Christoph Wolff's definitive biography follows Johann Sebastian Bach from his youngest days to his maturity as the world's most famous musician. Johann Sebastian Bach is born in 1685, one of many children in a musical family. The book follows the challenges posed to a 17th century German child who is trying to learn music. Because of the rarity of printed music, Bach is forced to steal copied scores from his brother's apprenticeship with Johann Pachabel. The scores are kept behind bars under lock and key, but the young boy is able to squeeze his arm through and pull out the materials, which he copies at night by candlelight. This diligence and passion are typical of the behavior that will drive the young musician for the rest of his life. From the first, Bach pursues all aspects of music. He becomes an expert music theorist, performer, composer and teacher. As an adolescent, he is already a skilled keyboardist, violinist, and singer (a skill that is lost during puberty). As a young man, the musician goes through a series of posts as a church composer and organist at increasingly prestigious posts in Germany and Austria. He is presented with weekly composition, teaching, and performance duties which he uses as opportunities to revolutionized contemporary technique and practice. Before the age of 30 he has already replaced an outmoded form or keyboard tuning and introduced the use of thumbs in keyboard technique. He also becomes an expert organ builder, providing analysis and repair advice to the largest churches in Germany for the rest of his life. He even helps in developing the then-new pianoforte, which goes on to replace the harpsichord as the standard keyboard instrument for homes and small groups. Amidst all of these accomplishments, Bach grows a large family with many children and houses them in relative luxury for the day. Throughout the book, Bach is portrayed as the consummate musician and professional. His largest struggles come from the death of a beloved daughter and from people who do not respect his worth as a musician. By the end of his life Bach is known as the Newton of music. As he nears his death, he completes his greatest technical achievement, "The Art of Fugue", a work that is still considered a towering achievement centuries later. In all, Bach's career represents every facet of musicianship being taken to the furthest reach of perfection. His life and work are inspiring and truly unbelievable. Wolff's biography provides a level of academic context and analysis absent from most other works on Bach. It also presents Bach as a balanced human being, wanting for nothing and achieving everything he sets his mind to.
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Best part of story, including ending:
I love learning the jobs Bach worked that led to the composition of most of his great works. The demands on him were tremendous and he achieved much more than he was called upon to do.
Best scene in story:
My favorite story is the young Bach stealing his brother's scores in the night to copy and study by candlelight.
Opinion about the main character:
I don't think I would have been friends with Bach. He was too intense and driven. This personality comes through in the biography, making him awe-inspiring if not always likable in the usual sense.