What the media doesn’t tell you: J S Bach and issues with attribution

Mr-and-mrs-Bach_3085632b

J S Bach’s most famous works were in fact composed by his wife. Or so one academic says.

Martin Jarvis, a professor at the Charles Darwin University in Australia, has released a documentary entitled Written by Mrs Bach, which claims that Bach’s best loved pieces, including his Six Suites for Cello, the Aria from the Goldberg Variations and the first prelude from the Well Tempered Clavier were composed by his second wife, Anna Magdalena.

Despite the fact that these claims are about a decade old, the release of the documentary has caused the story to hit national newspapers across the world – from Alex Ross’ calm and intellectual dissection of the claims in the New Yorker to the unashamedly sensationalist headlines that believe this may “put a bomb at the heart of the Western musical tradition,” (Telegraph).

But how true are these claims? And what does this mean for Bach and Early Music specialists across the world?

Steven Devine

Steven Devine. Photo credit: John Buckman

Well, not a lot actually, according to Steven Devine and John Irving, two of Trinity Laban’s early music specialists. The two will be holding a lecture recital on Thursday in the beautiful Baroque setting of the Old Royal Naval College, in which they will discuss the performance issues surrounding the Goldberg Variations.

Steven says: “The key thing to remember is that the 18th century musicians were very collaborative. If you look at the Bach household there was him, his wife and their eleven children, all of whom were musicians. Bach is composing with the white hot speed of inspiration and he needs to get the parts ready for band rehearsal on Sunday morning. So of course, there’s a lot of his music in Anna Magdalena’s hand. Bach needed to turn out a vast amount of music just to make ends meet, so it had to be a family business – all hands on deck, so to speak.”

John adds: “Bach is one of the most significant composers in the western musical canon ever, and I think we quite enjoy having canons upset. Many of the top Bach scholars have undermined these claims more than once. We are now pretty experienced in terms of establishing systems of value and patterns of influence. We know how to validate those claims and at the same time how easy it is to make a claim without there being evidence beneath it. Sadly, this story is an example of the latter.

“One claim that’s been said in the papers, which is very difficult to substantiate, is that the particular marks on the page are claimed by Jarvis to have been made in such a way that there’s a creative element. He doesn’t say how you might recognise, how you might assess the criteria of a creative mark as opposed to a copying mark. There’s no evidence given of any method of adding notes creatively to a page.”

So it seems, then, that these claims don’t have any real truth behind them. However, it does bring up one important question: in a world where ambiguities are prevalent in music as old as Bach’s, what do performers have to do to fully realise the composer’s intentions?

John says: “The key fact to bear in mind is that whatever you interpret, you’re still ultimately communicating to the audience. What you need to understand is the notation. Sometimes that’s notation in a musical sense but also what the piece is seeking to represent – the affekt [emotional state].

John Irving

John Irving

“Other things are important too though. Finding out about original early performance settings, its early publication and reception history and knowing about the instruments of the time. Understanding the sound world gives us clues into how to interpret the piece.”

Steven adds: “A lot of publishing houses take the view that by amalgamating all the sources you can come up with a best version of everything – an ideal version. But I don’t think that’s appropriate. I think the best thing to do is take the sources into account for that performance, find the closest we have to an autograph and then use our musical understanding, musicality and knowledge of the period.

“The score is a skeleton in some ways. Sometimes you hear people playing everything that is on the page. All Baroque music is a dance form – you’ve still got to find the rhythmic centre so that you can see how the composer has hung the music on that framework, as well as perform things that aren’t written down but expected.”

It appears that as a performer there’s a fine balance between theoretical research and practical interpretation. The key thing to remember about Baroque music, though, is that it’s a fresh, live and spontaneous style and textual research should inform interpretation rather than detract from it.

As for Jarvis’ claims of misattribution, one argument could be that if it wasn’t for the attribution to Bach, then the pieces would have most likely been lost. What hasn’t changed is the content of the music, which still stands as one of the most celebrated works.

Steven Devine and John Irving will discuss issues such as these on J S Bach’s Goldberg Variations on Thursday 13 November as part of the Royal Greenwich International Early Music Festival and Exhibition. The two will look at the structure of the work, how and why the variations were put together, interesting features, and performance practices in a special lecture recital at Trinity Laban’s Faculty of Music building, King Charles Court in Greenwich. For more information and to book tickets, click here.

Heather Stephenson

Marketing and PR Intern

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s