The Music Man

Christoph Wolff

If you read music like most children read books, if your family played music together the way others play baseball, if you wanted to grow up to be a musician instead of an astronaut, you could be Johann Sebastian in Bach...or you could be Christoph Wolff, Chairman of the Music Department.

Music was Bach's great love, as music--especially Bach's--is Wolff's. But Bach composed and performed in the eighteenth century, while German-born Wolff, one of the pre-eminent Bach scholars in the country, researches, teaches, and perform in the twentieth.

Music has always been integral to the Wolff clan--his parents and his children play various instruments and his ancestors built pianos. But Wolff continues the tradition in a different vein--as a music historian.

"As music historian, I am primarily interested in increasing the understanding of music from a historical period that we have a hard time getting access to. In order to really perform it right, perceive it right, and understand it right, you have to know quite a bit about its historical context," said Wolff.

And he certainly does Enough to realize who had actually composed some organ chorale preludes sitting in the Yale library. The compositions, in a manuscript entitled "Chorales without text," had belonged to Yale since 1873, but Wolff was the first to recognize them as early Bach.


But it anyone would make such a discovery, it would be Wolff. "He is an internationally respected scholar, thorough in his research, well-versed in his output," Yale Music Librarian Harold Samuel said, adding "It's an unusual thing to get the world excited about a music manuscript in a library."

But Wolff did. The discovery brought Wolff and Bach tremendous media attention, both because it was a major addition to Bach's repertory, and because it occurred during the 300th anniversary of Bach's birth.

But Wolff has already planned an extravagant event to celebrate Bach's 300th birthday. Several years ago. Wolff decided that Harvard should sponsor a week-long musical festival in recognition of the great composer. The festival begins next week.

But Wolff does more than study Bach, and teaching is one of his main priorities. Daniel Mclamed, a graduate student in music, describes Wolff as deeply concerned about his students. "He takes your work seriously and listens to what you have to say," Mclamed said. "He reminds you that it's the music you're there to study, and doesn't let the tools of musicology get in the way."

"I have not stressed Bach in my teaching of ferrings, because I think it's not good to develop a own track situation," Wolff said. In fact, the first class Wolff taught at Harvard was about Mozart, another one of his favorite composers. However, Wolff is currently teaching a core course on Bach, called, appropriately enough, "Bach in his Time and Through the Centuries," Literature and Arts B-63.

"Wolff is amazing," said one student currently taking the class. "He's fantastic at describing things that are hard to phrase--it's difficult to put music into words, and he's very good at communicating that." Wolff's effectiveness lies in the way he combines lecture with performance, she said, adding that he's even successful at doing both at once.

Indeed, Wolff is successful at doing lots of things at once, some entirely unrelated to Bach. First at Columbia, and now at Harvard. Wolff teaches, edits, writes and performs, though he acknowledges that his duties as a scholar keep him from performing as much as he would like.

Currently, Wolff is co-editor of the Bach Jahrbuch, an important publication of Bach scholarship. He is also working on a three-volume Bach Compendium, which will provide information on all of Bach's works and sources. Wolff has also written a number of books about Bach and Mozart.