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Book Review – Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven

Bach: Music in the Castle of Heavenbach music in the castle of heaven

by John Eliot Gardiner

Knopf, 2013

 

Years ago, a great maestro took advantage of temperate sunshine and an indulgent host and brought his cello to the grassy verge along beautiful Jamaica Pond just outside of Boston. He was scheduled to play with the Boston Symphony Orchestra later that day, and he came to the pond to surround himself with the bustle of people and the flicker of light on water. He plucked a strain or two of Couperin without attracting any attention at all. A hesitant bit of Schumann turned a few heads. And then, after a pause, the maestro closed his sad eyes and played the plunging, unearthly opening minutes of Cello Suite No. 1 by Johann Sebastian Bach, and all bustle stopped. The music rolled out over the water, and the listeners were taken up by it almost bodily.

Later, on the way back to Symphony Hall, someone finally found the voice to say, “Maestro, that was incredible.”

To which the great cellist matter-of-factly responded, “Yes, that’s Bach.”

Few people alive today know the truth of that simple declaration more intimately than revered British conductor John Eliot Gardiner, who has explored, re-interpreted, and promoted the music of Bach for most of his long career, and who has now combined that expertise with great research, seasoned the result with his signature smiling, inquiring humanism, and produced the most readable and remarkable biography of Bach ever written in English. Bach:Music in the Castle of Heaven is a Bach book only Gardiner could have written, and probably only at this point in his life, matching the composer in years and long-ago vicissitudes (although not, one hopes for simple economy’s sake, in number of offspring) – and in the sly humor Gardiner so convincingly and refreshingly finds tucked into so many corner’s of the great man’s life where previous biographers have managed to see only Lutheran harrumphing. Of the G minor Mass Gardiner comments, “One never tires of Bach in this vein: everything is keen, concentrated and indefatigable,” and the same may be said of his own writing here.

Gardiner was fairly indefatigable himself in the drive for original-instrument performance and recording that swept the classical music world in the late 1970s, and although that movement would have struck many of the musicians of earlier generations as puzzling at the very least, it certainly got people talking about the interpretations they were suddenly hearing everywhere. Gardiner never hesitates to swerve his narrative into the more personal areas of this original-instrument movement, leaving Bach in the background just long enough to talk about changing the shape of contemporary concert music:

Then suddenly we hit a brick wall. The fault was neither theirs [the players of the Monteverdi Orchestra in the 1970s] nor mine, but that of the instruments we were using – the same as everyone else had been using for the past hundred and fifty years. However stylishly we played them, there was no disguising that they had been designed or adapted with a totally different sonority in mind, one closely associated with the late-nineteenth-and early twentieth century (and therefore anachronistic) style of expression. With their wire or metal-covered strings they were simply too powerful – and yet to scale things down and hold back was the very opposite of what this music, with its burgeoning, expressive range, calls for. To unlock the codes in the musical language of these Baroque masters, to close the gap between their world and ours, and to release the wellspring of their creative fantasy meant cultivating a radically different sonority. There was only one thing for it: to re-group using original (or replica) Baroque instruments. It was like learning a totally new language, or taking up a new instrument but with practically no one to teach you how to play it.

Another great strength of Music in the Castle of Heaven is the free rein Gardiner gives to his inviting pedagogical side. His elaborations on the musical – and vocal – trends that shaped Bach’s time are always perfectly-placed and chattily fascinating:

From the middle of the seventeenth century onwards, the Venetian theatres, without the limitless resources that the Barberini family were throwing at operatic productions in Rome at around the same time, bobbed up and down on the tide of free market forces and the threat of incipient bankruptcy. Under the twin pressures of the demand by a paying public for novelty and the constant innovation on the one hand, and the inflationary fees paid to the leading singers on the other, Venetian impresarios began to urge composers (who were normally paid half the fees of the singers – just a one-off sum as opposed to nightly pay-cheques) to extend both the number and the length of the arias they provided. Singers now traveled with ‘suitcase arias’ that they were expected to sing on their perambulations, regardless of the composer or the opera for which they had been hired.

Naturally, having conducted a great many of the great composer’s works, Gardiner is at his strongest when dissecting individual works – often very chromatically describing how those works play out as the reader hears them. He’s especially good on Bach’s mighty Matthew Passion (and offhandedly – and quite rightly – refers to the “overwhelming experience” of hearing it performed in person), but no works are neglected: this is a biographer who’s quite obviously more comfortable telling his readers about the music than about the man.

Comparatively little is known about the man, and Eliot clearly finds that as liberating as he finds it frustrating. It enables him to go looking for flesh and blood – for quirks of personality – in the music itself, with some surprising results:

In acknowledging Bach’s humanity we begin to see how similar to us he was. If we forego attempts to explain his genius (as a divine gift, or the result of genetics or nurture) we gain something richer – a sense of connection as ell as a more nuanced, ‘grainer’ idea of how his music is put together and a clue as to why it should have such a deep emotional affect on us. Perhaps music gave Bach what real life in many respects could not: order and adventure, pleasure and satisfaction, a greater reliability than could be found in his everyday life.

Anybody who’s ever had a long summer evening utterly transformed by the beautiful intanglia of Bach’s music might consider that “how similar to us he was” a blandishment too far, but the commonality that animates it fills the whole of this book and is no lie: as that afternoon long ago in Jamaica Plain proved, Bach is somehow our most personal of composers. He’s now been given a stunningly personal biography, a new landmark in popular Bach studies.