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on 15 April 2017
I am willing to believe this book is magnificent etc etc and in fact I am now buying the hardback because I want to read it - but this 2014 Penguin edition I bought sucks. The font is microscopic and the print is grey. Virtually impossible to read comfortably. And of course the many footnotes are in an even smaller font! How in the world a world class publisher like Penguin can print a 600 page book with microscopic grey print I do not know. The only reason is obviously the cost. A bigger font would mean more pages. But this is an insult to John Eliot Gardiner and to JSB. And to Penguin.
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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 19 July 2016
Great insights on the music from one of the most insightful period musicians, however too much historical padding about 18thC Germany which rather obscures the main story.
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on 10 January 2016
I haven't even finished the book - but I can't wait to share my joy in reading it. I am a German protestant church musician who fell in love with Bach with the first Bach cantata I sang when I was 14. But I have never read anything ABOUT Bach that came anywhere near the full-bodied vitality emotional range I experience in the music. Either it was dry analysis or genuflecting praise for the "Erzkantor". Boring.
The Bach I meet in Gardiners book, warts and all, is fully human, church and coffee house, brain and heart, a struggler and a worrier, and divine in all that.
Some reviewers criticise JEG's way of writing about many things that are "not Bach" - but I love it! Especially the humour that pops up in many places. When Gardiner describes the ease of the angels rolling away the stone from the tomb ("no hands!") or illustrates the idea of Kairos through Winnie-The-Pooh ("time for a little something") I know exactly what he means - and I take it in with a big smile on my face.
In short: a book to read - and re-read - and re-read. And most important: it inspires to listen to the music, play it, sing it. Alleluia!
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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 3 December 2016
As a Bach fan of many years I was hugely disappointed with this book. Yes, it's terrifically written and the authors knowledge is unquestionable, but the content was almost solely centred on Bach's vocal contatas and religious viewpoints. Nothing on any of his popular work - no Brandenburg Concerto, no Well Tempered Clavier, No Air on a G String, No notebook for Anna Magdalena and none of his other amazing music for Lute, for Cello or for orchestra. I've been mesmerised by the technicality and multi-layred structure of Bach's music and spellbound from Listening to the likes of Segovia or Yo Yo Ma play Bach and after all the rave reviews of this book I was hoping to gain a deeper understanding of Bach and the music I love....sadly it should have been subtitled 'How God inspired Bach' because that was more or less the whole focus of the book.
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on 18 July 2017
Read it with excerpts of the cantatas to hand. A wonderful insight into the creative mind. Gardener is totally immersed in his subject.
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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 April 2017
An excellent and insightful book by one of Britain's very greatest musicians.
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