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>.
Date: Thursday, July 10, 2014 (for Monday, July 7, 2014)
Time: 10:04 am local time (4:04 am EST)
Place: Train from Paris to Leiden (we just passed through Brussels)
Hello folks! I’m slightly more awake now!
Monday morning started out fairly early again, as we were to go over to Museum Island to visit some of the finest antiquities that exist. We started with what is called the Eastside Gallery, a section of the Wall which has been graffitied. I appreciate it for its artistic and cultural significance, but didn’t especially care for the art. It’s just not quite my style.
We made it to the Neue Museum, which Dad and I had gone to last year and spent quite a lot of time in. We had managed to miss our reservation, so we had to come back in an hour. We walked around for a few minutes, visiting St. Hedwig’s Lutheran Church, which has a beautiful organ on the side. My guess is that it is about the same size as the organ at home, though it might be just a little bit bigger.
We went back to the museum and were let in, and Dr. Wohlers told us to be out in just about an hour. Pretty much the first thing I did was to go to find Neffertiti. She is very beautiful, so it was nice to get to see her again. After that I just kind of wandered through the museum. I went through a hall which showed the change in how Egyptians depicted the human face, and it was really quite remarkable.
I discovered that there was one more level with “prehistory” type things on it, which included a ceremonial golden hat that was used as some sort of a calendar. It was quite cool. Also included was a Neanderthal skull which had been crushed and glued back together. They had also made a probable reconstruction (which I don’t think is particularly probable since there was no nose on the skull, so we’re only guessing that he had a very wide nose. I’ve watched too many episodes of Bones, I guess
We were released to go to lunch after going to the museum, and I went to McDonalds and ate with Rita and Wohlers. It was nice to get to sit with them. I spent most of my time chatting with Rita, since Wohlers didn’t really chime in, but I think he is enough like me he enjoyed being there and hearing the conversation.
Next we went to the National Museum, which told the story of Germany from the early ADs to the present. I thought it was very well done, but most everyone else took Dr. Wohler’s assignment too seriously. He pointed out a few people that we should be looking for, and they all were stressing about not being able to find them. I, on the other hand, decided that it was fine to see as much as I could see, and enjoy as much as I could enjoy. If I did that, then I would probably learn what I was supposed to learn, and I would certainly have fun doing it.
At that museum I saw four or five pianos, a really nice portrait of Handel (the original that we often see in books) and several other great works of art. I compared the busts of Napoleon and Joseph Bonaparte, saw paintings of King Frederick the Great of Prussia (who was ruling at the time of Bach and his son Carl Philipp Emanuel. CPE actually worked for him) and our very own King George III (the king during the Revolutionary War). I never did find anything about Karl Adenauer.
We went to one more museum that day, and it was called the Pergamum Museum, situated right next to the Neue Museum. In it is the Ishtar Gate and the ceremonial passageway from Babylon, both of which date to the time of Daniel. Daniel very possibly would have walked this gate every day on his way to work, and by looking at it, it’s not hard to discover where he got the ideas for the beasts. Both are absolutely breathtaking. The gate very easily stands 35-40 feet tall.
I went upstairs in the Pergamum Museum and was treated to Islamic art. Their culture, along with Jewish culture, forbids the use of animals or people in their art. They believe that doing so would be breaking the commandment against graven images. Instead the Muslims have developed art full of intricate patterns and geometry. Everything is extremely intricate and beautiful.
There was one rug hanging on the wall that I spent a fair amount of time trying to comprehend. There are five panels that have the same bell-like pattern. In the sixth panel, however, there is only one vertical half. Most of the rugs on the walls had holes, but this one seemed to have the border all the way around, so I couldn’t figure out why the pattern didn’t continue. They must have run out of red yarn.
After we finished in the Pergamum museum we were given some free time to eat, go back to the hotel, and gather our belongings. We were taking a night train between Berlin and Paris. We were supposed to have a stranger in our compartment since Lisa went home on Sunday, but Dr. Wohlers very kindly bought us another ticket that we could give to him so that we could have the compartment to ourselves. The man was very nice, and was happy to move.
I was in the compartment with Kathy, both Laughlins, and Joel. Joel and I got to have the bottom berths, then Kathy and Dr. Laughlin slept in the middle. Kaiti slept on the top, with her suitcase sleeping in the other top berth. We had good strong air conditioning, so I had a fighting chance to sleep well.
Love to all!
