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43 of 45 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A landmark study, 28 Oct 2013
By 
J. Baldwin "JB" (Birmngham, England) - See all my reviews
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This is a very fine book - a veritable magnum opus. It is a truly astounding achievement, representing as it does Gardiner's lifetime struggle to get to grips with the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. Little is known about Bach's private life, and Gardiner's research reveals many unexpected details about his upbringing, his character, his faults, his family relationships and the many difficulties and frustrations he faced.

Gardiner's scholarly commentary on Bach's compositions, especially the cantatas, the two Passions and the B minor Mass - "a procession of gripping musical works of exceptional worth" - must be unique in the literature. Readers need to have a good working knowledge of the music to make much sense of Gardiner's dissection of these masterpieces and reading these sections of the book is quite a struggle. (There is so much technical detail here that an 8-page glossary of musical terms is provided in an appendix to help readers understand the complexities.) But this analysis is very illuminating, "allowing us to see [Bach's] humanity filtering through into the music." It is Bach, Gardiner concludes, "who gives us the voice of God - in human form".

Almost every page of the book reveals Gardiner's profound love and understanding of Bach's music. He summarises what Bach's music means to him as follows: "the most beautiful and profound manifestation that man is capable of in complex harmonious sounds that capture in an inexplicable way the joys and suffering we encounter in our earthly lives, helping us to access the motional core of human experience." This is wonderfully refined and erudite writing, and it is sustained throughout the book.

Johann Sebastian Bach comes across in the book as a man who is intensely human and devoutly religious yet impatient, cantankerous and ruthlessly demanding. (The word `incorrigible' was used by the Leipzig authorities in 1730 to describe him.) I don't know whether John Eliot Gardiner shares these qualities but he is undoubtedly a musician of genius with an appealing and generous disposition - very much from the same mould as the great man himself.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Music from the inside, 4 Mar 2014
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This review is from: Music in the Castle of Heaven: A Portrait of Johann Sebastian Bach (Kindle Edition)
It's a fluent read and informative. Gardiner is a fine musician but not an historian so the book is most interesting when he's talking about the music from the point of view of an experienced performer; a lot of the background has been cobbled together from other sources. But I've enjoyed reading it. Anyone who spends their life dedicated to and immersed in the greatest music ever written is worth listening to!
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15 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An absolute gem for Kenner (professional musicians) and Liebhaber (music lovers), 27 Jan 2014
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Mr. A. N. Kersten "Anselm" (Leicestershire, UK) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Music in the Castle of Heaven: A Portrait of Johann Sebastian Bach (Kindle Edition)
Music in the Castle of Heaven - Amazon review

At the risk of being superficial, there are three kinds of book. The first you never finish because they're patent rubbish. The second is the kind you need to read again a couple of weeks, months or years later because, no matter how good they seemed at the time, you realise they had made no lasting impression on you. You also want to reread the third kind, but this time because one reading was manifestly insufficient to explore all their marvellous riches. In my view, "Music in the Castle of Heaven" definitely falls into the last category.

I'll start negatively. Two problems occurred to me as I was reading it. One is that it is full of the most erudite scholarship, but Gardiner appears not to be an academic of any kind. I can't find any articles by him in any scholarly journal, as opposed to ephemeral ones like "Gramophone" - and then only discussing his own recordings. Academic scholarship is a discipline acquired through years of intensive training in the minutiae of finding, using and referencing primary and secondary source material, usually involving the acquisition of some pieces of stiff paper with impressive-sounding letters on them. Does Gardiner know what he's doing, or is he actually at sea when pronouncing with such apparent confidence on a forbiddingly wide variety of topics including the Thuringian principalities in the aftermath of the Thirty Years' War and the state of education in Lutheran Germany in general and in Leipzig in particular, with throwaway references to an eclectic assortment of resources, including both the latest scholarship and primary sources by Bach himself and his contemporaries? My worst quibble in this respect is his short list of abbreviations for his main sources. To learn that "BD" means "Bach-Dokumente, Vols. I-III" is all very well, and I can guess from the title that it's a collection of contemporary documents regarding the composer, but if I wanted to get hold of this thing I would need the sort of detail (like publisher and year of publication) that books of this sort usually provide in extensive, and often themed, bibliographies. Unfortunately Gardiner's list of abbreviations is as close as we get to one of these, so both chasing up sources and further reading means wading through the mass of reference footnotes, which are at best are in rough thematic order by chapter. If I remembered a particular author he'd quoted, I'd have no way to find it in a paper version. Thank goodness for my Kindle, on which I could search the name. If I had remembered it in the first place, of course, or remembered it correctly. And if it wasn't an author like Christoph Wolff, who he quotes 36 times.

