The Little Chronicle of Magdalena Bach: Esther Meynell

★★

I have an ongoing ‘merry war’ with a friend of mine about whether Bach or Vivaldi is the better composer. Before you all splutter over your morning cups of Earl Grey, the squabble is primarily founded on an unjust comparison. I point out that Bach surely couldn’t have written a decent storm aria if he’d tried, whereas my friend quite reasonably argues that Vivaldi is nothing but a faint shadow of Bach when it comes to religious music. Anyway, when I spotted that this book was up for review, I thought I’d better show willing and try to understand a little bit more about (and here I quote my friend) ‘the best composer born in 1685’.*

Magdalena is only nineteen when one day, while visiting her great-aunt in Hamburg, she hears someone playing the organ in the church of St Katherine’s. Ravished by the music, she runs away as soon as the organist spots her. However, when she tells her musician father about the experience, he realises that she must have overheard the Duke of Cöthen’s Capellmeister, who is due to give a concert on the organ the following day. An association gradually develops between Magdalena’s father and Master Bach and, a year after Bach’s first wife dies, he asks for Magdalena’s hand in marriage. She has longed and wished for nothing more and, from that moment, her entire life is devoted to creating a comfortable home for her much older husband, to caring for his numerous children and to cherishing his incomparable genius.

Many years later, when Bach is dead and half-forgotten, his reputation overshadowed by those of his sons Friedemann and Emmanuel, Magdalena receives a visit from one of her husband’s former pupils, Caspar Burgholt. He encourages her to write down her memories of the great composer so that, when posterity is wise enough to recognise his brilliance, they will have a record by the one who loved him best. And so Magdalena sets to her task with determination, hoping to preserve her husband’s kindness and gentleness, his fear and love of God, and his dazzling gift for the creation of music.

The Little Chronicle of Magdalena Bach, a novel based on a close study of documents and histories of Bach’s life, was first published in 1925. It’s one of numerous books recently rescued from oblivion and given a new lease of life, and it raises a slightly controversial question. I’m generally all in favour of books being made available for new generations, but why, I wonder, was this particular book chosen? It is certainly a subject of interest. Bach has, of course, been recognised by posterity for the great musical genius that he was, and I suppose the novel also buys into the current vogue for books about the wives or daughters of great men. The insurmountable problem about Meynell’s book, however, is that it doesn’t transcend its era in the same way that, for example, Elizabeth von Arnim‘s refreshing and humorous books manage to do. Meynell’s book, in fact, felt old-fashioned even on its publication in 1925. I unearthed a review published at the time in The Spectator, which is worth quoting because it identifies the problems that bedevil the book even more to a modern reader’s eye:

In the absence of any more dramatic material, however, the author has woven out of the facts of Bach’s life a tender and graceful domestic idyll. Whether, at any rate among musical geniuses, there have ever been husbands so perfect as Sebastian appears in these pages to Magdalena, and whether, even in eighteenth-century Leipzig, wives were ever quite so flawless in self-effacement, are matters for conjecture.

The main issue is that Bach, for all his musical brilliance, led a very quiet life. The book records a few disputes with the philistines on the board of the Thomasschule in Leipzig, where Bach serves as Cantor, and occasional tidings of composers who think they’re better than Bach – who swiftly realise their error and flee in ignominy when threatened with a direct comparison – but the brutal fact of it is that very little happens. Domestic harmony is a wonderful thing in real life, but not so much in fiction. Even when events do happen, they occur off-stage, because Magdalena rarely ventures beyond her hearth and, when she does ask her husband about work, is more often than not told not to bother her pretty little head about it.

And Magdalena is perfectly happy with this. She considers herself weak, foolish and a clumsy musician and in all ways inferior to her paternalistic, multi-talented, wise husband. She makes throwaway comments like, ‘a woman’s brain is hardly fitted for these high matters’, regrets that her ‘weaker mind’ makes her unfit to play some of her husband’s compositions, and confesses that ‘only once do I recall when I had the temerity to think he was in the wrong’. Such sentiments evoke a pious, godly, angel-of-the-hearth style of Victorian moral writing. We have no sense of Magdalena as an individual, as a woman: all her thoughts and desires are focused on her husband and on making a little home for him so that he can be happy. I know that this has been the lot of women throughout history and that perhaps some women genuinely want nothing more than to worship their spouse and to sit on his knee in the evening and absorb the glory of his being, but it doesn’t make for a particularly scintillating novel.

