Update: Alex Ross demolishes Mrs Bach

Update: Alex Ross demolishes Mrs Bach


norman lebrecht

October 29, 2014

I was meant to be seeing a preview last week of ‘Written by Mrs Bach’, a documentary claiming to prove that Anna Magdalena wrote some of her husband’s cello suites. The theory originates from Martin Jarvis, a professor at Charles Darwin University in Northern Territory, Australia.

It is disputed by John Butt and Ruth Tatlow and in the Guardian today by the cellist Stephen Isserlis, who writes: ‘Why am I so sure that Bach himself composed the suites? It is partly because there are countless connections between the suites and many of his other works; but even more because the language is so clearly his – that perfection of utterance that is pure JS Bach.’

UPDATE: Now Alex Ross picks the claim to pieces in the New Yorker, linking to the various manuscripts on which Jarvis built his hypothesis and unsnagging his flimsy fancy, strand by strand. Let’s hear no more of this Mrs Bach nonsense.

Ruth Tatlow has sent us a further demolition by Tim Cavanaugh, citing Tomita, Wolff and her own 2008 reporthttp://www.nationalreview.com/article/391379/bogus-bach-theory-gets-media-singing-tim-cavanaugh.

It seems to be a textbook case of a film-maker pandering to what desperate media long to believe.

Here’s a trailer for the doc.

mrs bach

I didn’t attend the preview. Life’s too short.


  • Malcolm James says:

    She may well have transcribed them into fair copy. If so, I imagine her contribution to the composition would have been limitied to ‘Did you really mean to write an F sharp there dear?’

  • Boring Fileclerk says:

    Behind every great man is an even greater woman. I have no problem believing that Mrs. Bach may have composed some of her husbands works. It’s only those who still live in a male dominated, sexist world view who have an issue with this.

    • Michael Endres says:

      ”Behind every great man is an even greater woman.”
      So true.
      Beethoven always appreciated a helping hand ( from the ‘Unsterbliche Geliebte ‘ ), he was quite gullible and easy to copy anyway.
      Chopin had the clever George Sand around .She was a multi talent : wrote important novels,wore trousers and even smoked cigars while her husband dealt with trivial matters like changing the history of piano playing and -writing . I am sure she could manage the odd Ballad or give at least valuable advice ..”not another Mazurka, honey, I think it’s enough now !”.
      Mozart often consulted his wife ( ”For Christ’s sake , finish that second act , I am sick of it and need a nap !”).
      Schoenberg’s slightly unpopular later method of composing was actually not his idea :
      ” Arnold, darling : I only say this only once: everything is equal, so off you go and get on
      with it !” .

  • Delbert Grady says:

    Jarvis is effectively slandering Bach by claiming he passed off someone else’s compositions as his own.

    • MWnyc says:

      No, I think the idea is that we in subsequent generations attributed, by default, all the music manuscripts in her handwriting to his authorship – and that default assumptions aren’t always accurate.

      Not unlike the way that we used to attribute everything in the Anna Magdalena Bach Notebook to JS, when it turns out that some of it (“Bist du bei mir”, for instance) is by other composers.

      If what Martin Jarvis and his forensic handwriting expert are saying is correct, then the only instance I can think of where JS Bach himself might have passed off his wife’s work as his own would the the Aria in the Goldberg Variations. And I think we can forgive an 18th-century Kapellmeister sending a gift composition to a nobleman for not including a note in the manuscript saying, “By the way, my wife wrote the first movement.”

      Mind you, from what I’ve seen so far, I don’t at all think that Jarvis has proved his case, but I think it’s no good dismissing him out of hand without even considering what evidence he claims to have.

      By the way, the best summary I’ve seen so far of this story is here, in The Washington Post.

  • James Hoffmann says:

    I did attend the review last night and I was frankly appalled. While prettily made, the arguments in the film were almost impossible to follow, mainly because they were never followed through to clear conclusions. And some of the “scholarship” involved was even debunked in the film itself – specifically the original meaning of the French “written” from which comes the title! The handwriting scholar (who may be an expert in her field) confessed early in the film that she is not musically qualified but then came right out and declared that the cello suites were not written by JSB rather than the accurate statement that the only surviving copy is by Anna Magdalena. Well intentioned the film maybe, but academia could have a field day…

  • Sam Jones says:


    “No, I think the idea is that we in subsequent generations attributed, by default, all the music manuscripts in her handwriting to his authorship – and that default assumptions aren’t always accurate.”

