A View From The Fence: Written by Mrs Bach?

17/03/2015 20:35 GMT | Updated 17/05/2015 10:12 BST

Johann Sebastian Bach is recognised as a figure of genius in the history of western music, but his daily life is shrouded in mystery. His second wife, Anna Magdalena Wilcke, was the copyist of many of his works, and worked closely with him. What was the reality of this relationship? The latest theory from forensic musicologist Martin Jarvis has caused fury among eminent musicians, who say there is 'not a shred of evidence' to prove that Anna Magdalena composed the famous cello suites. And of course, she had all those children, so how could she have found the time?

I'm on the fence. The important thing for me is that it's now been proved it's absolutely possible, and even likely, that Anna Magdalena Bach had a creative hand in work attributed to her husband.

We have a musical 'canon' which more or less excludes women, and this new research raises a burning question: whether some music by women (which must exist) could be hidden under male relatives' names. We know this is the case with Fanny and Felix Mendelssohn. It seems even more likely in the 18th Century, when the job 'composer' didn't exist: composing was something that was part of a bigger brief (Kapellmeister, Cantor etc); and all music was regarded as coming from God in any case - so the hand holding the pen wasn't such a big issue. And it was also a time when creators typically had 'workshops'; for example, Michelangelo and Stradivarius. The sole (usually male) creator has always been assumed in the history of music. But this isn't even true now. Consider film composers for instance, who often have a team of composers working with them. The problem is that women historically had little outlet for their work, except through the family 'brand', so they have effectively disappeared.

It's not surprising that some female composers still have issues with confidence in their work, because of the scarcity of role models. Even Clara Schumann said:

"I once believed that I possessed creative talent, but I have given up this idea; a woman must not desire to compose - there has never yet been one able to do it. Should I expect to be the one?"

As for the science behind the theory - the forensic findings are fascinating. Anna Magdalena's handwriting has been found in several documents where it shouldn't be, proving that she was working alongside Bach from the age of 12. And from a musicological angle, the Cello Suites are the sole example of a set of Bach suites that all follow exactly the same model (Prelude, Allemande, Courante etc etc). There are a number of other anomalies that set them slightly aside from Bach's output.

The fifth suite also exists in Bach's autograph as a lute suite. Perhaps he gave this to Anna to transcribe for cello, and she decided to add five more suites, using the lute suite as a template.

Professor Jarvis is not claiming that the Cello Suites were composed straight onto the page by Anna Magdalena, but that she was making a fair copy from an original draft, which is now lost. The question is whether this draft was by Johann Sebastian, or by Anna herself. The type of mistakes she makes, and the speed and flow of her handwriting, could indicate that she was copying from something extremely familiar to her. A composer very often omits detail because they hear the right note in their head and don't notice they haven't clarified it on the page. This is why composers, like writers, need proof-readers.

And if the question is how she could have produced the cello suites with little in her portfolio beforehand, you have only to look at Mary Shelley for an example of an 18-year-old who brought a masterpiece into being, seemingly from nowhere.

I don't think we'll ever know. But the possibility shouldn't be discounted out of hand in the assumption she 'couldn't have composed because she had all those children'.

I began my composing career when I had my children. It suited family life much better than a playing career. Four hours childcare a day did it for me, whereas we now know that Anna Magdalena had a permanent staff, plus several female relatives onhand to help.

We must stop discounting female creators because they have also brought children into the world. I don't see why we shouldn't at least consider the possibility that Anna was a great composer.

And for a balanced view, we should remember that there is not a shred of evidence that JS Bach wrote the Cello Suites, either.

Written by Mrs Bach is on Friday 20 March at 8pm on BBC4, directed by Alex McCall


Washington Post

Julian Lloyd-Webber: The Independent