'The permissible delights of the soul'

The year 2000, the 250th anniversary of J.S. Bach's death, yielded a year-long celebration of every aspect of Bach's music. It also produced an updated 3rd edition of the British scholar Malcolm Boyd's "Bach," which includes important recent findings from the former Soviet Union and new scholarship on Bach's childhood and family.

His book acts as a useful corrective, dispelling long-held misconceptions about the dating of many of Bach's compositions, Bach's extraordinarily well-connected musical family, and his reputation as a composer - both during his life and posthumously. Boyd's discussion of Bach and Handel, the two giants of the late Baroque, is particularly excellent. He attempts to show "the unique connection that exists between Bach's music and the circumstances in which it was written."

Bach was not, Boyd points out, what is usually called an innovator; his musical style with its complexity of harmony and texture was in fact quite reactionary.

Boyd deftly explains how and when the great composer used "parody," which sets the same music to different texts. Bach, he suggests, resorted to parody both to save time when working under "abnormal pressure" - as he tended to do - as well as to "sanctify" music he liked by substituting a sacred text for a profane one.

Boyd also shows how difficult it is to arrive at even a tentative chronology of Bach's early organ pieces. He avers that except for a few cantatas, Bach's works written before he was 23 would not be played as often as they are if they had been composed by anyone else. Bach was not, he insists, "a youthful prodigy as far as composition was concerned."

Boyd stresses that performance alone can never give us a complete understanding of Bach's late works, which demand rigorous study of the score and "contemplation." Our modern embrace of Bach's magisterial "Art of the Fugue," Boyd explains, "has been achieved through the efforts of well-meaning but misguided editors," who zealously - yet wrongly - concocted "sundry" instrumental arrangements from its keyboard score.

Unabashedly scholarly yet very readable, Boyd's "Bach," with its array of illuminating musical illustrations and insights, will doubtless be of great interest both to musicians and to those who find in Bach the "refreshment of the spirit" promised on the title pages of his music, and delivered with prodigious frequency.

Susan Miron is a freelance writer in Newton, Mass.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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