Biographies of Johann Sebastian Bach
The first major biographies of Johann Sebastian Bach, including those by Johann Nikolaus Forkel and Philipp Spitta, were published in the 19th century. Many more were published in the 20th century by, among others, Albert Schweitzer, Charles Sanford Terry, Christoph Wolff and Klaus Eidam.
- 1 18th century
- 2 19th century
- 3 20th century
- 3.1 First Decade
- 3.2 Biographical fiction
- 3.3 Terry
- 3.4 Gurlitt
- 3.5 From 1945 to the 1970s
- 3.6 Basso
- 3.7 Around Bach's 300th birthday
- 3.8 Turn of the century
- 4 21st century
- 5 Partial biographies
- 6 Filmed biography
- 7 References
- 8 Biographies
- 9 External links
Little was published about Bach's life in the 18th century, his "Nekrolog" (obituary) being the most extended biographical note about the composer's life.
Contemporary biographical sources
No writings by Johann Sebastian Bach were published during his lifetime. He declined Johann Mattheson's invitation to write an autobiographical sketch for inclusion in the Ehrenpforte. There is little biographical material to be found in the compositions published during his lifetime: the glimpse perceived from the dedication of The Musical Offering to Frederick the Great being a small exception. There are however some letters by the composer in which he gives autobiographical detail, including the letter he wrote in 1730 to Georg Erdmann, and the letter he had joined to the score of his Mass for the Dresden court in 1733. Other contemporary sources include archived reports, like those of the decisions of the Leipzig city council.
Contemporary publications, like Johann Mattheson's Beschützte Orchestre, Johann Adolph Scheibe's Critischer Musicus and Lorenz Christoph Mizler's Musikalische Bibliothek, rather write about Bach's music than about his life. Bach's entry in Johann Gottfried Walther's 1732 Lexikon is a rare exception in giving biographical information on the composer.
Bach's "Nekrolog" was published in 1754 in the fourth volume of Mizler's Musikalische Bibliothek. With less than 20 pages it is the most comprehensive 18th-century publication on the composer's life.
Other 18th century biographical material
For the remainder of the century short biographies of the composer appeared in reference works like Johann Adam Hiller's Lebensbeschreibungen berühmter Musikgelehrten und Tonkünstler neurer Zeit, Ernst Ludwig Gerber's Historisch-biographisches Lexikon der Tonkünstler and Friedrich Carl Gottlieb Hirsching's Historisch-literarisches Handbuch. The descriptions in such biographical articles were nearly exclusively based on the "Nekrolog", often copied with errors.
Occasionally Bach appears in other writings, like Johann Friedrich Köhler's 1776 manuscript on the history of schools in Leipzig, which gives a short account of Bach falling out with Johann August Ernesti, conrector of the St. Thomas School. In print Bach is mentioned as teacher of some musicians of the next generation, for instance Christoph Nichelmann.
Forkel's biography was published shortly after the 50th anniversary of the composer's death, and concentrated mostly on an analysis of his compositions. The first biography based on an extensive research of primary sources was published by Spitta in the second half of the 19th century.
Johann Nikolaus Forkel's Ueber Johann Sebastian Bachs Leben, Kunst und Kunstwerke (Johann Sebastian Bach: His Life, Art, and Work) appeared in Leipzig in 1802. Its biographical material expands what is already in the "Nekrolog" with details Forkel collected from Bach's eldest sons. An English translation, expanded with updates in footnotes and appendices, was published in 1920 by Charles Sanford Terry.
A century after the composer's death two short biographies were published. Joh. Carl Schauer published Joh. Seb. Bach's Lebensbild : Eine Denkschrift auf seinem 100 jährigen Todestag, den 28. Jul. 1850, aus Thüringen, seinem Vaterlande, and Carl L. Hilgenfeldt published Johann Sebastian Bach's Leben, Wirken und Werke: ein Beitrag zur Kunstgeschichte des achtzehnten Jahrhunderts (Johann Sebastian Bach's life, influence and works: a contribution to the art history of the 18th century) "als Programm zu dem am 28. Julius 1850 eintretenden Säculartage des Todes von Johann Sebastian Bach" (as a program for the centennial days of Johann Sebastian Bach's death, starting 28 July 1850).
