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Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven Kindle Edition
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Just a quarter of the way into its more than 600 pages, I can report that this book should prove to be invaluable to anyone interested in Bach, the Baroque, and the musicians of that era and before. It is Gardiner's clear and compelling writing, the depth of his research, and his emphasis on Bach's life that is so very compelling. Who was Bach? Why was he that way? And how did his life shape his music? Answering these questions are the objectives of the book. He does it better than anyone I have read. There is much new information discovered only in the last decade or more.
I will revise this review when I've finished reading, but I wanted to send a dispatch that in the first four chapters, this is proving to be a wonderful and instructive read. And a last note: the footnotes are terrific.
Gardiner is a leader in the recent trend (since the '70s) in musical exploration which attempts to play the music of a particular composer or era (for Bach, the Baroque) in the way its original hearers would have experienced it. As such, performances will be played on period instruments (ie. gut strings rather than steel, instruments crafted using original techniques rather than modern, etc.) and played in the way they likely would have been originally played (ie. in churches rather than concert halls, unamplified, and often at a much quicker pace than modern sensibilities usually gravitate toward). Gardiner's "insider" perspective on Bach's music as interpreted through Bach's life and religious convictions as well as through having stood in Bach's place as conductor throughout a full church calendar cycle is really what makes this book special.
Gardiner is at his best as an author when he is at his best as a conductor. The book describes at great length not only the musicology and the performance but also the psychology and theology of some of Bach's most well known works. These descriptions often sore along verbally, mirroring the score itself as it is playing back in the mind of the author. I have to admit that prior to reading this book, Bach was already my favourite composer. However, while reading this book, I purchased (or was given by a friend who himself masterfully plays Baroque music on period instruments) several CDs of Bach's music, as many as possible of which were conducted by Gardiner, performed by his famous Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists and recorded in churches or cathedrals. I have to advocate for this way of reading this book. Listening to the very work, performed (or as Bach might have preferred to think of it, offered) as close as possible to the way it would have originally been sung and played, while reading Gardiner's often emotional and spiritual descriptions of the works is among the closest experiences I've ever come to reading in four dimensions. Many will classify this as a biographical/historical work, but there are profound observations of psychology, theology, philosophy, liturgics and worship here as well. I did not always agree with Gardiner's rendering of Bach's Lutheran psychology or of Bach's own spiritual struggles. I thought perhaps where Gardiner sometimes detected doubt in Bach's scoring of a particular portion of the gospels or other Scripture, one could just as easily interpret a tried but steady faith or a determination to believe the promises of God despite the upheavals of this earthly life (Bach lost an uncle and both parents by the time he was 10, and he lost his first wife and several of his children - 10 if I recall). Or perhaps as is more likely, it is a combination of all of the above. But even where I wondered if Gardiner was misinterpreting the inspiration behind some of Bach's scores or some of his margin notes in his favourite Bible commentaries, I know that I am far richer for having had someone like Gardiner lead me into the inner world of Bach's mind and his music.
Gardiner is somewhat uniquely qualified to write this book. Not only has Bach been in the forefront of his consciousness since he was a child and his family had a famous original portrait of Bach hanging in their stairwell, "overseeing" the home, but Gardiner set out on a unique and mind-blowing "Bach cantata pilgrimage" in 2000 with his orchestra and choir, playing all (yes, ALL) of Bach's sacred cantatas in a 52 week period in churches around Europe and the US. This meant that they performed nearly everyday for a year, sometimes more than once a day, something that Bach himself would have done in his post as Thomascantor in Leipzig. When one does this, one really get's inside the head and heart of the great master even as he himself was inhabiting the seasons of the church year, recounting and witnessing as they do to the history of redemption through the life and work of Christ.
If someone wants a basic and general introduction to Bach, I highly recommend not this. If you want an in depth biography of the life of Bach this is also not your book. However, if you want to begin to understand Bach's sense of sacred mission, his motivations, and above all the tapestry of his sacred music itself in all its variation, complexity, energy and beauty, this deep-dive is your guide.
I cannot recommend this work highly enough. Its pages will afford a fresh encounter with the composer, even if you have been studying his works and his commentators (as I have) for nearly a lifetime. But even more tellingly perhaps, you will encounter John Eliot Gardiner in a new way--as an accomplished writer and winsomely humane scholar.
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