My rating doesn’t criticise the quality of the book so much as the fact that its spirit is out of kilter with our modern age. We’ve come to expect something slightly deeper from fiction, but by the same token I can’t really criticise Meynell for being a product of her own period. There must have been hundreds of similarly undemanding, polite, domestic novels written about women who had no greater desire than to make a cosy home and to love God, but most of them have fittingly faded away with the Victorian era. I feel that Meynell’s book doesn’t quite have the verve or sophistication to speak to a modern audience. I’m not suggesting that it would be better with bodice-ripping and tempestuous affairs: you know me better than that. But I think, if this story were written nowadays, it would have more psychological insight and would be more perceptive about the challenges of the different spheres of domestic and public life. One moment of liveliness comes with a visit from the composer Johann Adolph Hasse and his wife Faustina Bordoni, about whom Magdalena displays a rare and welcome flash of pique:

I think that people who have travelled a great deal and seen the world and received so much fame and applause as Frau Faustina Hasse, always seem to take up a great deal of room in any apartment where they may be.

If only we had seen a little more of Faustina! And yet, for the most part, Meynell’s novel flows very well. She does write beautifully, it’s just that she has little to say: the substance is a little dull. And there are occasions when, fitting the book’s description as a ‘chronicle’, she simply inserts letters or descriptions which I suspect are copied word-for-word from history books, which interrupt the flow a little.

Perhaps I’m being a little hard on the book, because its heroine felt so meek and so in awe of the wonderful husband with whom heaven had blessed her. It felt too homely and schmaltzy to be entirely satisfying. And it also glosses over the true hardships of the widowed Magdalena’s later life. While she refers to her ‘poverty’ in this novel, one gets the sense that it’s a rather genteel kind of poverty, but in reality I believe she was left so destitute that she was almost living on the street by the time she died. That’s a stroke of brutal reality that Meynell prefers to keep out of her ‘idyll’, I note. For those who are interested in Bach himself, a better bet would probably be John Eliot Gardiner’s Music in the Castle of Heaven. I haven’t read this myself but I’ve seen good reviews of it, and I bought it as a birthday present for my friend last year. She hasn’t told me that she didn’t like it, so I presume it’s good.

One good thing about having read this book, though, is that I feel encouraged to dip my toe into slightly more of Bach’s music. But don’t tell my friend that, because I’ll never hear the end of it.

Helen has also reviewed this book, and you can find her thoughts here.

Buy the book

* Vivaldi was born in 1678. My friend means only that Bach was better than Handel and Domenico Scarlatti.

I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in return for a fair and honest review

21 thoughts on “The Little Chronicle of Magdalena Bach: Esther Meynell

  1. Helen says:

    Oh dear – I have received this from Netgalley too and am planning to start it as soon as I finish one of my current reads, so I’m sorry to hear it was disappointing. I’ve been reading quite a few of the books Endeavour Press have re-issued recently and some have been excellent but there are others which, as you’ve mentioned, seem to be strange choices as they have limited appeal to modern readers. I hope I can still manage to enjoy this one, but I suspect I’ll have some problems with it as well.

    • The Idle Woman says:

      Well it’ll be very interesting to see what you think, because it may well just be me. And you, I think, have more experience with Victorian novels than I do, so you may feel able to be more generous. Which of their reissued novels have you read that *are* good and worth seeking out?

      • Helen says:

        The Rosemary Sutcliff book I read a few weeks ago – The Rider of the White Horse – was a good one and I thought Lionheart by Martha Rofheart and Hammer for Princes by Cecelia Holland were worth reading as well. I particularly enjoyed a book by Marjorie Bowen called The Viper of Milan, but her writing style is also quite dated so might not be to your taste.

