FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Skepticism, Irony, and Doubt: Williams on Bach

Peter Williams, one of the most influential and incisive thinkers and writers on the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, did not live to see the publication of his forthcoming “musical biography” of the composer. Williams died in March at the age of seventy-eight. Here is my profile.

If you are an organist or Bach lover, even one of occasionally wavering commitment and middling inquisitiveness, Peter Williams has long been a presence in your life, whether you ever encountered him as he lived and breathed until March 27th—white hair, rosy cheeks, sharp elbows, and a sharper tongue. His many books have the character of a brilliant, cantankerous uncle, one crackling with irreverence and equipped with a seemingly endless supply of knowledge. You challenge Williams at your peril, and every time he’s pulled from the shelf he’ll say something memorable, imaginative, provocative.

When organists reach for one of William’s three volumes of foundational commentary on the Bach organ works published between 1980 and 1984, they do so with a sense of assurance and adventure: these books are there as much to answer queries as to ask questions. A new edition of the first two volumes (bound as one) appeared from Cambridge University Press, his long-time publisher, in 2004, and will remain a landmark long after his death this past month.

No scholar ever loaded his work with a greater density of question marks. One steps gingerly through a Peter Williams book as if through a field of land mines. No received truth is safe from the intellectual squibs he placed with devastating accuracy. He toppled the granite monument to Bach’s dark genesis with a punctuating bang: “BWV 565: a toccata in D minor by J. S. Bach?” was his title for this demolition of the work’s credentials in the pages of Early Music in 1981.

One wondered how he did it all, gathered all that information, synthesized, criticized and completed. His output and its quality were especially impressive as he seemed uninterested in, make that downright opposed to, that insidious newcomer, the internet. He was one of those types who use their spouse’s email address. Yet he was a vigorous correspondent: cajoling contributions to his Organ Yearbook which he edited from 1969 up until last year: a 46-year run of astounding breadth and quality. No keyboard periodical has ever come close to this achievement.

He wrote slender books on the Goldberg Variations (Cambridge, 2001) and the Life of Bach (Cambridge, 2004) followed three years later by a biography of the master nearly twice as long. He did four hundred years of a ubiquitous musical figure (The Chromatic Fourth During Four Centuries; Oxford, 1998) in 272 pages and the first five centuries of the oldest keyboard instruments’ development in Western Europe in just over 400— The Organ in Western Culture, 750-1250 (Cambridge, 1993). The first of these demonstrated with what ingenuity and trenchancy he could think and write thematically, in both senses of that word; the second confirmed his impressive philological skills in medieval Latin and made an impressive contribution to history of science and technology.

Even as he drew much of this material from his own comprehensive knowledge of many musical repertoires and his large personal library, he was not simply a Fachidiot wearing an ever-deeper track in floorboards between desk and bookshelf. The European Organ (Batsford, 1966; second edition, Indiana, 1978) showed how intrepid Williams was, launching himself across the continent, camera in hand. His photographs alone make the book a classic. Perhaps it was partly because he came from a country with shockingly few important historical organs extant from before the nineteenth century that he was so eager to traverse a vast geography in this landmark study pulled off by a young man only in his late twenties. There are gaps and slips, but surprisingly few, and the effort is astounding, the results produced lasting, the energy unstoppable. Last year he mentioned to me in an email the upcoming fiftieth anniversary of the book’s publication. He was able to see his way to that mile-post before he died.

A 2007 volume of essays in honor of Williams on the occasion of his 70th birthday was edited by Thomas Donahue; its title Music and Its Questions made reference to the dedicatees’ puncturing punctuation. Like many of the contributors to that book, I had been bloodied and bruised by Williams in print: getting savaged by him was a badge of honor for some, a lasting wound for others. Yet he wrote me a warm letter to thank me for my essay in his Festschrift, asking me to take his sparking invective in good part: “As you know, I tend to be tactlessly critical in reviews — ye olde Englishe tradition — so it was a particular pleasure to read your well-worked contribution.”

A few months later, in the summer of 2008, he visited Cornell and we toured the organs on the same campus where he had written and researched some of his Organ Music of J. S. Bach when a fellow at the Society for the Humanities in 1980-81, back when projects like the analysis of chorale preludes and preludes and fugues could still land you a year’s funding to consort with the Ivory Tower’s intellectual elite. Although his old-fashioned methods stressed rigor, clarity, fact, and manifested an abiding distrust of theorizing, his results were paradoxically postmodern, featuring as they did skepticism, irony, and doubt, and wishing death to any master narrative that crossed his bow.

