Beyond Bach

Andrew Talle, 2017. Beyond Bach: music and everyday life in the eighteenth century. Urbana, Chicago, and Springfield: University of Illinois Press. 376 s., ill., notex. ISBN 978-0-252-04084-9 (tryck). ISBN 978-0-252-09934-2 (e-bok).

Based on newly discovered diaries, account books, and music collections in Germany, Beyond Bach is a treasure trove of information about the place of music making in the daily lives of ordinary people in J.S. Bach’s Germany. Andrew Talle’s careful selection of citations from his fascinating source materials is woven together by his easy-to-read prose, resulting in an entertaining and enjoyable read. Handling statistics, courtship, and prayer as deftly as graphic rules for boys’ behaviour (p. 143), naked breasts (p. 64), and raw sewage (p. 174), Talle masks his palpable delight in his materials behind an understated style. Ten of the eleven chapters paint a detailed portrait of real-life historical figures, illustrating from primary sources how they lived, what part music and the keyboard played, and how they were influenced by the fashion for the galant. I was engaged by the characters as if I were reading a well-researched historical novel, the major difference being that almost every paragraph in Beyond Bach is supported by a source reference. Wisely, so as not to obstruct the flow, endnotes rather than footnotes were chosen, and these are also kept to a minimum, with fuller details and the original German texts deposited on a webpage, which I kept open as I read the book. There are beautiful colour plates in the central eight pages bringing to life the faces of some of the characters. 

Chapter 1 ‘Civilizing instruments’ establishes the social scene, with an illuminating discussion of the use and meaning of the word ‘galant’ in Bach’s time in Germany. ‘Few of J.S. Bach’s contemporaries embraced all of the cutting-edge ideas and behaviors associated with galant modernity. Nearly everyone, however, was forced to come to terms with the destabilization of social structures, intellectual frameworks, and spiritual convictions that attended it.’ (p. 16) ‘Debates about the merits of musical galanterien raged throughout Bach’s lifetime. All parties agreed that they offered greater immediate pleasure, but not everyone was convinced that more pleasure was a good thing.’ (p. 31).

The protagonists of Chapter 2 ‘The mechanicand the tax collector’ are Johann Heinrich Heyne and the clavichord maker Barthold Fritz. The action takes place in Braunschweig in 1750/51. There is a table showing the profession and class of all customers who bought clavichords from Fritz. ‘Few of Fritz’s customers were professional musicians: organists, cantors, kapellmeisters, and chamber musicians made up only around 10 percent of his clientele […] Generally speaking, amateur musicians who purchased Fritz’s clavichords belonged to the wealthiest, best-educated and most prestigious segment of the German population. They were people who worked with their minds, not with their hands. The kitchen master who purchased a clavichord from Fritz was not an ordinary cook but rather a manager responsible for preparing menus, making arrangements for deliveries, and managing underlings, including the master chefs.’ (p. 37)

Chapter 3 ‘A silver merchant’s daughter’ is set in Leipzig during Bach’s time, with Christiane Sibÿlla Bose as the subject. Known to many Bach scholars as godmother in 1731 and 1735 to two Bach infants, Fräulein Bose was also the recipient of a book inscribed in 1740 by Anna Magdalena Bach, and a neighbour to the Bach family, as she lived in the Bosehaus, the location of the Leipzig Bach archive today. Talle seizes this opportunity to explore the educational possibilities open and closed to women, to describe in detail a typical morning, the social expectations on a woman, and the view of female professional musicians. Sourced from her personal account book, Talle analyses how much of her dispensable income Fräulein Bose used for music lessons, and how her keyboard playing and dancing would have been viewed morally and socially. ‘Music’s power to improve morals stemmed not only from the sacred content of the repertoire but also from the isolation it imposed. Whereas dancing was a social endeavor, one could credibly enjoy music’s pleasures in solitude […] Like extremely fair skin, it indicated that a young lady had spent her leisure time indoors, sequestered from worldly temptation […] It is no accident that Fräulein Bose’s brothers studied the flute and the violin, while she and her sisters studied the lute and keyboard.’ (p. 52) 

Chapter 4 ‘A dark-haired dame and her Scottish admirer’ takes the reader to Berlin in the 1760s, recounting the complex encounter between aristocrat James Boswell and Caroline Henriette Kircheisen, daughter of the president of the city council. Based on Boswell’s diary and an exchange of letters, the chapter illustrates the subtle ways in which music making influenced relationships, offering Talle the opportunity to discuss the role of music in courtship and the associated dangers of misunderstanding. ‘The mysterious power of music, particularly to engage the body, gave a woman’s practice room a distinctive frisson. Keyboards were frequently kept in bedrooms or dressing rooms, heightening the allure of inviting a suitor to hear a few innocent galanterien. The only man regularly granted access to the inviolate space of a woman’s music room was her music teacher.’ (p. 71)

