Johann Sebastian Bach: Life and Work (2000) by Martin Geck, translated in 2006 by John Hargraves, with a forward by Kurt Masur, begins with a chapter describing the lives and careers of other Bach biographers. Then comes a chapter discussing where various Bach manuscripts are located. By the end of that chapter, with its wooden, deadening prose, its hyper-cautiousness, its overly speculative nature, its straining efforts to account for minute details, the book is off to a poor start. Relatively little is known of Bach's life. One hundred thirty pages into this book he is in his late 30s, and we have little sense of him as a living human being, the creator of masterworks. He remains a cipher, his face occasionally rising to the surface through his own letters or the letters and journals of others or through court documents. His first wife dies and no one takes notice—at least there is no record of the notice taken, though there were young children in the family. Geck makes nothing of this potentially tragic moment. He suggests that Bach continued on unperturbed. Little more than a year later he marries a 20-year-old girl, Anna Magdalena, a musician herself. He spends several days in jail for seeking release from a church where he serves as concertmaster. He runs up bar bills. He is argumentative and arrogant. During the first two decades of his career he moves often from one church to another, his fame gradually growing. A prince befriends him, but Geck does not explain what it means to have a prince as a patron. Bach's life might come more to life if Geck would do more to illuminate his world, but he can't manage that—we have page after page of bare facts, assumptions, speculations, hypotheticals, dry recitations of what was and might have been. This scholarship is too cautious. It kills interest in the figure it so lovingly and carefully seeks to portray. I give up. Perhaps this book was written for musicologists and not for lay readers. Perhaps it is Bach's poorly documented life that is to blame. Or perhaps a fundamental failure of imagination is to blame.
A few sentences I marked: "Bach was not a prolific composer; rather, he tended to concentrate on just a few projects and models over a period of time. Yet we wish we could form a picture of him as an orchestral composer as distinct as that of the composer of works for keyboard and organ or of cantatas. The fact that we cannot raises questions. It seems certain that not all of the orchestral compositions from Cöthen have survived, but it would be an anomaly in the history of Bach's works if the number of lost orchestral compositions was very large." The next few sentences contains such words and phrases as "conjecture," "reasons unknown," "contrary to some speculation," "seems far more likely," and so on. A biographer writing about an individual about whom little is known faces a real problem. Does one speculate and hedge and guess for page after page?
The titles of most of Bach's works are given in German: e.g., "Sei Solo senza Basso accompagnato" or Klavierbüchlein or "'Meine Seufzer, meine Tränen,' BWV 13." I don't read German. I don't understand or recognize the notations (BWV 13). Even so, I am not an idiot. A translation for people such as me would not sully the writer's principles.