That's as negative as I'm prepared to get on that score (excuse the pun). I doubt if Gardiner is a stranger to handling sources and to critical analysis. His own extensive work with the repertoire of his two period instrument groups, the English Baroque Soloists and subsequently the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, will doubtless have equipped him at least adequately for this task, and the present book's methodology will simply be an extension of that kind of endeavour. I am therefore prepared to take what he says on trust, especially as regards details. Some historians might possibly want to qualify aspects of his broad-brush treatment of Germany in the generation before Bach, or even the general musical scene there during Bach's lifetime, but conclusions like "...the quasi-scientific thoroughness with which he [i.e. Bach] later constructed his music cannot have been imbued in him as a schoolboy by anything approaching a Rationalist or an Enlightened education" seem to flow quite naturally from his preceding analysis. Once he gets to the level of the layout of St Thomas' School in Leipzig, I know of no account to equal his. This kind of detail often leads to "wow!" moments, such as this gem from Chapter 7: "Bach's composing room (Componirstube) was directly adjacent to the quinta classroom. The noise at times must have been deafening, impossible to screen out even for someone with his formidable powers of concentration". It was in this ludicrous environment that Bach churned out his glorious cantatas weekly, to say nothing of the stupendous Passions - the greatest body of sacred music of at least the last 300 years, bar none. Countless touches like this enable Gardiner to bring the composer to life, at least as much as the paucity and the formality of the surviving documents will allow. He indulges in some degree of speculation, but usually makes it clear when he does, such as his ruminations on whether the young schoolboy Bach was what we would call a thug, or on the (perhaps related?) existence of "psychological scars" left on the young composer by both his parents' early deaths (and maybe of the well above-average mortality rate of 60 per cent of his 20 children before they reached the tender age of three)?

Gardiner is certainly nothing if not both erudite and eclectic, whatever his subject. Several times during the course of the narrative he grounds Bach's religious worldview firmly in its Lutheran context, more specifically in Luther's own writings. He does the same for the musical context, and reveals as a consequence the brilliance with which Bach used his unparalleled musical genius for theological, exegetical ends.

Gardiner doesn't wear his eclecticism on his sleeve, but it's telling when he does use it. The Bach clan emerged from the murderous chaos of the Thirty Years' War clinging to music "for survival" - a situation Gardiner compares in a footnote with the South African apartheid-era jazz sextet The Blue Notes, including a quote by its drummer Moholo on music as the fruit of oppression. To hear this in the context of the Bach family in that era throws a certain aspect of our hero's upbringing into sharp relief. What did he hear from the previous generation about the horrors they had been through? Would it have been similar, one wonders, to the stories and attitudes with which Germans and Chinese, say, who had lived through World War Two imbued their descendants? And how would this have affected that next generation's perspective? How much of this did Bach impart to his own children, especially CPE, JC and WF? And how much of it, if any, influenced his musical commentary on his cantata, Passion and Mass texts?

This extensive backgrounding of Bach leads to some very interesting questions, some of which find answers. He outlines the history of opera from Peri and Monteverdi through to Bach's own time, tracing its decline from its idealistic origins to its debasement as a star vehicle by 1700. This ties in with the question of why Bach was never involved with opera, unlike the other members of his "class of '85" (or thereabouts - as well as Handel and Scarlatti, Gardiner includes Rameau and Telemann). It turns out to be a near-run thing, but he decided, unlike his more cosmopolitan contemporaries, to remain relatively parochial. One wonders if he didn't regret it in succeeding decades. On the other hand, Gardiner gives us a parallel history of an "alternative" music drama, untrammelled by what had become rigid conventions that worked against, rather than for, drama. Tracing its course through Schütz and Purcell to Handel's oratorios, one gathers from Gardiner's extended panegyric that Bach's sacred cantatas are among the most truly dramatic music to have appeared in the previous 150 years - certainly more so than his secular equivalents, the Coffee and Peasant Cantatas.

