Would it matter if it turned out that those beautiful ’Cello Suites were Anna Magdalena’s rather than Johann Sebastian’s? Isn’t it like the recent fuss about Jane Austen’s novels; the suspicion that they were largely the work of a publisher’s anonymous copy-editor? Well as to that, a copy-editor’s usual job is to introduce a slightly higher degree of literacy into the scribblings of popular novelists. (With the corollary that they also introduce some illiteracies into the work of those of us who can write properly, but never mind.)
And never mind about the authorship of Jane Austen’s novels either — we have the books, and they’re among the best novels ever written, no matter by whom exactly.
So isn’t it the same for Bach’s ’Cello Suites? Well, no, it isn’t. Bach’s works are not just ‘among the best ever written’, they are the best. The great ’cellist Paul Tortelier once said that anyone who didn’t think Bach was the greatest of all composers simply wasn’t a musician.
Bach is not just ‘Head and Shoulders’ above all other composers, past, present, and future. It is more as if the history of western music were something like the landscape of England, with the odd hill, and of course the Pennines, and then suddenly one finds, half-way up the M1, Mount Everest. There can be no sensible comparison of Bach with other composers.
Either it’s all nonsense, and it’s just that, as with many others of JS’s works, Anna Magdalena’s fair copy is the only manuscript of the ’cello suites to survive, or we must suppose that the extraordinary, hitherto thought unique, genius of Johann Sebastian also possessed Anna Magdalena, and perhaps indeed other family members.
It is intriguing, and in this case, yes, it does matter.
I forgot to mention an important centenary the other day: Dylan Thomas was born on the 27th of October 1914. Here is his portrait, done by Alfred Janes: