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John Ito

Looking for Bach

The mystery of the missing years

The world of Bach scholarship was rocked in the 1950s and early 1960s, when new research into the chronology of the Leipzig cantatas overturned the view of Bach that had prevailed since Philipp Spitta's monumental biography of 1873-1880. It had been believed that during Bach's 27-year tenure as cantor at the Thomasschule in Leipzig he had devoted himself primarily to the creation of sacred vocal music, writing around 150 cantatas, the St. John and St. Matthew Passions, the Christmas Oratorio, and the B Minor Mass. But the new research indicated that the vast majority of the cantatas and the two passions were all produced in a four-year period, from the middle of 1723 to the middle of 1727. These revelations had two main effects: they demanded reevaluation of the place of the sacred vocal music within Bach's oeuvre, and they raised the question of what had occupied Bach's energies in the final 23 years of his life.

Bach scholars frequently use seismic imagery when describing the new cantata chronology and its effects; Malcolm Boyd, in the preface to the original 1983 edition of his Bach, wrote that "the new Bach image … will not be seen clearly until the tremors set up by that earthquake have subsided." One might hope that in the intervening 20 years this new image would have been brought into clearer focus, and if anyone could be expected to do this it would be Christoph Wolff, dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Harvard University, and arguably also dean of current Bach scholars. Wolff's Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician is one of several books on Bach that appeared in commemoration of the 250th anniversary of his death, and it is the most substantial biography to appear since the crisis of the late '50s.

Readers coming to Wolff with hopes of finding this new image will therefore be surprised to read in the preface that his intent is "not so much to rewrite a full account of Bach's life and works as to update and adjust [Spitta's] image of Bach ...

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