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Book Review


Bach by Gardiner

Music in the Castle of Heaven

John Eliot Gardiner
Alfred A. Knopf, October 2013 pp xxxii + 578
ISBN-10: 0375415297
ISBN-13: 978-0375415296
Find it at AmazonFind it at Amazon UKFind it at Amazon GermanyFind it at Amazon CanadaFind it at Amazon FranceFind it at Amazon Japan Find it at JPC

From January 2014 Sir John Eliot Gardiner is to be the new President of the Bach Archive Foundation in Leipzig. It's actually a newly created role, whose purpose is to enhance the Archive's position as leading international authority on Bach. In response to the appointment, Gardiner praised the work of the research team at the Archive led by Peter Wollny; particularly its thirst for new primary sources: "…we can look forward over the next few years to exciting fresh evidence coming to light that will enrich our portrait of Bach and our understanding of his œuvre and environment."

In a major new book published in September by Alfred Knopf/Penguin, "Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven", Gardiner sets the standard for what we can expect from his role in the Bach Archive Foundation in Leipzig in particular; and future Bach scholarship more generally.

Gardiner is, of course, one of the world's leading conductors of Bach's music. His epic cycle of recordings of the church cantatas, for instance, made over the calendar year, 2000 – ultimately for a label he founded himself, SDG – has been well-received, not least here on Classical Net. Similarly, his recordings of the Passions and B Minor Mass on Archiv are recommended.

"Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven" is an inspiring book. In the first place it the happy expression of Gardiner's policy (his determination) to absorb himself in Bach both horizontally and vertically. Gardiner here examines afresh both Bach's life as it develops across the 50 years of his adult and composing life. And his works at any one point in it. Throughout the 14 chapters and 500+ pages of substantive text Gardiner is in no doubt of two things: Bach's greatness and achievement; and what Gardiner calls his "thorough imperfect[ions]". He was a difficult man to work with, work for, and certainly to employ. He was sufficiently demanding that members of his (extended) family, colleagues and friends all found relationships difficult.

Yet Bach was not self-indulgent; he did not arrogate a right to himself to be "difficult" for his art. Supreme position though the music occupied, the impetus, motivation and justification for compositional integrity at all costs was in the service of Bach's God. Gardiner understands that and makes it the basis of this exciting new book. It would have been easy to try and snipe at Bach with sensational descriptions and/or analyses of his shortcomings. Instead, Gardiner sets them in the context of someone whose commitment to his music is rich, unwavering yet – perhaps somewhat paradoxically – measured. What's more – significantly – this major contribution from Gardiner very successfully sets the music in the context of the life using a wonderful blend of current research with (Gardiner's) personal (performing) experience.

Gardiner is well able to describe the balance, the achievement, the mixture, to put Bach the person in the context of Bach the musician because of his (Gardiner's) lifelong involvement not just in performing Bach's music; but also in reflecting on it in the intelligent ways he does.

Gardiner turned 70 in April 2013. But he began singing the motets (a new CD on SDG 716 of BWV 225-230 and 159 was released in the summer) as a child. To follow and review Gardiner's career is also to discern a unique admixture of rigor and color. The founder and current director of not one but several ensembles, choirs and orchestras dedicated to period performance, Gardiner has been a leading, decisive and influential figure in the "Early Music" movement – particularly bringing the definition of that era for which we should explore authentic performing traditions ever closer to our own time … his Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique has recorded the music of Beethoven, Berlioz, Brahms, Glück, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Weber and even Verdi, Debussy and Stravinsky.

In the current book, though, it's a reappraisal of how and why Bach's music can usefully be seen in the context of influences on him. These include Luther, Cranach the Elder, the ever-present threat (and actuality) of disease and death, the hegemony of an at times indifferent church apparatus. Gardiner also looks closely at musical and social trends which originated and/or were accentuated during the composer's lifetime: Baroque sensibilities, the shifting power of the court and state élites, the emerging "Enlightenment", Pietism and reinvented Protestantism.

Gardiner is sure of his arguments. His love of the composer and his conviction that Bach's music has a unique place in (Western) art music will be as well-received and easily accepted as the strength of motivation with which Gardiner usually expresses them. It's typical of him that he situates his study in his own experience: the first chapter, "Under the Cantor's gaze", details Gardiner's own relationship with Bach and his music. This is not self-indulgent or self-serving. Gardiner has the experience and authority so to do.

"Germany on the Brink of the Enlightenment" discusses salient aspects of the world into which Bach was born. Gardiner is particularly strong on the relationship between beliefs in the empirical and the doctrinal (faith and science); and the grip that this relationship exercised on intellectual – even daily – life in Lutheran Thuringia. Although over a hundred members of the Bach family can be traced and mapped genealogically, in the next chapter, "The Bach Gene", Gardiner sets the role of Sebastian's illustrious family in the context of others in Europe at the time: the Scarlattis, Couperins and Bendas. Bach's place in the world is explored from yet another angle in the next chapter; that of the other composers who were also born in the 1680s: Handel, Scarlatti, Rameau, Mattheson and Telemann. What influenced them influenced Bach.

