Anna Magdalena composed major works in a household torn by adultery and suicide, claims Darwin Professor.

It was back in 2006 that Professor Martin Jarvis from the music department of the NT’s Charles Darwin University first aired his claim that Anna Magdalena Bach, the second wife of Johann Sebastian, was the likely author of a number of the composer’s best-known works. Jarvis’s theory drew a degree of ire from musicologists and professional cellists alike back then, but now it looks like his controversial theories are set to receive fresh backing in a new documentary soon to be aired at Bafta in London.

A scene from the new documentary

Written by Mrs Bach, presented by the respected British composer Sally Beamish, apparently uses analysis of ink and handwriting to support the idea that Anna Magdalena wrote not only the six Cello Suites, but also the Aria from the Goldberg Variations and the first prelude from The Well-Tempered Clavier.

Martin Jarvis, who is also Conductor Emeritus of the Darwin Symphony Orchestra, is no stranger to controversy. His initial revelations caused quite a storm – so much so that, in his own words, the professor “was viewed very much as pariah by the Bach scholarly world”. He even found some who had initially backed his research backing off and refusing to acknowledge support in previous emails.

Jarvis’s theory hinges on the fact that one of the two sources for Bach’s Cello Suites exist in the hand of Anna Magdalena – long considered a simple copyist as far as her husband’s work was concerned (the other source, the Kellner manuscript is generally considered to predate Anna Magdalena’s version by a year or so but Jarvis rather dismisses it out of hand by suggesting reasons why it might have come along a little later). He also considers any original by Bach himself to have “vanished”. Stylistic examination of the handwriting by researchers, according to Jarvis, is indicative of a creative outpouring, lacking the typical methodical slowness of a mere copyist. Heidi Harralson, an American forensic document examiner, is convinced that “within a reasonable degree of scientific certainty” the composer was Anna Magdalena.

Behind every great man?

Back in 2006, Julian Lloyd Webber was one of the leading cellists to pooh pooh the theory insisting that the compositions were “stylistically totally Bach” and pointing out that “many composers had appalling handwriting, which meant better copies would naturally have been made, with the originals then discarded”. Steven Isserlis, was also highly sceptical. “We can’t say that it is definitely not true, in the same way that we can’t prove that Anne Hathaway did not write some of Shakespeare’s work,” he said at the time. “But I don’t believe this to be a serious theory.”

Not one to confine his speculations to musicological examination alone, in 2012 Jarvis published a paper where he went further, suggesting that Bach had perhaps begun an affair with his prospective second wife while his first, Maria Barbara, was still alive. From this, he extrapolates further to suggest that Maria Barbara had maybe suicided on discovery of the romantic liaison and that this explains why Bach and Anna Magdalena married at home rather than in church as might have been expected.

The Bach household

The theory that Anna Magadalena was chosen to be nursemaid to her predecessor’s four children is similarly dismissed. Maria Barbara’s sister Friedelena went on, apparently, to fulfil that function in the household for six more years, and she would have received help from Bach’s eldest daughter, now in her teens. That left Anna Magdalena free to compose, according to Jarvis, who in a further flight of fancy proposes a household riven with strife and packed with emotionally damaged children, the result of their father’s adultery and their mother’s suicide. “It is more than plausible that the household was not a happy place, with resentment of their new stepmother growing as time passed,” he writes. “If this were the case, then it would go a long way to explaining why, much later in life, Anna Magdalena was apparently abandoned by her stepchildren; and, indeed, why her role in Johann Sebastian’s musical output was so under acknowledged from the very start of the Bach biography in Forkel’s 1802 book – which was based to a great extent on information from Johann Sebastian’s two eldest sons, Carl Philipp Emanuel and Wilhelm Friedemann.”

The gory speculative details aside, the new documentary has some impressive backers keen to establish Anna Magdalena as a significant composer in her own right. Sally Beamish believes that the findings have major implications for musical history and, more importantly, could help bolster the confidence of young women writing today. “What I found fascinating is the questions it raises about the assumptions we make: that music is always written by one person and all the great masters were male by definition,” she said.

The UK Daily Telegraph’s music critic Ivan Hewitt is less certain. “There isn’t a single hint in the surviving documents of the Bach household that she may have composed music,” he says, “and frankly, how could she have done, with a large household to run?” He goes on to describe Anna Magdalena as a “proper Leipzig hausfrau” and is clearly sceptical that she would have found the time to put creative pen to paper. “This is disturbing stuff,” he admits, however. “If the thesis turns out to be true, it puts a bomb right at the heart of the old patriarchal view of the Western tradition.”

Contribute to Limelight and support independent arts journalism.