Bitter's multi-volume biography
In 1865 Karl Hermann Bitter published a two-volume Bach biography. The biography contains some documents from Bach's time that hadn't been published before, presented with a wealth of historical inferences and personal reflections. An abridged English translation of the biography appeared in 1873. Shortly after becoming Prussian minister of finance in 1879, Bitter published an enlarged reworking in four volumes of the biography.
Spitta's comprehensive biography
Philipp Spitta's Johann Sebastian Bach was published in Leipzig in two volumes, in 1873 and 1880 respectively. Its English translation was published by Novello in three volumes.
In his introduction Spitta dismisses all previous biographies apart from the "Nekrolog", Forkel, and part of Gerber. He is particularly harsh on Bitter. Spitta's biography went down in history as "... the most ... comprehensive and important single work on Johann Sebastian Bach". It eclipsed the previous biographies and laid down premises and methodology for future Bach scholarship.
Bach-biography in English
In the United Kingdom the 19th-century Bach Revival was inscribed in existing traditions respecting baroque music. The Bach-biographies that were published in English were throughout the century largely based on German examples. An amateurish translation of Forkel had appeared in London in 1820. Edward Francis Rimbault had published his Hilgenfeldt/Forkel adaptation in 1869. An abridged version of Bitter's first edition had appeared in 1873. In 1882 the first original English biography appeared, Reginald Lane Poole's Sebastian Bach. Lane Poole bases the biographical data entirely on Spitta, and adds a chronological list of 200 church cantatas by Bach. By the mid-1880s the translation of Spitta's volumes was complete.
New biographies were written by Schweitzer and Terry in the first half of the 20th century. Only by the end of the century, quarter of a millennium after the composer's death, new major biographies appeared by Eidam and Wolff.
By the end of the 19th century the Bach Gesellschaft had completed its task of publishing all known works by Bach. The first decade of the new century brought new significant biographies of the composer.
Albert Schweitzer's Johann Sebastian Bach, le musicien-poète appeared in 1905. It analyses Bach's works primarily from a religious perspective. Its 1908 German edition was enlarged, and more content was added to the 1911 English version.
In 1909 a new English-language biography of Bach appeared, written by Hubert Parry. In its preface the author pays his homage to Spitta and excuses him for his specialised technicalities: for his new biography Parry proposes a more condensed survey of the topic. Parry shows Bach chauvinism by designating everything what was composed in the 17th century as immature.
In 1925 Esther Meynell published The Little Chronicle of Magdalena Bach, fictitiously telling the story of Bach's life through the eyes of his second wife Anna Magdalena Bach. The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach, a 1968 film featuring Gustav Leonhardt as Johann Sebastian Bach, took the same perspective.
Bach's 250th birthday was remembered with a short biography by Wilibald Gurlitt, "Niederschrift des Jubiläumsvortrages bei der Bach-Feier des Ev. Studentenpfarramtes der Universität Freiburg i.Br. im Sommersemester 1935" (written out version of the jubilee speech at the Bach feast of the evangelical student community of the university of Freiburg im Breisgau, in the summer semester of 1935). Published in 1936, it was translated in English in 1957. An enlarged German edition was published in 1980.
From 1945 to the 1970s
Swiss musicologist Antoine-Elisée Cherbuliez (1888–1964) derives the biographical material for his 1946 Bach biography essentially from the "Nekrolog", and the biographies by Forkel, Spitta and Terry.
