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Reviewed by:
  • About Bach
  • Matthew Dirst
About Bach. Edited by Gregory G. Butler, George B. Stauffer, and Mary Dalton Greer. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2008. [xi, 216 p. ISBN 9780252033445. $30.] Illustrations, music examples, bibliography, index.

Conceived as a Festschrift for Christoph Wolff, About Bach celebrates this industrious scholar’s sixty-fifth birthday with diverse contributions by colleagues and former students mostly on Bach topics, long the primary focus of Wolff’s work as a musicologist. The awkward title is at least a pithy summary of the volume’s contents, which contribute to major subfields of Bach research—compositional and familial roots, the vocal works, the instrumental works, and music from the Bach circle—and even tread gently through the nineteenth century. Authors include well established and younger scholars, many of whom are graduates of the Ph.D. program in musicology at Harvard University, where Wolff has taught for many years.

The fifteen essays, organized by chronology and general subject matter, participate in various kinds of musicological discourse: there are source studies, inquiries into compositional process and style, surveys of particular repertories and contexts, and examinations of historical performance practices. In the first category are studies of pedagogical and literary as well as musical sources. Opening the volume, Kathryn Welter describes how Johann Pachelbel’s Deutliche Anweisung served as a liturgical and musical resource for services at St. Sebald’s Church in Nuremberg. This obscure handbook from ca. 1700 includes all versicles and chants (in tablature) for those services that Pachelbel himself did not play and thus needed to provide for his student apprentices; it also gives directions for improvising intonations and the liturgical location of organ pieces within the various services. Welter’s brief discussion of Pachelbel’s teaching methods might have warranted more space, given his importance in the training of generations of organist-composers, but her study provides at least a good introduction to the topic.

In the other “Before Bach” essay, Mary Dalton Greer asks why Bach, in his fiftieth year, drew up a family tree and an annotated genealogy of his forebears. Both seem to have had something to do with his [End Page 297] reading of key Bible passages concerning the Levites, temple musicians to the Israelite priests. Noting parallels between Bach’s annotations in his copy of the Calov Bible and the Bach family tree and genealogy—in similar language, organization, even worldview—Greer argues that Bach set out to portray his own family as “latter-day Levites,” and himself as “a true successor to Asaph, King David’s divinely ordained Capellmeister and prophet” (p. 24).

Michael Ochs considers a more limited text—a single puzzling word, in fact, from the St. Matthew Passion—in an essay that sheds new light on Luther’s thinking about Jesus and the Jews. Virtually all Bible translations to languages other than German render Jesus’ final words on the cross as “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani,” and yet this phrase in Bach’s Passion, like Luther’s Bible, ends with the word “asabthani.” Why? Although Jesus probably uttered the former word (from his vernacular Aramaic), Luther went back to the Hebrew scripture and the latter cognate for this quote (by Jesus) from Psalm 22. Why Luther would do such a thing is the more interesting question: Ochs proposes that it was an effective way to “remind the reader of Jesus’ Jewish identity” (p. 64). Only a “learned Jew,” Ochs adds, could have quoted so precisely from the original Psalm text.

The musically-oriented source studies are devoted to major instrumental collections of Bach. Returning to the Art of Fugue, Gregory G. Butler makes some startling new conclusions about the original print: among other things, he proposes that two engravers, not just one, worked on it. Butler also helpfully sorts out this large project’s various phases, which have long confused scholars. Most important, he argues that the famous Fuga a 3 soggetti does not in fact belong in the work as Bach conceived it. This is a shocker, especially for Butler, who once argued that this fugue filled a gap in the original engraving plan, between the other contrapuncti and the four canons. Using details...


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