Blogs Are Abuzz for Anna Magdalena Bach - Did She Compose the Cello Suites?

Close-up of title page to the first volume of Singende Müse an der Pleisse, a collection of strophic songs published in Leipzig in 1736, by “Sperontes”, Johann Sigismund Scholze. JS and Anna Magdalena Bach may be the couple pictured.Martin Jarvis decided, as a 19-year-old violist, that the famed cello suites didn’t sound like J.S. Bach.

“Certainly in the first suite, the movements are short and very simple, in comparison with the first movement of the violin works. And I couldn’t understand why,” he said. 

After years of forensic study, the conductor and professor at Darwin University finally discovered this alleged slam-dunk: a manuscript with the notation “Ecrite par Madame Bachen Son Epouse” which says “written by the wife of Bach” rather than “copied.”

We already knew of Anna Magdalena’s role as a copyist. Obviously neither that word, nor the recognizable handwriting of Anna Magdalena would cut it as proof given her known role as a copyist — but in news reports Dr. Jarvis mentions “18 reasons why they weren’t written by Bach.” (Specifics would be great.)

There are several mentions on blogs, but none provides additional detail or (yet) a good discussion beyond what’s in the most detailed Reuters article. Over at the Museum of Hoaxes, there’s a little more detail, with a mention of “a musicologist from Sweden who has used statistics to conclude the cello suites did not fit into Bach’s other works.” The Telegraph did find a Belfast Bach Scholar who described the findings as “highly important.” Unfortunately they also have some skeptical quotes from academic Stephen Rose and cellists Julian Lloyd Webber and Steven Isserlis:
Stephen Rose, a lecturer in music at Royal Holloway, University of London, said: “It is plausible that she corrected, refined and revised many of his compositions, although there is not enough evidence to show that she single-handedly composed the Cello Suites.”
Cellists who have performed the Suites extensively remained skeptical. Julian Lloyd Webber insisted that the compositions were “stylistically totally Bach” and that “many composers had appalling handwriting, which meant better copies would naturally have been made, with the originals then discarded”.
Steven Isserlis, the cellist, who is working on a recording of the Suites, said: “We can’t say that it is definitely not true, in the same way that we can’t prove that Anne Hathaway did not write some of Shakespeare’s work, but I don’t believe this to be a serious theory.”

  • Six Unaccompanied Cello Suites Arranged for Guitar Volume 1
    Six Unaccompanied Cello Suites Arranged for Guitar Volume 1
    Heartdance Music

  • Bach: The 6 Unaccompanied Cello Suites
    Bach: The 6 Unaccompanied Cello Suites
    Sony

    Yo-Yo Ma

Given that Anna Magdalena did serve as a copyist, it’s hard to imagine how a physical analysis of the manuscripts could prove her authorship — unless you could somehow place an original manuscript in a time and place where it literally couldn’t have been the work of Johann Sebastian. What’s really needed is a consensus among at least some Bach experts who are in a position to address whether the compositional technique and style of the suites might indicate Anna Magdalena’s role. Dr. Jarvis will be speaking at the New Zealand Forensic Science Society — not a peer-reviewed musical conference. (I could be misinterpreting the term forensic study here. Given that the details aren’t obviously accessible on the web, it could be what historians call manuscript studies — or it could branch out into some kind of scientific analysis of the musical choices reflected in the scores. The point is that no specific finding reported in the media comes close to justifying Dr. Jarvis’s thesis.)

According to his faculty profile, Dr. Jarvis presented on this topic at the 2002 Musicological Society Conference - Newcastle. His publications include:
  • “Did J S Bach Write the Cello Suites? Part 2 The Musical Analysis” Stringendo Australia 2003
  • “Did Johann Sebastian Write the Cello Suites?” Musical Opinion, UK, 2002
  • “Did J S Bach Write the Cello Suites? Part 1” Stringendo, Australia, 2002
  • “The Significance of Anna Magdalena Bach”, Musical Opinion July/Aug 2005

I haven’t been involved in musical academe for many years and am not in a position to determine how peer-reviewed these publications are, so my apologies in advance if I’m wrong. But Musical Opinion, at least, is a classical music magazine. Stringendo seems to be the newsletter of the Australian Strings Association.  Sadly, it’s not online so we can’t assess the 2003 musical analysis.

Perhaps the last doubt-casting word comes from Jarvis himself:

“It doesn’t sound musically mature. It sounds like an exercise, and you have to work incredibly hard to make it sound like a piece of music,” he said.

Yes, the suites are hard. I never really mastered the last three as an advanced (but not performing-career-bound) college-level cellist.  And while the first three lie beautifully under the fingers in the congenial keys of G major, D minor and C major, it’s challenging to do them justice.

But the reasons have nothing to do with musical flaws. The cellist plays alone and must manage the pacing and large-scale momentum independently. Pianists are accustomed to this, but the unaccompanied cello repertoire is quite small — and many student cellists face this challenge in these pieces alone. An even bigger challenge is bringing out the contrapuntal underpinnings of the music while playing a single line. My teachers spent countless hours explaining how and why to “bring out the base line” etc. and only after learning music theory did I truly understand.

Enjoy these free YouTube performances and decide for yourself. And a hat-tip to Dan Perry for bringing this story to my attention.