The True Life of J.S. Bach
By Klaus Eidam , translated by Hoyt Rogers
Basic. 432 pp. $35

Nicht Bach, sondern Meer sein! Beethoven’s famous pun on Johann Sebastian Bach’s last name (“not a Brook, but rather an Ocean!”) is perhaps the most eloquent summary of the Saxon composer’s importance to music. He was widely regarded as the greatest keyboard artist of his age, and his compositions, although not as well known, were deeply respected by his musical peers. His sons (and his students) were the greatest composers of the succeeding generation, serving courts in Hamburg, Berlin, and London. Mozart, who probably never before had been confronted with a genius equal to his own, was stunned into silence when he came across Bach’s motets during a visit to Leipzig. As a boy Beethoven was instructed out of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier , and Chopin began his day with devotional playings of those same preludes and fugues. Mendelssohn’s earliest string symphonies were elegies to Bach, and Brahms devoted much of his career to the task of editing the first complete collection of Bach’s compositions.

Even Wagner, perhaps temperamentally the antithesis of Bach, paid him tribute in the polyphony that forms the foundation for Die Meistersinger . Today, pianists all over the world begin their studies with the two-part “inventions” Bach wrote as teaching pieces for his children. His hymn harmonizations provide the basis for the study of traditional harmony in music schools and conservatories. Such pieces as the Well-Tempered Clavier ’s C Major Prelude and the Air on a G String stand as deeply loved works by the general public, and his Art of the Fugue and Goldberg Variations are seen universally as the summits of musical intelligence by connoisseurs. Beethoven was right. Bach’s significance is oceanic.

Perhaps because of this, biographers have disagreed widely as to the essential significance of his work. In the nineteenth century he was hailed as the champion of German music (which meant polyphonic music, as opposed to the supposedly decadent lyrical traditions of the Italians). In the past century he was called the “fifth evangelist” by some Christians, while other critics (particularly East Germans) argued that he was a man of the Enlightenment who wrote what he was paid to write and owed his allegiance only to the Art of Music. Christoph Wolff’s recent biography presents the composer as a “most learned musician,” which is to say a man very much like Professor Wolff himself.

Now Klaus Eidam comes along and gives us The True Life of J. S. Bach . Mr. Eidam is an amateur musician but a professional television producer and a theater director in Germany. His enthusiasm for Bach’s music is matched by his disdain for previous biographers and professional musicology in general. Because past writers have not paid sufficient attention to some primary (although tangential) sources, Eidam claims that their accounts of Bach’s life are inaccurate and even fundamentally misleading. Eidam’s “true” Bach is a man dedicated to his art, a Christian throughout his life, though of the undogmatic kind, and a bit of a calculating social climber. (And despite what some readers might be led to believe from the title, no accounts of out-of-wedlock children or lists of mistresses appear in the book.)

Eidam does bring to the surface interesting details in Bach’s life, such as the fire that destroyed half of the city of Muehlhausen only weeks before Bach’s arrival there in May of 1707, creating such chaos that the town council had some trouble finding pen and ink with which to sign Bach’s contract. He is also good at reporting unsubstantiated eighteenth-century gossip, which always makes for entertaining reading. As to his complaints about previous biographers, they are often well founded, but most of them have been known and widely discussed for several generations. His continual hounding of Phillip Spitta (who wrote in 1880) and Albert Schweitzer (whose Bach biography was published in 1905) is unnecessary.

Indeed, Eidam’s own work is deeply marred both by errors in fact and profound misunderstandings. Let one sentence stand as an example for many. “The Pietists professed the doctrine of the Swiss theologian Calvin, and a half century later Voltaire could still only dare to settle on the outermost fringe of Switzerland because he was not a Calvinist.” Most of the Pietists were not Reformed but Lutherans, Calvin was French and not Swiss, and when Voltaire lived in Geneva (which did not become a part of the Swiss Confederation until 1815) it was very much a Calvinist state.

Errors such as these (and there are many of them) are annoying but usually insignificant to Eidam’s picture of the composer. Much more problematic is his ridiculing of much recent research by musicologists that has revealed the depth of Bach’s musical thought and its effect on the actual structure and purpose of his music. Let me give one example of the kind of analysis Eidam disdains but which, had he made use of it, would have deepened his portrayal of his subject.

Bach wrote a setting of the Magnificat for Christmas Vespers in 1723. It was one of the first large-scale compositions he wrote after moving to Leipzig the previous year, a list of works that would culminate in the St. Matthew Passion and the B Minor Mass . The Magnificat is divided into twelve movements. “ Fecit potentiam ,” the seventh, is a setting of Luke 1:51. Here Bach begins with a florid choral and orchestral texture not unlike a concerto grosso, moves into a brief fugue, but ends with a surprising chordal setting in which the entire chorus sings the same text at the same time: “ mente cordis sui ” (“by the imagination of their hearts”). This is the only place in the whole work where Bach does this. Although this kind of compositional strategy is typical of Handel (it happens frequently in his Messiah ), it is an unusual one for Bach. And not only is the compositional technique unusual, the choice to so dramatically heighten these words and no others in the Magnificat seems odd. Why, then, did Bach do it?

The reason becomes clear upon reading the epilogue Luther appended to his commentary on the Magnificat. Writing to the somewhat dissolute son of the Elector of Saxony, Luther commends to his grace the Magnificat and in particular its fifth and six verses, for there is nothing to fear on earth, he wrote, “not even hell itself, so much as that which the Mother of God there calls ‘the imagination of their hearts.’” For Luther, those very words, “ mente cordis sui ,” were the summary of the whole text. At least that’s what he wanted the Prince to remember. Bach apparently owned nearly three complete sets of Luther’s works (they are mentioned in the inventory of his estate). It is highly probable that Bach’s unusual setting of these words is the direct result of his reading of Luther’s commentary. Any other explanation is unconvincing.

This detail is helpful to keep in mind, for it testifies to the fact that Bach’s music frequently is full of intelligent and meaningful design, even on the smallest scale. Such observations throw light on the composer’s character, demonstrating the many-layered care he took with his compositions, a care that he must have known would pass largely unrecognized by many of his listeners.

Unfortunately, Eidam’s inability to recognize the usefulness of this kind of study of Bach’s works weakens his picture of Bach, both as an artist and as a man. (Though, to his credit, he avoids the kind of postmortem psychoanalysis that has marred recent biographies of Mozart and Beethoven.) In the end, no amount of complaint about previous writers or retelling of two-hundred-year-old gossip can adequately substitute for what the art itself tells us about the artist.

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