Werner Neumann, from 1951 director of the East-German section of the Neue Bach-Ausgabe (NBA), published several biographies of the composer. In 1953 Auf den Lebenswegen Johann Sebastian Bachs, acclaimed by Alfred Dürr, the director of the West-German section of the NBA. An enlarged German edition was issued in 1962. In 1960 Bach: eine Bildbiographie was published, translated as Bach and his world and Bach: A Pictorial Biography
Under Neumann's direction, from its founding in 1950 until he retired in 1973, the Bach-Archiv in Leipzig published biographical material about Bach, for instance in 1970 the Kalendarium zur Lebensgeschichte Johann Sebastian Bachs (time table to the history of Johann Sebastian Bach's life). This Kalendarium was republished in 2008 in an edition revised by Andreas Glöckner.
In 1962 Russell Hancock Miles published Johann Sebastian Bach: an Introduction to His Life and Works.
1970s essay collections
Walter Blankenburg published an essay collection, with contributions by scholars such as Dürr and David, in 1970. In 1976 Barbara Schwendowius and Wolfgang Dömling published a collection of eleven essays by, among others, Wolff and Dürr under the title Johann Sebastian Bach : Zeit, Leben, Wirken. The next year the book was translated as Johann Sebastian Bach: Life, Times, Influence.
Around Bach's 300th birthday
In the years leading up to Bach's 300th birthday in 1985 some new biographies were published. Malcolm Boyd's Bach appeared in 1983. Denis Arnold's Bach appeared the next year, as well as a new French biography by Roland de Candé, and a German one by Werner Felix. That last one was translated in English in 1985. Piero Buscaroli's Italian biography appeared in 1985.
Turn of the century
Around the 250th anniversary of Bach's death (2000) several new biographies were published, along with reprints and revised editions of earlier publications.
John Butt collaborated to several publications on Bach. In 1997 he was the editor of the Cambridge Companion to Bach, with chapters written by Malcolm Boyd, Ulrich Siegele, Robin A. Leaver, Stephen A. Crist, Werner Breig, Richard D. P. Jones, Laurence Dreyfus, Stephen Daw, George B. Stauffer and Martin Zenck.
Klaus Eidam's 1999 Das Wahre Leben des Johann Sebastian Bach (The True Life of Johann Sebastian Bach) tries to correct some misconceptions that crept in the biographical writing on the composer, based on a new perusal of primary sources.
Christoph Wolff, a Bach scholar, wrote his major biographical work on Bach, Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician, in 2000. In 1998 Wolff had revised David and Mendel's Bach Reader into The New Bach Reader. In 1999 a compilation of Bach-related essays Wolff wrote between 1963 and 1988 had its fourth reprint.
Also in 2000 Martin Geck published Bach: Leben und Werk, six years later translated as Johann Sebastian Bach: Life and Work. A previous shorter work by Geck, with a focus on illustrative material, was translated as Bach in 2000.
In the 21st century a sizeable portion of biographical material on Johann Sebastian Bach became available on-line, including full scans of older biographies that were no longer copyrighted. New biographies were written by Williams and Gardiner.
Apart from the biographies that take the reader from Bach's birth in 1685 to his death in 1750, several studies highlight specific aspects of the composer's life.
Johann Sebastian Bach's life was the subject of several films.
|Original title||English title||Date||Director||Actor playing Bach||Comments|
|The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach||The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach||1968||Jean-Marie Straub
|Gustav Leonhardt||Story told from the perspective of Anna Magdalena Bach|
NYT: "While this 'Chronicle' ... is a testament to [Bach's] ever-living music, it is, unfortunately, lifeless as biography"
|Johann Sebastian Bach||1985||Lothar Bellag||Ulrich Thein||East-German TV biopic in four parts. Klaus Eidam collaborated to the script.|
|Bach's Fight for Freedom||Bach's Fight for Freedom||1995||Stuart Gillard||Ted Dykstra||Bach's last year in Weimar (1717)|
|Mein Name ist Bach||My Name Is Bach||2003||Dominique de Rivaz||Vadim Glowna||Swiss film about Bach's 1747 visit to Potsdam, meeting Frederick the Great.|
- Spitta 1899 III, p. 228
- Eidam 2001, chapter XVIII
- Eidam 2001, chapter XIV
- Johann Mattheson. Das Beschützte Orchestre, oder desselben Zweyte Eröffnung, footnote p. 222 Hamburg: Schiller, 1717.
