Johann Sebastian Bach: The Real Cool "Big 5" Biographers in 270 Years


Who wanted to judge? Judge the quality of the individual biographies about the musician and composer Johann Sebastian Bach. Nobody wants ... especially not me. 270 years, thousands of authors, hundreds of publishers: More than two and a half centuries have passed since Bach's death and the fun and challenge of writing a book about the life of Johann Sebastian Bach is undiminished. The next authors are constantly writing the next biography. Just like my husband. 


Biographies about Bach come and go. Every year. In the press and in all other media they are illuminated with a more or less big "tadaa" and if two days later something else is much more exciting, then the first interest usually already fades away.


With very few biographies about Johann Sebastian Bach, it was different. On two hands, the really important biographies can still be enumerated today. And yet: Even they do not all belong to the "Big 5", the five truly significant works. And even this analysis is of course subjective, because it is mine.


If it were a biography... it would definitely be one of the great biographies on Johann Sebastian Bach. And perhaps it would even be the most successful. But it is not a biography (... but almost). For a long time we didn't find a photo of Esther Meynell, the author of this bestseller with many, many editions. But then it worked out and to get a better quality and not to get a copyright problem we asked Briana Bach-Hertzog, my husband's cousin, to repaint the portrait. Unfortunately, the book is no longer available for purchase today. A great pity ... actually. By the way, here's a link to the shop.

Esther Meynell, painted by Briana Bach-Hertzog, a cousin of Johann Sebastian Bach, die in den USA lebt.

Four of the five famous biographers are no longer alive today. One of them is today's most recognized Bach connoisseur and author worldwide, who has been successfully publishing on Bach for a long time. Four biographies of these "Big Five" are distinguished by the fact that they are still published today and freshly printed regardless of their age. Although some facts and even some essentials have changed a lot in the last quarter century.

The "Big Five", the five great biographers on Bach. Simply strung together and as a first overview they are first Nikolaus Forkel, then Spitta, the Brit Terry, Schweitzer yes, exactly, the doctor in the jungle and finally it is the professor who teaches at the University of Freiburg and at the elite university in the USA in general Harvard Christoph Wolff.


Regarding the biography above, the one of Esther Meynell. This biography nevertheless deserves its place here, because on the one hand it informs so immensely successfully about Bach's life, and on the other hand it is not really a scientific biography, but rather an endearing narration of Bach's life from the perspective of his second wife Anna Magdalena Bach. In our opinion that are my husband and I with our Bach mission it makes a hundred times more sense to read this easily catchy "fare" and to be historically "right" in 95% of all descriptions than to hold "the wrong" biography in your hands and "throw it away" after an hour bored or annoyed. So a clear verdict: "The Little Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach" is not a biography, so it cannot be counted among the "Big Five" either. But even today it is still really easy to digest.



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The First Biography about Bach was a Short Biography


The Necrology of 1750 ... written by Agricola, CPE Bach, and Mitzler. This is the first biography about Johann Sebastian Bach ever and it is still based on the information, which – so to speak firsthand – was experienced by the biographers. CPE is Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, one of Bach's four famous and five musical sons, who is also known as the Berlin Bach and at the same time later became the Hamburg Bach.

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One of the three authors of the first biography about the Thomas Cantor: Carl Philipp Emanuel "CPE" - Bach on a stamp from Madagascar. This first biography, which today corresponds more to a short biography, was written in 1750, but only became known to a wider public in 1754.


After all, it was what you could read about Johann Sebastian Bach for about 80 years, until the next "big hit" replaced this first significant Bach biography. The authors in 1750 were Johann Sebastian Bach's son-in-law, Johann Friedrich Agricola, Johann Sebastian Bach's son Carl Philipp Emanuel and the musicologist Lorenz Christoph Mitzler de Kolof. Unfortunately there are only pictures of CPE left, but because it is more exciting, you can get CPE here on a stamp. Not of the other two gentlemen mentioned above. But at least just ... of CPE.


Here again the hint in the sense of the topic of this website: Also this first biography of the triumvirate around CPE cannot be counted among the famous 5, because it is simply too short and ... it is simply not a Bach biography. It is just an ancient, historical, exciting original version of a Bach biography.


The "Big 5", No. 1 ... The Very First Real Biography about the Composer Johann Sebastian Bach


The very first correct biography about Bach has been printed again and again in many, many editions since then. 

Johann Nicolaus Forkel: There is only one picture of him. How good: at least that. Now you all know what the master of words looked like.