      • The Idle Woman says:

        Yes, when you wrote about the Viper of Milan, I did think it might be quite up my street so might give it a go despite your caveat. I didn’t realise they’d reissued Hammer for Princes. I’ve been meaning to read Cecilia Holland for ages – I have several books by her on my Kindle but haven’t got round to them. I’m very encouraged to hear that you think she’s worth a read! And of course, Sutcliff is always appealing…

  2. Heloise Merlin says:

    This is just a wild guess, but maybe this particular re-issue is related to this film? It may not be exactly popular (and you’ll see why if you watch it), but I understand it is considered important in certain circles and may even have something of a cult following.

    • The Idle Woman says:

      Well, I knew of the film because it was based on the book, but as the film was released in 1968 it still feels odd to republish the book now… Hmm. There’s obviously a very good reason behind it, but it just seems odd that publishers are willing to put out something rather dated like this in hard copy when there are so many good contemporary writers having trouble getting into print.

      Many thanks for the link, but I can’t promise I’ll be watching it any time soon. 🙂 I feel stuffed full of wholesome Saxon piety (don’t get me wrong; I love the Saxons; they’re wonderful people) and I think I need to go and watch something a bit crazy just to balance myself out 🙂 Have you seen the film, then? If so, can you summarise what it’s like – is it essentially in the same spirit as the book?

      I think my Bach-loving friend was aware of the film, although I’m not sure if she’s actually seen it. I shall have to dissuade her from suggesting it for one of our film nights… I think it’s all right for Bach obsessives, but for those of us not minutely versed in the finer details of his work it might be a tiny bit hard going. Of course, I’m fully aware that, on the basis of all the serious, intellectual comments on YouTube, that makes me a complete pleb both as a music-lover and a cinephile. But once again I say: why has no one ever made a proper full-on film about Handel, whose life was so much more interesting? For goodness sake, someone hurry up and do it, or I’ll have to do it myself.

      Ironically I was reading this book while on a business trip to Bavaria, so I think all the earnest simplicity felt even more stark among the glorious Baroque churches I saw there!

      • The Idle Woman says:

        Argh, Glenn Gould again! I really need to introduce you to my Bach friend. You’d really get on. She has every CD Glenn Gould has ever released, and about five hundred versions of him playing the Goldbergs (I round up slightly). Many thanks for all the links though! I think I’ve got my soundtrack for the next couple of days sorted…

      • Baroque Bird says:

        In my defence, I do not have every single recording ever released by Glenn Gould. Great as Glenn Gould was, he did have a penchant for Wagner. I do not have any of those recordings. I do, however, have every single Baroque and Classical Period recording he has made (including the two Goldbergs), which you are more than welcome to listen to if you wish 🙂

        Can Leonhardt act? His Goldbergs are fab but… let’s just say most instrumentalists are not known for acting. I didn’t think Bach had a particularly exciting life (exciting in the sense that it would provide enough fodder for a movie) so was never particuarly tempted to watch it.

        PS there is a movie about Purcell. It has Michael Ball as Purcell in it. Just thinking about it makes me giggle. On the plus side, Michael Chance and someone else (James Bowman, from memory) sing on the soundtrack and sound quite nice.

      • The Idle Woman says:

        Oh yes, I meant the Baroque recordings. You’ve already given me both Goldbergs, but I do admire your evangelical fervour 😉 As for Purcell and Michael Ball… I think I’ll steer clear of that one for the time being, but it’s good to know it exists!

      • Baroque Bird says:

