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Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician

4.24  ·  Rating details ·  835 ratings  ·  50 reviews
Although we have heard the music of J. S. Bach in countless performances and recordings, the composer himself still comes across only as an enigmatic figure in a single familiar portrait. As we mark the 250th anniversary of Bach's death, author Christoph Wolff presents a new picture that brings to life this towering figure of the Baroque era. This engaging new biography ...more
Paperback, 640 pages
Published September 17th 2001 by W. W. Norton Company (first published March 1st 2000)
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Michael Finocchiaro
I think that if you are going to read one biography of Bach (and if you like music - any kind of music - you owe it to yourself to read at least one), then this one is it. It is engaging, interesting, not overly intellectual and gives you a real appreciation for the genius of the artist and the complexity of the human being. Christoph Wolff is probably the preeminent scholar at this point on "old Bach" and this biography is truly one of my favourite composer biographies. A must read.
♥ Ibrahim ♥
Dec 20, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: thinkers-i-adore
I used to spend lots of money on cassette tapes and CDs of Arabic music, but when I discovered Bach I never looked back or missed the cheesy, sorrow-laden music I grew up with. I can’t have enough of Bach music and I want to read as much as I can about his life as a person.
Samuel Gutterman
May 06, 2009 rated it liked it
Holy crap I finished it. I have to imagine it's rough writing a biography of someone for whom nothing but the barest facts of his day-to-day life exist. Unfortunately, when this is all you have, this is all you can talk about, and as a result The Learned Musician gets awfully caught up in the minutiae, including charts of concert schedules, extensive details of Bach's salary, and on and on. Of course what you *want* is insight into his creative process, and a peek into a type of life (and ...more
Dec 28, 2011 rated it liked it
Reading this book exposed a lot of my own failings. I don't know German or have a sophistocated understanding of music theory and history. But I really like to listen to the works of J.S Bach. So I read this biography in the hope of gaining a better understanding of the man and his music.

Wolff's biography is designed for music scholars or for someone with a better understanding of music theory and composition than I have. Wolff spends a great deal of time and effort explaining how changes made
Lucy Pollard-Gott
Mar 19, 2012 rated it it was amazing
This biography is both a compelling narrative--of Bach's training, career, creative output, and important musical and personal relationships--and deep scholarship. Wolff's angle is to emphasize Bach as scholar, first of Latin, and then of the complexities of instrument building and musical architecture, which he advanced considerably. Hard to recommend it enough! Bach's birthday is March 21st, so a good time to learn more about this unmatched, complete artist.
Carolina Morales
Jan 02, 2018 rated it really liked it
The man was simply outstanding. In his lenghty life, Bach had 2 wives, 20 children (9 of it survived to adulthood) and lived in the most important cities of what we call today Germany: Berlin, Weimar, Dresden, Leipzig, Köthe, Hamburg. He worked incessantly and set standards to all classic musiciand than came along after him. A life devoted to Arts, thy name is Johann Sebastian Bach.
Josh Friedlander
Bach was an intensely religious, modest scion of a well-known musical family, making a career as Church cantor in a part of Europe still scarred by the Thirty Years War. Despite not being university-educated, he was able to absorb and improve on pretty much all the contemporary music of his time. We know few details about his life, but Wolff squeezes out everything we have (sometimes making for dry reading). This book doesn't explain much about Bach's techniques, and the musically ignorant ...more
Sep 18, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Bach is a giant in music and Christoph Wolff successfully explains why. Wolff's book is an excellent work of scholarship. His thesis is that Bach worked within historical musical frameworks to let his original musical genius emerge. He worked to become a virtuoso of several instruments and then had the humility to put in the untold hours in took to become a true master of counterpoint and the fine art of composition. Not every musician has the spark of ability to create a melody, guess who had ...more
Christian Richardsøn
In line with all the other reviews: this is a real hard yakka read. Not to say it doesn't come with its rewards though.