Chapter 5, "The Mechanics of Faith", rather wisely re-introduces Gardiner's own experiences: particularly the latter's presence in Eisenach at Easter during the Cantata Pilgrimage in 2000. The nature and extent of the pervasiveness of the church in Bach's lifetime may be hard for some readers in 2013 to understand. But it is necessary to appreciate them in order to enjoy Bach's music. Bach had a troubled relationship with the temporal church authorities throughout his life but he never gave up on the church.

Chapter 6 looks at the "Incorrigible Cantor". The adjective is well chosen: although "incorrigible" often carries implications of accidental or unconscious obstinacy, here it's meant to suggest that Bach was purposefully and justifiably single-minded. He refused to be "corrected" of his (musical) characteristics. He believed in them for good reasons. Gardiner's analysis of the respective responsibilities for the conflicts which the composer experienced is welcomingly even-handed. In particular, it's instructive to understand that Bach's main complaint was that the church was failing in its own terms; failing to fulfill its own mission of godliness in worship with music.

By now in the book, any biographical narrative concentrates chiefly on Bach's time in Leipzig (from 1723 onwards). So one of the most illuminating chapters, the seventh, "Bach at his Workbench", examines the working domestic conditions in the Thomasschule, and just how difficult these must have been. Of course the building is long gone. But its footprint and the speculative reconstruction of the disposition of its rooms, living quarters, classrooms, dormitories are clear. It was a warren. And a noisy, intense warren. How Bach composed some of the most sublime music ever written under such adverse circumstances is not what Gardiner concentrates on exclusively here. But it can't be ignored.

The next chapter, "Cantatas or Coffee?" is one of the most penetrating. It's Gardiner at his best: it explores the relationship between the secular and the sacred, and Bach's bridging of the two worlds – in his view quite successfully. Though not necessarily so in the eyes and ears of his employers. Analogously, perhaps, Bach may have thought of his cantatas as written for performance only once. Yet for us, there is a bridge to be built between the weekly cycles of these remarkable works (chapter 9 is entitled "Cycles and Seasons") and posterity. Again, Gardiner develops a thesis which is analytical, factual, descriptive and conclusive; it quickly forms a plausible and convincing synthesis. Gardiner exposes yet another dichotomy, which Bach, of course, bridged – and shows us how and why. It's that between the church's requirements and the ineffability of the cantata cycles. At the end of this chapter, we have a sound and highly satisfying understanding of how Bach achieved what he did.

Chapters 10 and 11 examine the central place which the passions hold in Bach's work. Once more, despite the many informative volumes which exist on the subject, Gardiner brings both fresh insight and trenchantly-expressed context to this area. He situates Bach's flair for drama well, for example, in discussing the wider needs of the Leipzig religious community. "Collision and Collusion" (Chapter 12) expertly develops Bach's more general approach to the relationship between text and music. It exposes still further the ways in which Bach made, broke, knew and ignored conventions and rules. Perhaps, above all, it results in filling us with admiration for Bach's skill in the marriage. Although the B Minor Mass drew on material Bach had composed almost throughout his entire life (albeit as sublime refinement and aggregation), the Mass does represent a summation. Hence the title of Chapter 13, "The Habit of Perfection". Yet "habit" is significant: Bach was a craftsperson, a superb artisan, a genius. Excellence was second nature to him. By now we are familiar with Gardiner's free-flowing, conjectural and easy style. It's a style, though, which draws on a multiplicity of allusions. Its richness nicely reflects the achievement of Gardiner's subject.

Since Gardiner has erected no illusions about Bach's being a "thoroughly imperfect human being" throughout Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven, we may approach the last chapter, "'Old Bach'", with trepidation. Yet Bach survives. Indeed, his very humanity is responsible for his understanding. And that understanding (of the supremacy of music over all else) explains – in part – his achievement. Although Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven is not a biography, it does trace Bach's life in roughly chronological order. Here, at the end, Gardiner is able to draw new, and support previously-advanced, conclusions. And Gardiner shows himself to be fully entitled to draw them. Ultimately (and hence the book's title) Bach overcame his imperfections by using music to make "divine things human and human things divine" [p558].

This is a superb, timely, thought-provoking, authoritative and extremely useful and readable book. It should find its way onto any serious music-lover's shelves. From there it must often and regularly be taken off and read. And reread: there's so much material and so many carefully-sifted and supported ideas that it will repay more than one visit. It should also be noted that the price is extremely attractive. To have to pay only US$22 for a hardback of this length and quality is very encouraging. The Kindle version costs barely half that.

Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven is well produced. In addition to its main theses, developed in 14 chapters occupying over 550 pages, there is a chronology, glossary and index – as well as 20 pages of notes for all chapters gathered at the end of the book. There are also a map, list of abbreviations and the kind of acknowledgements that necessarily set the book well in its context. Gardiner includes musical examples and photographs, other illustrations and figures. There is a total of two dozen (color) photographs grouped into three "insets" as well as nearly three dozen illustrations in the text itself. The former are particularly interesting in that they contain such imaginative items as circular diagrams of the cantata cycles related to the seasons and time of year and some striking studies of instruments, as well as images of Bach and his world both familiar and novel. But this is a scholarly study built on a clear set of premises, not a survey or narrative. In fact, there are so many of the latter, that a personal perspective by one of the world's leading exponents of (and unbiased advocates for) Bach and his genius is highly appropriate. It's done well here. Very well. No lover of Bach can really afford to be without it. Highly recommended.

Copyright © 2013 by Mark Sealey.