The "Big 5", No. 2 ... 13 Pounds Spitta about Bach


The most comprehensive work on Johann Sebastian Bach by Philipp Spitta. This is only one of two volumes. By the way, volume 1 looks – new – almost exactly the same today ... 

Mr. Spitta. All to yourself.


Julius August Philipp Spitta is along with Forkel a very well-known historical Bach biographer. He was born around 90 years after Bach's death in 1841 and grew up pi times thumb exactly at a time when Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy himself a famous musician and composer "had awakened" Bach's work from its "sleeping beauty sleep" and thus heralded the so-called Bach Renaissance. His work on Johann Sebastian Bach is also so important that the new edition of his two-part biography is still today worthwhile for the issuing publisher.


Spitta was a musicologist. In 1873 Spitta published his first book about the musician from Eisenach and it was said that this work raised Bach to the "highest honors of science" in one fell swoop. In 1874, this publication led to Spitta being appointed as a senior teacher at the Thomas School in Leipzig, of all places. He also founded the Bach Society there. Of course, this was only one step towards a remarkable career, which eventually led to an extraordinary professorship. In 1880, he wrote the second volume. He died at the age of only 52 years and received an honorary grave in Berlin.



The "Big 5" No. 3 ... Yes, Here It's about the Famous Nobel Prize Winner and Medical Doctor in Lambarene, Africa


And you thought until now, Mr. Schweitzer could only do Doctor? And that was in Africa? No, not only did the expert write a Bach biography. No, this Bach biography is still one of the most respected works of its kind.

Here he is already the medical doctor in Africa. But on the stamp, it is clearly visible: Albert Schweitzer was also a great Bach fan.


Albert Schweitzer was born about 35 years after Spitta that is in 1875 and before he opened a hospital in Gabon in Africa, the doctor was a musicologist and also an excellent Bach biographer, something most people today do not know anymore. In 1953, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize ... but not for his Bach biography, of course. Schweitzer dedicated his life with many ups and downs to the most diverse disciplines. He was also an organist, and he knew a lot about organ building. If you want to know more about Albert Schweitzer, just click on Wikipedia. For us, Schweitzer remains exciting as an enthusiastic musician who loved Bach's works. Finally, it is significant that Schweitzer among many other works published his biography of Bach in 1908. And that is exactly 35 years after the publication of the first volume on Bach's life by predecessor Philipp Spitta. What is really exciting, however, is that since that time both biographies have successfully coexisted. As new books, hot off the press, which are not just printed again and again for fun or out of reverence, but because they are so successful that entire editions can be sold. And this in addition to the many, many insignificant biographies that soon little by little came and went: together about 7,000 titles. By the way, there are over 54,000 publications about Bach and his family.


The "Big 5", No. 4 ... Mr. Terry from England


Charles Sanford Terry, Bach enthusiast and also one of the great Bach biographers. This is what one of the various covers of his Bach biography looked like.

Charles Sanford Terry lived a little closer to our age. He was born in Great Britain in 1864.


It is noteworthy that Charles Sanford Terry was born 11 years before Dr. Albert Schweitzer, but his biography of Bach dates long after Schweitzer's. He published his achievement on Johann Sebastian Bach in 1928, 20 years after the jungle expert. Without question, his Bach biography is also one of the really great works about the composer from Thuringia. But what is interesting is that it is no longer offered as a new work. Before, but also after Terry's publication of his Bach biography, Terry wrote several other works about the Royal Polish and Electoral Saxon court composer.


The "Big 5", No. 5 ... Welcome to Bach in the Internet Age: Professor Christoph Wolff Is Our Man


Today certainly the most widely read biography of Johann Sebastian Bach in the world: the work of Professor Christoph Wolff.

Without question, Professor Christoph Wolff is the measure of all things when it comes to the life of Johann Sebastian Bach. And ... he is far more serious than my husband when it comes to passing on Bach's knowledge to the rest of humanity.


Copyright photo: Rolf H. Seyboldt


Professor Christoph Wolff is the undisputed authority when it comes to Bach today. He is a musicologist and was born in Solingen in 1940. He teaches at the famous Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts in the USA and is an honorary professor at the University of Freiburg. He was also director of the Bach Archive in Leipzig for 12 years ... until 2013. His Bach biography was first published in 2001 and it is still the reference work on the composer from Thuringia, which is always - every year - accompanied for a while by new biographies on Bach. They come and go, however, while Wolff's biography remains. Thus, almost a quarter of a century passed between the two most recent Bach biographies, which were both particularly noteworthy and successful at the same time.


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