Politics & Policy

Bogus Bach Theory Gets Media Singing

The story of a wife’s neglected genius finds a willing audience, despite a nearly total lack of evidence.

A musicologist who posits that J.S. Bach’s second wife was a homewrecker who drove his first wife to suicide has become an improbable celebrity to feminists and international media, but his theory is extremely tenuous and has no support from experts in his field.

Martin Jarvis, a music professor in Australia’s northern territory, has used handwriting evidence to deduce not only that the Bach family was more troubled than history has previously known but that Anna Magdalena Bach, the second wife of Johann Sebastian Bach, composed his beloved Cello Suites, as well as the aria from the Goldberg Variations for keyboard and the first prelude from the collection known as The Well-Tempered Clavier.

“My belief is that Anna composed the Cello Suites as a composition student of J S Bach,” Jarvis, music professor and director of the Confucius Institute at Charles Darwin University, tells National Review Online. “She is therefore the principal composer but not necessarily without any of Bach’s input.”

Jarvis’s authorship thesis has received media attention going back at least to 2006, but it is resurgent thanks to an upcoming documentary, Written By Mrs Bach, on which he collaborated with the British composer Sally Beamish and Arizona-based forensic document examiner Heidi Harralson. The film will be screened by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts next week. Since the beginning of this week, Jarvis’s thesis has received fully credulous treatment from the Telegraph, Jezebel, The Washington Post, USA Today, the Daily Mail, France Musique, and other media.

But there is no persuasive evidence for the theory, which rests on a very subjective analysis of manuscripts that have long been recognized as having been handwritten by Anna Magdalena Bach. In his subsequent promotion of the thesis, Jarvis has presented no new evidence, though he has expanded his claims to include accusations about the personal history of the Bach family. These are purely conjectural and have no documented support, even though the Bachs were a highly literate and musical family, some of whose members left personal records.

Experts in the field have grown impatient with Jarvis’s claims.

“I am sorry you have to deal with this,” Harvard professor Christoph Wolff, one of the preeminent living Bach scholars, tells National Review Online. “I am sick and tired of this stupid thesis. When I served as director of the Leipzig Bach Archive from 2001 to 2013, I and my colleagues there extensively refuted the basic premises of the thesis, on grounds of documents, manuscript sources, and musical grounds. There is not a shred of evidence, but Jarvis doesn’t give up despite the fact that several years ago, at a Bach conference in Oxford, a room full of serious Bach scholars gave him an embarrassing showdown.”

Wolff is referring to a 2008 conference during which Jarvis clashed with Yo Tomita, a music professor at Queen’s University Belfast. The episode was recorded in the very cordial and collegial minutes of the conference:

Yo Tomita had published ‘Anna Magdalena as Bach’s Copyist’ in Understanding Bach 2 (2007), in response to the publicity afforded to Martin Jarvis’s claims that Anna Magdalena had composed rather than copied the Cello Suites. Since Jarvis was present and since the Dialogue meeting had just heard his description of Forensic Document Examination Techniques, Tomita used the opportunity to demonstrate the Dialogue format at its best: incisive, good humoured, uncompromising, and intellectually playful. Jarvis admitted that he felt like Galileo, on trial whilst still believing passionately that another explanation lay behind the calligraphic changes. Tomita responded deftly, and as the conversation turned towards the incontrovertible evidence that there were indeed women composers in the eighteenth century, the session ended with magnanimity.

Jarvis has adopted the Galileo persona more fully since then, telling numerous interviewers that he has become a “pariah” in the Bach community. But he hints that he may just be getting started in reassigning authorship of works usually attributed to the Thuringian composer who has been called “the immortal god of harmony,” “the beginning and end of all music,” and “a benevolent god to which all musicians should offer a prayer to defend themselves against mediocrity.” When asked for the total number of J. S. Bach works he believes should be credited to his second wife, Jarvis responds, “I cannot give you a full answer because much research still needs to be undertaken.”

Tomita, an expert on the manuscript sources of Bach’s works, says Jarvis’s problem is not that he has been shunned by Bach scholars but that his evidence has been disproved by them.

“It seems that he examined neither the great corpus of Bach sources nor the validity of methodology and research outcome by Dr Georg von Dadelsen of The University of Tübingen and Dr Yoshitake Kobayashi of Johann-Sebastian-Bach-Institut in Göttingen, Germany,” Tomita tells National Review Online. “They are revered Bach scholars who founded the new chronology of Bach’s works through the identification of copyists, which took them and their followers several decades to perfect. It is simply impossible for a scholar who is so isolated in a corner of Australia (Darwin) where there are no resources to carry out such an extensive research in less than a decade.”

At the heart of Jarvis’s thesis is a comparison of documents regarded as Bach’s autograph manuscripts and those regarded as Anna Magdalena’s copies. Jarvis argues that errors, corrections, and the quality of the writing in Anna’s copy of the Cello Suites result from her compositional process, rather than copying efforts. Bach married Anna Magdalena Wilcke 17 months after the death of his first wife, Maria Barbara Bach. Anna Magdalena is known to have worked as a singer and musical copyist, though there is no record of her having composed original music. In the course of their marriage, she is also known to have done considerable copying work for Johann Sebastian, in addition to bearing 13 children. (Maria Barbara had already given birth to seven children, four of whom survived into adulthood and two of whom became prominent musicians.)

