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Every Musical Genre Has Its Keith Richards

You’ve heard of Bach, right? Johann Sebastian? That rather dour-looking Baroque composer of cantatas, oratorios, and liturgical music? Turns out there’s more to him than 18th-century Lutheran piety. Ted Gioia has the details:

I’ve talked to people who feel they know Bach very well, but they aren’t aware of the time he was imprisoned for a month. They never learned about Bach pulling a knife on a fellow musician during a street fight. They never heard about his drinking exploits—on one two-week trip he billed the church eighteen gorchsen for beer, enough to purchase eight gallons of it at retail prices—or that his contract with the Duke of Saxony included a provision for tax-free beer from the castle brewery; or that he was accused of consorting with an unknown, unmarried woman in the organ loft; or had a reputation for ignoring assigned duties without explanation or apology. They don’t know about Bach’s sex life: at best a matter of speculation, but what should we conclude from his twenty known children, more than any significant composer in history (a procreative career that has led some to joke with a knowing wink that “Bach’s organ had no stops”), or his second marriage to twenty-year-old singer Anna Magdalena Wilcke, when he was in his late thirties? They don’t know about the constant disciplinary problems Bach caused, or his insolence to students, or the many other ways he found to flout authority. This is the Bach branded as “incorrigible” by the councilors in Leipzig, who grimly documented offense after offense committed by their stubborn and irascible employee.

There’s more—much more—in Mr. Gioia’s newly published Music: A Subversive History. And while you’re waiting for that Amazon shipment to arrive, check out his Twitter feed. Hardly a day goes by that I don’t learn something from him.



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