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VINE VOICEon 28 October 2013
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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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.
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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.
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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.
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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...
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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!
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on 27 January 2014
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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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.
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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!
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on 23 January 2014
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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