Perhaps the most interesting feature of this Bach biography is the comparison the author makes between the composer and the great English scientist Sir Isaac Newton. I can see the sense in that. Both approached their fields with mathematical precision and at the same time with a whiff of the arcane. Newton’s Principia Mathematica has seemed to me to resemble the geometry of Euclid with a fourth dimension added: movement of objects in three-dimensional space over time, according to simple mathematical rules. Bach’s music has the same sort of precise, measured quality, the same meticulous attention to detail, and the same flight into mysterious spaces from such deceptively fixed and careful beginnings. In addition to this, Mr. Wolff also notes that both Newton and Bach initiated great changes in their respective fields, new principles amounting to revolution.
The flight of the soul in music
I would say this is a book for serious music lovers and not a casual Bach biography. The author does cover the main events of Bach’s life, including his two marriages, and the achievements of the other Bachs (they were a family of amazing musical talent), but his primary focus is on Bach as composer and performer. Wolff analyzes the innovations that Bach introduced into his musical compositions and how they changed the direction of European music and were influenced by the history of those turbulent times. A contrast may be drawn between the extraordinarily messy, turbulent course of events in European history and society through the 17th and 18th centuries when Bach lived, and the supremely elegant and civilized quality of his music and that of other extraordinary composers of the same time. It was a time when the mind flew, but the body would take a while yet to catch it up. Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician manages to capture an important part of that flight of the soul in the person of a most intellectual and at the same time passionate master of composition.