If you're looking for a definitive biography of Bach, this isn't it, nor does Gardiner claim that it is. In fact, he doesn't even like the term "biography" for his work, preferring "portrait". He is quite upfront about exactly what the relevant evidence is, and consequently about what conclusions it does and doesn't permit. In that respect, it outshines all the biographies I've read of my favourite author, Jane Austen, who suffers from a similar problem, if to a lesser extent: a lack of documentation. Perhaps the present work's closest relative as far as this goes is Deirdre Le Faye's Jane Austen: A Family Record (2), a "documentary biography" that ostensibly eschews commentary and speculation, limiting its scope to that of its sources. For Austen lovers it's a real boon, but it can come across as quite dry, as a comparison with JEG's evident passion for his subject makes clear. It's this balance between passion and fidelity to the sources that, among other things, grabs me about his work. He goes no further than Le Faye, and certainly doesn't succumb to the temptation to "fill in the blanks", which just about any biographer I've read falls prey to, especially those of such a contentious subject as Richard Wagner. JEG never allows his enormous enthusiasm to carry him away on this point. I came away from his work feeling that I had the most comprehensive picture of the composer's personality that the relevant sources would admit, while freely acknowledging that that's as far as we're likely to be able to go.

At least, that is, until the relevant stuff in former Soviet bloc archives comes to light. That's something else Gardiner - along with Bach lovers everywhere - looks forward to. An example he adduces is of an unfinished trio sonata by Bach's son W.F. with corrections by his dad that surfaced in Kiev in 1999. Perhaps some scholar will take JEG's point, start rummaging around similar archives in Eastern Europe and stumble across, say, a volume of correspondence revealing just what Bach's Lutheran audience in the Leipzig churches made of his weekly cantatas - or perhaps even a score of a hitherto lost cantata itself. Now those would be real finds!

His account doesn't treat Bach's last decade and a half in anything like as much detail as the previous period, except of course as it concerns the Mass in B Minor. Gardiner's practical involvement has been overwhelmingly with the vocal and choral sacred music, and this emphasis is very clearly reflected in the book. If you're an instrumentalist, you'll look in vain for detailed accounts or analyses of his `cello suites, the Art of Fugue or the bulk of the organ music - the Toccata and Fugue in D minor isn't so much as mentioned! On one level this book functions as a sort of listening companion to the sacred vocal works. And here's where that term "overwhelming" comes in again. I'm a musician and a devout Bach fan (I've recently conducted the Missa in B Minor, i.e. the Kyrie and Gloria of the Mass), but even I had to return to scores and YouTube clips to keep up with his highly detailed discussions of individual cantata movements. Fortunately, it seems that you can find the scores of the cantatas on IMSLP and recordings on YouTube. (Regarding the latter, I'm being a bit cheeky - I should be referring you to Gardiner's own record label, Soli Deo Gloria, on which you will find the complete cantatas directed by his truly!) In fact, it's the Leipzig cantatas that constitute the core of this book. Bach set himself a huge task when he took up his Leipzig post (or rather posts): he would write complete annual cycles of weekly cantatas, each one topped by a Passion for Holy Week. For the first couple of years or so he stuck to this, and its this labour of love - quite over and above his job description - which is the basis of his reputation for sheer hard graft combined with unparalleled genius. Gardiner charts in detail how he elaborated the concepts of his first annual cycle in his second, and how the Passions fell behind his self-imposed schedule. Even Bach couldn't keep up! It's a riveting story, for musicians and laymen alike.

That brings me to the second of my problems with this book. Gardiner's descriptions of individual movements are superficially in the same class as those quite inadequate liner and programme notes which attempt - and without exception fail - to describe what you can hear perfectly well for yourself, assuming it's not just the writer enjoying the sound of their own verbal rant more than the music it's supposed to be depicting. You know the sort of thing: "...the music rises to an anguished, shuddering cry before ending in a soft whisper of despair blah blah blah". Every time I came across a description like this when I was young, I was struck by the failure of the music to live up to this hyperbole. (I subsequently discovered the sole exception, and thus my favourite composer: Richard Wagner, whose music invariably makes such descriptions seem anaemic rather than the other way around.) Of course, my (mis)use of programme notes of this type was my fault, and is something I've long learned to ignore. But such of Gardiner's descriptions as "a huge upward sweep for the basses" "[a]bruptly the orchestra screeches to a halt on a diminished seventh" and "an anguished chromaticism evoking the bubbling stream and the drop of water denied to the parched rich man" (all these are from his discussion of Cantata No.20, "O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort", in chapter 9) would seem to be just the same kind of attempt to (quite unnecessarily) translate sublime music into words whose histrionic expression could best be rendered by a Tchaikovsky or a Richard Strauss - or, with huge upward sweeps, Bruckner. It's late Romantic composers like those, not Bach, who make orchestras "screech to a halt".

