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Painstakingly researched, lovingly considered, and deftly written
on February 4, 2013
All that is left of Johann Sebastian Bach is script. He produced over 1,100 individual works but all of it is inert, frozen in place on paper in an age when few of us can read sheet music. The composer's legacy is constantly in flux now, in reinvention, and no single reinvention is more equal than the others. Brace yourself, but there is no essential Bach.
Paul Elie makes this case on nearly every page of his book Reinventing Bach, but it is page 71 before he asks the corollary: "How are we supposed to listen to so much music, all of it so good?" Elie is referring to Bach's compositions for organ-"near three hundred works, every one sublime"-but he could pose the question for all music that predates the gramophone. Bach factored heavily in that technological debut, and has factored in each subsequent advance since then.
Or rather his performers have, those sometimes unwitting celebrities who interpret Bach posthumously and lend him a voice again. It seems like our generation has won an undeserved indulgence; after all, Bach's contemporaries knew him only from weekly, live church performances and palace appearances. Is it not unnatural that modern audiences in North America, Asia, or Africa should know him so much better than Europeans knew him while he lived, over 250 years ago? That is a rewording of Elie's question: how do we listen? Were vinyl and tape-recorded by irascible, sometimes neurotic virtuosos-the best way? Elie's response is an unqualified yes. For some, technological advances such as shellac and tape were as scandalous then as the pirate bays are now. So it is telling that Bach-incredibly prolific, and therefore as subject to unaffiliated recordings as any man or woman who has ever lived-was still dominant.
Those readers coming fresh off of Matthew Guerrieri's The First Four Notes should be prepared for a much wider scope. Reinventing Bach is significantly longer, and Elie introduces far more characters, many of whom do not survive their introduction. The often cruel lives suffered by pre-industrial artists are well-illustrated here, and Guerrieri's Europe-a place without light bulbs or metronomes-is downright pasteurized compared to those of Reinventing Bach. Elie reminds us that, by age ten, Bach had lost two brothers and both parents. When he was 35 he lost a wife and infant son within a year of each other. Ten of his children did not survive to adulthood. It reads as miraculous that the composer survived the pathogens and heartbreak at all, and truly unfathomable that his output was so high, so excellent, with so little duplication between any one piece and the rest.
Neither is Bach is the star of this book. He ages two years here, five years there, and composes hundreds of pieces of music while our backs are turned. Bach's list of posthumous advocates is the true emphasis; Elie introduces the perpetually nostalgic Albert Schweitzer, a German theologian and medical missionary. He presents Pablo Casals, the Spanish cellist and conductor who would become an outspoken protestor of the Franco regime, and who refused to visit in any nation that recognized Franco's leadership. In time we meet Leopold Stokowski, the cultured half of the team behind Fantasia, and soon thereafter we exchange an awkward wave with Canadian pianist Glenn Gould, "some kind of archangel" who took out a Lloyd's of London insurance policy on his hands, and suffered from deep germophobia. Elie reminds us of film score character Walter Carlos, who recorded Bach on an early version of the Moog, which was strictly monophonic and as big as a refrigerator. It is easy to forget that the 78, film soundtracks, multiple recording takes, stereo sound and the analog synthesizer once represented the technological advancement that the smart phone does today-and that some were as controversial as Napster was ten years ago-but Elie patiently, systematically reminds us.
Did all of the pieces fit together snugly? Do they ever? Schweitzer preferred life off of the grid, long before the short-lived Living With Ed. Casals wished his recordings could be sped up "in order to recover the liveliness that was lost during the mechanical process." Gould hated Fantasia and the Beatles-who, with Joni Mitchell, were jointly responsible for the Bachification of popular music-writing them off as "happy, cocky, belligerently resourceless." Gould also couldn't keep from humming during recording takes. Walter's surgical conversion to Wendy Carlos overshadows his (and her) contribution to the Bach legacy. Even Elie himself has reservations about Schweitzer's version of Toccata and Fugue in D Minor: "The sonic boxiness of it-very quality that makes it sound historic-makes it hard to listen for simple enjoyment."
At over 400 pages, the book feels long, especially when the thesis can be expressed so simply: technology only moves in one direction. There is no putting the genie back in the bottle. But do the arithmetic: dedicating one written page to every three completed works-so many of them masterpieces-is hardly long-winded. Elie seems unconvinced with his own method of drawing parallels between the lives of J.S. Bach and the lives of his interpreters, a method he abandons just as the reader is getting used to it. Perhaps a better way to describe the narrative shifts from composer to performer and back again is contrapuntal, a musical adjective that no Bach reviewer can reasonably discard. Elie can turn a phrase, but rarely does. Yet again, that leaves us breathless when he chooses to. Take for instance the Luftwaffe bombing of London, which left the church of All Hallows gutted by fire. The reader cannot help but read between the lines:
"The bells, long tied up for the nightly blackouts, were set loose as the ropes burned through, and rang wildly before falling to the ground. The tower stood reverent amid the horror as the great organ, all its lead pipes swelling at once with hot air, screamed with the pain of war and then, the cabinet burning, the pipes melting into the air, went silent."
Does this belie the book's most glaring flaw? It is such a lovely passage and so feverish with nostalgia that there is no chance of his description stopping with objective reporting. The reader is forced to wonder if Elie suffers at least some of the retrogressive longings he so cleanly dismantles when they are voiced by others. Even so, Reinventing Bach establishes Elie as another Bach performer, and for the most part this recording is a painstakingly researched, lovingly considered, and deftly-written book.