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Barking, biting and a hole in the head ...
the case of Anna Magdalena and Buckie Bear
versus Classical Music Agony Aunt ALICE McVEIGH and her dachshund

Dear Alice:

You turned your column over to your dachshund to write (April 2006) but you doubt that Anna Magdalena might have composed some of the beautiful pieces attributed to Johann Sebastian Bach? Anna Magdalena taught music to the 16 surviving children (out of 21 actually born), 9 of which she 'inherited' from Bach's first wife, Maria Barbara. (Remember Anna Magdalena's Notebook with pieces attributed to Bach, but some of which, music scholars now know, were actually written by guest musicians visiting the Bach household?) Several of these Bach children grew up to be composers who were more famous in their own lifetimes, that their Dad was during his. Now we know that their work wasn't as amazing as their Dad's.

How are we to know that this loving couple didn't compose the Cello Suites, or some other compositions, together? Or, in the tradition of the time, that women weren't allowed to publish their work, so any compositions coming out of the Bach household would bear J S Bach's name, accompanied by 'Soli Deo Gloria' at the end of the work? (Or later, the male children's compositions -- you do notice that none of Bach's female children were said to be 'composers'.) Bach actually got into 'trouble' for having his first wife sing from the choir loft (before they were married) -- women weren't 'supposed' to sing 'in public!!'

How do we know that this loving husband didn't ask his wife for her learned opinion on his work, as he composed? Or perhaps he composed most of a work, with imput from her, but published it under his own name, again giving all Glory to God? Obviously, in that day of no ballpoint pens, no copiers, etc, she helped in copying-out the enormous amount of excellent music her husband composed, and probably was joined in doing so by some of the children as they grew older and able to help. Perhaps she did compose the Cello Suites -- she was the daughter of a professional trumpeter, and trained in music before she married Bach. She was obviously a strong, supportive, modest woman (who birthed eleven children). So the fact that J S Bach's name appeared on a work that she may have composed all or most of, would not surprise me. And, as someone wrote on another site where this topic was discussed, none of us were there, were we?

'Buckie Bear'

Johann Sebastien and Anna Magdalena Bach

Dear Buckie,

As a fellow woman, I can only applaud your praise of Anna Magdalena: anybody who brings up eleven kids and maintains such a strong marriage is to be hugely admired.


A lot of us teach music -- most of my better friends have done it for decades, both to their own kids and to those of other people. This doesn't make it even a squigion likelier that they are able to actually compose. I have never, in all the orchestras I've ever played in, met more than one professional musician who composed to any standard. Practitioners VERY VERY RARELY are instigators of the divine fire, so the fact that Anna Magdalena was the daughter of a professional trumpeter, and 'trained in music' (it'd have to have been to one hell of a high standard to compose the cello suites!!!!!) means exactly nothing in relation to your argument that she might herself have been a composer. (As you must know, women in J S's time weren't trained to a high standard in anything. We're talking major oppression here.)

Nor does the fact that she copied his music. Nor that Bach permitted his first wife to sing in public. Nor the fact that she was a strong and modest woman.

I too am a strong and modest woman, Buckie, with decades of training in music. I have performed (orchestrally) on four continents, and even in Carnegie Hall. Yet I cannot compose to save a human life -- and nor can 99.9% of other internationally-trained musicians!!!!!!! (My compositions at Indiana were so lousy that my teacher -- not a fan of Fauré -- described one as 'unutterably lousy quasi-Fauré' ...)

My other objections to the notion that Anna M was a composer, in short, are based on the following facts:

  1. Very few people of either sex can compose masterpieces. The odds against Bach marrying (outside of his own gene pool) someone equally gifted must be reckoned something like one trillion to one. No, that's harsh. One billion to one.
  2. Those who can do so are overwhelmingly male. Now I can just IMAGINE you getting steamed up under the collar about this one, but try comparing the number of outstanding female writers -- even in centuries of immense male oppression -- with the numbers of outstanding female composers. Women can write (on average, better than men can). Chess-playing and composition they tend to beat us at.
  3. You represent J S Bach as so stout in espousing the feminist cause that he withstood ructions in order to feature his first wife as singer. Now is it likely that such a man (also, unforgettably, deeply Christian) would have been happy having his beloved wife's work passed off as his own? And is it likely, in a household of thirteen, that none of the kids -- at any point in their lives -- wouldn't have blabbed? (Deathbed confession of Carl Philippe Emmanuel: 'I cannot carry this secret to my grave: My Mom wrote the last cello suite'?)
  4. She wouldn't have had the time. Remember all those noses to be blown, manners to be taught, lessons to be given, meals to be prepared. The fact that she summoned up enough wifely energy to write out his compositions is awesome enough, isn't it, before collapsing into bed to make more whoopee, creating more children, the prospect of more noses to be blown etc etc??? -- not to mention, er, the well-recognized fact that no one who didn't know the cello itself intimately could have written even one bar, let alone one movement, of any of the cello suites?
  5. Bach's works are hugely individual. Most musicians (and many non-musicians) can recognize a work of Bach's within a few seconds. Were TWO composer's voices to be blended, the individual qualities must have been diluted (and major international scholars such as my musicologist husband, Professor Simon McVeigh, would certainly have noticed).
  6. As for his asking her 'advice' ... I'm sure he did. He probably asked her advice no end: what tie to wear, what to say to his boss, whether to move to Köthen. But about his music????? You are talking, Buckie, about the greatest composer who ever lived: someone who never wrote a less than perfect piece. This is not, repeat not, Andrew Lloyd Webber.

There is duff Beethoven, there is trite Mozart, but there is NO WORK OF J S Bach's that doesn't work!!!! I can imagine Beethoven, tearing up his 95th draft of Fidelio, asking his valet in a fit of temper for his next chord progression. I can certainly imagine the youthful Mozart requesting advice from Leopold. But the very idea of the familie Bach (amidst nose-blowing, 'Eat your greens or you're in trouble, kid' etc etc) arguing the toss over a chord progression is just one long hoot. Mainly because he didn't NEED advice!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! He needed advice like a hole in the head!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Divine inspiration flowed from Bach with awesome and unrivalled power.

Johann Sebastien Bach

So, no more feminist bluster, please. J S Bach wrote the music; Shakespeare wrote the plays. Deal with it.

Very cordially,

Copyright © 13 July 2007 Alice McVeigh, Kent UK

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