But that, I believe, would be to mistake Gardiner's point. Remember that he has shown how firmly Bach's religious makeup was planted in the prevailing Lutheranism, and how intimately his music followed suit. The music to Bach's cantatas and Passions function as sermons whose point cannot be rendered in words. By describing their effect in relation to those words, Gardiner illustrates this. He compares Bach's sacred cantatas to those of Telemann, which definitely pale in comparison. Their music remains no more than a demure and "fitting" accompaniment to his texts. Basically, it stays out of the way. Bach always enriches the words he sets, often by subverting or even directly contradicting them, always to make a very specific point. And it's the effect of that point that Gardiner is seeking to convey with his florid descriptions. These function as implicit (and occasionally explicit) attempts to recreate what Bach's congregation would have heard - or at least those who were listening rather than indulging in the social to-ing and fro-ing that preceded the sermon. Seen in that light, these descriptions function in some sense as the sort of verbal equivalent of a liturgical reconstruction like Paul McCreesh's with the Gabrieli Consort and Players of Cantatas 65 and 180 among other works. It puts Bach's music into its context, or at least lets us into the psychology of the contemporary listener, for whom the biblical, hymn and poetic texts would have been far more meaningful and far more immediate than they are for most of us, and also for whom music was rarer, and thus more arresting, than it is for us, for whom it's wallpaper. They would have had to go to specific places at specific times to hear what we can hear at the push of a button. Consequently, they may very well have heard the orchestra "screech [dramatically] to a halt" in a way that we, attuned as we are to late Romantic musical hyper-realism, might miss.

So here's the bottom line for me: this book will be hugely useful to two kinds of reader. If you equate CPE Bach's Kenner and Liebhaber as professionals and amateurs respectively (without using the latter term pejoratively), the former will benefit from the whole book, while the latter can skip over these sections in which the musical discussions and terminology makes their eyes glaze over and concentrate on the ones that deal with Bach's character and on the personal and historical background. The former should note, however, that there is a bare minimum of musical quotations, so scores are essential.

Final note: the Kindle version has copious illustrations, and navigation works both to and from footnotes. It's as good as any Kindle adaptation I've seen.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant and assiduously researched.., 23 Jan 2014
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I could not put the book down - which meant that I have spent most of the last week bent over it. I am giving it four stars rather than five, as I found myself running two intense threads of concentration: the main text and then the footnotes.... the footnotes could have constituted a book in themselves!

