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17 of 20 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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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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Showing 1-6 of 6 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 30 Apr 2014 11:55:10 BDT
Last edited by the author on 30 Apr 2014 11:55:19 BDT
msCX says:
Thank you for taking the time to write this very informative and useful review which leaves you with a very clear idea of what the book is like and what its purpose and aim is. Many thanks.

In reply to an earlier post on 1 May 2014 10:27:59 BDT
My pleasure! I don't tend to write many reviews, because each one is so long, but I figure that if a book is worth writing, it's worth examining in detail. (Mind you, a couple of my reviews are of books that WEREN'T worth writing!)

Posted on 7 Sep 2014 18:57:55 BDT
Many thanks for this fine review, which is so extensive and complete that it saves me the effort of posting my own (I might write a "See Kersten" just so I can add my five stars to the rating).

I would add this (or perhaps it's merely a difference of emphasis): this is very much the work of a performer of the music, for all of its scholarly erudition. You indicate that you're a conductor; I'm a chorister. We both know that a performer, far more than a scholar or a liner-noter, has to make a vast number of practical decisions when confronting the music. Among the many felicities of this book--indeed one of the greatest--is the demonstration of how the scholarship informs the performance.

In reply to an earlier post on 8 Oct 2014 15:05:30 BDT
Absolutely. I sometimes get the impression that non-performing musicologists have lost sight of music as an aural, performing art that demands emotional and psychological engagement, and indeed participation. The joy of a book like Gardiner's is exactly as you say: it's scholarship to further what music ought to be about.

I'm just reading another wonderful example of this kind of informed commentary: Charles Rosen's "The frontiers of meaning: three informal lectures on music". As a distinguished concert pianist, Rosen's wide-ranging and authoritative text with musical examples especially from Beethoven carries an authority that I suspect most non-performers would struggle to match. In fact, his performing seems to inform his writing.

In reply to an earlier post on 9 Oct 2014 02:03:04 BDT
Thanks for the tip, I'll be looking that up. The Classical Style might just be my single favorite book on music.

In reply to an earlier post on 9 Oct 2014 14:17:58 BDT
...and that's one I haven't read (Oh, the shame!), despite it being on our reading list when I did my music degree. Never mind, better late than never - even if by several decades!


For light relief from all the serious stuff, how about "Evenings with the orchestra" by one Hector Berlioz? If only he hadn't wasted time composing all that music, he could have made a great career for himself as a writer!

;-) x about 70!
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