The New Yorker’s Alex Ross has become the second journalist — out of more than 50 who, according to Google News, have written about the story in the last week — to treat with even a modicum of skepticism Charles Darwin University musicologist Martin Jarvis’s theory that Johann Sebastian Bach’s Cello Suites were written by his second wife Anna Magdalena Bach.
National Review Online broke the story Wednesday that Jarvis’s thesis is almost totally unsupported, slanderously speculative, and rejected by legitimate scholars of the 17th- and 18th-century musician. Ross followed up on Halloween with a report that contains some important new information (and a commendable New Yorker attention to the details of diacritical marks):
[Jarvis] fixated on a phrase that appears in the lower-right-hand corner of the title page of Anna Magdalena’s copy of the suites, one of two principal manuscripts through which the pieces have come down to us. “Ecrite par Madame Bachen, Son Epouse,” it says. (The aigu accents are missing.) Here, Jarvis says, was the “coup de grâce of my prolonged and intensive research”: the phrase “literally translates as ‘Written by Mrs Bach, his wife’ – that is to say, composed by Anna Magdalena.”
This is suggestive stuff. But when you look at the manuscript itself you see something quite different. (There is a scan in the digital archive of the Staatsbibliothek Berlin.) The cello suites are found together with a copy of the Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin; the title page for the collection was written out by Georg Heinrich Ludwig Schwanberg, a Bach pupil. It says: “Pars 1. Violino Solo Senza Basso composée par Sr. Jean Seb. Bach. Pars 2. Violoncello Solo Senza Basso composée par Sr. J. S. Bach. Maitre de la Chapelle et Directeur de la Musique a Leipsic.” Only then, in the lower corner, do we see “ecrite par Madame Bachen.” The not insignificant detail that the cello suites are described as being “composed by Sr. J. S. Bach” is missing from Jarvis’s popular expositions of his theory, and, by extension, from the media coverage, which has tended to ignore Bach scholars and jump to sensational conclusions (“Bach Didn’t Write His Greatest Works”). Jarvis’s 2007 thesis is a bit more judicious, though still perplexing.
There is a further problem. If, as Jarvis proposes, “ecrite” really means “composed” (and, presumably, “composée” means something else), wouldn’t it follow that Anna Magdalena Bach should also be considered the true author of the Sonatas and Partitas? The positioning of the text in the corner of the page suggests that it applies to both pieces. Yet, as Jarvis does not deny, a manuscript of the Sonatas and Partitas in Bach’s own hand exists. Indeed, Jarvis says that his doubts about the authorship of the cello suites arose when he perceived “vast differences” between these works and the ones for solo violin. The suites didn’t strike him as “musically mature,” he said in one interview. In all, Jarvis’s reading of this title page is irrational in the extreme. Looked at upside down or sideways, it still says the same thing: the Sonatas and Partitas and the suites were composed by Bach and copied by his wife.
The Jarvis theory has gotten plenty of totally uncritical attention, and I wasn’t expecting my reporting to make much of a dent in that consensus. As commenter “Jack Simpson” at the U.K. Telegraph sniffed, the minority opinion isn’t even worth clicking on because NRO is “a keep-women-in-the-kitchen and blacks in the fields website.” Maybe the authority of The New Yorker and of Ross, a highly regarded classical music journalist, will make a difference.
Arts and Entertainment journalism is scandalously lousy, and it shouldn’t be. Culture is important. Passing along a wild notion like Jarvis’s, without even making a phone call to somebody in the field, is a level of reportorial negligence that would be unacceptable in coverage of crime, politics, science, business, or sports. Though this kind of thing does happen on all of those beats, it’s much more common in A&E coverage, even when the subjects are living celebrities rather than long-dead composers. Countless items get passed along about the antics of, say, Lindsey Lohan, with no supporting evidence or corroboration, because what the hell — she’s already made such a mess of her life that this one is maybe true as well. (I’m referring here more to slackers like whoever puts together the painfully shoddy, witless and dull items in Washington Post Express rather than to dedicated entertainment sites like TMZ, which does a lot of real reporting.)
In this case, you didn’t even need to contact professional skeptics. As I noted in the original piece, after communicating with Jarvis and one of his collaborators (the third, British composer Sally Beamish, has been promising to get back to me for a few days), I got the distinct impression that they themselves don’t really believe the theory is true in the literal sense.
Ross concedes that Jarvis had “noble intentions” in trying to bring more attention to women composers, but is that even true? There are very good reasons to search back through the history of Western culture with an eye toward finding neglected contributions from women. Such searches have turned up many fine examples of overlooked works — particularly in literature, where you could make the case that the boom in women writers in the 19th century (allegedly denounced by Nathaniel Hawthorne, in a quote that is truly too good to check, as a “damned mob of scribbling women”) invented the modern concept of the bestseller. Feminist-oriented cultural reporting has also highlighted neglected influences, as with Stacy Schiff’s biography of Vera Nabokov and Brenda Maddox’s of Nora Joyce, which drove home that wives have a strong pull even on highly talented men.
This last approach, emphasizing influence and collaboration, would seem to be especially promising in the case of J. S. Bach, who descended from and raised long lines of musicians, making it almost impossible that his superhuman output was solely the result of one guy locked in a room with a pen and paper. Experts know quite a bit about Bach’s influences and the way lack of intellectual-property protection helped him become so productive. Who can say who whistled what melody that somebody else made use of? One of Jarvis’s odd beliefs — that Anna Magdalena wrote the hauntingly contemplative air that opens and closes the Goldberg Variations but not the variations themselves — is actually kind of charming. It’s just that there’s no evidence for it.