The ultimate feminist demolition of ‘Mrs Bach’

The ultimate feminist demolition of ‘Mrs Bach’


norman lebrecht

March 19, 2015

On the eve of BBC4’s screening of the hyperbolic film claiming that Bach’s late cello suites were written by his wife, an authority on Bach’s compositional processes has taken both the thesis and its Australian author to the cleaners.

Ruth Tatlow, a Stockholm-based musicologist who was research consultant to John Eliot Gardiner during his Bach Pilgrimage, dismisses the ‘sensational claims’ of Martin Jarvis and accuses him, from a feminist perspective, of damaging the reputation of Anna Magdalena. She writes, inter alia:


mrs bach

The idea of Anna Magdalena as a composer appeals to a modern sense of gender equality and to the widespread desire to raise the status of misrepresented women of the past. In recent times many scholars have worked actively and successfully to redress the gender imbalance that is so deeply established in the histories of music. It is undisputed that women throughout the ages have played a vital role in society, often standing behind the success of many a famous male counterpart, yet for various reasons their role has been silenced, whether due to the paucity of surviving documentation or the skewed perspective of the narratives.

It would be wonderful if we knew more about the level of musical accomplishment of the women in Bach’s life, and the extent to which they contributed to Bach’s activities. We know that the Bach household, which included many women, became a veritable cottage industry of copyists during the weekly rhythm of cantata preparations, particularly in the first couple of years in Leipzig. We know about Bach’s male students through school registers at the boys-only St Thomas School, 7 but we do not know much about the education or level of achievement of Bach’s female students, if he had any. Did he teach his daughters? Did he actively help Anna Magdalena to develop her musical skills? Was she able to maintain her singing career in Leipzig? Was she known as Bach’s wife, mother of his children, or as an accomplished woman and musician in her own right?

Those leading the task of rewriting the history of women have a responsibility to do so with integrity. A necessary starting point in such an endeavour is to ensure that any new insight is logical, based on fact and accurately communicated. To do otherwise is a disservice to the cause. Jarvis’s claim that Anna Magdalena and not her husband was the composer of the Cello Suites is a case in point. That the ‘simpler’ Cello Suites are allegedly not up to the ‘complex and intellectually challenging’ musical standard of the Unaccompanied Sonatas and Partitas for Violin forms part of his argument for Anna Magdalena as its composer. Clearly he did not intend to suggest the ‘inferior therefore female’ implication in this argument.


You can read the full demolition job by Dr Tatlow (pictured) demolition exclusively here, via Slipped Disc.


Meanwhile, the composer Sally Beamish, who narrates the dubious film, has retreated from her previous endorsement, saying she is now ‘on the fence’ about Anna Magdalena’s authorship of Bach works.


  • Alexander says:

    I have always taken the rather prosaic view that the cello suites are so obviously Bachian that to suggest that they had been been composed by anyone other than Bach himself would be as absurd as it would be to suggest that the composer of A Ceremony of Carols was in fact Peter Pears.

  • Larry W says:

    There is much evidence to support the belief that the Suites were originally written for the viola. Key among them is the fact that Bach wrote solo works for instruments he himself played. He played the viola, but not the cello. Anna Magdelena’s manuscript was a version transcribed for cello.

    • MWnyc says:

      Well, no, not the viola, exactly.

      It’s true, I’m told, that the Suites fall awkwardly under the fingers on the (vertically-held) cello but fairly naturally under the fingers on the shoulder-held instruments (violin, viola, etc.).

      The theory, as I understand it, is that Bach wrote them for the instrument specified in some of the cantatas as “violoncello piccolo”. The obbligato parts for that instrument in the cantatas are usually played by today by cellists, but in the original performing materials, they’re in the first violin part, so the concertmaster (leader to you Brits) was clearly meant to pick up and play a different instrument.

      Sigiswald Kuijken and others describe that instrument as the violoncello da spalla – an instrument slightly smaller and more lightweight than the upright cello.

      Kuijken isn’t making that up: I (and others, who’ve said so in print) have seen images of 17th- and 18th-century engravings depicting string bands that include men playing such an instrument. The weight is supported by a strap across the shoulder and back.

      Kuijken, Dmitri Badiarov, and Sergey Malov have all recorded Cello Suites on the violoncello da spalla. Do a Google video search for “bach suites violoncello da spalla” to hear some samples.

      Here are some links: an article from The Strad, a more technical article from Badiarov old blog, and some notes from one of the spalla recordings of the Suites.

      • Larry W says:

        Sorry, but not quite right. First of all, Sergey plays the viola da spalla (and quite beautifully). You will find that all surviving examples are dated after the Bach Suites, making any concurrent use unprovable. Even if they existed at the same time does not mean Bach wrote the suites for that instrument. I am familiar with Dmitri’s valuable research and have discussed this subject with him. I just don’t see any historical connection between the Bach Viola Suites and the viola da spalla.

        As mentioned before, Bach wrote solo works for instruments he himself played. He played the organ, harpsichord, violin and viola–not the cello and certainly not the viola da spalla. The only suite written for an instrument other than the viola is the 6th, which is for an unspecified 5-string instrument. This could have been the viola d’amore or the viola pomposo, purportedly invented by Bach. Cellists have put forth the violoncello piccolo as partial justification for claiming the Suites. The obbligato parts to which you refer were written for the viola d’amore (see St. John Passion).

