Cahill, Thomas. How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland's Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe. New York: Anchor , Doubleday, 1996. Print.
Just over two months ago I went on a trip to Europe, where I got to experience many of the most important places in history. When I was over there I remembered something I learned about in Dr. Haluska’s English Literature class—the White Martyrdom.
There are actually three colors of martyrdom:
1) The traditional Red Martyrdom which spilled the blood of countless (mostly early) Christians. Of this Martyrdom Tertullian said, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”
2) The Green Martyrdom was a way for Irish clerics to copy the early desert hermits. They moved away from civilization, hoping to find God in the solitude and beauty of nature, as well as in the written Word of God.
These hermitages very quickly became monasteries, and the monasteries quickly became cultural centers at a time when all of civilization was collapsing (the mid-to-late fifth century to the early-to-mid sixth century—when Rome was collapsing). They collected books from all over the known world, on topics both sacred and secular.
3) The most moving to me (at this point) is the White Martyrdom. There was a main priest of the monetary, who was called the Abbot. Under the Abbot were twelve priests who were awaiting ordination. When they had learned and grown enough to be ordained, they were charged with the task of starting a new monetary, and in doing so they would spread the Gospel of Christ with the pagans they came in contact with.
It wasn’t as easy as it is now, though, to move to a faraway land. These freshly ordained Abbots oftentimes didn’t even know where they were going. They would just pack a small boat and sail into the white, foggy morning—never to be heard from by their friends again. Some didn’t even pack oars, instead trusting God to guide them.
They didn’t just drop off the face of the earth, though. They witnessed to much of Europe, making their way as far west as modern-day Kiev in Ukraine. They formed new monasteries in places like Salzburg and Vienna, Liège and Würzburg.
James Bullock remarked, “All England north of the Thames was indebted to the Celtic mission for its conversion” because the British Christians hated their Saxon invaders—the same people who had pushed them out of their lands into modern-day Wales. It was the Celtic missionary martyrs who brought the gospel to England.
As I mentioned, I got the idea for this post from a lecture from Dr. Haluska’s English Literature class. He quoted from a book by Thomas Cahill: “How the Irish Saved the World,” which I read in preparation for this article.
I had to write a real, honest-to-goodness professional, scholarly book review for a summer class, and I really loved it. The book was great, and the process of writing the review was fun!
So here is what I am going to do—or at least attempt to do—I am going to review every book I read (for fun) and write a blog about it. The will not necessarily be scholarly reviews, but will tell some of what I learned, and my observations along the way.
I do not promise one a week, but that is my goal. I most certainly do NOT promise to only write about scholarly type books. I love a good Nancy Drew mystery, and you should remain unconcerned if I review Bunny’s New Shoes.
This is a project that will help me 1) blog more frequently, and 2) read more for pleasure.
Feel free to recommend books for me to read, but I make no promises. Thanks for reading! Be sure to comment!
Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven. By John Eliot Gardiner (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013. XXXIV + 629 pp. Illustrations, chronology, glossary, notes, and index.)
The sacred vocal music of Johann Sebastian Bach is considered to be some of the greatest ever written; however, many feel that these great works are relics of a bygone era instead of pieces that are relevant to modern people, whether professing Christians or not. In his book Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven, John Eliot Gardiner puts this music of Bach into its proper social, religious, and historical contexts to show its relevance today.
Gardiner was raised in a “family where it was considered perfectly normal to sing...” (Gardiner 2) and, almost from the womb, was exposed to the unaccompanied choral music of the greatest composers of the Renaissance and Baroque eras. In addition to being exposed at an early age to vocal music, he was raised under the gaze of Johann Sebastian Bach. His parents had been entrusted with one of only two surviving paintings of Bach. From an early age it seemed as if the lives of these two musicians were to be intertwined.
