C H H Parry: Johann Sebastian Bach

March 22, 2021

This book was written over a century ago; I’ve had my copy over 30 years before giving it any serious attention, and a fair amount of it I skimmed because I don’t have the musical knowledge to access it. Apologies in advance, therefore, to any serious musician who may stumble across this piece hoping for something useful.

I’ve read a lot about J S Bach, and visited many places in Germany connected with his life and work; his music has fascinated me for years in the same way Shakespeare’s plays and poems have entranced me, the difference being that I can make some claim to understanding the latter…

And yet, I learned some interesting things from Parry’s book. He details how Bach studied carefully the works of many other composers, visiting some of them. I learned of the importance of court patronage for musicians and how this worked; the importance of the church and religion in Bach’s time I had obviously been aware of, but there was interesting reading on the differences between Catholic and Protestant church music and the respective churches’ attitudes to it. For Protestants, it was personal, and a link between the individual and the divine (which I realised may well explain my attraction to it). Parry took this further with detailed exploration of the genesis of the B Minor Mass, in which the Catholic service receives its most magnificent and astonishing treatment from a profoundly pious Lutheran…

But the most astonishing thing I learned was that it was only around Bach’s time that composers were experimenting with musicians using their thumbs in keyboard playing: previously they had not, partly because of the different way the hand was held while playing… and endless new possibilities were opened up, with Bach being at the forefront in the development of keyboard music.

Parry deals with the church cantatas thoroughly, some briefly, some at great length but I think they are all covered; I found it difficult because he was writing in the days before Schmieder’s great catalogue attributed BWV numbers to all Bach’s works and made it easier to refer to them. Overall – and remember I’m a non-musician – I felt there was often a rather broad-brush approach compared with that of more recent writers; what I was aware of throughout was of someone with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the composer and his music, as well as a sensitivity and understanding and a deep love and appreciation of the unparalleled musician and composer. And the book is probably nowadays a historical curiosity.

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