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Bach (Master Musicians (Paperback Oxford))
by Malcolm Boyd
ISBN 0195307712 / 9780195307719 / 0-19-530771-2
Publisher Oxford University Press, USA
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Though he begins by bemoaning "the difficulty of writing anything on Bach remotely worthy of its subject," Malcolm Boyd goes on to do exactly that. This volume from the Master Musicians Series (which also includes Julian Budden on Verdi and Michael Kennedy on Richard Strauss) intermingles chapters on Bach's life with chapters on his music (also roughly chronological) in a delightfully clearheaded way. Boyd is perfectly willing to say whether he finds a piece of music to be substandard and freely takes issue with the scholarship of earlier analysts. Taking nothing for granted, Boyd disproves common assumptions about relative dates of compositions. The section on cantatas begins with brief notes on the genre, a few antecedents, and the subtypes of secular and sacred. Boyd then briskly reviews the surviving works, dwelling on a few for some enlightening and representative details. In "Canons and Counterpoint," he sorts out the Musical Offering in a remarkable few paragraphs before having a go at The Art of the Fugue. Boyd's charts are very easy to follow (appropriate for a composer whose music is often compared to architecture), and his musical examples--especially in the chapter titled "Orchestral, Instrumental, and Keyboard Music"--are spectacularly well chosen. There is room for a few choice incidental observations (e.g., cantatas for the winter months were shorter, sparing the choirboys time in the unheated organ lofts). A 22-page work list (revised in 1997), a life calendar, and a brief chapter on numerology round out a highly rewarding volume. --William R. Braun [via]