cover image Johann Sebastian Bach: Life and Work

Johann Sebastian Bach: Life and Work

Martin Geck, , trans. from the German by John Hargraves. . Harcourt, $40 (738pp) ISBN 978-0-15-100648-9

Surprisingly little is known about the domestic and professional life of the man many consider the greatest composer who ever lived, and even this monumental study by a German musicologist has to fall back on a great deal of supposition of the kind all too familiar from some Shakespearean biographies. If it is scant on personal details, it is brilliantly all-encompassing on the music and on the place of Bach in the musical pantheon, both in his own time and in the present. Geck devotes at least two-thirds of his book to an exhaustive examination of Bach's technique and accomplishment in all his major works, and their impact on the listener. This analysis is not overwhelmingly technical and can be readily appreciated by an educated enthusiast. In a final section called "Horizons," in which Geck meditates on Bach's art, religion and philosophy as displayed in the music, he offers some remarkable insights. Bach's "overwhelming density" in places can inspire "shock and awe," as well as "laughter over the infinity of creation, and tears at one's own insignificance." For Bach, he says, "every work of music has to be conceived as a perfect likeness of divine creation." (Dec.)