Flair on the G String: The life of Bach

Peter Williams has pursued a lifelong passion for Bach. from early publications on the composer's organ music and Art of Fugue in the 1980s, to biographies, beginning with his A Life of Bach (2004), through to this final examination Bach: A Musical Biography.

The cover of Bach: A Musical Biography
The cover of Bach: A Musical Biography

And it is indeed an apotheosis, for Williams sadly died last March, just short of his 79th birthday, leaving this final publication a posthumous one.

Williams’s third major biographical Bach study starts with an admission that the enlarged biographical sections “raise many questions to which no one has an answer” and ends with the conclusion that the magic of Bach is, and probably will remain, “a mystery”.

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But it’s not the biographical data, albeit rigorously laid out, that gives this book its unique place on the shelf. More interestingly, it’s Williams’ notes on the music, its context and how it related to Bach’s priorities at the time of composition, that are his authentic signature. In particular, he eschews emphasis on the textural works – the Passions, cantatas, the masses – and instead turns the spotlight on the keyboard works.

“Focusing on them [the text based works] and their expressiveness not only takes music’s meaning for granted but might neglect the composer’s profound consideration of [pure] music’s language, how its notes behave and what they can be made to do,” writes Williams.

Implicit in that is the question of Bach’s unique place in the evolution of compositional technique: the private inner Bach that is, whose instrumental toccatas, fugues, chorale preludes and suites re-engineered those forms.

The joy of this book, though, is the human touch that underlines the title, a musical biography. There is glowing affection in Williams’ exploration of Bach’s humanity. There is precision, logic and perceptiveness in his appraisal of the music. Together, it not only makes for a fascinating read, but brings a great composer and his art brilliantly to life.