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53 of 56 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A landmark study
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...
Published 13 months ago by J. Baldwin

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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Bach in the kitchen sink
I agree with another reviewer who describes this as a Magnum Opus, but with the caveat that it's often about anything other than Bach. Hence it begins with Gardiner's own autobiography before embarking upon various dissertations on subjects as diverse as German (necessarily) parochial or regional history in the century of Bach's birth, the Bach family genealogy, western...
Published 1 month ago by JOHN BUCK


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53 of 56 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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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Bach in the kitchen sink, 7 Nov 2014
I agree with another reviewer who describes this as a Magnum Opus, but with the caveat that it's often about anything other than Bach. Hence it begins with Gardiner's own autobiography before embarking upon various dissertations on subjects as diverse as German (necessarily) parochial or regional history in the century of Bach's birth, the Bach family genealogy, western choral music in the centuries before Bach, 'the class of '85' meaning Bach's place amongst other great composers born in the same year, Lutheranism, even the German or rather Saxon educational system. Although a practising barrister for many years I am an Oxford history graduate whose tutor once reprimanded him for including everything bar the kitchen sink when supposedly doing an essay on Prussian 18th century foreign policy. John Eliot Gardiner would have benefited from the same stricture. Consequently his work is rather unbalanced focusing so much on issues not really central to a Bachian hagiography that he is forced to omit anything but a perfunctory commentary on many aspects of Bach's music. Thus as a commentary and analysis of the church cantatas and indeed the two passions it is as masterly as it is illuminating. But any survey which leaves all his instrumental music largely not discussed, for example only a word or two about the Brandenburg concertos, nothing about the keyboard or violin concertos, and little about Bach's position as the greatest and most comprehensive composer of organ music (only Messiaen comes close) is actually to do Bach a disservice. So ultimately this Magnum Opus has all the qualities and flaws of a Mahler symphony: too inclusive, a little unbalanced, even unhinged, far too autobiographical.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great biography that provides a bit different, more human side, of the musical maestro, 29 Nov 2013
By 
Denis Vukosav - See all my reviews
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"Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven" by John Eliot Gardiner is well-written biography about one of the greatest composers of all time, whose works are an indispensable part of the world's musical heritage.

John Eliot Gardiner is considered one of the composer's greatest living interpreters who grew up in a family that was entrusted keeping the Bach's portrait made by Bach the Elias Gottlob Haussmann during WW II.
Due to interest in the music that was very important in his family, Gardiner has been studying Bach life and works, making him the perfect person to write this kind of biography book.
Also he very early realized that he needs to study and learn performing Bach's music which is why he became a great interpreter of author's pieces performing them ever since.

Gardiner starts his story with Bach's birth in 1685, his orphanage days when he was 9 years old, start of living with his eldest brother, and beginning of his composer career when he was teenager. Author's opinion is that Bach can thank for his success not only obvious great natural talent but also to the living with his older brother who taught him many difficult life lessons.
The story continues with Bach being awarded the position at the Neukirche in Arnstadt when he was only 18 and soon followed Thomas cantorate in Leipzig...

In his book Gardiner also speaks about the organization of Bach Cantata Pilgrimage, very important cultural and musical event that took place in 2000 for the occasion of the anniversary of 250 years of the Maestro's death.
That was very important event due to the first-time performance of Bach's newly found materials that were owned by the communist DDR and therefore unfamiliar to the world public.

"Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven" is an excellent book that can be recommended to all lovers of classical music, especially Bach's fans for the providing a bit different, more human side, of the musical maestro, a book that despite the comprehensiveness, it is easy and interesting to read until last of its pages.
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7 of 8 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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16 of 19 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
By 
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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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fine book, but paperback edition print size very small., 30 Sep 2014
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This is of course a wonderful book.
BUT: Beware the paperback edition with its miniscule print. The hardback edition is probably fine, I don't know, but if you have had your eyes for as long as I have and have trouble, say, with the phone book, you might have trouble with this.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars The book would have benefitted from a good deal of editing, 20 Dec 2014
I gleaned a lot of contextual information about Bach which I valued (and Gardiner has a lot to say) but couldn't help feeling that I would rather not have gleaned it via Gardiner. The book would have benefitted from a good deal of editing, his over-reliance on footnotes suggest he somehow wanted to segregate his personal augmentation from the main 'portrait', but couldn't resist trying to impress the reader with his erudition throughout the text. There is a whiff of pedantry in his authorial style which left me irritated. The book was strongest where he managed to dissect Bach's work, eg The First Passion, leaving his personal metric of Bach's genius out of it.
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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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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars John Eliot Gardiner's Bach Triptych, 3 Mar 2014
By 
malatrait (Northants, UK) - See all my reviews
John Eliot Gardiner: Music in the Castle of Heaven: Allen Lane Penguin, 2013.