- Johann Adolf Scheibe. pp. 46–47 in Critischer Musicus VI, 14 May 1737. Quoted in Eidam 2001, Chapter XXII.
- Lorenz Christoph Mizler. Musikalische Bibliothek. Volume I, Part 4, pp. 61–73. Leipzig, April 1738. Includes a reprint of Johann Abraham Birnbaum's Unpartheyische Anmerckungen über eine bedenckliche stelle in dem Sechsten stück des Critischen Musicus. published early January of the same year.
- Johann Gottfried Walther Musicalisches Lexicon oder Musicalische Bibliothec, p. 64. Leipzig, W. Deer. 1732.
- "Nekrolog" 1754
- Johann Adam Hiller. "Bach (Johann Sebastian)", pp. 9–29 in Lebensbeschreibungen berühmter Musikgelehrten und Tonkünstler neurer Zeit, Vol. 1. Leipzig: Dyk, 1784.
- Ernst Ludwig Gerber. "Bach (Joh. Sebastian)", column 86 ff. in Historisch-biographisches Lexikon der Tonkünstler. Leipzig: Breitkopf, 1790.
- Friedrich Carl Gottlob Hirsching. "Bach, Johann Sebastian", pp. 77–80 in Historisch-literarisches Handbuch berühmter und denkwürdiger Personen, welche in dem 18. Jahrhunderte gestorben sind: oder kurzgefaßte biographische und historische Nachrichten von berühmten Kaisern, Königen, Fürsten, großen Feldherren ... und andern merkwürdigen Personen beyderley Geschlechts. Erster Band: A - Brindley. Leipzig: Schwickert, 1794.
- Spitta 1899, I, pp. ii–iii
- Spitta 1899, III, pp. 11–12
- "Friedrich Wilhelm Marpurg. Historisch-kritische Beyträge zur Aufnahme der Musik" (in German). christoph-nichelmann.de. 1754. Retrieved 5 December 2012.
- Forkel 1920
- Schauer 1850
- Hilgenfeldt 1850, title page
- Spitta 1899, I, pp. iv–v
- Spitta 1899, I, p. v
- Spitta 1992 Vol. I, p. xiii
- Spitta 1992 Vol. I, p. xix
- Wolff 1991 pp. 4–5
- McKay, Cory. "The Bach Reception in the 18th and 19th century" at www
.music .mcgill .ca
- Forkel/Terry 1920 pp. xix–xxi
- Forkel 1820
- Rimbault 1869
- Bitter 1873
- Spitta 1992 Vol. I, p. xviii
- "The Life of Sebastian Bach" in Chicago Tribune. July 29, 1882, p. 9.
- Spitta 1884–1885
- Eidam 2001, Introduction
- Parry 1909
- Parry 1909, p. v-vi
- Stephen A. Crist. Beyond "Bach-Centrism": Historiographic Perspectives on Johann Sebastian Bach and Seventeenth-Century Music at symposium
- Meynell 1925
- A. H. Weiler. "Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach (1968)" in The New York Times, April 7, 1969
- Wolff 1991 p. 4
- David & Mendel
- Wolfgang W. Müller. Suche nach dem Unbedingten: spirituelle Spuren in der Kunst, p. 49. Theologischer Verlag Zürich, 2008. ISBN 9783290200466
- Cherbuliez 1946, p. 13
- Alfred Dürr. Review of Auf den Lebenswegen Johann Sebastian Bachs by Werner Neumann in Die Musikforschung 9/2, 1956, pp. 231-233
- Neumann 1953
- Neumann 1960
- Bach-Archiv 1970
- Bach-Archiv 2008
- Miles 1962
- Geiringer 1966
- Blankenburg 1970
- Schwendowius & Dömling
- Basso, 1979 (I) and 1983 (II)
- Eleanor Selfridge-Field. Review of Frau Musika: la vita e le opere di J. S. Bach. Vol. 2: (1723-1750) by Alberto Basso in Music & Letters Vol. 66, No. 2. April 1985. pp. 129–131.
