Sunday, March 22, 2015

Let's speculate wildly about Anna Magdalena Bach

Would you buy a used cello suite from this man?
There was this thing on the telly the other night... sorry, I mean, I watched a programme on BBC4 on Friday, in which musicologist Martin Jarvis put forward his theory that Anna Magdalena Bach was the true composer of the music we call "Bach's cello suites". He's been (controversially) saying this for some years now, but it was the first I'd heard of it. Written by Mrs Bach kicked off a little passive-aggressively with an epigraph from John Locke on the value of not being too quick to dismiss apparently crackpot ideas (I'm paraphrasing), but in fairness I did try to keep an open mind during the show. It's easy to have a knee-jerk reaction to this sort of claim, challenging as it does some sacred cows about music, and so yes, one should judge by the evidence rather than just assuming straight-off that he's wrong. Presenter Sally Beamish seemed to be coming at Jarvis's theory more from a "woman-composer" perspective, which is to say she didn't seem especially committed to the idea but was more like "well, why couldn't a woman compose this music?" A fair question, but at times I felt the attitude of the show (not necessarily Beamish herself) strayed a little close to "if you dismiss this theory, you're a hidebound conservative and sexist".
So, what of the evidence? There wasn't much there, really. A handwriting expert indicated that Bach met (and collaborated with) his future second wife when she was just 12, but aside from that there was little handwriting evidence other than hunches that Bach compositions long known to be in Anna Magdalena's hand looked a bit more composed-y rather than copied-y.
The bombshell evidence was supposed to be the title page of Anna Magdalena's copy of the cello suites. Bach pupil Georg Schwanberg had written in the corner "Ecrite par Madame Bachen, Son Epouse". Well, aside from the fact that the program avoided any musicological evidence that someone other than JS had written the music, this seemed to settle it. Until - in fairness to the program - a sceptical Ruth Tatlow showed up to point out that Jarvis had kinda missed the place on the same page where Schwanberg had written, in bigger writing because this was the actual title, "composée par Sr. J. S. Bach". Ahem. Jarvis insisted that "composée" just really meant "assembled" or somesuch, and "ecrite" really meant composed. Yeah.
Besides, he'd already pretty much blown his credibility with some unnecessary scandal in the form of the suggestion that - seeing as Bach already had known Anna Magdalena since she was 12 - when she came to Köthen as a singer and needed somewhere to stay, well, why wouldn't she stay with JS and Maria Barbara, which speculation escalated very quickly into JS having an affair with Anna Magdalena that was partially responsible for Maria Barbara's suicide. Historical note: there's no evidence whatsoever that she committed suicide.
What were the good things about Written by Mrs Bach? It was a useful reminder of just how male the world of classical music was. And yes, if a composer was married to a talented musician, she might very well come up with good ideas that add to his work, and I accept that assuming that Anna Magdalena made no contribution to her husband's work as a composer (other than copyist) is being too subservient to the idea of the "great men" view of history. So though there might not be convincing evidence that she came up with the aria for the Goldberg variations or the C major prelude from book 1 of the Well-Tempered Clavier (two other claims by Jarvis), I don't think anyone would be shocked or threatened if she had. The rather more substantial cello suites are a whole other matter though, and proper evidence is needed for such a bold claim; and there isn't any proper evidence. So if people dismiss Jarvis's theory, it's not because they're old-school misogynists whose God-like hero composer's reputation is threatened by a mere slip of a girl; it's because the theory's rubbish.
When Written by Mrs Bach was first presented to the world late last year it got plenty of breathless media coverage (though obviously not enough to attract my attention!). Some sceptical analysis that corresponds with my own thoughts can be found from Alex Ross and Steven Isserlis; there's a lengthy article in Musicology Now too, where the money quote comes from Christoph Wolff: "I am sick and tired of this stupid thesis". And most recently comes Ruth Tatlow's extensive rebuttal (PDF) in the journal Understanding Bach.

No doubt in centuries to come someone will claim that this blog post was written by Mrs Nereffid.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Henri Dutilleux: unforgiven?

Dutilleux on his first day at Mime School

According to a Gramophone blog post by James Jolly, the mayor of Paris's 4th arondissement is refusing to allow a commemorative plaque on the home of Henri Dutilleux. Is it because he didn't like Tout un monde lointain? No. Apparently all Dutilleux's achievements have been trumped by what he did as a 26-year-old, which was write a hack-work score for some Vichy propaganda film.
It's worth noting (if you enjoy irony) that Dutilleux regarded his 1946-8 piano sonata as his opus 1, renouncing most of his earlier works.
Anyway, pianist/composer Étienne Kippelen has organised a petition to encourage the mayor to change his (seemingly quite narrow) mind.

Friday, March 13, 2015

"What?... Wow" indeed

David Lang's Festival of Music at Dublin's NCH was a joy from start to finish. Go read my review on Music Is Good. And here's an exclusive photo!

Bang on a Can Brunch: Michael Gordon, David Lang, John Schaeffer, Julia Wolfe