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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.

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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

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