    Well, the “default assumptions” here are based on what Anna Magdalena *herself* wrote on the music. The title page says (in French) at the top “composed by Johann Sebastian Bach,” and down in one of the corners, it says “written [i.e., copied] by Madame Bach” (or something to that effect).

    So while you may be right about some manuscripts, in this case scholars have simply assumed that Anna Magdalena was telling the truth about who wrote the piece. Jarvis’s argument requires that she was lying for some reason. (And it wouldn’t be unprecedented, admittedly — there were female composers who passed off their work under husband’s or men’s names, but generally to get published or for specific attention, not for a work which was never published and only exists in a couple manuscripts.)

    “If what Martin Jarvis and his forensic handwriting expert are saying is correct”

    Let’s be clear here about what we mean by “forensic handwriting expert” — this is a modern sort of police handwriting expert. When dealing with documents that are 300 years old, you don’t generally run to the police. You talk to an actual expert in paleography (i.e., “old writing”). There are dozens of people like this who have spent decades of their lives examining musical manuscripts even for just this part of Germany. They specialize in the writing styles, the paper, the ink, the types of pens, etc. Did Jarvis ask those people? Yeah, a few of them — and they all said his theory was bogus. So he got a modern “forensic handwriting expert” who has none of this expertise to give an opinion without any significant background in the area.

    “Mind you, from what I’ve seen so far, I don’t at all think that Jarvis has proved his case, but I think it’s no good dismissing him out of hand without even considering what evidence he claims to have.”

    You’d be absolutely right if these claims were in any way new. They are not. Jarvis has basically been peddling the same stuff for a decade now. Despite the way Jarvis presents himself as being cast out of the Bach scholar community who refused to consider his fringe theory, the reality is the Bach scholar community LOVES fringe theories, but only WHEN THEY HAVE EVIDENCE. There was Joshua Rifkin’s theory that almost all of Bach’s choral music was sung by one singer on a part (rather than a large choir), because the extant sets of parts tend not to have a lot of copies. This caused an uproar when first proposed, but many scholars also flocked to Rifkin’s side, because he had a good point and good evidence about sources. It’s still being actively debated, 30 years later. Or, one can look at the long and extensive scholarly debate over the past 20 years about the authorship of the “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor,” which MANY Bach scholars think was NOT composed by Bach now, despite the fact that it’s probably the best known piece “by” him.

    Bach scholars would LOVE some cool new controversy to debate, and they know it would also draw more media attention to their relatively obscure work (given the “feminist” angle of Jarvis’s idea). But the reality is that Jarvis’s theory is so laughable, so utterly bogus, with no supporting evidence, that the Bach scholars I’ve talked to have simply felt sorry for him, sort of like how you feel when you see the wacko homeless man carrying a strange sign on the street. Jarvis is simply confused, or to put it less diplomatically, he’s a lunatic crank who thinks that Anna Magdalena and J.S. had an affair, and that she may have killed Bach’s first wife (or at least drove her to suicide). With no evidence, just fantasies. Yes, I’m not making that up — he’s said that.

    Nevertheless, the Bach community gave him a hearing at a major conference in 2008, and they basically found out he had no actual evidence for any of his crazy ideas. So they just ignored him, as one would do with some guy showing up at a physics conference claiming he had “new proof!” showing the sun actually goes around the earth.

    And now here he is with a documentary, feeding it to the media who are lapping it up because of its “feminist” angle. But people who actually know about this stuff have considered his “evidence” in detail and did so nearly a decade ago. There is none. End of story. (By the way, if you want some news from people who actually fact-checked this before publishing a sensationalist story, unlike the Washington Post, check out the National Review article which interviewed other Bach scholars, or Alex Ross’s recent post for the New Yorker.)

  • Elaine Scott says:

    While I can accept that the huge volume of music attributed to Bach may not necessarily all have been composed by him, one almost throwaway assertion in the documentary upset me. Prof. Jarvis stated that if Anna Magdalena had sufficient education to enable her to transcribe music from dictation then she also was able to compose. This is a total misconception! To be able to compose great music, to write great literature or poetry or to paint great pictures requires a creative spark that is quite separate from the technical ability to write it down. The forensic evidence on its own does not prove she had this creativity. I will read Prof. Jarvis’ s book with an open mind, but from the evidence presented in the documentary, it is for me a case not proven beyond reasonable doubt.