This is a monumental work, the product of a lifetime’s thought, study and practice, and its erudition is as admirable as the lightness with which it is deployed. John Eliot has always been a first-rate communicator, not least on tv, and certainly with the baton and the superbly equipped forces he has brought together over the years in the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists (to name but two). The book is yet another example of his skill: while he is erudite, he is, like Bach, never dull. Distinguishing between two Greek concepts of time, kairos and chronos, he characterises the latter as ‘such as Pooh’s “time for a little something”.’
Yet weighty though the book is, it is really part of a triptych, the other portions being the recordings, particularly those of the Pilgrimage Year, 2000, when his forces recorded all the Bach Cantatas in one year, devoting themselves exclusively to Bach all that time, and most important, the live performances they have given. John Eliot insists that it is in performance, either as participant or listener, that Bach gives us most of himself: the closest study of the score, or research into the precise instrumentation required, is only an adjunct to bringing the music to life, Soli Deo Gloria.
John Eliot is generous in his thanks to those who have assisted him, in his career and in his study of Bach, particularly of Bach performance. He was not alone in the 1960s and 70s when he moved away from the use of nineteenth-century instruments (and large forces) to perform Bach, and he acknowledges contemporaries like Christopher Hogwood, David Munrow and Trevor Pinnock. He gives one brief mention to Nicolaus Harnoncourt, perhaps a little mean when Harnoncourt preceded him by twenty years and more in performing (or seeking to perform) all the cantatas on original instruments. His Telefunken records still spin well, the difference from John Eliot’s performances being that in his concern for authenticity Harnoncourt used an all-male choir – with less than satisfactory results in some cases, where the arias were too hard for the boy soprano – while the Monteverdi group has always used clear-voiced female sopranos. John Eliot seeks for the sublime performance, even to using anachronistic instruments if the result is satisfying. The SDG recording series is of astonishing quality, particularly when you consider the working conditions, lack of rehearsal time, constant pressure to move on and even funding problems. If you want to hear demonstrated the issues John Eliot raises about a particular work, you have only to go to the recordings (and if you don’t go, or already know, the recordings, the book will be much less effective for you!) John Eliot would no doubt say his problems in contriving performances were no greater than Bach’s, and that combating them itself added to the authenticity of the experience.
Essentially the book is a biography of Bach, and chronology is observed in describing his life, in considerable detail: how he was educated, what he read, the preachers (notably Luther) who influenced him so profoundly; the way his work reflects his professional life, its opportunities and restrictions. But it is much more, and sometimes the thread of biography isn’t at the forefront. We are more concerned with the music itself, which is analysed meticulously, in a way that encourages us to see Bach not as a ‘mere’ composer, but a philosopher, one with a particular outlook on life, at once of his time and for our own. It’s for this reason (and because it’s the area of Bach’s oeuvre on which he is particularly qualified to speak) that his musical examples are taken from the Cantatas, the Passions and the B Minor Mass. Words and notes produce a special synthesis.
John Eliot is at pains to consider the link, or even rivalry, between the music and the theology with which it’s connected. As originally conceived, the cantatas were an integral part of the Divine Service. They make frequent and direct reference to the lessons for the day, with commentaries, mainly in the arias, on the texts which illuminate them, and reinforce their message. So which came first, the music, with its commentaries, or the sermon? He illustrates that in Leipzig at least, attendance at Divine Service, though socially expected, was not carried through in the reverent hush of an Anglican service; fashionable ladies only came in when the sermon was about to start. He adds that the cantata texts ‘seldom arise above poetic doggerel.’ He conjectures,
‘To anyone in their congregation spotted paying more attention to the cantata than to the sermon, the pastor, one suspects, might have replied that the preaching of the Word was the summit of religious activity, whereas music, though it was to be welcomed, was its (not always biddable) handmaiden.’ P272
Yet he argues that out of this unprepossessing mixture of commentary and exposition of Text arises, not something stern and didactic, but adapting to the vicissitudes of life in a way which transcends the dogmas of its day. He analyses a number of cantatas in considerable depth: for example the early BWV 106, Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit. Textually this seems unambiguous:
‘The timing of any individual death was God’s secret: it is he who ‘sets the clock’ of human life and orders matters according to His own timetable.’ P 147
‘Yet the most impressive feature of Bach’s music and theology occurs in that central silent bar to which we as listeners are irresistibly drawn. Bach’s final, masterly coup – to illustrate the believer’s crisis of faith and the overwhelming need of divine help – is to leave the soprano’s immediately preceding notes tonally ambiguous – her voice just evaporating into that desperate cry. There is no resolution, not even a partial closure that might carry the harmony towards a stable cadence: so it is up to us how we interpret it in the silence that follows. If we hear it at face value as a weak cadence…that would indicate death as a kind of full stop. But perhaps we are being gently nudged to hear the final oscillation between A and Bb as leading note and tonic respectively, in the key of the movement which follows, Bb minor. In that case Bach’s message is one of hope [‘In Deine Hande befehle ich meinen Geist’]……death is only a midway point on our journey, the beginning of whatever comes after.’ P151-2.