There are some really intriguing elements, though the trouble that I'd assume presents most readers is: awareness of Bach's comprehensive catalogue. In all honesty this book would be perfect in multimedia format on an iPad (or similar) allowing readers to hear audio examples as they read. Until that day comes though I begrudgingly (out of respect for the author) have to limit my
Alexander Lochard
Aug 07, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: music, biography
Just outstanding and beautifully written. It did take me some time to read because I patiently took my time to listen to all off the music that are mentioned in this book by Bach on YouTube. For me it was a lot of fun to read and listen to.I hope others can enjoy it the same as way as it was for me.
Jun 22, 2012 added it
Shelves: unfinished
Actually, I'm still slowly making my way through this, but nothing could induce me to knock down its five stars on what I've read so far. I think the WSJ reviewed it by saying that its writing was well-suited to its subject matter. It's true: Christoph Wolff writes the book a bit like Bach composes music. It's definitely becoming one of my favorite books.
Jan 01, 2009 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
While listed as a biography, the author acknowledges that there is a great deal not known about Bach's life. The book therefore is more about musical theory than about the man himself. The style is pedantic, and more than a passing knowledge of music and organs is needed to keep up with this tome.
Snævar Hreinsson
Very informative, but due to the fact that we have so little first hand knowledge of Bach's live the book is a bit dry. However, it bothered me less how little information we about his personal life in contrast with the many references to music he wrote, but have been lost.
Sep 17, 2014 rated it it was amazing
I learned a trmendous amunt about the man and the composer from reading this book. Not that any of that helps me play his violin music, but it certainly helps me appreciate the genius and hard work that went nto creating that music.
Jan 16, 2009 added it
A fascinating book, full of detail that clarifies a lot of Bach's music and the time/place he lived in. Bach has been a major influence on m,y writing. I also learned that I may be distantly related to him!
Linh Pham
Feb 22, 2014 rated it really liked it
Extremely detailed work studying the life of one of the greatest composers of all time. I enjoyed not only the music materials but also all the interesting events happening in Bach's life and family. A great book for music people!
Richard Pohl
Dec 04, 2013 rated it it was amazing
This unique biography offers the most comprehensive treatise on the Master and his work. Assembling the widest possible material, its publishing was a major event and it rightly deserves all its prize. Must read for any music lover and musician above all. ...more
I learned what Bach did and how he came so famous.
Jan 13, 2014 rated it really liked it
I really did enjoy this book. There were some spots that got bogged down in lists of details which is the only reason I gave it 4 instead of 5 stars. Overall though a very well written biography.
Mar 01, 2011 rated it liked it
Shelves: biography
Tons of details from the contemporary letters, documents and press releases. A nice reconstruction of the life of the most important composer.
Nov 16, 2010 rated it really liked it
So far an excellent read!

2/17/11 - I learned a great deal. An excellent read.
Ray Duncan
May 07, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Best book I've read on Bach. Far more accessible than the recent "Castles of Heaven."
Feb 25, 2008 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: Bach lovers and those who want to learn more about him.
I read this for a music history class in which I had to imagine a luncheon meeting of Brahms, Bach and Copland. Got a great deal of information on Bach, his life, and his era.
Mini Mags [Margaret]
Jun 13, 2007 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: Music Students/ Music Scholars
Very thorough coverage of Bach's life. The musical examples and analysis are especially useful. Written in a scholarly fashion, this is not a book for the casual biography reader.
Jun 09, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A thorough and indepth description of the life and works of this composer.
Long with some musical examples and scores as well this is an bsolute must read for every bach lover.
Jan 14, 2010 rated it really liked it
Not an easy book - I use it more for reference. But I couldn't live without it!
Sep 08, 2019 rated it really liked it
Very tough to pick a star rating on this book!

The musical insights are very solid, whether on the micro level of picking apart 3 measures of a canon, the mid-level of the B Minor Mass, or the macro level of Bach's musical thought, including a great afterword about how Bach's music represents the ideal of unity in diversity.

But... the biography itself is much more of a mixed bag. Bach remains the enigma at the center of any biography of him, because in the end we have so few documents directly by
Sep 09, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: music
This was one of the best and most enjoyable composer biographies I have ever read. It is extremely detailed, but Wolff makes the meticulous detail a source of richness rather than an exercise in either pedantry or tedium. Despite the lack of personal correspondence or other such information that history has preserved for us, Wolff also portrays Bach as living, breathing person rather than just an iconic figure, and furthermore, give the modern reader a very good sense of what an 18th century ...more
James Ruley
Apr 23, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: music
J.S. Bach is considered by many to be the father of classical music. As the author points out, what Newton was to science, Bach was to music. Despite that, we know relatively little about Bach apart from his music. His life will always be a mystery, but his music reveals a man with a systematic yet creative mind, who created musical masterpieces that altered the flow of classical music forever. This biography does as good a job, as I think one can, of illuminating Bach’s life. The downside, ...more
Wendy Jensen
Jun 16, 2019 rated it really liked it
A long read, this book contains priceless gems giving us insight into Bach the composer, the virtuoso, the teacher, the organ-inspector, and the man. Already enamored of his music, I am astounded to learn of the incredible thought that went into each composition. Saying that Bach merged math and music, added scripture, and created new sounds that had never been heard before only barely scratches a description of his mighty works. I now have a new appreciation for this amazing man.
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Christoph Wolff is a German-born musicologist, who is best known for his works on the music, life, and times of Johann Sebastian Bach. Christoph Wolff has been on the faculty of Harvard University since 1976 and director of the Bach Archive in Leipzig since 2001.
“Music is a mixed mathematical science that concerns the origens, attributes, and distinctions of sound, out of which a cultivated and lovely melody and harmony are made, so that God is honored and praised but mankind is moved to devotion, virtue, joy, and sorrow.” 8 likes
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