An electrifying story of how musicians of genius have made Bach’s music new in our time, at once restoring Bach as a universally revered composer and revolutionizing the ways that music figures into our lives.
Excerpted from Reinventing Bach by Paul Elie, published in September 2012 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC . Copyright © 2012 by Paul Elie. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or printed without permission in writing from the publisher.
>>1>> This, you say to yourself, is what the past sounded like: rougher, plainer, narrower than the present yet somehow more spacious, a place high- skied and open to life.
The pipes ring out once, twice, a third time. Then with a long, low swallow the organ fills with sound, which spreads toward the ends of the instrument and settles, pooling there. The sound is compounded of air and wood and leather and hammered metal, but how the sound is made is less striking than what it suggests: the past, with all its joists and struts and joinery, its sides fitted and pitched so as to last a lifetime.
The organ is a vessel on a voyage to the past, and that opening figure is a signal sent from ship to shore—a shout-out to the past, asking it to tell its story.
Now the sound spreads emphatically from the low pipes up to the high ones and down again, tracing a jagged line of peaks and spires—an outline of the lost city of the past, a message tapped out from the other side.
>>2>> Albert Schweitzer recorded Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor on December 18, 1935, at the church of All Hallows by the Tower in London. He was the world’s best-known organist, although he lived many miles from an organ; he was far better known than Bach himself had ever been, and the fact weighed on him, for he thought of Bach’s music as a refuge from his fame—as the music of an earlier, purer time. He climbed the steps to the organ loft, took off his coat, and tried to concentrate. For two nights he had played Bach’s preludes and fugues to the empty church. It was the oldest church in the City of London, already seven hundred years old when it was threatened by the Great Fire of 1666. Now the worn stone of its walls and the smoky glass of its windows seemed to echo his fear that European civilization was ending—“beginning to melt away in our hands,” as he put it. The old City was overrun by motorcars. The organ was recent and mechanized, not the trim eighteenth-century type he favored. The windows rattled when he sounded the low pipes. He and his two apprentices took turns climbing a ladder to dampen the loose glass with towels.