        At risk of overloading you with Bach suggestions, here are a few more. And don’t worry, none of these are vocal works so there will be nothing that you can compare with your beloved JC’s operas (although there is nothing that compares with my beloved JS’ instrumental works):
        * Art of Fugue, by Canadian Brass. Bach’s final work was left unfinished, with little explanation as to how it was meant to be performed. As a result there have been versions done on keyboard (Glenn Gould does one on an organ) and also versions by ensembles. No one is quite sure what it’s meant to be like, other than glorious. I like Canadian Brass’ version of it because it’s got a jaunty dance beat to it; it’s not slow and reflective as I would play it. It’s like Glenn Gould’s 1955 Goldbergs rather than his 1981 version. But in terms of Bach’s genius, it shows how much he can do with so little, and all the while keeping to the rules of writing fugues. It’s brilliant. And I know you like a bit of brass… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JSY13B5staw&list=PLnxz5OdILJt58tBjr-8UpDiRqcwHXOqMy
        * Brandenburg Concerto No. 5, by Trevor Pinnock and the English Concert. I suspect I may have made you listen to this before when trying to get you to join me on one of my Trevor Pinnock fangirling trips to the Wigmore Hall. But if I haven’t, I apologise. The man is a genius and he really understands Bach and the Baroque. And the first movement of No. 5 is amazing. It was one of the first pieces of music I seriously studied (as in listened to it on end for weeks and dissected it until it was unrecognisable yet still beautiful). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F2E2kFeMvOU
        * Partita No. 2, by Rosalyn Tureck. To say I love Partita No. 2 is an understatement. And Rosalyn Tureck plays it amazingly in the live recording I have. (The studio recording is, how shall we say, comme ci, comme ça.) She plays the entire partita, all 6 movements of it, in a single take. The articulation is wonderfully crisp; the expression well defined without becoming rubato-filled and romanticised; the dance aspect of the each of the movements is brought out. There are few with better voicing and phrasing in their playing of Bach than Ms Tureck (Gould, Andrei Gavrilov and Ivo Pogorelich spring to mind – I think I may have ranted about Pogorelich’s genius on a previous occasion). I can’t find a link to either the CD or a YouTube clip, but I do have the CD.
        * Italian Concerto in F, by Fazil Say. Fazil Say is a Turkish pianist and composer who plays all sorts of things. His takes on the “popular” classical composers (Bach, Haydn, Mozart, and the like) I find to be refreshing. He also does some stunning Gershwin and jazz (listen, for example, to his jazzed-up Paganini Variations here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=okl7_SDhVSU). I’m still waiting for him to come to London. Or I might go and find him in Germany, since he seems to perform there every other week. But anyway, his take on the Italian Concerto is perhaps not the most historically authentic, nor the most virtuosic, but it is full of energy and fun; there’s a spark there that makes it incredibly special and more memorable than those versions by the big names of the Baroque keyboard world. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iAmY1TVR0pA (Awful recording, I have the CD if you want to have a proper listen to it.)
        * Keyboard Concerto in D, by Pierre Hantai and La Concert Français. It’s a stunning piece anyway (I have four versions), but what makes this version stand out is that the harpsichord comes out loudly and clearly as the star of the show, not just the continuo. Of course, this is the way that the piece was designed to be, but it doesn’t always come out so beautifully as it does here. I don’t usually mind having pianos playing these keyboard concerti, but here the harpsichord adds something to the piece that the piano simply cannot do. I think it is due in large part to the bright sound and the particular timbre of the harpsichord, but Mr Hantai’s genius with the instrument and ability to draw out amazing sounds from it cannot be denied. I’d recommend his Goldbergs as the best after the two Goulds. Now that’s high praise… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=teCBAPOVlf4

  3. Baroque Bird says:

    You are right about one thing – you are never going to hear the end of it. It’s a shame that this book didn’t live up to expectations and came across as being so flat (excuse the pun); when you told me you were going to read this, I was excited, because so little is known about Madame Bach the Second and this book was referred to in another I read, The Cello Suites by Eric Siblin. I was given it by a friend who knew I liked Bach and “Book Depository said this was something you’d probably like”, and I did like it. It’s the story of a classical music noob who gets slightly obsessed with Pablo Casals’ rendition of the Cello Suites and goes on a mission to find out as much as possible as he can about them, Pablo Casals, and Bach. The structure feels a bit artificial (but I understand where the author is coming from), but it is very well written, and the author’s passion and fascination for his subjects come through very clearly. I’ve started reading a similar book on violins, and it’s quite hard going – maybe because violins aren’t really my thing, but then again, the Cello Suites aren’t exactly my “go to” music – but the first thing that came to mind after the first couple of chapters was that it was a bit dry and lacked the personal fervour that Mr Siblin quite obviously had. I enjoyed it so much I got a copy for our mutual Catalan friend (Pablo Casals was Catalan).

