on 7 November 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.
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.
on 7 February 2014
I have not yet read even half of this book. For this reader it is already life changing. As a listener Bach has been important to me for at least sixty years and probably nearer seventy. Since childhood I have never been able to understand comments about the intellectual nature of Bach's music. At least not where that has seemed to imply that his music is cerebral but not emotional. To me that parallels saying the same thing about Gerrard Manley Hopkins, or St John of the Cross, or that T S Eliot is not lyrical. I have read that Bach was deeply religious and I have read that he only paid lip service to religion. Some performances have brought William Blake's Newton to mind which has left me feeling uneasy. Intuitively I have felt Bach being played as if he had written etudes. Studies in sustained even tone. I recognise that Wanda Landowska's performances were all wrong by comparison with Glen Gould. Yet I heard a fire in her performances and an ennui in his which drew me to her as being closer to the source. She did not have access to satisfactory instruments for her purpose. Today that would not be a problem....
John Eliot Gardiner seems to me to be putting all this right. Paragraph by paragraph is an Aha! experience. I am forming a view that of Bach before Gardiner and Bach after. He is of course not alone, nor is his view entirely original (that way lies madness). When the Bach violin pieces are played so they are the obvious precursors to Isaac Stern's performance of unaccompanied Bartok then I feel we are approaching the mother lode.
Gardiner has made me aware of aspects of German political and religious history of which I knew nothing. This has helped me and added to my appreciation of the richness of this music that I love. Bach seems to work on so many levels and this book is illuminating that and adding further layers too.
I feel my whole understanding of music and its relationship with the other arts is being nurtured as I read this book. My ears tell me that Gardiner is on to something special. His book goes a long way to explaining what that is.
on 8 January 2014
"Aspects of Wagner" by Bryan Magee is by a mile the best intro to the work of that master, and Gardiner's book is in effect "Aspects of Bach" and could well be the best intro to him and his work. Mind you, Magee is succinct where Gardiner is exhaustive (102 and 672 pages respectively) but both leave you wanting to hear the music, which is after all the main point.
Born a Wagnerite I took my time approaching Bach but was getting there slowly until 2005, when BBC Radio 3 decided to play all Bach's works non-stop. A transistor radio was my only source of music at the time and after a week I was ready to buy a sledgehammer and pulverize every harpsichord and oboe in the country. Exit Bach from my listening life. But recently I watched Gardner's excellent tv documentary "Bach - a passionate life" and that made me buy this book. And dig out my B minor mass...
"Music in the Castle of Heaven" is superb in other words, with a couple of caveats, and not nitpicks either.
Gardiner says that that from the Galileo trial on "the Catholic Church confirmed itself as a reactionary bastion against scientific investigation". Utter rubbish. E.g. Copernicus dedicated his "heliocentric theory" book to Pope Paul III and there was no problem till Galileo started stirring. And how about Abbot Mendel, the father of genetics, and Fr. Teilhard de Chardin, world authority on geology and palaeontology, and Fr. Georges le Maitre, who came up with the Big Bang theory, and the 35 craters on the moon named after Jesuit scientists??? If you're interested, try the chapter on "The Church and Science" in "How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization" by Prof. Thomas Woods.
And then Gardiner says Wagner "was an abominable human being". I'm getting really tired of such savage single-adjective dismissals of Wagner's character. Of course he could be often be abominable - so can I come to that - but like most of us he was a complex, many-sided human being as anyone who reads Cosima Wagner's Diaries, about her fourteen years living with him, would realise. There was a lot of laughter in the Wagner household and many friends and this notorious anti-semite virtually adopted a Jewish musician towards the end of his life. As I say, he was complex. And so was Bach...
"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.
on 5 March 2015
John Eliot Gardner really knows his subject. The problem can be that the weight of knowledge slows the story of Bach, and the number of explanatory notes makes reference heavy at times. However, Gardner's liking for his subject shines through, and you keep on reading absorbed in the man portrayed. As a straight read, it is impressive; as a "dip in " tome, it is fascinating. John Eliot Gardner has produced a real survey of Bach's life, times and music; enjoy it in whichever way you choose, and it will give you enlightenment and pleasure. Worth the effort.
on 8 October 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.
on 4 March 2014
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!
on 2 December 2013
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.
on 16 January 2014
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!