John Eliot Gardiner’s Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven is a scholarly work, the most scholarly work I’ve read in years. This is no bad thing, but it does require a certain mental gear-shift from popular-style reading; the volume, which weighs in at more than 600 pages, is by no means a bit of popular biography or intentionally accessible fare. It’s miles away from Barbara Tuchman or William Manchester, in other words. Gardiner is a highly regarded conductor and performer of classical vocal music, and he’s not shy (nor should he be) about bringing his own experience and expertise into the discussion of, arguably, one of history’s greatestest composers.
However, Gardiner’s willingness to speak of both music and history with such comprehensive, authoritative knowledge demands that the reader keep up. For some of us this will be a mad scramble, something like listening to the lecture of a brilliant professor who knows far more than we ever will. The talk is interesting, but one will want to be thoroughly engaged in the subject. This isn’t Gardiner’s fault of course, but it may be the fault of the publisher, which presents what is essentially an academic tome as popular writing.
Here, for example, is an example of the author’s discussion of the development of opera circa the mid-1700s:
On the other hand, you could adapt its Lullian, Gallicised structure into a vessel for the transmission of sung drama in almost through-composed form, as Rameau would eventually do, setting the door ajar, first, to the ‘reforms’ of Gluck and then to that first great Mozartian synthesis of music, drama and action, Idomeneo. Adopt it in the modern Neumeister form applied to church cantatas, as Bach was soon to do, and it could lead initially to a diminished fluidity and naturalness of form.
Such sentences presuppose a thorough grounding in the period’s composers, as well as subsequent ones, not to mention a good smattering of musical terminology. Nothing wrong with that, but readers should be aware of this going in.
Then again, any biographer is faced with a particular problem when cobbling together the facts of JS Bach’s life: there aren’t very many of them. For such a towering figure in musical history, Bach (like Shakespeare) left few written documents, few tangible pieces of history to serve as signposts delineating his life.
He was born in 1685 in Eisanach, in Saxony, a part of what would later become Germany. He attended school and became a choirmaster, and lived contemporaneously with an array of composers including Scarlatti, Handel, Rameau, and Telemann. He got married and sired a large number of children, composing prolifically all the while. He died in 1750.
These are just facts, however, and they delineate the trajectory of the man’s life without actually illuminating it. Gardiner expands upon these bare bones with an enormous amount of information about the society into which Bach was born, as well as background concerning his family, his contemporaries, and much else. Given the dearth of firsthand knowledge of the man, in other words, the author fills in the circumstances surrounding him with loads of detail. Even this surrounding material is incomplete, however; Gardiner states of the composer’s Matthew Passion, arguably his greatest choral work, that “we have no contemporary reaction to it – not the smallest shard of evidence of what people thought about it at the time.”
What emerges is the picture of an ambitious man, the son of a musical dynasty at a time when musical dynasties were both revered (for their role in expressing the sacred through liturgical music) and treated with contempt (by withholding payment for their services, sometimes for years). Over time, he was a man who would develop, as Gardiner puts it, “The habit of perfection.”
This habit would seem to be something familiar to Gardiner himself. One gets the feeling that the author approaches his subject in the same way that he approaches a choral performance: with a great deal of consideration beforehand, leavened with the knowledge that music is about the transmission of emotion rather than logic. As he puts it, “The relation of music to language is as complex as that of language to thought. Language can elucidate, but it can also throttle sensibility… Music, on the other hand, when it is performed, allows that channel of transmitted thought and sensibility to flow with total freedom: it might not be very good at expressing our everyday mundane transactions, but the thoughts it does express are conveyed more clearly and fully than they would be by words”.
Gardiner is at his most enlightening (to me at least) when he is engaged in analyzing the composition and effects of Bach’s individual works. The emphasis here is on choral pieces, and my lack of experience leaves plenty of room for some educating. Writing about Bach’s third Christmas Day cantata, BVW 110, Gardiner explains that “Here he takes the French overture structure (slow – fast – slow) and uses the ceremonial outer sections to frame the fast fugal segment, but with a four-part chorus newly worked into the instrumental fabric. As a paraphrase of Psalm 126 the piece emerges new-minted, alive with unexpected sonorities and a marvellous rendition of laughter-in-music, so different from the stiff, earnest way it is often played as orchestral music”. At moments like this, Gardiner’s writing really shines, and more than anything he makes one want to plop down and listen immediately to the composition in question.
Music in the Castle of Heaven is a fine work, solidly researched and written by the one man in the world who is probably most qualified to do so. But approach with caution, as this is not a biography intended for the casual music lover or classical-music novice. This is a book whose degree of scholarship expects the reader to be as fluent with musical terms and theory as the author himself.