Book review: Bach - A Musical Biography, by Peter Williams

Musicians in Scotland with long enough memories and a love of Bach will remember the name of Peter Williams. From 1962-85 he was a internationally acclaimed senior member of staff within the Edinburgh University music faculty, where his legacy was both intellectual and physical. As the university's first Professor of Performance Practice, as well as director of its famous Russell Collection of Harpsichords and latterly Dean of Music, he was able to pursue his lifelong passion for Johann Sebastian Bach and influence scores of research students in the process. As a notable organist, he left a physical legacy, before being lured to Duke University in North Carolina in 1985, in the form of the famous Ahrend 'Bach Organ' in the Reid Concert Hall, built to his specification on rigorous German Baroque historical principles.

Bach - A Musical Biography
Bach - A Musical Biography

It is fearsome to play, with its unforgiving straight pedal board and uncompromising directness of sound, but it was part and parcel of the Williams doctrine in understanding Bach’s music through the practice of authentic performance.

Williams was prolific in his writings on Bach, from early publications on the organ music and Art of Fugue in the 1980s, to biographies, beginning with his A Life of Bach (2004), through to JS Bach: A Life in Music (2007) and now this apotheosis of Williams’ musicological endeavours, a third and final examination of the composer, Bach: A Musical Biography.

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And it is indeed an apotheosis, for Williams sadly died last March, just short of his 79th birthday, leaving this final publication a posthumous one. In his obituary on Williams, Scotland’s foremost contemporary Bach scholar, Glasgow University professor John Butt, wrote: “his writing on Bach – exhaustively about the organ works, but about many other Bachian topics besides – is among the most readable and stimulating available”.

You’d think, then, that Williams would have all the answers in his extensive third major biographical Bach study. But it starts with an admission that the enlarged biographical sections “raise many questions to which no one has an answer” and ends with the perhaps inevitable conclusion that the magic of Bach – why his “music has bewitched so many different kinds of musicians ever since” – is, and probably will remain, “a mystery”.

But it’s not the biographical data, albeit rigorously laid out and considered, that gives this book its unique place on the shelf. More interestingly, it’s Williams’ notes on the music, its context and how it related to Bach’s priorities at the time of composition, that are his authentic signature. In particular, he eschews emphasis on the textural works – the Passions, cantatas, the masses – which have been examined fully enough anyway in so many other excellent and thorough studies, Butt’s included, and instead turns the spotlight on the keyboard works.

“Focusing on them [the text based works] and their expressiveness not only takes music’s meaning for granted but might neglect the composer’s profound consideration of [pure] music’s language, how its notes behave and what they can be made to do,” writes Williams. “This becomes clearest, I believe, in the keyboard music and the works often treated as if of only marginal interest, such as the canons.”

Implicit in that is the question of Bach’s unique place in the historical evolution of compositional technique: the private inner Bach that is, whose instrumental toccatas, fugues, chorale preludes and suites refined and re-engineered the foregoing prototype styles of Pachelbel, Böhm and Buxtehüde, and whose structural innovations – Williams points specifically to aspects of recapitulation in the organs sonatas and violin partitas – anticipated Classical sonata form.

The joy of this book, though, is the human touch that underlines the title, a musical biography. There is glowing affection in Williams’ balanced exploration of Bach’s humanity, personal circumstances and mindset. There is precision, logic and perceptiveness in the author’s appraisal and contextualisation of the music. Together, it not only makes for a fascinating read, but brings a great composer and his art brilliantly to life, even if it throws up more questions than answers.

*Bach - A Musical Biography, by Peter Williams, Cambridge University Press, 718pp, £29.99