(One is reminded, in the soprano ambiguity, at once of Blake’s picture of the Soul leaving the body, and of the death of Cordelia in ‘King Lear’:
Kent: Is this the promis’d end?
Edgar: Or image of that horror?
Albany: Fall and cease?) (V.3)
In that case, far from reinforcing the sermon, Bach’s interpretation undermines it, or rather, allows, beside its certainties, for human weakness, and propensity to doubt, which the experience of life leads us to. John Eliot emphasises how great and frequent was Bach’s own bitter experience of death: loss of his parents at an early age, loss of his first wife in full maturity, loss of numerous children. To have confidence in the God who decreed such suffering can’t have been easy (‘Wir mussen durch viel Trubsal in das Reich Gottes eingehen’), so this is reflected in the music, which becomes something much more profound than mere didacticism.
(He might draw support had he read Giles Fraser in ‘Guardian’ 1.3.14 – after the book was published. It’s another merit that the book shows evidence of revision to include the very latest scholarship);-
‘The best theologians are musicians. And Christianity is always better sung than read. To the extent that all religion exists to make raids into what is unsayable the musicians penetrate farther than most.’)
My own little epiphany in this regard relates to cantata BWV 54,Widerstehe doch der Sunde, because I’ve always felt that the strife between virtue and sin is enacted by the counter-tenor; in the key of Eb one is bound to use the baritone as well as the falsetto voice (e.g. in ‘ubertunschtes Grab’) so the whole thing becomes an elaborate metaphor.
I count as two of the greatest blessings of my life, reading English with FR Leavis at Downing College Cambridge (1959-1962) and singing (as an untrained, unauditioned amateur!) in the Monteverdi Choir with John Eliot Gardiner (1970-1992). It’s taken a reading of ‘Music in the Castle of Heaven’ (2014) to make me realise how close they are. Leavis, it’s true, despite being the son of a seller of pianos, was no great shakes as a musician (and wouldn’t have claimed it, though his son Ralph was a considerable musician). I remember a seminar in which, in full flood, he rapped out, ‘Who was the greatest English composer of the Restoration?’ Into the stomach-stealing silence that followed he snapped, ‘Purcell, of course!’ Even then I knew this was wrong, but I didn’t challenge. Leavis left matters musical to his pupil Wilfred Mellers, whose book ‘Bach and the Dance of God’ John Eliot cites numerous times. But where FRL and JEG come together is in their devotion to the text, and the need to study it, and its effects, in minute detail as being the only reliable way to work out the artist’s meaning. This closeness almost becomes explicit when John Eliot says:
‘When we are presented with thoughts and feelings in music, with far more candour, clarity and depth than we would otherwise be capable of, this can bring a huge sense of relief. We might at first feel preached at or lectured, and resist. But you realise that you can let go – you are not being obliged to subscribe to a doctrine, for Bach’s approach, even at his most vehement, is not a moral fitness programme impose on us de haut en bas. Instead, the defining quality lies in how he conveys his understanding of exactly what it is to be human – with all our faults, fears and blind spots – interpreting the word to us like a great novelist, capturing the sense of life itself.’ P.453
He footnotes, ‘Where the author and poet Blake Morrison uses these and other, similar words to describe the effect of poetry on the reader, others might make equivalent claims for the novel.’
Leavis did.
‘The major novelists…are significant in terms of that human awareness they promote: awareness of the possibilities of life.’ [Great Tradition p.10]
‘If you judge a work didactic…the intention to communicate an attitude hasn’t become sufficiently more than an intention; hasn’t, that is, justified itself as art in the realised concreteness that speaks for itself and enacts its moral significance.’ [Great Tradition, p43]
An appendix to the triptych is in the essays or diary entries which accompany the discs, those contributed by John Eliot himself (and while they complement the book, they are often an addition to, rather than a repetition of, what the book says) and tributes supplied by participants.
An example of these is one by Maya Homburger (violin) in Volume 4:
‘When Bach’s pieces resonated …. they were for me stronger, more true and enlightening than any sermon or theological statement. In every single motive, harmony and phrase he conveys a message which speaks directly to all of us as human beings and reaches far beyond the realms of so-called ”religion” which, sadly,…seems to divide people and lead to confusion and pain. ”
Precisely. That she is so “on message” with JEG illustrates why the SDG recordings are so successful. Despite my tribute to Leavis I was always disappointed with him. This is because he never formulated the basis from which he worked. He planned a book, but he never got round to writing it. But John Eliot has, with consummate thoroughness, as Dr Johnson said, ‘Not dogmatically, but deliberatively.’ Man kann nur gratulieren.

Malatrait 02/03/14
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars It also assumes great knowledge of the music in my opinion and is ..., 30 Oct 2014
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Mrs. E H. Jenkins (UK) - See all my reviews
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The writer does a spectacular job of detailing the life of Bach, but perhaps discusses him more in general, by 'dipping into his works' and providing an assessment. It also assumes great knowledge of the music in my opinion and is perhaps more geared at serious music specialists. If you prefer to read about the composers life, and the various works he wrote during it, as a beginner or general reader, you might prefer 'Bach' in the Master Musicians Series.I enjoyed it very much, but feel perhaps a simpler telling of his story would be better for my Grade 8 and ABRSM students.
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