    Mr Siblin’s book gives of a short description of The Little Chronicle of Magdalena Bach and its background, and talks more about the real Anna Magdalena. It sounds like Ms Meynell may have romanticised Anna Magdalena’s story, which is a bit of a shame, but I suppose in a novel one is allowed some artistic licence (but not to make it duller than reality, which seems to be the case here). You’re welcome to borrow my copy, if you wish.

    Write more later (mostly about Bach books recs and listening recs and my beloved Glenn Gould playing the Goldbergs and all those other reasons why Bach is better than Vivaldi) x

    • The Idle Woman says:

      A key thing to emphasise is that this book doesn’t illuminate much about Magdalena’s life, perhaps because there isn’t much to reveal. There are snippets of documents about Bach himself that have been put in verbatim – usually letters saying how wonderful he is – but little enough about her, save that her father was Court Trumpeter at Weißenfels. Nor does it really offer Bach fans an in-depth discussion of the music. I don’t know what The Cello Suites (which you’ve mentioned to me several times, and may well be of interest to other readers) said about this book, but it is very much a novel rather than any kind of musical treatise.

      Thanks for the offer of borrowing The Cello Suites. I’m not going to take you up on it just yet – at the moment, despite the good writing, it sounds a bit too much of a connoisseur’s book for someone who can’t read music, doesn’t understand music terms and knows practically nothing about Bach. But perhaps one day. And can you perhaps share your thoughts on Music in the Castle of Heaven? Was that good? Am I right to nudge people in that direction? After all, if Gardiner isn’t worth reading on Bach, then I don’t know who is… he’s certainly spent enough time in his company, with all those cantatas…

      One point that is worth mentioning, as another strike in our merry war, is that Magdalena speaks very highly of her youngest son Johann Christian, whom she and her husband regarded as ‘brilliantly gifted’ and ‘a special gift of God’. 😉

      • Baroque Bird says:

        I really must head to bed, but I’d say every parent thinks that of their child. I certainly think that of my cat 🙂

        To be fair, as you say, there isn’t much know about Anna Magdalena. Mr Siblin summarises it in a few short pages (and that includes a brief critique of Ms Meynell’s book). That said, there are some great works of fiction based on scant details or inferences of the lives of famous people/things/events; you can tell a rollicking good story without actually basing it on much substance. The one that comes to mind is Amadeus. Both the play and the movie are fantastic, yet are based on the rather dubious theory that the relationship between Salieri and Mozart was so competitive (at least for one of them) that it led the former to do GBH to the latter. (A perhaps less good example is the Da Vinci Code – it received popular, if not critical, acclaim.)

        I have a whole lot to say about Gardiner and Bach (sorry – I thought I said something to you about it but the more I think about it the less certain I am that I did because there was a lot to say and I don’t remember saying it) so will write a little review for you 🙂

        I really must figure out how to get a profile picture up on this. I don’t like my thing being a red button.

        Yours splutteringly,
        BB

      • The Idle Woman says:

        *Sighs* Yes, but is your cat capable of writing stupendous opera seria? Actually, on second thoughts, maybe it is: you do seem to have a very musical family.

        Amadeus is a long-term favourite and has had the possibly unintentional effect of actually now making me listen to Salieri with interest, rather than confining him to the pile of Italian Composers I Must Listen To At Some Point. As for the Da Vinci Code, I’m afraid those three words are forbidden here on this blog. There is a difference between drawing out a few tantalising details into a good novel, and extrapolating so wildly that your book is not only poorly written but riddled with factual errors and based on an absurd supposition about a great master. I do not, as you can see, particularly like that book. Although the film does, if I remember correctly, contain the phrase, ‘Quick! Get me to a library!’ which is up there with, ‘It belongs in a museum!’ and, ‘You’re wondering what a place like me is doing in a girl like this’ as a favourite cinematic saying.

        For the profile picture, you need to Google ‘Gravatar’, and through that site you can set up a profile picture which links to your email address. That means that whenever you comment on a WordPress blog (mine, Dehggial’s, or someone else’s), your name and profile picture will come up. Have a go – I can talk you through it some time if you run into difficulties, but it’s pretty straightforward so I’m sure you’ll be fine! 🙂

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