"Bach?" a fellow German composer by the name of Beethoven once snorted, preparing to land a pun on the meaning of the word Bach ("brook") in German. "Not Brook, but Ocean, should be his name!" Since the 1780s, just about every professional musician of any stature has had something similar to say. Yet for many years after his death in 1750, the immensity of Bach's achievement as a composer, the truly oceanic depth of his oeuvre, remained hidden even from the most knowledgeable and astute of his successors. Surprisingly little of his music was published during his lifetime, and the great works for which he is revered today existed only in manuscript or fair copies at the time of his death. Insiders like Mozart and Beethoven, who encountered Bach's music via these sources (or through contact with his students and sons), may have had an inkling of his greatness, but the public at large would begin to "discover" Bach only after a revival of interest in his music got underway early in the 19th century.
That revival, made possible by the efforts of enlightened performers such as Felix Mendelssohn and by the nascent academic discipline of musicology, produced a tidal wave of publication and research. Piece by piece, Bach's music was tracked down--after being divided at his death among his sons, stored and, in some cases, auctioned off--and what could be found was published. Piece by piece, it was taken up by grateful, often awe-struck musicians and played to grateful and similarly awe-struck audiences. Bach went from being a connoisseur's composer to one of the three Bs.
Of course, being one of the greatest of the canonic "great composers"--the greatest in many people's estimation--has not made it easy for Bach's biographers. So much has been written, so much analyzed, theorized, philosophized over and, truth to tell, trivialized that on the surface at least, there would seem to be little territory left to explore. Although new facts and details are emerging all the time, it's hard to come up with something of major significance to say about Bach that hasn't been said before. Yet Beethoven was right after all--Bach really is an ocean; out of the details of his life and the teeming depths of his work a biographer can, if he's as discerning and disciplined as Christoph Wolff, make rich findings and say something both new and profound.
That it should be Wolff who has done so in "Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician" should come as a surprise tono one, because he is by common consent the world's leading authority on Bach's music--the Jacques Cousteau, if you will, of Bach exploration. Wolff, who holds the title of William Powell Mason professor of music at Harvard University (he's also dean of the graduate school of arts and sciences there), has published a vast number of papers in German and English on various aspects of Bach's creativity and, again no surprise, recently presided over the latest edition of "The New Bach Reader," revising and expanding a compendium of source material relating to Bach's life that has been indispensable since it appeared more than 50 years ago.
The theme behind Wolff's treatment of his subject in "Johann Sebastian Bach"--it runs like a cantus firmus through every chapter of the book--is that Bach was the consummate student and practitioner of musical science in the 18th century, much as Isaac Newton, a generation and a half older than he, had been the consummate investigator of physical science. Both, by virtue of their innate genius and systematic approach to the phenomena that interested them, brought about revolutions in their fields of study. Newton's work became the foundation of modern science, and Bach's the prototype for the organically conceived, highly structured "pure music" of the 19th and 20th centuries.
We normally don't think of Bach as a "revolutionary" genius; that's more the sort of thing we might associate with Beethoven. But Wolff, guided by the music, makes a persuasive case for just how different and innovative Bach was. And he shows how Bach, who from youth onward stood out as the most intellectually inclined of his remarkable clan (the male descendants of Hans Bach were professional musicians in Thuringia for three generations before Sebastian's birth), undertook a self-directed and systematic exploration of the major musical genres and styles of his day--focusing first on the keyboard, then on the broader realms of concerted vocal and instrumental music--set himself a remarkable series of formal and aesthetic challenges along the way and synthesized a unique personal style from all that he had absorbed. Revolutionary indeed.