The Corner

Giving the Last Word on the ‘Mrs. Bach’ Dustup To a Believer

Sally Beamish, the British composer involved in the documentary feature Written By Mrs. Bach, was kind enough to respond to questions National Review Online sent about the film’s theory that key J. S. Bach works were actually written by his second wife — though unfortunately not until a busy news cycle last week. As I noted here and here, Professor Martin Jarvis’s theory that Anna Magdalena Bach is the author of the Cello Suites, the air from Goldberg Variations and the first prelude from the Well-Tempered Clavier is highly speculative and based mainly on very subjective handwriting analysis. The thesis is strongly rejected by knowledgeable musicologists — and though it has been getting credulous coverage from culture reporters, other skeptical articles have appeared since my initial piece.

Beamish’s responses are included below, for the sake of a fair hearing and because she brings the point of view of a working musician. Some of the doc’s theory proceeds from a musical claim that the Cello Suites don’t seem to fit the Johann Sebastian Bach model stylistically, though to my amateur ear they sound very much like the genuine article. (Based on sound alone, the theory that Toccata and Fugue in D Minor is by somebody else seems more plausible than Jarvis’s.) Queen’s University Belfast music professor Yo Tomita, a prominent opponent of Jarvis’s theory, notes in an e-mail that the discussion might at least be credited with “making Bach scholarship more visible to the public.” That would be a welcome development. The last time Bach had a real cultural moment was in the golden age of Malmsteenian thrash, when big-haired shredders appreciated the old man’s big hair, shredding arpeggios, and overall gothic vibe. 

Questions and answers with Sally Beamish:

1. Other than the handwriting analysis performed by Heidi Harralson, is there any evidence for Anna Magdalena’s authorship of works attributed to Johann Sebastian Bach — such as contemporary accounts from members of the Bach family, evidence that she ever composed any music, primary-source documents, etc.?

There is no manuscript with Anna Magdalena identified as the composer, but there are manuscripts from 1713, 1720, etc., where her handwriting and music-calligraphy have been identified, that need an explanation.

2. What is the full universe of J.S. Bach works that should be attributed to Anna Magdalena? Professor Jarvis mentions the Cello Suites, the Aria from the Goldberg Variations, and the first prelude from the Well-Tempered Clavier. Are there others? If not, what is it specifically that makes these attributable to Anna?

To establish what other manuscripts might be attributed to Anna would require giving full access to all original manuscripts to fully qualified historic document experts, such as Heidi. So far this has been refused by the Bach academics. The reasons these three documents have been attributed by Professor Jarvis to Anna Magdalena are made clear in the film. The Prelude, for instance, is clearly a working manuscript, with corrections and shorthand, and in her handwriting.

3. News stories have mentioned some differences in style and structure in the Cello Suites which suggest they are not by J. S. Bach. Could you elaborate on this?

Professor Jarvis has analyzed the Cello Suites, and there are a number of reasons why he believes Bach could not have composed the Cello Suites.  These reasons include the unique symmetrical structure of the Cello Suites which stand out as exceptional. This was confirmed by a computer digital analysis undertaken in Germany. Interestingly, Associate Professor Ruth Tatlow’s 2006 paper also called into question the Cello Suites as not fitting Bach’s musical output, but she has now changed her mind about this.

4. Is your position that Anna wrote just the Aria from the variations, but not the 30 variations themselves?

Professor Jarvis has never suggested that Anna composed anything other than the Aria, which appears in her handwriting in one of the music books.

5. Are you concerned about Professor Jarvis’ credibility, given his record of making other claims — such as that Johann and Anna were romantically involved prior to Maria Barbara’s death, that Maria Barbara killed herself, and so on — for which there appears to be no evidence?

These claims are tangential to the core of Professor Jarvis’ research, and are, as he has said, speculative considerations to explain the historical circumstances of CPE Bach’s comment regarding Bach not knowing of his wife’s death and the lack of detail regarding Maria Barbara’s death.

6. Are you concerned about the rejection of Professor Jarvis’s thesis by other scholars, including experts in original Bach documents?

It is a pity that some Bach scholars are reluctant to engage with the Professor’s original thesis, which would provide the starting point for a healthy debate. I would be very interested to hear their views on the new forensic information, particularly Professor Jarvis’s findings on the Perpetual Canon for four voices.

My own position is that I feel this whole question opens up a discussion on our received assumptions about the “sole creator,” and particularly about the historical role of women in music. I believe that Bach, in his role as Kapellmeister or Cantor, would have enlisted support from all those around him, including the female members of his family. This has been corroborated by historians, as will be seen in the film. We may never know exactly what role each fulfilled, but I believe that female musicians may have had a far greater creative role than previously believed.

As a full-time professional composer myself, I know first-hand that having children is not a block to creativity. Anna Magdalena had a lot more help around the house, and with the children, than I did, and clearly had time to be a copyist. Why then should she not also have composed?  

Professor Jarvis is not claiming that the Cello Suites manuscript is composed straight onto the page by Anna, but that it is her copy of her own draft, not her husband’s — hence the fluency of the handwriting. This could also explain, in my opinion, the many mistakes in accidentals, etc. — as composers very often make these kinds of mistakes in their own work, because they have the music running in their head. This is why we need proofreaders.

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