Listening to Bach, Hearing the World: Paul Elie's 'Reinventing Bach'

The story of how Bach's music was revived through modern recording technology makes for a dazzling read.

Reinventing Bach

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Length: 512 pages
Author: Paul Elie
Price: $30.00
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2012-09

With Bach’s music in his pocket (presumably on an iPod), Paul Elie went straight from the train station in Berlin to a musical instruments museum that featured a Bach harpsichord. As a Bach lover, he was intrigued until he realized that while others admiring Pink Floyd’s synthesizer had really heard music on that instrument, no one knows what Bach’s playing actually sounded like.

Thus begins a most unconventional Bach biography, interspersed with tales about a cadre of great performers, principally Albert Schweitzer, Pablo Casals, Leopold Stokowski and Glenn Gould, who reintroduced Bach’s work in the 20th century, from the start of the age of recording right up to the present.

It's a “story of the revival of a traditional art through technology that was supposed to be its undoing,” Elie writes. It's also among the most ambitious, wide-ranging and entertaining books about classical music to come along since Alex Ross’s The Rest is Noise.

The frame of reintroducing successive generations to the astonishingly inventive 18th century composer gives Elie, who is not a professional musician, the space to talk about almost anyone and everything and their relationship to Bach -- pianist Rosalyn Tureck, cellists Yo-Yo Ma and Mstislav Rostropovich, conductors Otto Klemperer and Sir John Eliot Gardiner, the “Israeli Beatles” (Daniel Barenboim, Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zukerman), the Beatles themselves, folk singer Judy Collins, arranger Joshua Rifkin, Steve Jobs and more. He brings the two World Wars, Middle East politics, the Berlin Wall and 9/11 -- not to mention ringtones and the Columbia University radio station WKCR’s Christmastime Bachfest -- into the mix.

On a larger scale, Elie argues that ever more technically sophisticated recordings have overtaken live performances as the key classical music delivery system. Leonard Bernstein once said that Bach was so out of the mainstream listeners “had to go to certain churches or special little concerts” to discover him. That was not quite true. But Elie, eager to dispel the notion that classical music’s revival stood in opposition to the “shriekback of a popular culture enchanted with technology,” also wants readers to appreciate the mammoth body of recordings of Bach's secular and sacred works; “In the contest between church and world, he took both sides.”

In 1935, Albert Schweitzer recorded Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor on wax cylinders at the oldest church in the City of London. At the time, he was the most famous organist in the world, and “the organ lift is where the forces of tradition and progress converged and went into new forms.” In his main narrative, Elie observes that Johann Sebastian Bach, born in 1685, moved from his hometown of Eisenach and his role as a local organist to other towns as he began to create more and more compositions for larger, sometimes royal audiences. Bach’s apprenticeship is intertwined with the early life of the Alsatian-born Schweitzer, who learned that Africa needed doctors, thus giving him a humanitarian ideal to which he would dedicate his life.

Wax cylinders were only the beginning. Schweitzer’s contemporary Pablo Casals, who fled fascism in his native Spain, wanted to be an organist, but found his true calling when his father bought him his first full-sized cello. After discovering Bach’s cello suites he studied them in solitude every day for 12 years before he played even one in public. His 78-rpm recordings of Bach’s cello suites became in Elie’s telling “a symbol for a new kind of music, made without an audience in a controlled environment.”

The studio where Casals made his initial solo records in 1936 was none other than the place we know simply by its location: Abbey Road. On the very same day, blues legend Robert Johnson was making a record in a Texas hotel room. At this point a reader can’t help but feeling that great cosmic forces are coming into alignment. Or, to use a term Elie invokes often, playing in counterpoint.

Elie never loses sight of Johann Sebastian himself. Moments in Bach’s life waft through the book “like cigar smoke in a boxing arena,” to quote one of the author’s startling similes. He has a knack for making the master’s biography fresh. Bach’s Two and Three Part Inventions, he writes, were a gift to his nine- year-old son. “They are like children themselves; each has a distinctive character, and yet one that is still in formation.” He emphasizes that Bach was a technological innovator, inventing not just new forms of music but an instrument, the lute-harpsichord. After his first wife died, Bach remarried a 20-year-old whom he had recruited for his choir. ”In the way of great bandleaders down the ages, Bach would marry a singer in his ensemble.”

