Written by Mrs Bach?
A new documentary suggests that Mrs Bach was behind the greatest works by her husband Johann Sebastian. But does it ring true?
You know that if classical music makes the pages of the infamously scurrilous Daily Mail there’s got to be a good story, so it’s not surprising an iconoclastic new film, Written by Mrs Bach, made it in. Undoubtedly the idea that Bach’s second wife Anna Magdelena wrote much of the great master’s music is a good story. Add to that possible marital infidelity, underage sex, suicide, conspiracy theory and fraud, and it’s no wonder the Mail went for it – there’s even a bit of cosmetic surgery, if you count the rather gruesome scene where Bach’s face gets reconstructed from photos of his skull.
I went to see the premiere of the film last night, and it does indeed make a great detective tale. Australian professor and violinist Martin Jarvis, complete with mad scientist hair, in search of scientific evidence to back up his hunch that not only was there more than one hand in the master’s writing, but that this hand was actually creating the music, not just copying it from Bach's scores or taking dictation as his eyesight worsened. In this quest he brings in Heidi Harralson, an American forensic document examiner, as well as a German historian, a facial reconstructionist, and various music scholars. They travel through the German towns where Bach worked, seeking out manuscripts in libraries, using special scanning equipment to compare various autographs, writing and notation, and drawing their own conclusions.
What are these? That Anna Magdalena might have been highly educated musically. She might have been a violinist, as well as a fine singer. She might already have been part of the Bach household at the age of 12. As Kapellmeister Bach might have been paying her an inflated salary because he was having his way with her. Their affair might eventually have caused his wife to commit suicide. The couple might have shared his compositional duties as a team. She might have written the aria of the Goldberg Variations. She might have written the Cello Suites. The pain from swolen eyelids might have affected Bach's ability as a composer. After Bach’s death, his sons from his first marriage might have burnt all the documentation to keep her out of the picture. And some of the Bach manuscripts that have been sold for hundreds of thousands might not actually belong to his hand but to hers.
Inevitably, the evidence presented is the tip of the iceberg of what Jarvis has investigated throughout his research, or of what is needed to be definitive. So although there are interesting comparisons between the various pieces of handwriting, which convince Harralson, it’s quite hard to be drawn into making the step from this being Magdalena’s handwriting to it being her actual creation. It’s all interesting, but I didn’t feel that anything is proved conclusively, and some of the claims are plain outlandish. The fact is that aside from the markings on the manuscripts there is pitifully little real evidence to build a bigger picture.
However, there are interesting themes along the way, most notably the questions the film raises about our expectations of female composers throughout history, something the narrator, composer Sally Beamish, is keen to explore. The standard assumptions posited are that Magdalena could not have had a hand in actually composing anything because she couldn’t have been educated, she couldn’t have composed with all the children around, that she wouldn’t have had the spirit to do it, or that Bach wouldn’t have taken her seriously. I have no doubt that female composers down the line have had to put up with such assumptions. And I’m sure there are cases where it’s been easier for them to ‘give’ their work to male composers – Fanny Mendelssohn being a famous example of having composed work that was credited to her brother. There is also the parallel in violin making, with speculation that the hand of Katarina Guarneri was involved in some of the great works by her husband Guarneri ‘del Gesù’.
But for me the main problem is certainly not that I don’t believe a woman could have written such good music. Rather it is that there seems – to my musicologically untrained brain – a consistency and character, a DNA, to the works I know by Bach, which suggests an overriding musical personality at work. And in order to disabuse me of this idea, the film would have needed to make direct musical comparisons between the actual bars and structures composed by both Bachs, rather than focusing so much on the handwriting.
I'm all for iconoclasm. If great composers rely on the spadework of others, as is sometimes the case in art – such as with the Damian Hirsts and Henry Moores of this world – then this should be known. Again there’s a comparison with violin making, as we know that Stradivarius didn’t actually make his violins in their entirety but managed his workshop in order to produce great instruments to a standard at which he was satisfied. They still bear his hallmarks in all the important places and do what they need to do, but do the investors who spend millions on such instruments realise this? Possibly not. And maybe it doesn’t matter anyway. But if that’s the same with Bach and his great masterworks, then it certainly merits musicological study.
Ultimately though, Bach had the last word on the subject – as the credits rolled they played the powerful build up of the opening of his St John Passion. A reminder of the phenomenal scale of his mastery, and that ultimately, music is so much more than markings on a page, whoever put them there.