David Yearsley

Herbert Gussman Professor of Music


David Yearsley was educated at Harvard College and Stanford University, where he received his Ph.D. in Musicology in 1994. At Cornell he continues to pursue his interests in the teaching, history, literature and performance of music. His musicological work investigates literary, social, and theological contexts for music and music making, and while he focuses on J. S. Bach, he has written on topics ranging from music and death to musical invention, from organology and performance to musical  representations of public spaces in film, from musical  travelers to the joys of the keyboard duet. At Cornell he has taught courses on Bach and Handel, surveys of Western Art Music, keyboard performance, the organ, music journalism, film music, and music theory.

David's first book, Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint (Cambridge, 2002) explodes long-held notions about the status of counterpoint in the mid-eighteenth century, and illuminates unexpected areas of the musical culture into which Bach’s most obsessive and complicated musical creations were released. Bach’s Feet: the Organ Pedals in European Culture (Cambridge, 2012) presents a new interpretation of the significance of the oldest and richest of European instruments—the organ—by investigating the German origins of the uniquely independent use of the feet in music-making. Delving into a range of musical, literary, and visual sources, Bach’s Feet pursues the wide-ranging cultural importance of this physically demanding art, from the blind German organists of the 15th century, through the central contribution of Bach’s music and legacy, to the newly-pedaling organists of the British Empire, and the sinister visions of Nazi propagandists.

His monograph Sex, Death and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical Notebooks is forthcoming from University of Chicago Press. In providing a range of literary, social, historical, and musical perspectives on the cherished musical manuscripts of J. S. Bach's second wife, herself a gifted professional musician, this study radically revises our understanding of women in music in 18th-century Lutheran Germany and within the Bach family. 

David's current scholarly project has the working title Bach Laughs, and is a study of the composer as musical humorist. 

His research has been supported by fellowships from the Wenner-Gren Foundation, the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, The American Council of Learned Socieites, and the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation.

Also a committed journalist, David has been music critic for the Anderson Valley Advertiser since 1990; his weekly column can be read each Friday at counterpunch.org. A collection of his feuilletons, Bach and Taxes and Other Matters of Life and Death is in the works.

The only musician ever to win all the major prizes at the Bruges Early Music Festival, David continues to pursue an active career as a performer on keyboards historical and modern. A long-time member of the pioneering synthesizer ensemble Mother Mallard's Portable Masterpiece Company, his recordings are available on the Musica Omnia and Loft labels.

Research Focus

  • European Music of the 17th and 18th centuries
  • Music of J. S. Bach
  • Music and Death
  • Musical Imagination and Invention
  • Musical Travels
  • Music Journalism
  • Musical Humor
  • Handel's operas
  • Film soundtracks



  • Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint (2002)
  • Bach's Feet (2012)
  • Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical Notebooks (University of Chicago Press, 2019)



  • "Bach as Musical Humorist," in Re-Thinking Bach, ed. Bettina Varwig (Oxford University Press, forthcoming)
  • "Practicing Feet" in Playing to Learn: Learning to Play: Essays on Practicing the Organ, ed. Michael Bauer (University of Michigan Press, forthcoming)   
  • “Keyboard Music,” in Routledge Companion to Bach Research, ed. Robin Leaver and Yo Tomita (London: Routledge, 2017): 295-316.
  • “’Nothing More to Conquer’: Müthel’s Duetto in the Burney’s Drawing Room and Beyond” Keyboard Perspectives 9 (2016): 1-31.
  • “To a Mother’s Memory: Loss and Eternity in Nicolaus Adam Strungk’s Ricercar sopra la Morte della mia carissimi Madre, ” Keyboard Perspectives 5 (2014): 13-40.
  • “Hoop Skirts, Coffee, and the Voices of Two Bach Women,” Women and Music 17 (2013): 27-58.
  • “Exorcising Completeness in the Pedal-Exercitium” in The American Organist 46 (November, 2012): 63-69.
  • “Bernhard the German and the Invention of Four-Limbed Performance at the Organ,” in Organ Yearbook 39 (2010): 7-25.
  • “Princes of War and Peace and their Most Humble Court Composer,” in Konturen 1 (2008), on-line: http://konturen.uoregon.edu/vol1_Yearsley.html
  • “Women at the Organ: a Fragment,” in Music and its Problems: Essays in Honor of Peter Williams, ed. Thomas Donahue (Philadelphia: Organ Historical Society, 2007), 119-141
  • “Travel Music as Travel Writing: Froberger’s Melancholic Journeys,” in Keyboard Perspectives 1 (2008): 87-112.
  • “In Buxtehude’s Footsteps,” Early Music 35 (2007): 339-353.
  • “C. P. E. Bach and the Living Traditions of Eighteenth-Century Counterpoint,” in C. P. E. Bach Studies, ed. Annette Richards (Cambridge University Press, 2006), 173-201.
  • "Death Everyday: the Anna Magdalena Bach Book of 1725 and the Art of Dying," in Eighteenth-Century Music (2005): 231-249.
  • "The Concerto in the Age of J. S. Bach," Cambridge Companion to the Concerto, ed. Simon Keefe. Cambridge University Press, forthcoming 2005.
  • "C. P. E. Bach and the Living Traditions of Eighteenth-Century Counterpoint," in C. P. E. Bach Studies, ed. Annette Richards. Cambridge University Press, forthcoming 2005.
  • "The Musical Patriots of the Hamburg Opera: Mattheson, Keiser, and Masaniello furioso," in Patriotism, Cosmpolitanism, and National Culture: Public Culture in Hamburg, 1700-2000, ed. Peter Hohendahl. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2003.
  • "The Awkward Idiom: Hand-crossing and the European Keyboard Scene around 1730," in Early Music (May 2002).
  • "An Ideal Organ and its Experts Across the Seventeenth Century," in The Organ as a Mirror of its Time, ed. Kerala Snyder. Oxford University Press, 2002.
  • "Alchemy and Canon in an Age of Reason," in Journal of the American Musicological Society (Summer 1998); translated as "Alchemie und Kontrapunkt im 'Zeitalter der Venunft,'" in Antike Weisheit und kulturelle Praxis: Hermetismus als Kulturphänomen in der frühen Neuzeit, ed. Anne-Charlott Trepp and Hartmut Lehmann. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2001.
  • "Toward an Allegorical Interpretation of Buxtehude's Funerary Counterpoints," in Music and Letters (January 2000).
  • "Stylus Phantasticus and the New Musical Imagination," in GOArt Research Reports, vol. 1, ed. Sverker Jullander (Göteborg, 2000).
  • "J. S. Bach," in Cambridge Companion to the Organ, ed. Geoffrey Webber and Nicholas Thistlethwaite. Cambridge University Press, 1998.



  • Bitter Banquet with Powerdove (foc's'le, 2018)
  • J. S. Bach & Sons at the Organ (Musica Omnia, 2017)
  • Organ Sonatas of J. S. Bach  (Musica Omnia, 2015), double cd
  • Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London (with Martin Davids, violin; Musica Omnia, 2008)
  • The Great Contest: Bach, Scarlatti, Handel at the Organ (Loft, 2002)    
  • In Dialogue (music for two organs with Robert Bates; Loft, 2001)
  • Music of a Father and Son: Organ Works of Delphin and Nicolaus Adam Strungk (Loft, 1999)

In the news

MUSIC Courses - Spring 2024

MUSIC Courses - Fall 2024