreverent verses? We know that Mozart (as a typical Salzburgian, apparently) indulged a taste for the scatological, so why should it feel awkward to imagine the Bachs’ earthy amusement?

Chapter Three is justifiably focussed on death, which was much more of a threat three hundred years ago than it is today. Anna Magdalena herself lost six of her first eight children before they were four years old. In Chapter Four, entitled Fragment and Fantasy, the author discusses the question of whether or not women played the organ in Bach’s day. (p. 121: ‘No instrument of the early 18th century appears to have been more securely the province of men’.) The inclusion of a 13-bar fragment of difficult organ music in the 1725 Notebook leads to much speculation about Anna Magdalena’s ambitions and skill as an organist. As this chapter is 30 pages long, I suggest that Yearsley’s detective work may be too exhaustive for a less-than-vital question.

Coffee-houses and their social importance and Anna Magdalena’s ten years of widowhood are both discussed in 40- to 50-page chapters respectively.While I admire Yearsley’s enthusiasm for his subject and his painstaking coverage of every angle which arises, I wonder how many readers will share his endless fascination. Also, speculation of this kind – ‘While we can only guess at’, ‘we might assume’ and ‘we can imagine’ – can and does lead to further digressions.

Many illustrations and music examples enhance this beautifully produced book. I hope that my small reservations will not deter those with an insatiable appetite for all aspects of Anna Magdalena’s life.

PHILIP BORG WHEELER Read the full review on Agora Classica

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