Saturday, November 1, 2014

Behind the Man?

"Behind every great man is a great women." While the validity of this quote could be argued by both genders, as I was reading The Search for Mrs. Bach BY ALEX ROSS, it certainly came to mind.
Ross explores the controversal idea that Martin Jarvis, professor at Charles Darwin University, published in 2006,that Bach's six cello suites were in fact written by Anna Magdalena Bach.
Ross explains Jarvis's thinking in the following quote.
"There is, however, no evidence that Anna Magdalena composed music, nor that she studied a string instrument. How, then, did Jarvis become convinced that she wrote the cello suites? He reports that when he was studying the works in his youth he had the nagging sense that they differed from other music by Bach. Later, he fixated on a phrase that appears in the lower-right-hand corner of the title page of Anna Magdalena’s copy of the suites, one of two principal manuscripts through which the pieces have come down to us. “Ecrite par Madame Bachen, Son Epouse,” it says. (The aigu accents are missing.) Here, Jarvis says, was the “coup de grâce of my prolonged and intensive research”: the phrase “literally translates as ‘Written by Mrs Bach, his wife’ –that is to say, composed by Anna Magdalena.”
This is a very bold statement to make as Ross points out by quoting Pablo Casals feelings about the cello suites, “They are the very essence of Bach, and Bach is the essence of music.”
When someone says the name Bach, the cello suites are probably the first thing both musicians and audiences think of, within the classical world the suites are legendary. To make such a statement requires backing and Ross goes to the source, back to the manuscript.
"This is suggestive stuff. But when you look at the manuscript itself you see something quite different. (There is a scan in the digital archive of the Staatsbibliothek Berlin.) The cello suites are found together with a copy of the Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin; the title page for the collection was written out by Georg Heinrich Ludwig Schwanberg, a Bach pupil. It says: “Pars 1. Violino Solo Senza Basso composée par Sr. Jean Seb. Bach. Pars 2. Violoncello Solo Senza Basso composée par Sr. J. S. Bach. Maitre de la Chapelle et Directeur de la Musique a Leipsic.” Only then, in the lower corner, do we see “ecrite par Madame Bachen.” The not insignificant detail that the cello suites are described as being “composed by Sr. J. S. Bach” is missing from Jarvis’s popular expositions of his theory, and, by extension, from the media coverage, which has tended to ignore Bach scholars and jump to sensational conclusions (“Bach Didn’t Write His Greatest Works”). Jarvis’s 2007 thesis is a bit more judicious, though still perplexing."
While an interesting theory it seems just a bit far fetched to me and Ross seems to be of the same opinion. But one point that Jarvis brings up is something we talked about in class only a few weeks ago.
"Jarvis went about his project with noble intentions. He declares, rightly, that women have been suffering for centuries under the misogynistic assumption that composition belongs exclusively to the male gender. He mentions the cases of Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, Felix Mendelssohn’s sister, who exhibited considerable talent but was discouraged by her father and brother; and of Alma Schindler, who was ordered to stop writing music by her first husband, Gustav Mahler. Closer to our own time, the pianist Johana Harris played a crucial role in the development of Roy Harris, one of the leading American composers of the mid-twentieth century."
Women in composition. Their role, their rights. Should they have their own catagory or be presented right along side the works of men?
Such questions have been discussed, considered and argued about for longer then I've been alive, and as far as I can tell they are still under debate. But as Ross brings to the table, there is a similar issuse going on today, one that is more current, that perphaps deserves more of our attention.
"And while classical music displays an excruciating gender imbalance—a recent study by Ricky O’Bannon found that 1.8 percent of works programmed by leading American orchestras in the 2014-15 season were by women—the most efficient way to address that imbalance would be to commit more resources to contemporary music."
1.8, that number was shocking to me. Are we in the year 2014? That number doesn't show the equality that is reflected in other areas of our lives.
As composer Amy Beth Kirsten says, “Perhaps if we are going to fixate on equality in programming it should be to balance out the division between living composers and dead ones.”
Did "Mrs. Bach" actually write the Cello suites? I don't know. Sadly the work of many women composers from the past will never be known or properly credited because of the time period in which they lived in. But that time period has come and gone and there are women composers today that deserve to have their voices heard. My friends, it's time for us to start changing that percentage, one concert at a time.
For more information vist and to learn more about composer Amy Beth Kirsten visit her website

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