- OCLC 10139466
- Arnold 1984
- de Candé 1984
- Buscaroli 1985
- OCLC 829742314
- OCLC 433700566
- David & Mendel 1998
- Wolff 1991
- Alfred Dürr. Review of Bach: Essays on His Life and Music by Christoph Wolff in Notes Vol. 49, No. 2. December 1992, pp. 508-510
- Geck 2006
- Geck 1993
- OCLC 907016747
- Williams 2004
- Williams 2007
- Gardiner 2013
- Biography: Special studies at www
- Johann Sebastian Bach (Character) at Internet Movie Database website
- Mein Name ist Bach at www
- My Name Is Bach at www
- Denis Arnold. Bach. Oxford University Press, 1984. ISBN 019287554X
- Bach-Archiv Leipzig. Kalendarium zur Lebensgeschichte Johann Sebastian Bachs. 1970.
- Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach and Johann Friedrich Agricola. "Nekrolog" (full title: "VI. Denkmal dreyer verstorbenen Mitglieder der Societät der musikalischen Wissenschafften; C. Der dritte und letzte ist der im Orgelspielen Weltberühmte HochEdle Herr Johann Sebastian Bach, Königlich-Pohlnischer und Churfürstlich Sächsicher Hofcompositeur, und Musikdirector in Leipzig"), pp. 158–176 in Lorenz Christoph Mizler's Musikalische Bibliothek, Volume IV No. 1. Leipzig, Mizlerischer Bücherverlag, 1754.
- Alberto Basso. Frau Musika: La vita e le opere di J. S. Bach. Turin, EDT:
- Karl Hermann Bitter. Johann Sebastian Bach. Berlin: Schneider, 1865. Vol. 1 – Vol. 2
- Abridged translation by Janet Elizabeth Kay-Shuttleworth. London: Houlston. 1873.
- Second revised and enlarged edition in 4 volumes. Berlin: Baensch, 1880. OCLC 318374312
- Walter Blankenburg, editor. Johann Sebastian Bach. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1970. OCLC 1060904
- Malcolm Boyd. Bach. London: J. M. Dent, 1983. ISBN 9780460044660
- Piero Buscaroli. Bach. Milano: A. Mondadori, 1985. OCLC 13499133
- John Butt, editor. The Cambridge companion to Bach. Cambridge University Press, 1997. ISBN 9780521587808.
- Roland de Candé. Jean-Sébastien Bach. Paris: Seuil, 1984. ISBN 9782020085052
- A.-E. Cherbuliez. Johann Sebastian Bach: Sein Leben und sein Werk. Olten: Otto Walter, 1946.
- Hans Theodore David and Arthur Mendel, editors. The Bach Reader: A Life of Johann Sebastian Bach in Letters and Documents. New York: W. W. Norton, 1945. OCLC 219802687
- Klaus Eidam. Das wahre Leben des Johann Sebastian Bach. Piper, 1999. ISBN 3492040799
- Werner Felix. Johann Sebastian Bach. Leipzig: Deutscher Verlag für Musik, 1984. OCLC 750950924
- English translation. London: Orbis; New York: W. W. Norton. 1985.
- Johann Nikolaus Forkel. Ueber Johann Sebastian Bachs Leben, Kunst und Kunstwerke: Für patriotische Verehrer echter musikalischer Kunst Leipzig: Hoffmeister und Kühnel. 1802.
- English translation with notes and appendices by Charles Sanford Terry: Johann Sebastian Bach: His Life, Art, and Work. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Howe; London: Constable. 1920. (e-version at Gutenberg.org)
- Edited by Max Friedrich Schneider (notes and appendices based on, among others, Terry's Bach biography): Über Joh. Seb. Bachs Leben, Kunst und Kunstwerke. Basel: Hardimann. 1946. OCLC 884470080, 600527458
- John Eliot Gardiner. Music in the castle of heaven. 2013.
