on 3 March 2014
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.’
‘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.