I was brought up believing three things about Bach — that he danced around the kitchen with his wife and family to his livelier music, that he would have embraced modern aids like the synthesizer with both hands, and that, with 20 children, he must have been making love every minute that he wasn’t composing music. All three claims were supposed to boost his credentials as a composer that fashion-conscious young people could profitably, even happily, listen to.
Then there was the issue of who was the greatest composer of all time. To say it was Mozart was considered sentimental, though it was a claim that could be made with increasing credibility as the 20th century wore on. To opt for Beethoven was to encounter protests about his predilection for insisting on this and that too regularly. The one to go for, therefore, was Bach. None could challenge his genius, and you wouldn’t get yourself mixed up in any ideological tussles if you stayed loyal to him.
This last claim, of course, was far from watertight. “In Bach,” wrote Nietzsche in 1878, “there is too much crude Christianity, crude Germanism, crude scholasticism … At the threshold of European music … he is always looking back towards the Middle Ages.” It isn’t a position you hear often argued today, and certainly not by John Eliot Gardiner in his new book Music in the Castle of Heaven. Even so, Nietzsche may conceivably have had a point.
This is a huge book, and it’s 150 pages before Bach really becomes its subject. First we have Gardiner’s own story — at Cambridge to study classical Arabic and Medieval Spanish, he spent most of his time trying to perfect a performance style for Monteverdi’s Vespers that was different from the twee Anglican piety he heard in King’s College Chapel. Then there’s Germany in the mid-18th century, Lutheranism, and so on.
By John Eliot Gardiner
But when we finally do get to Bach, the reader’s prime reaction is awe. Gardiner knows a phenomenal amount about Bach’s music, his surviving manuscripts, and innumerable contemporary composers as well. To read him on church-going conditions in Leipzig in the 1720s, let alone what Bach’s footnotes to his scores tell us about his compositional habits, is probably to learn just about all there is to be known about the respective subjects.
Yet this book isn’t a guide to all of Bach’s music. The secular works he wrote while working for Prince Leopold in Cothen, for example, only get respectful mention, and these include the Brandenburg Concertos, the cello suites, and almost all his other instrumental compositions. Gardiner’s main interest is in choral church music, and he understandably focuses on it.
Mendelssohn is credited with reviving an interest in Bach by staging the St. Matthew Passion in 1829, but this is to ignore what is for me the most sensational illustration in this book, namely, an extraordinary sun-flower or dial published in 1799, with Bach at its center, Haydn, Handel and Carl Heinrich Graun (Vladimir Nabokov’s great-great-great-great-grandfather) clustered as an inner circle round the center, and 28 other composers — one of them Mozart — arranged as outer petals.
The extraordinary thing is that Haydn saw this diagram, and said he was deeply grateful for being put as one of the inner circle. This illustration alone throws doubt on the idea that Bach was, in the period after his death, dismissed by everyone as old-fashioned and determinedly un-modern.