Chapter 5 ‘Two teenage countesses’ is based on manuscripts first discovered in 1968 and acquired in 1970 by the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin. Talle is the first to recognise this collection as the ‘largest, best-preserved collection of music for teenage girls in J.S. Bach’s Germany’, and he devotes the chapter to a thorough account of the keyboard music prepared for the Countesses zu Epstein (p. 84). The rhetoric of ease was the common language used for music designed for women of the period. However, some notable characters sought to break this, including Christiane Mariane von Ziegler, and Princess Amalia of Prussia, the latter revealing in a 1755 letter to her sister-in-law ‘her obvious delight in crushing the notion of a woman’s music room as an inviolate space’ (p. 90). Talle communicates the contents of the von Epstein collection through informative charts, tables and musical examples, showing that it included multiple-composer manuscripts, single-composer manuscripts, 400 movements, of which only one (BWV 825/7) was by Bach.

The subject of Chapter 6 ‘A marriage rooted in reason’ is Luise Adelgunde Victorie Gottsched, translator and author in her own right, and wife of her even more famous husband Johan Christoph Gottsched. Luise Gottsched was a passionate amateur player of the keyboard and lute. The chapter focuses on her musical activities within the context of her courtship and marriage, beginning with her home life in Danzig 1729, her wedding and the couple’s move to Leipzig in 1735. Lest the reader is left with an idealised image of the musical life of Mme Gottsched, Talle takes the story to its sad conclusion with her growing disillusionment by her husband’s ideals, and her death in Leipzig in 1762. 

Chapter 7 ‘Male amateur keyboardists’ includes detailed discussion of the education system for boys in Bach’s time, rules for behaviour, and the place of musical instruction. Cameos of the experience of several young men at boarding school, and as medical students are graphically related – no details spared. Bylaws from a Collegium Musicum founded in Greitz in 1746 show a male drinking culture, dominated by discipline and punishment (p. 158).

Particularly interesting for Nordic readers is Chapter 8 ‘A blacksmith’s son’, set in Swedish Pomerania. This chapter features the youthful escapades of theologian J.C. Müller, and his period as tutor to the daughters of the government advisor to Pomerania’s Governor General, von Engelbrecht. It is based on Müller’s magnificent autobiography (1554 pages), two volumes of which have recently been transcribed from the original held in the Stralsund Ratsarchiv.

Chapter 9 ’May God protect this beautiful organ’ shows the organ as ’a prayer machine’ (p. 202) illustrated by an account of the commissioning (1718), construction, and consecration (1721) of the Silbermann organ at the church of St George in Rötha. J.S. Bach’s predecessor, Johann Kuhnau, features among the organ testers, as does the choir from St Thomas Leipzig, whom Kuhnau brought with him to sing at the installation service. The organ can still be heard in Rötha today.

Chapter 10 ’How professional musicians were compensated’ corrects some common misapprehensions about the role of a church organist. ‘Most organists earned far more from teaching than they did from performing […] Teaching was also the primary means by which organists and other professional musicians engaged socially with the communities that surrounded them.’ (pp. 219-20) We also learn that women were among those who studied the organ.

The final chapter ’The daily life of an organist’ is based on a previously unknown account book kept by organist Carl August Hartung. ‘Hartung’s career was typical of most musicians of his era in that he achieved neither fame nor fortune. His relatively ordinary life, however, is extraordinarily documented. From 1752 to 1765, he kept a detailed account book, bound in green leather, which is preserved today in Braunschweig’s city Archive.’ (p. 223) Hartung recorded nearly all of his financial transactions between the ages of 29 and 42 in this book. This rich source material gives detailed information about the cost of living and activities of an organist in two different towns, Cöthen (1752–60) and Braunschweig (1760–65). Talle presents tables to illustrate the apportioning of income and expenditure (Tables 9 and 12), the number of baptisms, weddings and funerals, the number of students, their names, age and their fathers’ professions (Tables 11 and 13), and to compare the data from the two locations. The 190 endnote references, complemented by the online reference material, are invaluable for the inquisitive reader. 

For far too long the canon of musicology has depended upon the recycling of limited facts, resulting in the transmission, through teaching and generalised publications, of a distorted and defective image of the past. With electronic resources, scholars today have 24/7 access to rare materials that even a gene-ration ago could have been viewed only by a study trip to an archive with restricted opening hours. It is now in our power to rewrite musicology from the foundational principles of primary sources. This book illustrates the benefits of the process, and as such marks an important milestone in the renewal of our discipline. It deserves a place among the classics. 

Ruth Tatlow

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