By Bach Or Not By Bach: That's (Not) The Question

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Related Class
Life and Works of Bach
Begins September 19
Downtown Chicago

The first session of my fall Bach class will feature three works whose authorship has been disputed.  The “Capriccio on the Departure of a Beloved Brother”, the Toccata and Fugue in d minor, BWV 565, and Cantata Nr. 150, “For You, O Lord, I Long” have all provoked questions of authenticity.  I personally think all three are by Bach, and it appears there is now a consensus in the case of the capriccio.

All three are excellent pieces-the capriccio is full of playful charm, the toccata is superbly dramatic (although the fugue is relatively mediocre), and the cantata was good enough to inspire the passacaglia bass of Brahms’ Fourth Symphony.

Lovers of classical music anecdotes want all the pieces to be by Bach, because of the fun of speculating on the “stranger maiden”; a soprano who may have sung the soprano solo and subsequently became Bach’s first wife, Maria Barbara, as well as the presence of the “nanny-goat bassoonist”; the cantata features a downright virtuoso bassoon part.  And how about Bach’s weepy sadness at his brother’s departure (the piece is part of a sonata-story telling tradition that includes Kuhnau’s “Biblical” sonatas as well as Beethoven’s “Les Adieux” sonata). And how about the Phantom of the Opera? His scary music can’t be by some unknown predecessor or colleague of the great Bach!

I don’t think internal musical evidence will resolve these pieces’s authorship.  Bach wrote, performed, and transcribed so much music that proprietory authorship wasn’t considered in the same way back then as it is today.  Some scholars doubt Bach’s BWV 565 and 150, because there are some apparent technical lapses.  But there are technical lapses in works we are sure are by Bach, as well. And Bach was a great assimilator of diverse styles in his youth.  He was insatiably interested in just about all serious styles.

Scholars know relatively little for sure about Bach’s life.  But the interesting thing about the many pieces of disputed authorship in Bach’s oeuvre is the light it sheds on how personal authorship was perceived in Bach’s time.  How different from the Romantic and Modern eras, where there is a veritable cult of the “individual genius”.  It is refreshing to read of the collegial relationships that existed between musicians in Bach’s time; Buxtehude, Reinken, Handel, Telemann all played roles in Bach’s development, and Bach’s own extended family provides a musical culture of its own.