Reviews

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
Amazon

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.

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