Following the story of Bach’s remarriage, Elie focuses on the another 20th century technology, film. Conductor Leopold Stokowski, one of the century’s great showmen, met Walt Disney and they collaborated on an animated feature film for children. Stoki, as he was known, contributed two mighty ideas: the name of the movie would be Fantasia (a certain kind of freely constructed musical piece), and its opening music would be that of Bach, who was “a fantasist extraordinaire”. Upon its premiere in 1940, the movie was lauded as a classic. It pioneered the use of the sound track, which replaced “occasional music” in film.

The end of World War II brought massive technical advances to music, principally the LP and magnetic tape. The man who embodied their use in the service of Bach was the Canadian pianist Glenn Gould, a world-class eccentric who was one of the greatest Bach interpreters. His 1955 and 1980 recordings of the Goldberg Variations bracketed the golden era of LPs. Moreover the tape recorder allowed Gould to listen to himself and thus “empowered his perfectionism.” Gould changed his playing in order “to produce those effects that sounded best on tape.”

Elie’s consideration of Gould is the most engrossing part of Reinventing Bach. Here was “an electronics enthusiast… a pioneer in shirtsleeves… a theoretical pianist performing sonic experiments with piano and magnetic tape.” In the 1955 recording, made at a former church on East 30th Street in Manhattan, this is what Elie hears:

“The swift finger runs, the fistfuls of arpeggiation, the skeleton dances of knuckles up the keyboard, those notes knotted and braided and tied semaphorically together: it is the sound of technique transcended, and transfigured by feeling.”

Elie concludes, “With Gould’s Goldberg Variations, Bach became modern.”

The giants of the earlier era, Casals and Schweitzer, met in Alsace, forming a friendship that Elie calls “a transcontinental collaboration in a moral key, like a Bach sonata for cello and keyboard.” Meanwhile Gould connected with Stoki. Their friendship led to a series of essays by Gould about the aging, peripatetic genius who showed the younger man a path away from touring, which he hated. Stoki made recordings on his own terms and quit the Philadelphia Orchestra for Hollywood. Gould would quit giving recitals, period. “Where Stoki made an instrument of the orchestra, he [Gould] would make an instrument of the recording studio.”

Elie is a bit less successful in bringing Bach to bear on popular music. Yes, the Beatles famously recorded at Abbey Road. Yes, George Martin integrated a Bach-like piano solo into “In My Life”. Yes, there was a harpsichord in Judy Collins’ hit “Both Sides Now”, played by Joshua Rifkin, who later was a catalyst for the period instruments movement in Baroque music. But the Sixties as the moment when “classical music had a full rival” thanks to tape, the LP and the electric guitar? Hadn’t Sinatra, big band music, R&B, and Elvis pushed the classics to the side of the stage and the studio years before?

Gould’s second Goldberg Variations was recorded digitally. It would have fit perfectly in Elie’s survey if this had been the first Columbia compact disc but, it was not; Billy Joel’s 52nd Street was. Instead, Gould’s work was released in September, 1982 on LP and cassette, to coincide with his 50th birthday. A few days later, Glenn Gould died.

The final portions of Reinventing Bach whisk us from Bach’s Leipzig to the protests there in 1989 and the fall of the Berlin Wall, where Rostropovich played a Bach sarabande on the cello at Checkpoint Charlie. Bach is everywhere in the author’s personal journeys, although not every Bach anecdote from the CD or playlist era resonates. In fact, he undercuts his own argument that live music is “insubstantial and elusive” compared to recordings by describing memorable live events, such as the riveting moment at Lincoln Center in 2001, where mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, dying of cancer, dressed in a hospital gown, clinging to a steel IV pole with its drip tube needle in her arm, sang a Bach cantata in live performance devised by avant-garde director Peter Sellars.

Regardless, Elie’s performance is a tour de force, an elegantly written book of theme and variations carried out to the nth degree. For even for the casual classical music listener, Reinventing Bach is a dazzling read.


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