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.
* 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