Book review: Music in the Castle of Heaven

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 - 1750), German musician and composer playing the organ, circa 1725. From a print in the British Museum. Picture: Getty
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 - 1750), German musician and composer playing the organ, circa 1725. From a print in the British Museum. Picture: Getty
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John Eliot Gardiner proves again that he 
is the finest interpreter of Bach and his music of our times, writes Stuart Kelly


John Eliot Gardiner

Allen Lane, 
672pp, £30

It is easier to compare Bach to artists in different media: he is like Shakespeare, in that we don’t know much about his interior life, but try to infer it from the glorious music.

He is like Poussin, where the exact execution belies the furious emotions, and the life seems inscrutable. In contrast, various biographers have found him very easy to compare to composers, but never with exactitude and rarely with anything but an imposed view of what it “must have been like” to be Bach. We have Bach the revolutionary, a proto-Beethoven, who brooks no contradiction to his art. We have Bach as embryonic Bruckner or Messiaen, a solitary in search of God through music, rewriting each imperfect offering. We have Bach as the breaker of conventions and lover of dance, a la Stravinsky , and Bach as the upholder of seriousness in music, rather than the opera-flirting Handel. Bach is the “Fifth Apostle,” but also a stubborn man who might go AWOL from his duties to visit Buxtenhude, a termagant who demands impossible things from his singers and players and also a kindly bewigged gent who writes a book of easy to play, hard to master, inventions. Bach inserts his own name (B flat, A, C, B natural) into his work, but this is well-described here as self-referring rather than self-revealing. Bach remains an enigma.

John Eliot Gardiner is perhaps the greatest interpreter of Bach’s music of our times. It is not just in his use of period instruments (which revealed whole new dimensions to the music for those accustomed to hearing Bach played by modern orchestras) or in his attempts to re-imagine the context for hearing Bach (as in his 2000 Bach Cantata Pilgrimage, relocating the works from the concert hall back to churches, and performing them in the frenetic pace with which they were composed). Gardiner, as this book amply demonstrates, reads and thinks about the music with astonishing depth.

Whether it is an odd discord, or a particularly difficult to play section, or a flat indicating man’s fallen nature while a sharp hints at redemption, Gardiner insists that the music is telling the listener about the sublime and the sinful, the ache of grief and the transport of joy. It is not a conventional biography: Gardiner’s chronology is ingeniously contrapuntal. It takes the form of 14 “spokes,” each braiding together the facts of Bach’s life with the well-researched context of late 17th and early 18th century Germany, and readings of the works – in particular the Actus Tragicus, the Saint John Passion and the B Minor Mass – with intense detail.

It is worth mentioning that those unacquainted with at least the basics of musical theory and practice might struggle in some sections: those with even a smattering of knowledge will find them truly enlightening. (Those with more musical knowledge will get even more: at one point Gardiner refers to a piece as the “apotheosis of the dance”, a subtle reference to Wagner’s description of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony).

Bach the Man does not disappear behind Bach the Musician. Gardiner sketches a man painfully aware of the proximity of death – he was orphaned at ten, his first wife died, and four of their seven children died before him, as did seven of his 13 children with his second wife.

Ironically, the composer of the Well-Tempered Klavier seems to have been fairly intemperate: one anecdote has him bitterly punning on the Rector as Dreck-ohr, or dirty ear, a “base and disgusting expression, unworthy of a Capellmeister” according to one source. Despite his son’s attempts to gloss over it, the image of an arrogant man seeps through. For example, one quotation has him saying “the artist could form the public but the public could not form the artist”.

Gardiner presents a man profoundly in tune with two things. First, Bach was deeply imbued with Lutheran theology, but the second is less obvious, and perhaps the fact that Gardiner grew up on a farm and now runs an organic farm in Dorset makes him alert to this: Bach grew up in an era when people were closer to the natural seasons. The three-year cycle of cantatas makes sense not just of the liturgical church calendar of Advent, Lent, Easter, Trinity but of the natural cycles of harvest and frost, sowing and growing.

Gardiner’s account of Bach’s contemporaries also unravels one of the mysteries in his career that Gardiner has spoken of before (especially during this year’s April Bach Marathon) – why did he not compose an opera? Gardiner discusses what he calls the “Class of ‘85” – Scarlatti, Handel, Rameau, Mattheson and Telemann were all of an age.

The comparisons of the great oratorios with the operas reveals Bach had no need for extraneous drama. Moreover, effects like the silence at the centre of Actus Tragicus show church music as, paradoxically, more avant-garde than opera seria.

The reader will probably want to have a good set of Gardiner’s recordings to listen along to with this book (this reader benefited from the experience).

The experience as a whole confirms the lovely anecdote Gardiner records of Lewis Thomas, responding to Carl Sagan’s request for suggestions as to which music should be placed on Voyager. “I would send the complete works of Bach”, Thomas said, “but that would be boasting”.