Online Journal

(3rd Edition, The Master Musicians)
Malcolm Boyd
Oxford University Press, 2000
ISBN: 0-19-514222-5

The deeply-missed Malcolm Boyd's addition to OUP's Master Musicians series, reprinted last year in its third edition, is an illuminating introduction to the life and music of JS Bach. Combining biography with scholarship of the highest order, it adds to an available corpus of Bach literature, which, in this last year, has included Davitt Moroney's JS Bach: An Extraordinary Life (Reviewed Vol.1, No. 2, August 2000) from the ABRSM and Christoph Wolff's JS Bach: A Learned Musician (OUP, 2000, reviewed, Vol. 1, No. 3, September 2000). With both providing excellent commentaries, all be they at very different levels, one might be forgiven for questioning the introduction of yet another monograph on the subject to a market that is already creaking under the weight of literature in the wake of Bach 250. Yet Boyd's is an unusual and refreshing approach that finds a middle ground between the basic introductory material found in Moroney and the musicological profundity one finds in such authors as Wolff. From this viewpoint, its conception is excellent and, even if he fails to produce any startling revelations, its appeal to those with a general musical interest and those looking for a more detailed musical discourse must be great. Much can be learned from its pages. Particularly appealing is its format and style: Boyd, who was an experienced teacher, is careful to present content in a user-friendly yet authoritative manner and the overall structure of the volume alternates between biography and information concerning Bach's music and style. Thus he provides information on the key periods of Bach's life, according to his various incumbencies, and matches these with commentaries appropriate to those genres in which his chief interests lay at that particular time. Hence, we find Weimar linked with the organ music, Cöthen with orchestral, instrumental and keyboard music, and so on. Inevitably, there are overlaps, to which he draws our attention, but the result is a lucid account that allows us to perceive clearly the development of Bach, the mature, cerebral composer of The Art of Fugue from the youthful and, at times, musically inarticulate youngster.

As we might expect from one at the forefront of Bach scholarship, Boyd's assessment of source material is intelligent, drawing not only from his own personal observations, but also from his assimilation of others' researches. For example, 'Parodies and Publications', in which he discusses the reason for the decline in the output of compositions during Bach's second Leipzig period – a contentious but convincing series of arguments – and 'The Bach Heritage', where he appraises Bach not only in light of his contemporaries, but also in terms of reception, are succinct essays of the highest merit. There are a few drawbacks, however, notably Boyd's infuriating tendency to sit on the fence when it comes to aspects of performance practice. Indeed, it would have been interesting to discover his own feelings on the somewhat contentious issue of the makeup of Bach's choirs and orchestras instead of a somewhat brief and unilluminating reference to Joshua Rifkin's researches.

So what's new? Well, in terms of this publication, surprisingly little since the 1995 corrective imprint, since at this level Bach scholarship seems to have remained relatively dormant and, although information, particularly in the appendices, has been updated, we should perhaps not be too disappointed. Overall, this is an excellent publication and a very worthwhile addition to any library.

John Woodford  

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