What's In A Name?

The importance of authorship will always be a hot topic for musicologists. I spent my fair share of time hovering over Foucault’s essay on the Author Function, contemplating what influence the composers name itself has on the public reception of a work. When discussing the work of women in the arts, we must question not only the name but also the importance of gender in the perception of works – many women have published works under the names of men, and some men have published works under women’s names in order to save their masculinity from being associated with “lesser” works.

What can be especially tricky is the credit given to works that were the result of musical partnerships. Scholars are still trying to understand the way that Clara and Robert Schumann’s personal relationship impacted the music that each of the composers wrote, and the speculation over whose hand composed what, regardless of the signature on the work, is fodder for debate.

A musical marriage that has not been considered to the same extent is that of Anna Magdalena and Johann Sebastian Bach. She was a musician in her own right, and though not able to partake in the educational opportunities of her husband, she still served as his copyist and was a well-respected singer. Some have speculated that the pieces from her now well-known Notebook were not only penned by J.S. Bach, but also by his wife and children as part of the education that was encouraged in all of the children, regardless of gender. However, new research suggests that some of the most revered canonical works attributed to J.S. Bach may in fact be by Anna Magdalena.

The Sydney Morning Herald recently reported that Martin Jarvis, violinist, scholar and Darwin Symphony Orchestra conductor, has spent that last seven years analyzing Bach’s manuscripts using forensics techniques. By comparing “musical structure and language, handwriting and the musical calligraphy” Jarvis has determined that Anna Magdalena is in fact the composer of several compositions that have long been attributed to her husband.

The primary pieces in question are the cello suites, whose true authorship has been in question for some time by some musicologists and musicians. (You can see a digital version of the facsimile here.) Even though many have sought the answer not many are willing to accept Jarvis’ findings as true. The forensics that were used to solidify his claims is based in hard science, but still believed to be “too flimsy” for some who may be unwilling to accept that the works were written by Bach’s second wife. Jarvis’ view on his findings is clear: “The handwriting gives a context [to contradict] the lowly position that Anna Magdalena has been given in history books. Our understanding of her role has been mistaken.”

This isn’t entirely groundbreaking news – the Telegraph ran a similar story on Jarvis’s research in April, 2006. In general, the lack of discussion in the popular media is a bit disconcerting, and there has been no mention of the issue in the US press.
Various internet discussions are critical of Anna Magdalena’s ability as a copyist (despite her copy of the Suites being the most reliable source).

We will never know “The Truth” behind who composed the works, or what Anna Magdalena’s influence was on in other works of J.S. Bach’s (Jarvis also suggests that she helped compose the Aria from the Goldberg Variations). But, perhaps the conversation is the first part of the battle – especially in light of the Author Function. We are still stuck on the importance of a person’s name and how their name is an immediate reflection of the merit of the work.

I’m sure that Jarvis’ work in finding more compositions that have been wrongly credited is still ongoing. Let’s hope that he will share his results and techniques with other scholars so that credit can be given where due. However, that does not solve the problem of what the impact of true authorship may be. I can’t imagine that the cello suites will be dropping off of repertoire lists any time in the near future in light of this news. But will the public perception of the works change with the new knowledge that the composer may very well not have been the male genius, but instead his wife? The accomplishment of an under-educated working mother with over a dozen children? Even if the general public refuses to accept what appears to be significant evidence in favor of Anna Magdalena, at least some of us will delight in knowing that the works of an “inferior” woman are considered among the greatest pieces in the canon of cello music.

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