- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 5, 2001

THE TRUE LIFE OF JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH

By Klaus Eidam

Basic, $35, 413 pages, illus.

REVIEWED BY ANNE VEIGLE

Tackling a project as large as a biography of Johann Sebastian Bach takes great courage and impeccable scholarship. One must confront over 250 years of academic studies and historical biographies on the great baroque genius, whose music still intrigues modern audiences. Many of these biographies have missed the mark, according to Klaus Eidam, who has just written his own, "The True Life of Johann Sebastian Bach." This lively volume draws on new information about Bach's life from records unearthed in the cities where the composer lived. Using these records, Mr. Eidam puts Bach's life into proper historical context.
Mr. Eidam, a practicing organist who lives in Munich, expresses some strong opinions. He spends many paragraphs upbraiding other Bach biographers for creating false impressions of the composer's life. In one instance, Mr. Eidam blasts a biographer for having a "complete lack of judgment." Other jabs display the author's impatience with improper scholarship. Readers who are not intimately familiar with other Bach biographers may have difficulty following Mr. Eidam's slings and arrows. But once past the academic squabbling, they will discover a work of immense clarity and logical structure. This book is accessible to anyone with more than a passing interest in the composer; one need not possess an in-depth understanding of music or Bach scholarship to enjoy it.
Mr. Eidam provides a balance of information about the composer's life and an overview of his major compositions. His book progresses chronologically, from Bach's time as a child in Eisenach to his final years in Leipzig. Each of the composer's appointments is described within the historical context of the time, and one comes to understand how musicians made their living in the 18th century.
Bach spent the majority of his career in Leipzig. It is here that Mr. Eidam discovered some previously unexamined city council records that describe the hostile conditions Bach faced when serving as choirmaster of St. Thomas School.The records show that his employers were quite unhappy with the composer during the 27 years he lived there. They complained that Bach shirked his duties at the school, which included teaching students Latin as well as preparing church music. At one point, they cut Bach's salary as punishment for his transgressions.
"Leafing through the council records, we will search in vain for a man who was grumbled about so often and so unanimously by its members," Mr. Eidam writes. According to the records, one council member declared: "The choirmaster does nothing."
The clash with council members continued throughout Bach's life in Leipzig and caused him deep frustration and disappointment. His battle with the authorities centered on his inability to gain access to good musicians who could perform the masterpieces he created. In many cases he was forced to use singers who could not sing on pitch. But then he would be criticized for producing off-key performances. In many ways, he was the wrong man for the job. The council would have been satisfied with mediocre music. But Bach's passion and genius led him to create works far beyond the ability of church authorities to understand.
An outstanding example is the "St. Matthew Passion," which was first performed on Good Friday of 1729. To church authorities, this magnificent work was much too long and overly dramatic. Furthermore, it violated Bach's employment contract, which required him to write music that "should not last too long nor sound too operatic." Sadly, he never grasped that the Leipzig authorities had no ability to understand his music. Mr. Eidam writes:
"For Bach, to whom music was the entire purpose of his life, it was simply incomprehensible — indeed, it was not even conceivable — that the Leipzig authorities should have as little understanding of his music as of a sermon in Chinese. He thought that if he only preached loudly enough they would get the message all the same."
Some biographers blame Bach for failing to get along with his employers. Mr. Eidam's biography shows a more complex picture. The author does an excellent job explaining the roles and responsibilities of a musician during Bach's lifetime, which helps explain why he ultimately became trapped in employer-related conflicts:
"He did not take into account that they not only understood nothing whatsoever about music but did not care to understand it. All they wanted was an obedient employee, a teacher of Latin and music who furnished the essentials at worship services or funerals, weddings, and the like, and who did not make further demands of any kind. They wanted an employee who was content with what he accumulated in income on the side, and with the musical resources at his disposal, just as they were, without any improvements."
For Bach, this was impossible. He was a musician and music was the entire meaning of his life. And on a practical level, he could not afford to walk off the job. He had a large family to support and there were few alternatives for musicians in those days. Ironically, some of Bach's lesser known contemporaries fared better during his lifetime. For example, Bach applied for a position in Hamburg but lost out to another organist —Johann Joachim Heitmann — because he could not pay the fee to the church that was customary upon obtaining such a post.
Unlike some biographies, the book conveys a deep love and respect for Bach without degenerating into obsequious homage. It assumes that Bach, in being true to the nature of his genius, did the best he could in trying circumstances where he was surrounded by bureaucratic minds with no love or understanding of music. Throughout his life, Bach steered a careful course between competing religious interests, which often pitted one church against another. The crux of his aspirations and his purpose in life was not the church, Mr. Eidam says. It was music.
"The practice of his music was a matter of deep belief to Bach, and he believed in its defense just as deeply," Mr. Eidam writes. "For Bach, the deeper objective was always more important than his person, and that objective — music and its divine mission among humankind — was sacred to him."

Anne Veigle is a writer and pianist who lives in the Washington area.

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