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Tillabooks: Will's Book Blog

Sunday, June 18, 2006

The True Life of J.S. Bach by Klaus Eidam

The True Life of Johann Sebastian Bach by Klaus Eidam. Translated from the German by Hoyt Rogers. New York: Basic Books, 2001. ISBN: 0-465-01861-0 (Originally published in German as Das wahre Leben des Johann Sebastian Bach, 1999.)

An apologist, according to Webster, is “one who speaks or writes in defense of a faith, a cause, or an institution.” By now, Bach is, I suppose an institution. At any rate, this book is more an apologia than it is a biography. I had hoped for more when I picked it up, per usual, at my local library.

In the introduction, Eidam says, through the words of his translator, “Bach spent twenty-seven years—the principal period of his life and creativity—in Leipzig, yet it is doubtful whether any of his biographers since Philipp Spitta—that is, for the last 120 years—has ever taken a look at the Leipzig city council records again. What Spitta did not read, none of his successors was able to copy down from him. At least in the last thirty or forty years, these fundamentally important sources for Bach's life story and circumstances have—demonstrably—never been reexamined. It is indisputable that Bach researchers have shown themselves to be interested in this man's life only in the most superficial manner.”

From that comment alone, one is certainly justified in hoping for some truly new insights into Bach's life. Unfortunately, that hope is not fulfilled. Essentially, the purpose of this book seems to be to go through Bach's life as portrayed by previous authors, ferret out every negative comment, whether about Bach's music or his personal and public life, anything critical said about him in any context whatever, and repudiate it.

In the eyes of Eidam, Bach could do no wrong. Every event in which others have cast aspersions upon Bach is reinterpreted in the most positive light possible. There is nothing wrong with this approach, were it only supported by documentary evidence. But no, what we have in practically every case is nothing more than a different opinion on how the facts should be interpreted.

In most cases, there are no persuasive reasons given as to why we should accept Eidam's interpretation over anyone else's, other than the fact that he says so. Where's the documentary evidence we were promised? Not really there. It's all just a matter of opinion. And Eidam's opinions are universally positive, at least where Bach is concerned.

This book will be of interest to organists and other musicians who worship at the altar of the great god, Bach, but don't expect any convincing or documented alternate views of the great master's life.


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