Johann Sebastian Bach: Life and Work ,
by Martin Geck,
Harcourt, 752 pages, $40

The collected works of Johann Sebastian Bach take up slightly more than six feet of shelf space and, according to the list on ArkivMusic.com, are represented by almost five thousand recordings commercially available. (Only Mozart has more.)

Add to this music all the nonmusical archival material and the near mountain of secondary materials on Bach and you have a continent of data that must daunt the most intrepid biographer. But Martin Geck, now nearing the end of his career at the University of Dortmund, doesn’t seem intimidated by Herculean tasks. Having begun his career overseeing the publication of Wagner’s complete works, he has gone on to create his own mountain of scholarship on German music. In the past sixteen years, he has published scholarly examinations of Beethoven’s Eroica symphony and Bach’s St. John Passion ; a history of music between Beethoven and Mahler; a separate study of mid-nineteenth-century German romanticism; a collective biography of four of Bach’s sons; and major biographies of Beethoven, Wagner, and Mozart. It’s hard to think of a music historian of any generation who has written more.

But sometimes more is too much. On every page of his seven-hundred-page Johann Sebastian Bach , Geck’s heroic scholarship is in evidence but so too are excessive details on minor topics, incomprehensible sentences, psychological speculation, and a convoluted construction that whiplashes the reader between events, topics, and even centuries-and all of this in a translation that with generosity can be called lumpish.

Geck divides his work into four sections. He opens with a basic biography called “The Stations of Bach’s Life” (the liturgical reference is deliberate, as Geck sees Bach’s life as a kind of Via Dolorosa). Then he moves to a section on the vocal music and another section on the instrumental works. Geck closes with five somewhat independent essays on Bach’s art, theology, and scholarly reception.

Much of the work is peerless. Other biographers have placed Bach as a synthesizer of various national styles, the cul-de-sac of Reformation music, or the artistic antipode of that other great figure of the age, Isaac Newton. Geck’s Bach, and in particular the Bach of the late instrumental works, is instead the conduit through which the primarily text-based aesthetic of the Baroque is transferred to the motive-based music of later centuries. Thus Bach not only becomes the culmination of the music of his predecessors but also the source for the compositional aesthetic of composers all the way down to Mahler (and perhaps even later). This is an original insight-or at least an original way of putting the matter-and I suspect it will prove to be foundational for future views of the composer. Further, Geck’s suggestion that stylistic differences in Bach’s Leipzig cantatas were colored by the larger sociological desires of a bourgeoisie wishing to enjoy the full range of musical entertainments available to the aristocracy is intriguing and may prove to be persuasive.

Better than anyone else, Geck describes the relations between Bach and the officialdom of Leipzig, where Bach served as cantor for the last twenty-seven years of his life. The squabbles between the cantor and his superiors, both secular and clerical, are well known, but Geck’s biographical detail of specific Leipzig residents gives a vividness to these clashes. Kings, dukes, burghers, copyists, pastors, poets, cousins, lawyers, friends, and rivals march through Geck’s account to create a vibrant picture of the great university city during one of its internationally known fairs. What emerges from this picture is as nuanced and vivid a portrait of Bach as we’ve ever been given. Bach is amazingly industrious, callously overworked, venerated by connoisseurs, desired as a teacher, devoted to his sons (there is almost nothing known about his relationship with his daughters), publicly hot-tempered, professionally ambitious, entrepreneurial, and religiously devout.

The “religiously devout” is important, for Geck puts to death the notion, prominent from the early 1960s through the 1980s, that correct dating of Bach’s cantata production proves that his interest in writing liturgical music was a professional obligation only and that Bach had no abiding commitment to the religious texts he was paid to set. Geck writes that Bach composed for many reasons, but his fundamental purpose was devotional. In his chapter on “Bach’s Art,” Geck concludes that “Bach stands at the center of Western musical thought . . . . Unlike Beethoven’s, Bach’s music has no need to seek justification within itself: it’s based in faith. There is no impassioned, worldly ego but a deeply grounded spiritual self: vulnerable perhaps, but unshakable.”

For all its strengths, Geck’s work remains a problem for readers. It is bizarre for Geck to write that a riddle canon Bach inscribed in a family album “is the only direct testimony we have of Bach’s faith in Christ.” One would think that things like going to confession and taking Communion might count, too.

Other reviewers have commented on minor errors such as occasionally transposed numbers in dates. What is more difficult to understand are passages like this about the opening chorus of the St. Matthew Passion: “Bach does not repeat the pedal point of the orchestral prelude at the choral entry; now it must yield to the ritornello theme, which moves from the woodwinds to the basses and then the tenors, while the soprano and alto in turn begin a soaring lament, with melismata sometimes extending over six bars.” But Bach does repeat the pedal point at the entrance of the choruses, and at that point the ritornello theme does not move from the woodwinds to the basses, but instead the basses restate the thematic material Bach introduced at the movement’s beginning.

Similarly, in the “Eli, Eli” passage the figured bass numbers between the Aramaic and German statements are not identical, as Geck asserts. (The transposition is exact but the numbers differ by one figure.) And again, in the St. Matthew Passion , just because other composers use strings to accompany much of Jesus’ words doesn’t mean that the notion of a musical “halo” surrounding these texts can be summarily dismissed. Both Geck’s reading of scores and his pronouncements need to be used with a bit of caution.

And while Geck’s efforts at contextualizing Bach’s work are admirable, they are oddly ill proportioned. Do we really need to know the menu Bach might have had on May 3, 1716, in Halle? Why is this (and other trivia) included when Geck fails to provide a discussion about the causes for the dissonance pietism created within Lutheranism? (He even seems at one point to think pietism represented a confession separate from Lutheranism.) Consider, too, eighteenth-century Central European politics, in which most readers are not well versed. A few simple sentences explaining why the court in Dresden was Catholic while Saxony was Lutheran (because in 1697 the elector of Saxony, Friedrich August, opportunistically converted to Catholicism in order to be elected king of Poland), the differences between Calvinist and Lutheran realms, why Leipzig was a commercial center, and other such matters would have been helpful.

Particularly bothersome is Geck’s insistence on narrating Bach’s life in the present tense. Constantly annoying, it becomes openly confusing when he leaps from eighteenth-century Bach to modern discussions of Bach to predecessors of Bach back to Bach. And, on more than one occasion, we find passages like this: “Yet Bach’s arrival in Leipzig marks a shift in the view of musical art that has been coming for some time but is brought to a head by his understanding of the art, according to which the composer no longer builds on prearranged understandings but operates within the complicated dialectical relation between socially agreed-upon standards and artistic autonomy.” Thorny though that is, I think I can slug my way through it. I’m completely at a loss, however, as to what this means: “In Bach, the universalism of the Middle Ages and the baroque merges in modern idealism.” What medieval “universalism”? Ockham and Aquinas? The modern idealism of Marx? Schöpenhauer?

Perhaps this kind of gibberish can be blamed on the translator. The translation certainly stumbles. Dresden’s Frauenkirche , like Zurich’s Grossmünster and Notre Dame in Paris, is generally not translated. There is a difference between Catholic and catholic (and a rather important one to Catholics and catholics). “Piano” ought not be confused with “clavier” or “Klavier,” and on and on.

Johann Sebastian Bach: Life and Work contains much to admire, and the literature on Bach is deeply enriched with its publication. And perhaps reviewers’ criticisms come from the company Geck keeps-for we somehow expect the biography to be as perfect as the music by the man it describes. Of course, it isn’t. What could be?

Michael Linton is head of the Division of Music Theory and Composition at Middle Tennessee State University.