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...I'll get my one major quibble out of the way immediately - you'll only get the best out of it if you have some musical knowledge, and I have only a little. Without some comprehension of his or her art, the life of a great artist, especially one untainted by scandals or crises, is in danger of becoming just a procession of dates, names and places. The whole appeal of J.S. Bach is bound up in his extraordinary musicianship, first as virtuoso keyboard player, then as composer of many different forms. It seems to me that, if you don't grasp this extraordinary art, you don't really grasp Bach.
Professor Wolff naturally grasps it. He is a professor of music and director of the Bach-Archiv in Leipzig. He speaks learnedly and enthusiastically of "ritornellos" and the "Oberwerk" and "Brustpositiv" of an organ and the daring dissonance in BWV38 as a result of a third-inversion dominant-seventh chord, while the musically uneducated among us (such as myself) wonder, "What's THAT?" And of course his musical examples at the end are lost on us. Professor Wolff has sought to bring Johann Sebastian Bach to us, and has succeeded very well, but he is handicapped not by his inabilities, but by ours.
Nevertheless, I think he could have done slightly better for those of us who love Bach but who lack his musical erudition - perhaps a glossary of the musical terms used therein, even a rudimentary explanation of some of the technicalities behind this extraordinary music, would have helped the reader (this one anyway) feel less at sea in parts. OK, this is not a "baroque music for dummies" book, but such additions would have helped.
Shorn of musical technicalities, what's left, even for the ignorant, is the story of an extraordinary talent emerging from a family of musicians (there were so many of them that, in Thuringia, people commonly referred to a musician as a "bach"). It follows Sebastian Bach, tragically orphaned at 9, as he develops not only formidable keyboard technique but also outstanding compositional skills, ever keen to develop his art, never afraid to learn from others and from other countries (the famous trip to see and hear Buxtehude, where he was given release for four weeks and stayed for four months, is an example). It follows his ever-upwards trail from Lüneburg to Arnstadt to Weimar to Cöthen, and finally to Leipzig. Professor Wolff's profound research illuminates a world very different from ours, right down to salaries and expenses typical for the 18th century.
I confess to having thought of Bach as an obscure figure in German country churches and small local courts, and perhaps even a bit of a musical fuddy-duddy. Professor Wolff makes it clear that, not only were Bach's extraordinary abilities indeed widely appreciated at the time, but also that he was a daring musical innovator. However, it seems to me that here there arises an odd disconnect. Brilliant, widely-appreciated musician he was, but his style fell completely out of fashion after his death, and by the time the young Felix Mendelssohn resurrected the St. Matthew Passion in Leipzig, the only memory left of Bach was that of a great organist.
Why were Bach's compositions so completely forgotten for so long among the general public? One explanation was Albert Schweitzer's; Bach represented the apotheosis of contrapuntal composition - Bach had said everything there was to say, so music changed. Another was that the idea was that music was improving all the time, and that old stuff was irrelevant and unworthy of attention. I would have liked Professor Wolff's take on this.
One of the sad aspects of this account is the indication of just how much of Bach's output has been tragically lost, largely because of the way the estate was split up after his death among his various offspring - Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach was a careful custodian of his father's work, Wilhelm Friedemann Bach was not. For a cantata lover such as myself, his lists of the five annual cantata cycles and just how much of them we no longer have are especially saddening, but I guess we have to see the glass as half-full rather than half-empty.
In summary, apart from the minor problems for the musically uneducated, Professor Wolff has done us all a great service by making the great cantor of Leipzig so much more accessible, and enjoyably so.