        You are correct that the Suites are more natural on the viola. There is no stronger proof than the 4th Suite, which (except for a single extension) lies totally within first position on the viola. The cello requires consecutive shifts from note to note, hardly idiomatic for Bach.

  • Larry W says:

    Sorry, not quite right. First, Sergey plays the viola da spalla (and quite beautifully). The only existing examples do not date to the time of the Suites. Even if that were so, the Suites were not written for that instrument since Bach wrote solo works only for instruments he played. Those include the organ, harpsichord, violin, and viola. There is no evidence he played the cello or the viola da spalla.

    As for obbligato instruments, that would include the viola d’amore (see St. John Passion). The violoncello piccolo could only pertain to the 6th suite, written later than the first five for an unspecified 5-string instrument. That instrument may have been the viola d’amore. Bach’s purported invention of the viola pomposa has been discounted as false.

    You are correct that the Suites are somewhat awkward on the cello. That is because they were written for the viola. The strongest case is the 4th Suite, which lies in first position on the viola (with but a single extension). On the cello, there are shifts on consecutive notes–hardly idiomatic, and not typical of Bach’s writing. The AMB manuscript is a transcription for cello of Bach’s Suites for Viola.

    • MWnyc says:

      Well, as I said before, the obbligato parts for violoncello piccolo found in several of in Bach’s cantatas – and “violoncello piccolo” is specified in the manuscripts – are written into the first violinist’s part, not the cellist’s part. So obviously those violoncello piccolo obbligati were meant to be played by a violinist.

      So if you believe that Bach played – or was capable of playing – the Violin I parts in his cantatas, then you believe he played (or was capable of playing) the violoncello piccolo.

      (I presume you won’t argue that Bach was not capable of playing the first violin parts in his cantatas.)

      Since, as you say, Bach wrote solo works only for instruments he played, and the circumstantial evidence (solos for violoncello piccolo in several cantatas written into the first violinist’s sheet music) indicates that he could play violoncello piccolo, it is therefore not impossible that he wrote the Suites a violoncello solo senza basso (as the title page in Frau Bach’s hand calls them) for violoncello piccolo.

      I’m presuming here that the shoulder-and-arm-held instruments in the violin/viola family share the same basic fingering patterns (which would be why many players can go back and forth between violin and viola) and that a shoulder-held violoncello piccolo would also use those fingering patterns (which would be why a violinist could pick up a violoncello piccolo during a cantata and play an important obbligato part on it). Is there any reason why that presumption would be clearly incorrect?

      I should have stated more strongly that the violoncello piccolo = violoncello da spalla = the “violoncello solo senza basso” theory is just that: a theory. And it is Kuijken’s and Badiarov’s theory, not my own. But it makes sense to me in light of the circumstantial evidence (that a violin/viola player could play violoncello piccolo and that the Suites are more comfortably playable with violin/viola fingering than with upright cello fingering).

      Larry W, you’ve said that these Suites are actually for viola. Is there any evidence to that effect other than the more comfortable fingering and that Bach wrote solo works only for instruments he could play? (Both of those are evidently applicable to violoncello piccolo.)

      • Larry W says:

        Sorry, wrong again. The obbligato parts were written in the first violinist’s parts because they were played on the viola d’amore, an instrument similar to the viola. No violinist would be trained to play an instrument similar to a cello (violoncello piccolo). Dmitri’s extensive and valuable research (which I’ve discussed with him) shows that several instruments may have shared the same name. You are using inverse logic to prove your point. I will simply have to disagree and hope your research catches up with your enthusiasm.

    • Gerhard says:

      You write: “… Bach wrote solo works only for instruments he played.” Does this mean that in your opinion he played the flûte traversière as well, and do you have any evidence for this?

  • Larry W says:

    Gergard, thank you for your interest. Bach wrote a partita for solo flute, solo sonatas for solo flute (accompanied by continuo), a solo flute part in the 5th Brandenburg Concerto, and a solo flute part in the Suite No. 2 in B-minor. Having played the Badienerie several times with Sir James Galway, it is clear Bach had an intimate knowledge of the transverse flute, which I’m certain you know is a flute held horizontally. (Sounds so much less stuffy than flûte traversière, don’t you think?) Now, do you have any evidence Bach did not play this instrument?

    Anyway, to return to the subject at hand, states: The background to why the cello suites were written is not clear. Bach put together similar collections only for the instruments that he himself played. This includes the organ, the harpsichord and the violin – the most important solo instruments of the late baroque. Nothing points to the fact that Bach ever played the cello and neither did any of his sons….There appears to be no commercial reasons to why the cello suites were composed. As far as we know, no one requested them and they are not dedicated to anyone.

    The initial question was whether AMB composed the Six Suites. That is doubtful, but she most certainly did write them–as a transcription for cello.

    • Gerhard says:

      No, I don’t have evidence that Bach didn’t play any specific instrument. But having done some of his works with the most amazing trumpet parts together with artists like Reinhold Friedrich and Håkan Hardenberger, I have now come to see that this experience is irrefutable proof that Bach himself did play the trumpet as well.

      • Larry W says:

        We can agree Bach was indeed a fine composer, but the statement you inquired about (challenged, actually) had to do with solo rather than orchestral works. I said he must have had an intimate knowledge of the transverse flute, but could not claim he actually played it since I do not know. Apparently, neither do you. Not sure the inverse logic concerning his playing the trumpet works as irrefutable proof, either.