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Bach: A Musical Biography

Peter Williams

Cambridge University Press

ISBN 978-1-107-13925-70499

704 pp. £29.99

Bach: A Musical Biography

Serious Bach enthusiasts will be familiar with the name of Peter Williams, whose first book on Bach was published by the BBC in 1970. A graduate of Cambridge, where he had studied during the era of Thurston Dart and FR Leavis, from 1962-85 Williams was a respected organist and internationally celebrated senior member of staff within the Edinburgh University music faculty. There he held the first Chair in Performance Practice in Britain. Later he was the first Arts and Sciences Distinguished Chair at Duke University in North Carolina. Among his achievements he was notable for rejecting the analytical methods of Heinrich Schenker and others, together with the new musicology that took over so much music scholarship from the 1980s onwards.

Williams was passionate about JS Bach, so much so that this is his third biographical Bach study. An expansion of his 2007 biography, this generous study was completed immediately before Williams fell ill with acute myeloid leukaemia, in September 2015. Sadly, he died in March this year, immediately before his 79th birthday.

In this concluding book the author gives emphasis to the composer's keyboard works. In William's own words, he reveals Bach's keyboard music as: "Crucial to Bach's biography, as a young organist and a mature composer, as a performer in public and a teacher in private, and as a profound thinker in the language of music." Bach's music is here considered chronologically and exhaustively, music collection by collection, to show Bach's development, and giving the composer's keyboard music fitting emphasis, presenting it as crucial to Bach's biography.

Commendably, Williams avoids dogmatism in this enthusiastic account. Largely, he eschews conjecture. His prose is generously open, frequently using words and phrases such as 'presumably', 'despite the uncertainties', 'it is not unlikely', 'it cannot be simply assumed', 'it is possible', etc. Some thirty musical examples are given, beautifully set. Though in a small font size, the examples are nevertheless large enough to be read for the purposes of playing at the keyboard. An index of works is given, together with a list of references, and a glossary of terms.

Bach: A Musical Biography represents an important addition to Bach scholarship, and is a vital possession for the serious Bach enthusiast.

John Robert Brown

First published in Classical Music Magazine, 2016. Used by kind permission. Reproduction forbidden.
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