In effect, Jarvis claims that the quality of the handwriting and corrections shows that Anna was writing in a creative mode rather than merely copying from Johann Sebastian’s own manuscript, and thus her copy of the Cello Suites should be considered her composing score rather than a copy.

Asked about the nebulousness of this claim, Jarvis expresses confidence that a person’s frame of mind can be assessed clearly through handwriting analysis centuries after the fact. “A significant amount depends on if the copy is an attempt at simulation,” he tells NRO, “less if it is an emulation and zero if the composer is copying her own work, which is why the Cello Suite manuscript appears as if the composer herself is rewriting her own music from a first draft of the works.”

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Harralson, founder of Spectrum Forensic International and president of the National Association of Document Examiners, seconds this view. Anna Magdalena Bach’s writing in the manuscripts, she tells National Review Online, is “not the manner of somebody copying or transcribing.” Although she was quoted in the Telegraph expressing a high degree of certainty that Anna was the composer, Harralson is more guarded in speaking with NRO. “Within a reasonable degree of scientific certainty, we can say that Anna Magdalena, not Bach, is the person penning the documents,” she says. “It’s up to others to say if this is the original or not.”

Harralson also points out that “Johann and Anna Magdalena have very distinctive hands,” which seems to be at odds with a claim made by Jarvis in a 2008 monograph, which asserts, “[T]he writing styles of Johann Sebastian and Anna Magdalena Bach are remarkably similar.”

In fact, it is not entirely clear how seriously anybody involved in the Anna Magdalena authorship theory actually takes the theory. Speaking with the Telegraph, the composer Sally Beamish did not take a firm stance on the authorship question but asserted that the theory, according to arts correspondent Hannah Furness, “raised important questions about female composers, and had huge implications that could ‘transform’ the confidence of young women hoping to make it today.” Beamish did not respond to a request for comment from National Review Online, but she told the Telegraph, “What I found fascinating is the questions it raises about the assumptions we make: that music is always written by one person and all the great masters were male by definition.”

The positioning of the Jarvis thesis as a step forward for feminism is also strange, however, given that Jarvis has taken his theory to the point of making claims about two women that would be considered libelous if made against living persons.

“As I have said already, nothing is known directly of the situation that led to Johann Sebastian marrying Anna Magdalena,” Jarvis wrote in April.

Whether they were involved romantically before the death of Maria Barbara or whether they became lovers after her untimely death is simply unknown. It does appear, though, that there is a strong likelihood that they were in some way involved prior to Maria Barbara’s death in 1720: my own research has placed Anna Magdalena firmly in Johann Sebastian’s life in 1720 – perhaps even living in the Bach household. Some interesting questions arise. For example, did Anna Magdalena accompany the Prince and his Kapellmeister Johann Sebastian Bach on the Prince’s sojourn to Carlsbad in 1720? That was the year that Maria Barbara died mysteriously. Given the very odd circumstances surrounding her death and burial the question is: did Maria Barbara commit suicide?

Elsewhere, Jarvis claims that despite her clearly full schedule as a mother and assistant, Anna had ample time for composition thanks to help with chores from the sister of Maria Barbara, who continued to live in the extended Bach household for years after Maria Barbara’s death — apparently untroubled by the suicide-inducing adultery between her dead sister’s husband and his current wife. Jarvis also does not specify what was mysterious about her burial, or for that matter her death — for which there is no definitely known cause but which has been explained by either an illness or complications during pregnancy.

It is worth noting that Anna Magdalena Bach has long had an honored place in history as the composer’s wife and musical associate, as well as the namesake of the instructional keyboard masterpiece Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach. The claim that she engaged in an adulterous affair with Johann Sebastian Bach is, as Jarvis acknowledges, wholly unsupported.

Maria Barbara Bach, a cousin of the composer, also has a prominent position in Bach history. In his 2013 book Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven, John Eliot Gardiner notes that she actually had a more direct claim than her husband to the family’s longstanding musical lineage. “Sebastian, the acknowledged musical genius of the family,” Gardiner writes, “did not carry the DNA of the more creative family line and of [Johann Christoph Bach of Eisenach] in particular (though his first two sons, Wilhelm Friedemann and Carl Philipp Emanuel, did, their mother being the daughter of Johann Michael Bach).” There is also no reason to believe that Maria Barbara wasn’t a Lutheran in good standing, making the insinuation of suicide an affront to a notable woman.

“There are numerous errors as regards the account of Bach’s life,” Tomita tells NRO of Jarvis’s Ph.D. thesis. “There is nothing new that he uncovered from his own archival research. All new is his imagination. There is no objective evidence he has uncovered through his archival work. He found it in his head.”

— Tim Cavanaugh is news editor of National Review Online. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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