It is a tremendous read and informs and reminds one of the vast complexity of the provenance of Baroque European thought: wars, famines, ecclesiastical power and the shadow of paganism. It is a triumph in its expansiveness. I felt at every stage it deserved a pause and a lengthy conversation after each chapter.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Intelligence and passion are always evident in John Eliot Gardiner, 17 Nov 2013
By 
Stephen Lloyd (Auckland, New Zealand) - See all my reviews
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This book is filled with insight. JEG provides evidence of wide and wise research; facts are well marshalled.
I have followed JEG's recordings of JSB, Handel, Monteverdi and Mozart for some time now. His drive for care and attention are always evident: - and a great passion.
I turn continually to an occasional book to note a fresh insight. Freshness is evident in his language which is seldom without a slang term or a rural Dorset farming metaphor.
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45 of 54 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Superb, 8 Oct 2013
I owe John Eliot Gardiner huge thanks for his recently-televised program 'Bach - A Passionate Life', of which, when I ordered it in advance, I somehow imagined 'Music in the Castle of Heaven' to be simply the book, as it were. Instead, well, where to start? This is only an initial review as I'm only part-way through the book but I cannot wait to read particularly the chapters on the St John and St Matthew Passions and the B minor Mass, all of which I only heard for the first time recently as a direct result of the television program, for which I cannot be too grateful, my previous knowledge of Bach being confined to the 48, Goldberg and the Brandenburgs. Truly wonderful, and this beautifully-written and produced book also, obviously a real labour of love.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Portrait of Gardiner & Bach, 16 July 2014
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Marcolorenzo (Italy) - See all my reviews
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Underling this very personalized account of some aspects of Bach's life and music is an very unconfortable NON-CHRISTIAN understanding of Bach and his music. If you have ever felt that many of Gardiner's recordings of Bach's religious works lack a deep Christian spirituality, this candid view will give you some insight into the world view of Gardiner himself and his non- sympathetic view of Christianity, and the role of its teachings in Bach's works. In order to see this current in this book you have to be very vigilant - it is very subtle but clearly there. And there are also some Christian issues which are not so subtle and may even be blaphemous. Consider the fact that Gardiner says Bach is "the voice of God in human terms". This is who CHRIST IS, NOT Bach, no matter how great. At best one could say that Bach's MUSIC is an expression of the Divine STRUCTURE of the universe. Gardiner in discussing the B-minor mass says on critical theological points concerning the incarnation, resurection and the belief in a better world to come, that Bach was doubtful on these points and that the music expressly on these central theological issues expresses doubt and questioning. So if "Bach is the voice of God in human form", then that means that God is questioning the the truth of these central revelations! Think about this! This is written by a man of little understanding no matter how informed he is on the specific issues of the music. Equally astonishing Gardiner tries to make the point that Bach had a personality disorder and was probably a teenage ruffian. This is most likely not true and if it were what does it add to the understanding of Bach's greatness and his music? The book is somewhat interesting in the details about Bach's life and the very detailed discussions of the music itself (maybe overly detailed for any general reader without access to the scores), but it is definitely written from a point of view which in my opinion is opposed to Bach's essential Christian mindset; and this is very disturbing, because fundamental to any understanding of Bach, beyond his incredible insight and knowledge of harmonic structure is his unquestioning and deep Christian faith, and how his music continually expresses this faith. This is especially so since Gardiner has decided to discuss the vocal works, i.e. the Church Cantatas, the Passions and the B-Minor Mass, and not the instrumental works. You will understand why the Gardiner Bach Pilgrimage Cantatas series lacks the spirituality of the Herreweghe versions or the Suzuki version, and why they are for the most part bouncy dance-like Non- Christian approaches to this music.
Aside from the factual details and insights in this book you will also see that Gardiner does not have an artistic mind and does not understand the nature of artistic creation in any deep sense, but he definitely wants to to understand it at all costs. Read the book, but better in the end to do as Albert Einstein said, "listen, play, love, revere Bach's works and keep your trap shut". As one former resident of Leipzig once said, "Bach's music sets in order what life cannot." Everything important that Bach is about, and that Bach wanted to say to the world is in the music. Books like this tell us more about the author than about its subject.
P.S. I also think it's significant that the book opens with a tale from WWII Nazi Germany and how the Bach portrait on canvas was saved by his Jewish grandfather.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An extraordinary achievement, 16 Jan 2014
By 
Redhenry (Northern England) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Music in the Castle of Heaven: A Portrait of Johann Sebastian Bach (Kindle Edition)
Anybody who is aware of Sir John Eliot Gardiner will know of the Bach 'Cantata Pilgrimage' of 2000. It's impossible to read this wonderful book without being conscious of the impact of that year and of how deeply the cantatas and the spirit permeating them affected the author. I've read many descriptions of music written by knowledgeable musicians, but Sir JEG's accounts of Bach's church music are remarkable. They are the best insight I have ever come across into the force which drives a great musician and here I refer to JEG as well as to JSB. Not in any way a forbidding, dusty, wordy tome, this is a joyous book, bursting with enthusiasm and experience. It is also funny, passionate, astonishingly erudite and, if you want to roll up your sleeves and get really involved with probably the greatest music ever written, this is for you. Not a book to be picked up casually, it is a thorough and quite rigorous education and as befits a good education, some of it is great fun while parts are quite tough and demanding. Apart from the fine writing and musicianship, the memorable thing is that Bach and his music are seen in the context of Lutheranism, the Thirty Years' War, of stifling social and small-town mores and of many other factors which I, for one, had not considered. I'll be starting it again soon - some of the footnotes are worth a week's research on their own! I always snigger in my stuffy English way at the Americans' casual use of the word, but this superb book really is AWESOME!
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A tour around the mind of Bach, 2 Dec 2013
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It took me a long time to read this book. Nearly every page held a new revelation and I stopped frequently to listen to the piece that was being discussed. So many wonderful discoveries and such insights!It was a privilege to benefit from the fruits of a lifetime lived almost inside the mind of Bach.

I think it would be difficult for anyone to critique this book as JEG is the absolute expert, and we can only thank him for sharing this with other lovers of Bach's music.
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16 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Highest praise, 19 Oct 2013
I cannot endorse this splendid book enthusiasticallly enough. Most amusingly and wittily written. As a fervent Bach lover I agree with his inspired and intellectual comments. How happy I am to have this volume on my extensive bookshelves ... as equally I am to have Gardiners recordings in my battalion of CDs.
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