Articles and think pieces about how Anna Magdalena Bach may have written the Bach Cello Suites and other pieces are making the rounds again, but it seems that everyone is missing the point. Who cares if she DID write the pieces — the point is, she COULD have.
This theory is far from new — the idea that Anna Magdalena Bach wrote pieces that were published and preserved under her husband’s name has been circulating for at least ten years. A pair of forensic researchers, including Martin Jarvis from Charles Darwin University in Australia, have asserted that these pieces do not have the typical heavy and precise handwriting of a copyist, and can only have been her own inventions.
From The Telegraph:
There’s a passage in the last movement of the C major Cello suite when the leaping melody seems to get “stuck” over a stubborn note in the bass. It sounds weirdly rustic, and not quite in keeping with the rest of the piece. In the 1st Prelude of the 48, there’s one harmonic change that’s so bold it was sometimes expurgated in 19th-century arrangements.
These could be taken as the awkwardnesses of a female composer who’d been denied a proper training. Or they could be read as the signs of individual genius – which is exactly how they have been regarded down the centuries.
If something in music doesn’t quite make sense within the common practice of that era, and a woman wrote it, the music is a sign that she wasn’t trained and didn’t have the proper skill to compose it. If man wrote it, then he was a genius who was writing bold and daring new techniques.
From the comments on the same article:
The feminist victimhood meme that Ivan Hewett (and others) run to will not help intelligent debate. The Association of Forensic Document Examiners have provided no evidence to support their conjecture. It appears to be whimsical and attention-seeking.
Feminist victimhood meme! As if women composers have not been systematically erased from music history, with the exception of a very few. Women composers have had their music stolen, have had to publish under their male family member’s name (see: Fanny Mendelssohn), have published anonymously, have been rejected from publishing altogether until they resubmitted under a male pseudonym, or simply been ignored by music academia. Would now be a good time to remind everyone that only five women have won the Pulitzer Prize for music since 1943?
From the comments on the Daily Mail article:
Barely a year goes by without some liberal revisionist claiming that “the wife” wrote or composed the works based on the most flimsy evidence. What next, Sherlock Holmes’s wife actually solved the crimes?
While I won’t comment on the validity of the claims being made by the researchers (because I have little to no understanding of forensic analysis and cannot begin to understand the time and effort that went into researching this claim), I think it’s very telling that so many people are averse to the idea that women DID write music, or plays, or paint portraits, and publish or sell them under a male family member’s name. Is it so far-fetched an idea?
(Also: Sherlock Holmes never married, you dork. But I bet if he had, his wife wouldn’t have been as rude and dismissive of others as our friend Sherlock.)
An article from News.com doesn’t refer to the composer by her first name until the third paragraph, instead calling her “J.S. Bach’s Second Wife” in the headline. A similar article from the Daily Mail doesn’t name Anna Magdalena until 1/3 of the way down the page, choosing to call her “Mrs. Bach” instead. The documentary that the researcher Martin Jarvis will be premiering at Bafta next week is titled Written by Mrs. Bach — because who are we unless in reference to a man? Francesca Caccini: Giulio’s daughter; Fanny Mendelssohn: Felix’s sister, Clara Schumann: Robert’s wife. Women composers before the mid-19th century are scarce, and women unattached to an impressive male composer are practically ignored by music academia. We have Hildegard von Bingen, but she was a nun and married to God, given power by the Church. She is the exception, not the rule.
Another gem from the comment section, referencing domestic violence as a joke:
Debbie Wasserman Schultz would claim this is another case of women getting the Bach hand…..oh come on admit it that was funny!
Ha. Ha. Ha.
**This was originally posted on Musically Notable, where we discuss music, intersectionality, and culture.