The problem faced by every Bach biographer is that the composer's life was neither particularly interesting nor is it very well documented. Bach's movements may be traced from Eisenach, in central Germany, where he was born in 1685, to school at Lüneberg and to various church or court appointments in Weimar, Arnstadt, Mülhausen, Cöthen and Leipzig. We know that he was orphaned early and brought up by one of his brothers, that he was twice married, had many children and that he supplemented his income by teaching, mending harpsichords and playing church organs.
From catalogues of his compositions, we can deduce that he was exceptionally industrious. A few letters survive, mainly of a business nature, as well as a handful of court and public records detailing appointments and minor disputes. His professional reputation, as far as he had one, was confined within a small group of neighbouring German states, where he was admired mainly as a virtuoso keyboard player.
Practically none of his music was printed in his lifetime. Only two authenticated contemporary portraits exist (one being a copy of the other) and hardly a paragraph survives by way of testament to his character. The first biography was not published until 50 years after his death.
So what is there new to be said about Bach? Julian Shuckburgh does not claim to have unearthed much by way of fresh historical evidence, but argues for his book's place on the shelf as a re-evaluation of existing material. All previous biographies, he says, have been written in "academic and musicological style", inclining to hagiography. A "real life of Bach", however, should (if I understand his point correctly) resist the traditional temptation to represent the composer as a saintly, undervalued genius and instead weigh the evidence more instinctively and with more equivocation. This method, which may well result in a more readable book, is nevertheless laden with risk.
Bach, aged 35, by Johann (1720)
Much of Shuckburgh's re-evaluation of evidence involves speculative and unsubstantiated insight, which would sit more comfortably between the covers of a historical novel. Here are some examples:
[Of Bach's move to Cöthen]: "None of his students had followed him to Cöthen-but no doubt he could recruit new ones. He was determined to take an optimistic view of his new post, working for a young prince who was extremely keen on music, and who was paying him quite generously."
[On fatherhood]: "Sebastian, aged only 23, was now a father, and his mind was filled with pride and satisfaction at the way he had achieved a secure and stable life reminiscent of his early years in Eisenbach."
[Following a list of godparents for Bach's new baby]: "What an exciting moment, what an honour! Who could ask for grander godparents than these, or more opportunity for social climbing?"