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Australian Academic Claims Bach's Wife Wrote the Cello Suites

By Vivien Schweitzer
24 Apr 2006

A researcher in Australia claims that Johann Sebastian Bach's Cello Suites were actually written by Anna Magdalena Bach, his second wife.

Martin Jarvis's suggestions that Bach might not have written some of his most famous pieces were first reported in Australian media earlier this month. A professor at Charles Darwin University School of Music in Darwin and the conductor of the city's symphony orchestra, Jarvis has spent more than 30 years looking at Bach's work.

Jarvis first studied the Bach Cello Suites as a student at the Royal Academy of Music in London. Speaking about the works in an interview on Australia's ABC radio, he said, "[The suites] don't sound musically mature. It sounds like an exercise, and you have to work incredibly hard to make it sound like a piece of music."

In 2001, Jarvis, the son of a policeman father, learned how to conduct forensic testing of the handwriting on Bach's manuscripts. In the radio interview, he said he "found things that didn't make sense, and seemed to go in conflict with the current thinking on Bach's handwriting. I found Anna Magdalena's handwriting in places where it shouldn't have been. In other words, assuming that the idea that it's her handwriting is correct, then it's in places where we really shouldn't be finding it."

Anna Magdalena, who is said to have been Bach's musical copyist, married the composer around 1721. But Jarvis told the London Telegraph he had found handwriting that showed she was in Bach's household much earlier than that.

However, cellists who regularly perform the suites are unconvinced. Julian Lloyd Webber told the Telegraph that the compositions were "stylistically totally Bach" and that "many composers had appalling handwriting, which meant better copies would naturally have been made, with the originals then discarded."

Cellist Steven Isserlis, who is working on a recording of the suites, told the paper, "We can't say that it is definitely not true, in the same way that we can't prove that Anne Hathaway did not write some of Shakespeare's work, but I don't believe this to be a serious theory."

Academics are also skeptical. Stephen Rose, a lecturer in music at Royal Holloway, University of London, told the Telegraph, "It is plausible that she corrected, refined and revised many of his compositions, although there is not enough evidence to show that she single-handedly composed the Cello Suites."




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