Rediscovering Anna Magdalena Bach’s Notebooks

Products featured here are selected for review by ANDREW EALES

It is more than 60 years since the last complete critical edition was produced of the famous music notebooks that J.S.Bach compiled for his second wife, Anna Magdalena.

Keenly aware of the need to revisit both collections of 1722 and 1725, and in mind of the tremendous leaps made in Bach scholarship in recent years, leading expert Christoph Wolff’s new critical urtext has recently been published by Edition Peters.

This landmark treasure appears in two separate forms: the Premium Scholarly Edition is a hardback clothbound complete version, while the less expensive Practical Student Edition delivers the shorter pieces from the collections as a more conventional score suitable for learners.

For more information, read on for my full review of both versions…

The Christoph Wolff Edition

Here is how Edition Peters themselves introduce this landmark new edition:

In 1721 a 20-year-old soprano employed at the princely court in Köthen married the court’s Kapellmeister, set to become the greatest composer of the age. As his second wife she married into a young family with four children, and a busy household filled with music.

The music book that Johann Sebastian Bach presented to his new wife Anna Magdalena in 1722, and replaced more lavishly in 1725, treats us to a tantalizing glimpse inside this unique family, allowing us to sit beside Bach as a composer, teacher, husband and father. Over the years, these notebooks became a place for the family to share instructional exercises, favourite pieces – by Bach and other composers – to play or sing, early composition efforts from the children, and first versions of some of Bach’s more ambitious keyboard works.

What is usually presented as ‘the’ Anna Magdalena Notebook is a set of excerpts from the 1725 collection. The scholarship that informed the New Bach Edition in 1957 has been greatly developed and expanded since then.

Now, for the first time, Edition Peters presents a new Urtext edition of the Notebooks for Anna Magdalena Bach.

• Contains all the material from the 1722 and 1725 notebooks together in one volume, in the original landscape format

• Edited by pre-eminent Bach scholar Christoph Wolff, Harvard Professor and former Director of the Leipzig Bach Archive

• Represents the very latest in Bach scholarship, reflecting up-to-the-minute research on texts, authorship and copyists

• Extensive preface, detailed critical commentary, and beautifully engraved notation.

• Printed in Köthen and bound in Leipzig – the home of Bach and the home of Edition Peters – this cutting-edge, premium modern edition’s journey to your library retraces the Bach family’s own move from the princely town to the city.

This fascinating promotional video features Wolff and others involved, explaining the background and content of the edition in more detail, and is well worth watching:

The Premium Scholarly Edition

I previously mentioned that Edition Peters have brought this landmark publication to market in two different versions. Here’s how they differ, and what each offers.

The Premium Scholarly Edition arrives as a hardcover clothbound edition with gold embossing. The 184 cream pages within include a detailed Preface written by Wolff, five pages of gorgeously reproduced colour facsimile illustrations and photographs of the original manuscript sources, and conclude with an in-depth Critical Commentary.

The bulk of the publication is of course taken up by the edition itself, which includes complete versions of both Anna Magdalena Notebooks. The 1722 collection is dominated by five keyboard suites which would subsequently be circulated as the French Suites. The 1725 collection, meanwhile, begins with another two suites; these became the A minor and E minor Partitas, published by Bach separately.

While the presentation is scholarly, the notation is engraved spaciously and with a highly readable music font, making it a pleasure to play from. With high quality stitched binding the book stays open nicely, and reminds me of the tomes traditionally discovered in an organ loft.

Every aspect of this edition screams quality; it is quite simply a thing of great beauty!

The Practical Student Edition

The more affordable Practical Student Edition appears in Edition Peters’ beloved green series in portrait orientation, and includes “selected pieces”. Almost everything is here except for Bach’s original versions of the French Suites and Partitas, which players would I suspect prefer to own separately in any case.

This 52-page edition is the one which students discovering the music for the first time are likely to choose, and is more manageable.

While the seriousness of Edition Peters’ green series presentation is perhaps not best suited to children, and the religious songs in German might seem uninviting to the younger player, it’s notable that the music font is generously sized; combined with the cream paper and outstanding print quality, this a score which is easy to read from.

This publication also includes a helpful two-page explanation of Bach’s figured bass rules, oddly absent from the Premium Scholarly Edition.

I suspect that older learners and musicians in general will opt for this version, given its very affordable price-tag, scholarly integrity and easy performing layout.

Pedagogic Considerations

For some who buy the Christoph Wolff edition, this could be their first encounter with a scholarly edition of music from the Baroque period. There are a few points to bear in mind.

Firstly, Wolff retains Bach’s stem directions and clefs, unlike for example the Richard Jones edition for ABRSM, in which they are reconfigured to conform to that exam board’s particular Grade 5 theory rules.

Nor is any fingering included in either Edition Peters version. In general I think editorial fingering can be a helpful addition, and one which might have been appropriate for the Practical Student Edition. That said, it is a useful exercise for teacher and player to work out effective fingering together.

Another consideration is that these scores include no dynamics at all, in keeping with Bach’s manuscripts (written for the domestic keyboard instruments of the early 18th century, prior to the piano’s invention). For me, this is again an advantage; the editorial dynamics that some (exam boards in particular) add to baroque keyboard pieces can at times be quite crass.

The Edition Peters Practical Student Edition delivers a beautifully clean, clear working score which players can use in the context of their developing technical understanding, artistic freedom of thought, and hopefully in conjunction with an informed teacher.

Closing Thoughts…

It hardly needs saying that every piano student and player with any interest in classical music needs to have a copy of the Anna Magdalena Notebook on their music stand at some point, nor that this edition is now the one to buy.

Those who already have a copy of the music are unlikely to regret purchasing this new edition (in either version) as a replacement either, such is the importance of this music and the excellence of these Edition Peters publications.

The gorgeously presented Premium Scholarly Edition in particular is without doubt one of the most superb music publications of recent years, and cannot be recommended highly enough!

Both versions are available worldwide now.

Pianodao Music Club members enjoy exclusive discounts on sheet music.
In the interests of online privacy, Pianodao does not use affiliate tracking links.
Retail links are directly sponsored by Musicroom.

Get email updates from Pianodao, delivered by WordPress.
You can unsubscribe at any time.

Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a widely respected piano educator, writer and composer based in Milton Keynes UK. His book HOW TO PRACTISE MUSIC is published by Hal Leonard.