- Martin Geck. Johann Sebastian Bach : mit Selbstzeugnissen und Bilddokumenten. Rowohlt, 1993. ISBN 9783499505119
- Martin Geck. Bach: Leben und Werk. Rowohlt, 2000. ISBN 9783498024833
- Karl and Irene Geiringer. Johann Sebastian Bach: The Culmination of An Era. New York: Oxford University Press; London: George Allen & Unwin. 1966
- Wilibald Gurlitt. Johann Sebastian Bach: der Meister und sein Werk. Berlin: Furche, 1936. OCLC 612001760
- Maarten 't Hart. Johann Sebastian Bach. De Arbeiderspers, 2000. ISBN 9789029576840
- Carl L. Hilgenfeldt. Johann Sebastian Bach's Leben, Wirken und Werke: ein Beitrag zur Kunstgeschichte des achtzehnten Jahrhunderts. Leipzig: Friedrich Hofmeister, 1850
- Reginald Lane Poole. Sebastian Bach. London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle, & Rivington, 1882.
- Esther Meynell. The Little Chronicle of Magdalena Bach. London: Chatto & Windus; New York: Doubleday, Page & Co., 1925. OCLC 613081920
- Russell Hancock Miles. Johann Sebastian Bach: an Introduction to His Life and Works. Prentice-Hall, 1962
- Werner Neumann. Auf den Lebenswegen Johann Sebastian Bachs. Berlin: Verlag der Nation, 1953. OCLC 715957084
- Werner Neumann. Bach: Eine Bildbiographie. Berlin: Deutsche Buch-Gemeinschaft, 1960. OCLC 5116231
- Hubert Parry. Johann Sebastian Bach: The Story of the Development of a Great Personality. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons; London: The Knickerbocker Press. 1909.
- André Pirro. J.-S. Bach. Paris: Félix Alcan, 1906. OCLC 842307554
- Edward Francis Rimbault. Johann Sebastian Bach: his life and writings. Adapted from the German of Hilgenfeldt and Forkel. With additions from original sources. London, Metzler & co., 1869.
- Joh. Carl Schauer. Joh. Seb. Bach's Lebensbild: Eine Denkschrift auf seinem 100 jährigen Todestag, den 28. Jul. 1850, aus Thüringen, seinem Vaterlande. Jena, F. Luden. 1850.
- Barbara Schwendowius and Wolfgang Dömling, editors. Johann Sebastian Bach: Zeit, Leben, Wirken. Bärenreiter, 1976. ISBN 9783761805466
- Albert Schweitzer. J. S. Bach, le musicien-poète. Preface by Charles Marie Widor. Leipzig: Breitkopf & Härtel. 1905.
- Enlarged German edition: J. S. Bach. Leipzig: Breitkopf & Härtel. 1908.
- English translation in two volumes by Ernest Newman (based on the 1908 German edition, with alterations and additions by Schweitzer): J. S. Bach. London: Breitkopf & Härtel. 1911. Volume 1 – Volume 2
- Philipp Spitta. Johann Sebastian Bach.
- Erster Band (Book I–IV). Leipzig: Breitkopf & Härtel. 1873.
- Zweiter Band (Book V–VI). Leipzig: Breitkopf & Härtel. 1880.
- Johann Sebastian Bach: His Work and Influence on the Music of Germany, 1685–1750 in three volumes. Translated by Clara Bell and J. A. Fuller Maitland. Novello & Co. 1884–1885.
- Charles Sanford Terry. Bach: A Biography. Oxford University Press, 1928. OCLC 912873095, 893564008, 902573683
- Peter Williams. The Life of Bach. Cambridge University Press, 2004. ISBN 9780521533744
- Peter Williams. J. S. Bach: A Life in Music. Cambridge University Press, 2007. ISBN 9781139461191
- Christoph Wolff. Bach: Essays on His Life and Music. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1991. ISBN 9780674059269 (4th reprint, 1999)
- Christoph Wolff. Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician. Oxford University Press, 2000. ISBN 0-393-04825-X