Suite scandal: Bach didn’t write his greatest works


Jul 13, 2023

A new documentary argues that Anna Magdalena should be known for much more than being Mrs. Johann Sebastian Bach: She may have been the composer of some of her husband’s greatest works. Music professor Martin Jarvis, whose authorship suspicions were first aroused more than three decades ago, describes the evidence as “circumstantial” but “strong.” He, together with composer Sally Beamish and document-forensics expert Heidi Harralson, presents the theory in Written by Mrs. Bach. They zero in on pieces described by the Washington Post as “immortal masterpieces”—among them, the “Cello Suites” and the aria from “Goldberg Variations”—and build their case as follows:

They say the pieces are quite different from Bach’s other works from a structural and technical perspective; that the manuscripts seemed to be written by Anna Magdalena (with one page actually saying “written by Mrs. Bach” in French); and that there’s an absence of actual proof (e.g., personal papers attesting as much) that Bach wrote the works. And Anna Magdalena would have been capable of doing it, they say: She hailed from a musical family and was herself a talented soprano. While she and others were tasked with copying Bach’s scores for distribution, the researchers didn’t find a “heaviness” to the handwriting that they say is typical of a transcriber, reports the Telegraph. They also uncovered corrections in her handwriting, which they see as an indication that she was composing it as she was writing it.

Professor Jarvis is a charming and sincere man – I met him then to talk it over. But I’m afraid that his theory is pure rubbish. Anna Magdalena Bach did not write the Bach suites, any more than Anne Hathaway wrote Shakespeare’s plays, George Henry Lewes wrote George Eliot’s novels, or Freddie Starr ate his friend’s hamster.

Anna Magdalena copied out the Bach suites, in an error-ridden but invaluable manuscript, which may or may not be the earliest surviving source for the suites (Bach’s own copy, or copies, having been lost). The title page states clearly, in Anna Magdalena’s hand: 6 suites a Violoncello Solo senza basso composees par S(igno)r JS Bach.

Although I have not yet seen the film, I have seen the publicity materials for it, including the synopsis. The first sentence of this synopsis contains a howler – not a promising start: “Johann Sebastian Bach is recognised as the Father of Western Music.” Wrong – Bach is certainly not the father of western music; there were many great composers writing for a long time before he was born. The synopsis continues: “But most of his greatest works occurred after he met his second wife, Anna Magdalena Wilcke.” Big news. Johann Sebastian and Anna Magdalena married when Bach was in his mid-30s, some 30 years before he died; one would expect a composer to compose his greatest works during the second half of his life. And so on – how can anybody take this shoddy material seriously?

The main “evidence” for the theory seems to be the testimony of a handwriting expert, who has decided that Anna Magdalena’s copy shows that “the speed of the writing and the spacing between pen lifts were suggestive of composing rather than copying”. Why? Certainly to my eyes – and incidentally to those of the two musicians I know who were interviewed for the film, neither of whom believe the theory in any way – it is clearly a copy. There are no alterations or second thoughts, as there would be in a working manuscript.

Of course, it’s very possible that Anna Magdalena composed, though there’s really no evidence for it. She was obviously a very fine musician, who appeared often in concert as a singer with her husband at the keyboard. And there are many examples in history of women composers disguising their works under male names.

So why am I so sure that Bach himself composed the suites? It is partly because there are countless connections between the suites and many of his other works; but even more because the language is so clearly his – that perfection of utterance that is pure JS Bach.

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