Posts for:  April 2012

Meeting Christoph Wolff: aka “Mr. Bach”

Lunch with Christoph Wolff, renowned Bach scholar

One of the most endearing things about my father is that, at age 82, he remains a culture hound, just like me. Having retired to Orlando, Florida, he still sniffs out interesting cultural events within driving distance, and sets out to explore. When I visited him and my mom in February, we took in the HD simulcast of Gustavo Dudamel conducting a tremendous performance of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony with the L.A. Phil and the Simon Bolivar Orchestra in Venezuela. We also met, quite unexpectedly, one of my heroes of modern musical scholarship, Christoph Wolff.

Wolff’s tome on the life and work of J.S. Bach, Bach: The Learned Musician, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2001 and one of the best books on classical music ever written. Impeccably researched, it reveals a portrait of Bach the teacher, the performer, the father, and husband that complete our understanding of Bach the genius. I have read passages from Wolff’s book aloud to my own husband that I knew would interest him, such as the fact that Bach’s salary often included kegs of beer.

A native of Heidelburg, Christoph Wolff is a professor at Harvard and director of the Bach-Archiv in Leipzig, Germany. That I met him while visiting the Land of the Mouse is due entirely to my father’s interest in the Bach Festival held at Winter Park, Florida at Rollins College each year. For the Bach Festival Society’s 75th anniversary, Christoph Wolff was visiting scholar and guest of honor, and it so happened that the opening weekend of the festival coincided with my visit to Central Florida.

My parents and I set off for Rollins College to attend the festival’s Sunday morning service at the campus chapel. I was charmed to see that Professor Wolff, who commented on the Bach Cantata that the college choir sang (“Was Gott tut is wohlgetan” — “What God does is well done”) was unpretentiously dressed, in rumpled khakis and navy blazer.  Later, at the informal Lunch and Learn session, he kindly acceded to sitting with this boisterous fan (me) and talked about his work —  he likes to take care of office matters, e-mails, and correspondence in the morning, and then settles down to write, often late into the night. The book he just finished is about Mozart’s last years, and discusses how the increasing complexity of Mozart’s work was abruptly cut short by his untimely death.

Following lunch, Wolff answered questions off-the-cuff in a panel discussion, joined by John Sinclair, artistic director of the festival, and emceed by the eloquent Terry Teachout, playwright, critic, biographer, and blogger. A more congenial group of three discussing a more fabled musician cannot be imagined. (A full transcript I made of their talk may be posted later on this blog.)

In the meantime, here are a few details from their conversation that taught me new things about Bach:

• Contrary to his reputation nowadays as being somewhat resistant to newer styles, Bach was well-versed in the latest instrument technology of his day — the modern organ, the early pianoforte. His close friend and colleague at the St. Thomas School, Johann Winckler, was involved with electrical experiments. Bach felt that understanding technology and science helped him to understand God.

• He did like to show off at the keyboard. For instance, the harpsichord cadenza of the 5th Brandenburg Concerto is way out-of-proportion to the rest of the piece. It’s a 72-measure cadenza! (A normal long cadenza would have been 15 measures.)

• Out of Bach’s 20 chldren, only 9 survived. (Women had 1 child a year back then: Mozart’s wife had 6 children, and only 2 survived.) Child mortality was great, and people experienced the heights of joy juxtaposed with sorrow all the time. Bach knew sorrow early on (he lost his own parents when he was 10.) He was one of the few who could translate this deep feeling into great art.

• Bach’s work contains lots of dark points, but they’re always balanced. Modern listeners may only hear the “burial” at the end of the St. John and St. Matthew Passions, forgetting that in Bach’s day they were followed on Easter morning with the sound of trumpets announcing the Resurrection.

Mom and Dad and I left Rollins College that afternoon enlightened and happy. We were reminded of the morning’s message at the college chapel, given by the lovely Dean Powers, who said that great art “should not simply envelop us, but reach inside and transform us.”


My dad with Professor Wolff