Thursday, December 7, 2017

Did Bach raise 20 children? Writing composer biographies for kids

Hello! It’s been months since I’ve last updated, and I regret that the hiatus lasted so long. It was mostly due to medical issues; after my successful round of brain radiation, I started a particularly brutal chemo treatment that saps me of energy and makes it difficult to walk. But I’m still recovering.

As I mentioned in the intro to Andrew Dell’Antonio’s guest post, I was indeed on Jeopardy! You can watch the full episode online (assuming Sony hasn’t had the video removed), or if you just want results, you can check J!-Archive. (I was wearing a wig for that episode because radiation left me bald.) If you watch the show, you’ll see that I talked about this blog in my one-on-one with Alex Trebek! I made a passing reference to Mozart and Salieri before mentioning that Bach wasn’t quite forgotten after his death. Wrapping up the interview, Alex mentioned Bach having “lots of children,” and I agreed.

In the very first post on this blog—indeed, the very first sentence—I mention that Bach having a bunch of children is one of those facts that nearly every classical music lover already knows. It is technically correct that Bach fathered twenty children.
Futurama meme: You are technically correct...the best kind of correct.
And technically correct is the best kind of correct.

However, I’ve discovered that this fact leads some people to create a mental image that is inaccurate. For example, I recently found a description on Amazon of a Bach biography that says it shows, “how he helped his wife Magdalena put the twenty children to bed every night.” This is completely false.

Note: In this blog post, I am criticizing the books based on the descriptions that appear on I have not read the books themselves to see how these issues are handled in the text. Nevertheless, I believe the descriptions are relevant and eligible for criticism. 

Yes, Bach had twenty children, but they were never all alive at the same time. This was the early 18th century, and infant and child mortality was much higher than it is today. Bach’s brood included a pair of twins, who had an even higher mortality rate (indeed, both of Bach’s twins died within a month of their birth). Of his twenty children, only ten made it past age 5, with most of the deaths happening within the child’s first year. Another problem with the sentence from the description is that three of those children died before Anna Magdalena could become their stepmother. So, there was no way that Mr. and Mrs. Bach were “putting the twenty children to bed every night.”

Why exaggerate this image of domestic tranquility? Well, this particular biography is part of Zeezok Publishing’s Great Composer Series, intended for homeschool instruction. I know several people who homeschool, and even among the homeschoolers I know, they each have different reasons for doing so. I realize that any comment I make about trends in homeschooling does not apply to everyone who homeschools. That having been said, I became aware of this series from a long-time friend of mine, Emily Lin. She was homeschooled herself and now homeschools her own children. She explained to me on Facebook:
There is an educational philosophy (which I respect and ascribe to, the method is good) popular among homeschoolers named after its founder, Charlotte Mason. One of its core tenets is something called "living books," which advocates for historical fiction and interesting biographies to teach a subject (especially history), rather than textbooks. It's a story/narrative approach, and it works well, bringing the subject alive, and causing the student to feel a particular relationship with and ownership of the material. Unfortunately, in order to make certain historical characters relatable and interesting to young children, this kind of "creative license" is taken at the expense of reality. 
My goal is to bust myths, and these books propagate—or in some cases, perhaps originate—some of the stories that I’ve been fighting. The Brahms book mentions him playing piano in “low taverns” as a child, a detail that musicologists have been arguing about for almost a century—Brahms scholar Styra Acvins says that this story originated in 1933 with Robert Haven Schauffler’s The Unknown Brahms, but even this might not be entirely true.*

The cover of The Young Brahms, which shows him dancing with a monkey.
The book cover also has Brahms dancing with a monkey, for some reason.
The Schubert book description fabricates a story that he abandoned his “Unfinished” symphony because his friends invited him out for a picnic, and he forgot what he was working on. The Beethoven book description presents his difficult childhood in an uncharacteristically cheerful way.

I will concede that these books might not be intended to be taken literally (particularly since there are so many inaccuracies). Unfortunately, their intended use is as instructional books for children. Unless the teacher (probably a parent) points out which aspects never happened—and they might not even know themselves—the child is left thinking that everything in the book actually happened. Years later, this becomes, “I remember reading somewhere that…” And because the printed word feels so authoritative, more so than a blog or preconcert lecture, it is extremely difficult to get people to disregard, or even slightly doubt, something that has already lodged in their minds. This is called the illusory truth effect, which has become particularly relevant in this era of “fake news.”

