Bach: A Concertgoer’s Companion, by Alec Robertson
One of the more fascinating aspects to this book, at least for me, is the way that it demonstrates that amazing and creative music need not come from a life that is disordered. While Bach’s life certainly was not without drama, much of the drama of that life was of the particularly mundane kind of a creative person struggling with a lot of obligations and bristling at the sort of people he had to deal with in authority. This is by no means a new story, as creative people tend by nature to have an ambivalent to hostile attitude to the status quo and yet are dependent for their living on patrons who are appreciative enough of their creativity to put up with their independent-mindedness. Bach’s creativity and technical ability were clearly sufficient enough for the rulers of Leipzig to put up with his ornery nature or the way that he failed to fulfill all the demands in his contract. Sometimes it is better to accept things as they are and look the other way when it comes to imperfections and that seems to be the approach taken by both Bach and his longtime employers, thus limiting the actual incident within the course of Bach’s life.
This book is a relatively short one at between 100 and 150 pages, and it is divided into four parts. The first part of this book deals with Bach’s life, and shows his career, his productive devotion to being fruitful and multiplying in a variety of ways, and his efforts at trying to find a royal patron that sadly did not succeed. After this discussion of Bach’s life, the author includes books about Bach in English that allow the reader the opportunity to read larger books that deal more completely with the minutae of Bach’s life or with a more technical discussion of his works. The third part of the book, perhaps unsurprisingly, deals with editions of Bach’s music that again allow the reader the chance to see just how staggeringly productive Bach was as a composer. Let us not forget that Bach was responsible for educating musicians, providing music for the local city and its church, and on top of these duties he managed to create a lot of works which simply is to be appreciated. Finally, the book ends with a discussion of selected recordings of Bach’s music, many of which are no doubt worth checking out, as well as an index.
What this book does that other authors should pay attention to is to take the general lack of incident in the life of the subject as a strength and begin with an account of that life, and its mundane natures of bureaucratic politics and overwork and the difficulty of meeting up to contractual obligations and then to spend the rest of the time talking about the works that Bach managed to create despite having massive responsibilities that made it more difficult for him to create but which likely created the constraints that allowed his creativity to blossom and flourish. As human beings we frequently need encouragement for our gifts to be brought to their full capacity and there is little doubt that Bach was among the most creative composers of all time and one whose staggering productivity makes him even now a composer that simply has to be known in order to fully understand and appreciate the Western tradition. Even now, some of his oratorios and masses and selections from the Well-Tempered Clavier can bring a great deal of pleasure to the contemporary listener, and that is saying a great deal.