Anna Magdalena Bach- composer?
Martin Jarvis, professor of music at Charles Darwin University in Australia, claims some of Johann Sebastian Bach’s best-loved works were actually written by his wife. By Hannah Furness.
Forensic analysis of some of Johann Sebastian Bach’s best-loved works proves they were actually written by his wife, an academic has claimed. Martin Jarvis, professor of music at Charles Darwin University in Australia, argues that Anna Magdalena, Bach’s second wife, was actually the composer of some of his major works, including the Cello Suites.
The academic, who first proposed his theory to his sceptical peers in 2006, has spent years compiling evidence, with a comprehensive study of handwriting and manuscripts.
A new documentary will now detail the analysis of ink and writing style to “prove” Mrs Bach had far more input than previously thought. Presented by Sally Beamish, a British composer, and due to be screened at Bafta next week, the film will include evidence from an American forensic scientist who analysed the composer’s signature and his famous scores.
Prof Jarvis said he aims to overturn the “sexist” convention that recognised composers were always a “sole male creator”, to finally reinstate Mrs Bach into the history books.
I find this all very interesting. It does seem that Anna Magdalena was a talented woman, and worked alongside J.S Bach, who in his later years had failing eye sight. She was clearly of great assistance to him in writing out the scores- but did she compose herself? It’s great that it is actually a man (Martin Jarvis) who is seeking for a woman musician to recognised! It certainly is strange that Anna Magdalena’s portrait went missing (destroyed?) and also many of the Bach manuscripts after her passing.
Another article on Anna Magdalena:
Anna Magdalena Bach: a forgotten genius? If JS Bach’s wife composed some of his best-known pieces, it will put a bomb at the heart of the Western musical tradition. By Ivan Hewett.
So, the shocking truth is out. Anna Magdalena Bach, second wife of the great J.S Bach, was more than just the humble copyist of her husband’s music. She actually composed some of it.
This is the theory of two music-loving members of the Association of Forensic Document Examiners. They’ve pored over the handwriting in a number of Bach’s manuscripts, and concluded that some pieces copied by Anna Magdalena don’t show the proper hallmarks of the copyists’ style. The handwriting isn’t deliberate or “heavy” enough. It’s the quick uncertain hand of someone thinking and creating as they write. They reckon that among the pieces Anna Magdalena composed herself are the Cello Suites and the 1st Prelude and Fugue from the Well-Tempered Clavier.
It’s an astonishing revelation, but is it true? A stylistic feature of handwriting seems a slender basis for re-attributing some of Bach’s best-known pieces. We want some corroborating evidence, and that’s not so easy to find. We know Anna Magdalena played the harpsichord, not least because her husband wrote his famous collection of easy pieces called the “Little Notebook” for her to play. We know she was musically literate, as she acted as his copyist. But there isn’t a single hint in the surviving documents of the Bach household that she may have composed music. And frankly, how could she have done, with a large household to run? Also she would have had to defy one of the strongest prejudices of her era. This held that Woman, a lesser sort of being made from Adam’s spare rib, couldn’t possibly be creative. She could sing and play music, but only men could do the serious intellectual business of writing the stuff.
However there’s another way of looking at the evidence. In those days the divisions between performance, improvisation and composing weren’t sharp. Composing arose naturally out of improvising, and improvising would have been part of any musician’s training. So in her quiet moments, when Anna Magdalena had time to play, it’s likely she would have made up pieces, and even written them down. Perhaps the reason no one in her circle mentioned this is that it was considered a slightly indecent occupation for a woman. And Anna Magdalena herself, being a proper Leipzig hausfrau, wouldn’t have advertised the fact.
Cellist Steven Isserlis debunks the claim:
Suite scandal: why Bach’s wife cannot take credit for his cello masterwork.
Why are people so credulous when it comes to classical music? A film called Written by Mrs Bach has just appeared, followed by various breathless press reports, all seeming to give it credence. The film claims that Johann Sebastian Bach’s 6 Suites for solo cello, among the greatest, and most beloved, pieces of music ever written, were in fact composed by Bach’s second wife, Anna Magdalena. This “theory” was first propounded some years ago by Martin Jarvis, a professor at Charles Darwin University in Northern Territory, Australia, who is at the centre of this new film. The theory got some attention, was dismissed by Bach scholars and then (I thought) died forever; but here it is again.
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.
Personally, I don’t find it so incredible that Anna Magdalena was able to compose music! I’d welcome some comments!