Ours was a pleasant, sunny afternoon on the gothic bluffs above Lake Cayuga. After listening to me demonstrate a reconstruction of a central German chamber organ from 1700 recently added to the Cornell collection, he opined that one can always tell a new organ from an old one. Our visit was rounded out by supper with his wife Rosemary at the home of the towering early music pioneer of the gamba and baryton, John Hsu and his wife Martha. Over after-dinner drinks, Peter launched an attack on Johann Mattheson. Reinforced by my wife, Annette Richards, I resolutely defended the indefatigable Hamburger.

At subsequent events such as a conference on Bach’s organ music held at Eastman in 2012 where he delivered the key note address, Peter came to calling me “dear boy” and giving me plentiful portions of ye olde Englishe avuncular treatment. That was another medal on the breast—being condescended to by a man of his encyclopedic knowledge, unflagging vitality, and outsized intelligence, all fizzing behind that façade of dispassionate, scholarly poise.

More articles by:

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

Weekend Edition
January 18, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Melvin Goodman
Star Wars Revisited: One More Nightmare From Trump
John Davis
“Weather Terrorism:” a National Emergency
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Sometimes an Establishment Hack is Just What You Need
Joshua Frank
Montana Public Schools Block Pro-LGBTQ Websites
Louisa Willcox
Sky Bears, Earth Bears: Finding and Losing True North
Robert Fisk
Bernie Sanders, Israel and the Middle East
Robert Fantina
Pompeo, the U.S. and Iran
David Rosen
The Biden Band-Aid: Will Democrats Contain the Insurgency?
Nick Pemberton
Human Trafficking Should Be Illegal
Steve Early - Suzanne Gordon
Did Donald Get The Memo? Trump’s VA Secretary Denounces ‘Veteran as Victim’ Stereotyping
Andrew Levine
The Tulsi Gabbard Factor
John W. Whitehead
The Danger Within: Border Patrol is Turning America into a Constitution-Free Zone
Dana E. Abizaid
Kafka’s Grave: a Pilgrimage in Prague
Rebecca Lee
Punishment Through Humiliation: Justice For Sexual Assault Survivors
Dahr Jamail
A Planet in Crisis: The Heat’s On Us
John Feffer
Trump Punts on Syria: The Forever War is Far From Over
Dave Lindorff
Shut Down the War Machine!
Glenn Sacks
LA Teachers’ Strike: Student Voices of the Los Angeles Education Revolt  
Mark Ashwill
The Metamorphosis of International Students Into Honorary US Nationalists: a View from Viet Nam
Ramzy Baroud
The Moral Travesty of Israel Seeking Arab, Iranian Money for its Alleged Nakba
Ron Jacobs
Allen Ginsberg Takes a Trip
Jake Johnston
Haiti by the Numbers
Binoy Kampmark
No-Confidence Survivor: Theresa May and Brexit
Victor Grossman
Red Flowers for Rosa and Karl
Cesar Chelala
President Donald Trump’s “Magical Realism”
Christopher Brauchli
An Education in Fraud
Paul Bentley
The Death Penalty for Canada’s Foreign Policy?
David Swanson
Top 10 Reasons Not to Love NATO
Louis Proyect
Breaking the Left’s Gay Taboo
Kani Xulam
A Saudi Teen and Freedom’s Shining Moment
Ralph Nader
Bar Barr or Regret this Dictatorial Attorney General
Jessicah Pierre
A Dream Deferred: MLK’s Dream of Economic Justice is Far From Reality
Edward J. Martin
Glossip v. Gross, the Eighth Amendment and the Torture Court of the United States
Chuck Collins
Shutdown Expands the Ranks of the “Underwater Nation”
Paul Edwards
War Whores
Peter Crowley
Outsourcing Still Affects Us: This and AI Worker Displacement Need Not be Inevitable
Alycee Lane
Trump’s Federal Government Shutdown and Unpaid Dishwashers
Martha Rosenberg
New Questions About Ritual Slaughter as Belgium Bans the Practice
Wim Laven
The Annual Whitewashing of Martin Luther King Jr.
Nicky Reid
Panarchy as Full Spectrum Intersectionality
Jill Richardson
Hollywood’s Fat Shaming is Getting Old
Nyla Ali Khan
A Woman’s Wide Sphere of Influence Within Folklore and Social Practices
Richard Klin
Dial Israel: Amos Oz, 1939-2018
David Rovics
Of Triggers and Bullets
David Yearsley
Bass on Top: the Genius of Paul Chambers
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail