Sunday, 7 May 2017


Unraveling Musical Myths is introducing a new series: “Weekend at the movies with Rose.”

As the title suggests, this series will feature movies, documentaries, and other informative films on classical music readily available online. All titles have been hand selected by the author of this blog for their wealth of information, artistic merit, and/or thought provoking value (and, occasionally, purely for entertainment purposes).

Today’s inaugural feature is the 2014 documentary “Written by Mrs. Bach” by director Alex McCall.

The 52 minute prospective piece follows Charles Darwin University professor Martin Jarvis’ quest to uncover the ‘true’ author of Johann Sebastian Bach’s illustrious Cello Suites (BWV 1007 - 1012).

Anna Magdalena Bach
The documentary stirred up quite the controversy upon it’s release, enraging both cellists and Bach scholars worldwide who scoffed at Jarvis’ conclusion that it was second wife to the composer, the chanteuse Anna Magdalena, who in fact authored the infamous six Suites – including the much sampled Prelude no. I.

The renowned German musicologist and director of the Bach Archive at Leipzig Christoph Wolff has been among the most vocal on the subject, angrily declaring to the press[1] in 2014:

“I am sick and tired of this stupid thesis. When I served as director of the Leipzig Bach Archive from 2001 to 2013, I and my colleagues there extensively refuted the basic premises of the thesis, on grounds of documents, manuscript sources, and musical grounds. There is not a shred of evidence, but Jarvis doesn’t give up despite the fact that several years ago, at a Bach conference in Oxford, a room full of serious Bach scholars gave him an embarrassing showdown.”

Magdalena, who wed the recently widowed Bach following the death of his first wife Maria Barbara in 1721, was known to have assisted her husband during his tenure as Cantor of the Thomasschule at Leipzig – it was Anna who served as copyist and transcriber for much of the composer’s church music during this period (she would also famously take dictation from her spouse during his later years as the composer battled with the onset of blindness). It was at some point during Magdalena's scribing career (Mrs. Bach would sell copies of her husband's manuscripts to help support the couples enormous family) that, according to Jarvis, the beloved copyist moonlighted as a ghostwriter to her more famous counterpart.

“Written by Mrs. Bach,” as presented by British composer Sally Beamish, seeks to prove Jarvis’ theory by re-visiting the manuscript's penmanship under the negating eye of an American forensic document examiner – searching for inaccuracies, 'lightness of hand' and on-the-fly corrections to the score that could assist in ‘proving’ Magdalena in fact authored the famous works (manuscripts which, incidentally, are not exclusive to the cello suites but also include an aria from Bach’s celebrated Goldberg Variations and the composers’ first prelude of the Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I, which Jarvis argues was also authored by the Mrs.)

The siblings Mendelssohn: Fanny & Felix
This is not the first – nor will it be the last - instance in which the authorship of a famous work by a celebrated male composer has been likened to a female counterpart (Unraveling Musical Myths readers may remember reading my post on the siblings Mendelssohn and the Ostersonate – which recently premiered this past March on International Women’s Day under the ‘true’ authorship of Fanny Mendelssohn, sister to the more famous of the siblings, Felix, who previously held credit for the composition. There too, lay debate (see Ostersonate footnote #2) - albeit not nearly as unanimously ‘debunked’ as Jarvis’ hypothesis remains amongst modern scholars of classical music.

Whether one agrees with the professors' findings or not, one cannot argue that the film did not renew or inspire an interest in the works of the most illustrious maestro Bach. The documentary provoked both a sense of defense for what has been established as historical fact and provided an introspective look at the industry itself. One of the more stark components of Jarvis’ theory is cast upon the ever-popular gender discussion. In contrast to scholarly critics, “Written by Mrs. Bach” perhaps unexpectedly, aroused many a modern feminist to counter-argue that disregarding such a supposition in the face of ‘scientific evidence’ (at least, according to the documentary) is a blatant display of the continuing presence of the ‘misogyny’ many claim lay rampant within the classical music sphere.

It’s controversial value alone – if not for it’s chutzpah – makes “Written by Mrs. Bach” a documentary worth watching.

Notice - 12.26.17: Unfortunately, "Written by Mrs. Bach" is no longer available in its entirety
on dailymotion. You may still view a preview of the discussion in the trailer provided below:

Did You Know?
Bach’s stint as Cantor of the Thomasschule at the Thomaskirche (St. Thomas Church) at Leipzig began with more than a modicum of vacillatory spirit on behalf of Leipzig city councilors, who famously made it known that the composer was but the third – rather reluctant – candidate for the post.

Having previously served under the German Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Köthen as Kappellmesiter for the Köthen court (until the royal’s involvement with the Prussian military began depleting funds for the court orchestra - and the Princes’ subsequent marriage to his cousin Frederica Henriette - who did not share her husband’s love of music and thus did not support an increase in funding), Bach would turn his attention to Leipzig.

After being made aware of a vacancy for the post of Cantor at the Thomaskirche in 1722, the fiscally frustrated composer enthusiastically applied for the position. He was hired alright – but only after city councilors had exhausted ‘better’ offers from two ‘more qualified candidates’ – one of whom was the baroque composer and Cantor of the Johanneum Lateinschule in Hamburg, Georg Philipp Telemann - who had declined to take up the post because he did not wish to relocate to Leipzig, citing an increase in wages from officials in Hamburg who had gotten wind of the competing offer. The second ‘first choice’ candidate was the composer and harpsichordist Christoph Graupner, whose Marian hymn “Magnificat” sufficiently impressed Leipzig bigwigs enough to all but guarantee him the position after Telemann declined. By all accounts, Graupner was enthusiastic about the venture, yet failed to secure an early release from a contract signed between the musician and his patron Landgrave Ernst Ludwig of Hesse-Darmstadt.

It was only then that was Bach chosen for the role. Clearly, he was not the first choice: one of the Leipzig city councilors famously quipped, “As the best are not available, I suppose we must take one of the second-rate men!”

[1]Source of quoted text (Wolff):

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