fri 28/02/2020

Written By Mrs Bach, BBC Four | reviews, news & interviews

Written By Mrs Bach, BBC Four

Written By Mrs Bach, BBC Four

Did Anna Magdalena compose some of her husband's best-loved masterpieces?

Frau Bach at the keyboard – could she have composed the 'Goldberg Variations'?

The Australian musician and musicologist Martin Jarvis, connected with Charles Darwin University in the Northern Territory, has been obsessed for the past 25 years with proving that Anna Magdalena Wilcke, Johann Sebastian Bach’s second wife, was not only muse, inspiration, and copyist but a composer of pieces that now bear her husband’s name. He claimed that she created the cello suites which are among the masterpieces of 18th-century music, among other contributions, including, perhaps, the tune that is the basis for Bach’s Goldberg Variations

Jarvis enlisted the professional help of a forensic graphologist, the American academic Heidi Harralson, to examine scores and signatures. Visits were made to Harvard University, Weimar, Leipzig, Cöthen and Karlsbad, speculating all the way with occasional demonstrations of computer analyses of signatures and music scores. To show that he had travelled far from Oz in his quest, the professor was seen walking quickly down various streets in various cities trundling his carry-on roller bag.

The participants may have enjoyed their investigatory travels, but for the viewer it was a free ride to nowhere

The whole was commented upon by the distinguished Scottish composer Sally Beamish. Ms Beamish was perhaps chosen because of the fashionable and understandable attempts to find behind every creative man a creative woman, to perhaps indeed rewrite (as she breathlessly asserted) the whole history of music. There were occasional musical intervals by an Australian musician, a lady with a lot of hair whose name this reviewer never caught, who played Bach on a harpsichord improbably sited on a terrace at the dramatic seaside Sydney Opera House, overlooking the rippling waters of the bay.

We were told that Bach (or whoever) composed all his finest work after his second marriage; that Anna Magdalena bore 13 children, of whom only six survived into adulthood; that her eldest stepdaughter was only five years younger than her stepmother, and therefore must have detested Anna Magdalena, who was buried as a mendicant widow in an unmarked grave in Leipzig. Johann Sebastian's adult musician sons had deserted their stepmother after Bach’s death, and it was one of those musicians, Carl Philip Emanuel, who spun his father’s life story to Bach’s first biographer, 50 years later.

These rather random facts popped up from time to time in a narrative that attempted to appear purposeful but was a curious meander with no solid core. Evidence as to who did what was not convincing, and did not seem to matter all that much as musicians of the period were jacks – or jills – of all trades in the world of music, from composing to playing to conducting.

Nor was any back story offered as to why Martin Jarvis was himself so concerned with attempting to ferret out Anna Magdalena’s story, to the point of prurient speculation as to whether before their marriage Anna Magdalena and Bach had had an affair in the fashionable spa town of Karlsbad. This was the cue for scenes of 21st-century end-of-festival parties to show what jolly japes there were. However, Jarvis did tell us his father was a senior Welsh policeman, and sleuthing was in his genes (the party-going JS Bach, pictured below).

There were glimpses of lush Australian landscape to show Jarvis’s habitat, and a flutter of some Bach being played by some Australian musicians rather improbably in an art gallery hung with bland abstract paintings, haphazardly conducted by Jarvis (to show his musicianly credentials no doubt). As punctuation, there were glimpses of the mute Anna Magdalena penning her compositions – left handed – while being driven through the countryside in a coach, gazing soulfully at nothing in particular, tiny tableaux which were there for atmosphere but served only to irritate.

Rather than illuminating the world of music in the 18th century in general and Bach’s career in particular, let alone Anna Magdalena’s, the film neither arrived at any further understanding, nor any firm conclusions. The participants in this programme may have enjoyed their investigatory travels across the world, but for the viewer it was a free ride to nowhere.


Surely some research was done before the portrayals but does anyone know for certain that Anna Magdalena was left handed? I've noticed a preponderance of actors in dramatisations writing that way ... we never actually got to see ink put to paper using this method one apparently questioned the practical difficulties involved of writing that way with slow drying ink ... of the three ages of Anna Magdalena depicted the most convincing was the later use of a writing slope ... any detective worth his salt would have thought twice about the accused's MO ... and as for the ubiquitous forensic facial reconstruction ...

I have not had the opportunity to see the film in question, but I have read Prof. Jarvis' insightful book on the subject. I am simply offended by the supercilious tone of this review. What is so "improbable" about Australian musicians performing J.S. Bach's music in an art gallery? Interest in the work by women which was obstructed and hidden by repressive social values of the time has been a factor for a great many decades and is hardly merely "fashionable." Liane Curtis, PhD Musicology. President, Women's Philharmonic Advocacy

Professor Jarvis's work has been taken apart by Ruth Tatlow, a Bach specialist who appeared in the film, and who charges him with ignorance of key research and an inability to translate inscriptions on the Bach manuscript accurately. Her stance can be summed up that he formed his opinions before doing the necessary research and then wouldn't be budged from his conviction. It's very well worth reading.

I have no difficulty with the theoretical concept that some of the vast quantity of music allegedly written by Bach may have been wrongly attributed. One throwaway line in the TV documentary did disturb me, however. It was stated that if Anna Magdalena had sufficient musical education to enable her to transcribe music from dictation, she therefore also had the ability to compose. This is surely nonsense! I can write down music from dictation, but I most assuredly do not have the creative spark that allows me to compose anything worth listening to. I can also write down prose or poetry from dictation, but could never write anything that could conceivably be mistaken for a previously undiscovered work by Dickens or Wordsworth! I will certainly read Pof. Jarvis's book with an open mind, but as far as the TV documentary goes, his case was definitely Not Proven.

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