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Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Two steps forward, one step Bach

(Apologies to the audience for the horrible pun in this post's title. The parties responsible have been sacked.)

Lynn Sislo reports something of a shocker for the classical music world: a number of works that have for centuries been attributed to Johann Sebastian Bach may actually have been composed by Anna Magdalena Bach, Johann Sebastian's second wife.

My reaction is that, to a certain extent, I don't care.

Even if it can be conclusively established that the Suites for Unaccompanied Cello were not composed by Johann Sebastian Bach, it still in no way diminishes the works themselves: they are still miraculous. The music has stood the test of time, and I don't think that a change in attributed composership would impact the music at all.

But as for the historical record, at this point the idea that we've been crediting the wrong Bach for three hundred years certainly constitutes an extraordinary claim, and in the immortal words of Carl Sagan, "Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence." I'm going to need to see a lot more evidence before I'll accept this idea.

To cite, as the article does, a mere stylistic difference in the Cello Suites from the rest of J.S. Bach's oeuvre establishes nothing, really, in itself, aside from a possible grounds for speculation. What's needed here is an autograph manuscript of the works in Bach's hand; or, failing that (since such a thing would not have existed if Anna Magdalena Bach had written the works), some kind of documentary evidence, in the form of a letter or a journal entry, in Bach's hand firmly establishing Anna Magdalena's compositions.

Likewise, I don't think that forensic analysis of the handwriting yields anything more than possible grounds for speculation. I can imagine any number of circumstances in Bach's life that would have explained the presence of Anna Magdalena before she became his wife. I just don't see any extraordinary evidence here, as yet.

But, just for a moment, suppose there was some extraordinary evidence that firmly established Anna Magdalena Bach as the composer of some of those great works.

Firstly, we're talking about J.S. Bach here. If we strike, say, one quarter of his most famous works from his oeuvre, the man was so prolific that we'd still be talking about one of the towering geniuses in all of classical music. Unless the "extraordinary evidence" took the form of a diary confession by Johann Sebastian -- "I have poison'd her, and all her divers works shall be mine forever! Haaa ha ha ha ha!", or something similarly nefarious-sounding -- I don't think it would diminish Bach that much. It might establish Johann Sebastian and Anna Magdalena as one of the great musical marriages, right up there with Robert and Clara Schumann. And it also might illustrate something about the role of women in classical music.

The fact is that the story of classical music is almost entirely a story of white men. Yes, there were important figures in classical music who were not white or male, but they were very infrequent. Obviously this is because women in classical music were usually steered toward performing roles as opposed to composition, and in music history, composition is where it's at. I've never been sure exactly about the fairness of that aspect of it, but there it is.

A question that often arises in classical music discussions is, "If Mozart came along today, would be recognize him?" And that's an interesting question, but it seems to me that since women were so frequently steered away from musical composition for whatever reasons, effectively fifty percent of the population was ruled out of composing. How many Mozarts have we missed, by the fact that women were pushed to the sidelines or onto the stages, as opposed to the composers' desks?

When I was in college, the woman who conducted our orchestra and taught music history was something of a feminist. I never found her terribly annoying about it; it was more that the role of women in classical music was a particular area of scholarly interest for her, as opposed to the focus of her being. One of our orchestra concerts was comprised of works by woman composers, and it was a pretty good concert -- all works worthy of being heard. And when I took music history from her, there were a couple of lectures on the topic, but nothing really rabid.

Some of my fellow students didn't see her this way, of course; it was a fairly conservative campus, and a lot of times, merely broaching the topic of women's roles in history drew a heavenward rolling of the eyes. When the prof handed out a list of suggested topics for papers, there were a handful of topics involving women in music; one of my classmates went through the list and circled all of these, marking them as "femme topics", whatever the hell that meant. And one guy who took the course a year previously warned those of us at the start of the semester thusly: "If a woman didn't compose it, we didn't study it." Well, unless the prof completely recasted her syllabus in the summertime, I don't see that as likely, especially since the textbook -- Grout and Palisca's History of Western Music, hardly a tome of feminist scholarship -- was the same for both years.

Hell, I don't know what point I'm trying to make here, except to note that as of now I find it highly unlikely that this conjecture about Anna Magdalena Bach is ever likely to rise beyond conjecture; but also to note that if it did rise to a level higher than conjecture, it wouldn't be terribly damaging to music.

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