Troppo Grosso

Harmony and Discord: The Real Life of Johann Sebastian Bach by Julian Shuckburgh

Books History Music
Bach, aged 35, by Johann (1720)

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. 

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?” 

While sympathising with the biographer’s predicament, clearly some restraint is needed. I do not call for a blanket ban on unsubstantiated insight, but maybe a little control. If it were known, for instance, that Bach loved sausage and that a well-wisher had sent him a fresh one, perhaps it would be fair to describe him as “delighted” or even “excited” on receiving it. But what is our ruling, on, say, the following? 

[The newly-wed Bachs were poor but] “Maria Barbara was keen to start having children. No contraceptives then existed, and their only way of postponing her getting pregnant-which she did five months later, in April 1708-was through what we might now call ‘natural family planning’, which required tough restrictions on their intercourse. But Sebastian had the will-power to impose them.” 

What Shuckburgh does not reveal is that he has spun the above scenario from just two scant scraps of source material, being a) that Bach married on 17 October 1707, and b) that his first child was baptised on 29 December 1708. Now whether Maria Barbara really was keen to start having children we do not actually know, nor do we know if the conception of baby Bach took place in April or in March or how close was the birth to the baptism, or whether there might have been reasons other than her husband’s will — power that could have caused the delay — sexual reticence or ill-health, inability to conceive for instance?

One might also add that six not five months would have elapsed if the pregnancy started in April and that contraceptives did exist in Germany in the early 18th century, although they were not very effective. The most common method involved a sponge soaked in schnapps. In any case, nothing along these lines is suggested. The reader is simply told, as historical information, that Maria Barbara’s eagerness to conceive was pitted against Johann Sebastian’s tough imposition of sexual restraint. 

This “filling-in” or “fleshing-out” technique strikes me as both brave and reckless. But if Shuckburgh’s historicity is not rigorous enough for my taste, I can nevertheless recommend his book as an engaging, populist introduction to the subject and enthusiastically draw attention to its open-hearted tone — a quality in which all other Bach biographies are noticeably lacking. His writing is never dull and his excitement about Bach’s music — particularly seldom-performed rarer gems — is intriguing and palpable. He never lapses into thoughtless idolatry. Bach emerges from his pages as more truculent, obstinate and arrogant than elsewhere. 

Here, at last, is a sensitive musician (Shuckburgh sings in the Bach Choir) able to admit that Bach was “neither a perfectionist nor a full-time genius” and that although much of his music is “superb and masterly” a lot of it is also “boring or troublesome or over-complex.” Now why has that always been so hard to say?