Written by Mrs Bach. (Martin Jarvis, pub. ABC Books): An Iconoclast’s View

Dr Martin Jarvis is a brave man. He has taken on the mighty worldwide collective of musicologists and Bach scholars to present a fascinating case that J S Bach’s second wife, Anna Magdalena, may well have written the six cello suites. His interest and investigation developed into a doctoral thesis. His new book, published recently by ABC Books, is not simply that thesis, but rather a layman’s story of his journey of discovery, exploring new avenues of scholarship and new ideas in the development of knowledge about Anna Magdalena Bach and her real role in the J S Bach mystery.

Along the way Jarvis accepted ridicule, mendacious commentary, simple disbelief and an academic ambush at a learned conference, as he developed and presented ideas which questioned the authority of the J S Bach story as told by scholars over the centuries. It makes for good reading.

Apart from the copious use of exclamation marks (for which Jarvis’ editor should be severely chastised) the book is a very readable account of a search for truth, using both standard academic processes together with a lot of modern forensic document examination techniques. Investigation of handwriting and music calligraphy forms a major part of the story. It gets quite detailed at times, but it is up to the reader how much time is spent actually poring over examples of handwriting and music notation. The case is made quite adequately in the text along the way. The many graphics are, perhaps understandably, of poor quality, but anyone who has worked with old facsimile editions will understand the issues. As long as the reader starts the journey with an open mind, a preparedness to listen to the arguments, then the story is worth reading. Many will not be convinced, but your correspondent certainly found the revelations truly extraordinary, finishing the book with an impression of reasonable doubt of authorship.

There are a number of key elements in the Jarvis theory. There is musicological evidence produced: not complex but at a level the lay person can understand. The document examination techniques covered in the book are particularly convincing, partly in suggesting authorship, but also demonstrating key arguments for Anna Magdalena’s involvement with J S Bach much earlier than had been previously accepted. There is a case made that she had, perhaps, a significant role in authorship of some works previously considered to have been composed by J S Bach. This all leads to a deeper exploration of the many contradictions in the hitherto accepted story of J S Bach’s life. Why was he not appraised of his first wife’s death? Why did the family give up well-paid employment to take a lesser job in Leipzig? Why was Anna Magdalena paid such a high salary? Why was she excised from the family memories? And what does the French word “ecrire” really mean? These plus many other elements keep the reader interested.

Of course, given the history of Bach scholarship as detailed by Jarvis, much of his case is based on supposition, but well reasoned supposition. He is not alone in this: respected Bach scholar, Dr Mark Smith from Adelaide University makes his own cases based on similar grounds. He argues J S Bach wrote parts of the second cello suite as a lament after the early death of Maria Barbara. He postulates three lost manuscripts of the cello suites, the notation from one of which miraculously turns up in a Dotzauer edition of the works published in 1826. Smith’s work is mentioned here not to question its scholarship, but rather to point out his reliance also on things that “probably” happened. Reasonable doubt still remains.

Your correspondent recommends “Written by Mrs Bach” as a book well worth reading. If nothing else it will change your view of Anna Magdalena Bach. And it will certainly leave many receptive minds with an open verdict on the actual authorship of the wonderful six cello suites.


About johnofoz

An occasional correspondent, with particular interest in music.
This entry was posted in Bach, cello, Music and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Written by Mrs Bach. (Martin Jarvis, pub. ABC Books): An Iconoclast’s View

  1. Aha, my first view of critical comment about this intriguing book, which was presented to me on the occasion of a very special birthday recently, by an afficionado of cello music and musicmaking… with whom the reviewer no doubt sympathises.

    Time constraints mean I have only managed to open and read the first chapter however it beckons me to sit down and have a long session – which I shall do on a transAtlantic flight verysoon. I am intrigued by the cool moderate tone of the reviewer when I might have expected a calumnious rant against this infidel and iconoclast … however his restraint is admirable. I shall start now.

    I look forward to full immersion and I suspect I could do worse than listen to the 6 suites while reading – for deeper colour. But whose version??

    I have very many from which to select … so I shall away to my collection, a small glass of Glayva in hand and Mrs Bach in the other….. MDV

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