What’s the big deal? So they believe a story about Schubert on a picnic or think Bach tucked all twenty children into bed at once, so what? Well, as innocent as this may seem, the biographies are irresponsible in the details that they omit. Emily alerted me to this series because they have a book on Richard Wagner, a “light-hearted and lively biography.” Now, I don’t expect a children’s book to go into Wagner’s narcissism or anti-Semitism, as those aren’t appropriate topics for young kids.

Nevertheless, these books are written specifically so that children can identify with the “characters,” who happen to have been real people. Focusing on only positive traits and even making up a few implies that these “great composers” are role models, intended to be emulated. So, anything unsavory is omitted—Chopin’s affair with George Sand (a married woman) is never mentioned. Beethoven’s abusive childhood is reconfigured into a story of the determination of genius.

And “genius” is the key word. Just as we’ve seen recently with the #MeToo campaign and in classical music with the “open secret” of James Levine’s sexual abuse of teenage boys, a lot of behavior is overlooked or even excused because of the person’s “genius.” These “Great Masters” were human, but these biographies present them as superhuman, a class apart. Who cares if Wagner published a pamphlet that essentially erased the careers of Felix Mendelssohn and Giacomo Meyerbeer because they were ethnically Jewish? (If you haven’t heard of Meyerbeer, well, that shows you how effective Wagner was in denying him a legacy.) Their genius exonerates them, right? (Answer: No.)

But some of these “Great Musicians” lived less than stellar lives. For the most part, composers did not conduct themselves with the intent of being a moral example, an idea that really developed in the late 19th century. It’s dangerous to think that the transcendence of a composition (or interpretation, or performance) absolves a great musician of their misdeeds, as it contends that art is more important than the suffering of victims. I’m not exaggerating—check out these letters to the New York Times in defense of James Levine.

As for introducing children to the lives of composers, stick to the truth—just not the whole truth if they aren’t ready for it yet. As my friend Emily says, “There are plenty of excellent, accurate ‘living books’ out there; we don't need to make stuff up,” a statement I (unsurprisingly) agree with.

For that matter, why should they focus on composers so much in the first place? Let them experience music, then, if they’re interested, help them find out the accurate history behind it. These biographies, first written in the mid 20th century but still being produced in the 21st, are another symptom of classical music’s obsession with a limited list of Great Composers.
* Styra Avins, Johannes Brahms: Life and Letters (2001) p. 3-4.

Thanks to Kendra Leonard, Robin Wallace, Andrew Dell’Antonio, Imani Mosley, Byron Adams, Ellen Krasin, and Emily Lin for their feedback on this post! 

“Q: How many children did J.S. Bach have? A: Loads. Here’s what we know.” on, 31 August 2016

Styra Avins, Johannes Brahms: Life and Letters (2001)

“Artistic Genius and Sexual Misconduct” in The New York Times, 6 December 2017

“What Do We Do with the Art of Monstrous Men?” by Claire Dederer in The Paris Review, 20 November 2017


  1. Would appreciate being pointed toward specific titles that Emily was referring to.

    1. My favorite example for a story that truly "comes to life," are the Classical Kids stories (Beethoven Lives Upstairs, Hallelujah Handel, Vivaldi's Ring Of Mystery, etc). I would prefer these simply because they are billed as historical FICTION, so, while they introduce the composer, their music, and some historical context, the main characters and the plot are clearly fictitious. The Vivaldi one refers to him teaching at an "orphanage for girls" and Katarina, the fictional main character, does eventually discover that she's related to royalty (she is reunited with her grandfather, a Duke), so this would be a good example of a middle ground, presenting kid-friendly versions of the truth without having to tell your young elementary students about sexual scandals and illegitimate children of the Italian nobility.

    2. The most popular ones I've come across are the "Getting to Know..." series (for artists and composers). They take a different approach, with lots of cartoon illustrations and silly comics, which can be sensory overload, but the ones that I've read do attempt to present information accurately.

    3. I hope that gives you something to start with. I'm working on compiling more titles, I'll try to remember to share them, as well!

  2. You are absolutely right that these early impressions stay with us for the rest of our lives! Like many German children, I grew up with the audio (then tape) series "Wir entdecken Komponisten", and I remember many details and anecdotes. They were targetted as slightly older children, and while the series is resolutely white, male and dead, Bach's evil temper and Beethoven's sad childhood were not glossed over. The combination of musical pieces and biographical narratives / dialogues also worked well to divert the attention towards the music. There must be more sophisticated formats nowadays, but I see that the series is still available: