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.
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.
Bach is a great composer, and Gardiner a major conductor, but the two facts together don’t automatically make a masterpiece. This book doesn’t match H.C. Robbins Landon’s 1791: Mozart’s Last Year (1988) or Peter Conrad’s A Song of Love and Death: The Meaning of Opera (also 1988), to take two examples of eminent books in the classical music field, for originality or incision, but it has tremendous virtues nonetheless, albeit different ones.
We learn an enormous amount, to begin with — from the history of opera as an art form (even though Bach never wrote one) to the probability that he never tasted a potato, and the fact that he suffered two botched cataract operations. Gardiner also speculates, most centrally, that Bach was an instinctive rebel, frequently arguing with his employers and possibly even — here Gardiner goes a bit far, perhaps — a reformed schoolboy ruffian. He may also have had theological doubts, and Gardiner detects jokes at the expense of theologians in the music.
At one point close to the end he admits to being “almost persuaded” by Edward Said when he wrote that Bach was trying to control something that was “more exuberant, more hubristic, verging on the blasphemous … something within himself, which his music with its contrapuntal wizardry also communicates.”
Gardiner doesn’t exactly have set-pieces because so much of his book is both vast in itself and enormously detailed. But his chapter on the B Minor Mass (“The Habit of Perfection”) can stand as an example of this author, making his literary debut in his 60s, at his finest.
The book’s title, incidentally, derives from the former palace church of the Wilhelmsburg in Weimar, known as the Himmelsburg (“Castle of Heaven”), which had a tower inside it where musicians could play and sing 65 feet above floor level.
John Eliot Gardiner is to be congratulated on producing an account of Bach, and especially of his all-important church music, that will please many different kinds of reader, from professional musicians to relatively unlettered enthusiasts. It presents Bach as dance-like, splendid, fiendishly complicated, profound, and all in all the greatest of all possible musical masters. For a long time, you feel, it really will be difficult to argue with that.
By John Eliot Gardiner
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