Gardiner was taught and nurtured by some of the most important music teachers in the world, including Imogen Holst (the wife of composer Gustav Holst), Wilfred Brown, and Nadia Boulanger (who taught a who’s who list of composers and musicians), all of whom encouraged his love for Early music. He has conducted since the mid-1960s, focusing his attention on authentic Early music performance practice. His ensembles were some of the first to attempt to play Baroque music on historically informed instruments. His decades of scholarship and study have made him a widely trusted source in his field.
In the year 2000, John Eliot Gardiner and his ensembles set out on the “Bach Cantata Pilgrimage,” an amazing undertaking which resulted in recordings of the almost two hundred sacred cantatas by Johann Sebastian Bach. They performed the cantatas appropriate for the week’s lectionary readings in venues all around the world.
In his book, Gardiner puts the music of Bach into many different contexts. He puts it in the historical context of Germany in the years before the Enlightenment and he also shows Sebastian Bach as the greatest composer in his family (who had all been professional musicians for generations). After developing these ideas, he compares Bach to other influential composers of his time—people like Domenico Scarlatti, George Frederic Handel, and Georg Philipp Telemann.
It is only after Gardiner firmly places these ideas into context, allowing the audience to see through his eyes, that he beings to talk about the music of Sebastian Bach. Then slowly, little by little, Gardiner unmasks Bach. He shows the composer not as some sort of demigod, but as a human. The audience can see the struggles he had submitting to authority, but can also see how desperately he wanted to use his work and talents to glorify God.
Johann Sebastian Bach was not just a composer. He was a theologian, at least to some degree. He studied his Bible and knew it well. He was familiar with the various commentaries available during his lifetime, and used all the information he gleaned from them in his music. He took his job, as described by Martin Luther, seriously. Luther said that music “is to give expression and added eloquence to biblical texts: the notes make the words live” (Gardiner 129), which is exactly what Bach’s music did wonderfully.
I have been in awe of the music of Bach for about three-and-a-half years, during which time I have studied and learned a lot. Until reading Gardiner’s book, however, I have not seen Bach so much as a person, but as some sort of superhuman, super-Christian composer who understood all things theological and musical. As I read his book, though, I was encouraged to find that Bach is a lot like me: stubborn to the point of stupidity, but always striving.
John Eliot Gardiner did an excellent job of staying fairly neutral in this book. His passion is obvious, but he seemed to be fair in his statements of opinion, citing many reputable sources, including primary source documents. His assumptions seem reasonable, and his knowledge of the subject is obvious. His sources come from a wide pool, including hundreds of years of scholarship in many different fields. He cites a wide range of musicians (including Michael Praetorius and Richard Wagner), authors (John Milton, John Butt, and Montaigne), at least one pastor (Martin Luther), and a professed atheist (György Kurgág) who finds it hard to keep his belief when listening to the music of Bach.
This is a very thorough book, though I would like to see how someone from a different background would handle the information. I would have also liked to have seen more time spent on the instrumental music by Bach, which was not really discussed (though it is understandable since Gardiner is more familiar with the vocal repertoire). There was, also, no examination of Bach’s organ music (for which he was famous, even in his own life).
This book is intended for musicians. A non-musician would be lost very quickly when Gardiner begins to describe and discuss various pieces of music. He assumes his audiences has at least a basic knowledge of music theory, formal analysis, and is at least somewhat familiar with Bach’s biography. A basic knowledge of Latin and German would also come in handy, though is not necessary. Knowledge of, or at least a familiarity with, the Early music repertoire is useful.
Overall this is a very well-written book. As a musician I was on the edge of my seat several times as his descriptions of the music were getting exciting. His facts and observations were very interesting, and he has a very clean style of writing. His use of musical descriptions were necessary, but they were also a downside since they made the chapters quite lengthy and thick. This is not a book for someone looking for light reading, but for someone interested in the topic, it is an invaluable text.
Gardiner, John Eliot. Bach: music in the castle of heaven. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013. Print.
"John Eliot Gardiner." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 23 July 2014. Web. 29 July 2014. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Eliot_Gardiner>.
I'm a Classical musician, a growing Christian, and a world traveler. I'm learning, exploring, and trying to understand this wonderful world I live in.