Date: Thursday, July 10, 2014 (for Sunday, July 6, 2014)
Time: 8:39 am local time (2:39 am EST)
Place: Train from Paris to Leiden (just a few minutes out of Paris)
Good morning all!
Sunday morning we had to be out and about by about 8:30 or so, and we went to the Berlin Hauptbahnhoff where we met a tour guide named Kevin. He took us on another train to the town of Orianburg (sp?) where we took a 15 or 20 minute walk to the concentration camp of Sachsenhausen.
Sachsenhausen was the first concentration camp, and the model for all those that came after it. It was the one that was spruced up and shown to dignitaries and the Red Cross in order to get the approval of the international community.
We walked through the gate of the camp, and, like Dachau, the words Arbeit Macht Frei greeted us. Works Brings Freedom. This was twofold. The first part was to give a sense of false hope to the prisoners. The second was to justify themselves to themselves. They had come from a tradition of hard workers, and they wanted to keep themselves tied to this good, honest time in their history.
Kevin showed us a lot of the sights of the camp. There was a barrack still set up like it would have been. We saw the “no man’s land” between the edge of the grass and the wall. If they walked into it, they would be shot.
We were taken through solitary confinement, which seemed nicer than in Dachau. The cells were a decent size, with plenty of room for a bed, and a washbowl. Nothing fancy, but I have imagined much worse. A friend of Dietrich Bohoeffer was held for years in solitary.
Another man held in solitary confinement was Martin Nemuellor, who was originally a part of the Nazi party. When he saw what was wrong and objected he was arrested. After the war he was very big in the reconciliation movement. He said, “At first they came for the socialists, and I did not speak up because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak up because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews and I did not speak up because I was not a Jew. And then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak up.”
He took us to Station Z, which was a fake hospital/extermination area of Sachsenhausen. Early in the war, when prisoners were to be exterminated they were taken into a pit and shot. As the war continued, however, that got to be too much on the guards. They needed to look at the faces of their victims. So they set up Station Z as a hospital. Prisoners were taken into the hospital for a checkup, and when they were measured for height, they were shot in the back of the head by a guard who never saw their faces. It was much more humane for the guards, and even for the prisoners in a way. Instead of being herded into a pit and being terrified, you are taken to the hospital for a routine checkup. There isn’t the same sort of fear in a doctor’s appointment. I need to be clear that they weren’t doing it that way to be humane to the victims, but to save the emotional damage done to the guards.
Outside Station Z is a quote by Andrzej Szczyplorski (and I’m not even going to attempt a pronunciation for his name) which very eloquently sums up how I think the Germans feel about the importance of having these Gedänkenstätte (memorials, but I always see something closer to “Holy Ground” in the word). “And I know one thing more—that the Europe of the future cannot exist without commemorating all those, regardless of their nationality, who were killed at that time with complete contempt and hate, who were tortured to death, starved, gassed, incinerated and hanged…” We must remember what happened, for if we don’t, it will happen again.
Sachsenhausen was a very good experience, but I think that I preferred the camp and museum at Dachau. Our Sachsenhausen guide was an Englishman named Kevin who, in my opinion, didn’t stay neutral enough in his teaching. He got very accusatory at times, and had a definite bias. I appreciated that our guide in Dachau was more neutral. He was a German graduate student, but he was not apologetic. He didn’t have to be. He didn’t hunt down any Jews. I appreciated the demeanor of the German more than the Brit.
After we finished at Sachsenhausen we walked, very quickly, over a mile to the train station to get back to the Hauptbahnhoff. We were told to meet at the train station at about 6 o’clock to go up to the top of the Reichstag (which is their equivalent of the Capitol building).
I went back to the hotel and took a nap for about an hour or so. Then I headed back to the train station with both Laughlins and Kathy. I decided to leave my backpack (with passport) in the room because I didn’t want to carry it around anymore. That proved to be slightly difficult, because we needed ID to get into the Reichstag. Luckily for me, Dr. Wohlers is amazing and thinks of everything. He had student ID cards printed for us all, which he keeps in his bag. He handed me mine, and it worked wonders. This man needs to be sainted.
We went to the top of the Reichstag and had a wonderful view of Berlin. We got to see all sorts of wonderful buildings, including the Sony Center (where Dad and I went to see the new Star Trek movie last year), the Philharmonie (where the Musical Instrument Museum is), and the Brandenburg Gate (which was right up against the Wall).
We went back down and walked around a little bit. We walked to the Brandenburg Gate and the beginning of Unter den Linden Strasse (Under the Linden Tree Street, one of the most famous streets in Berlin. We were surrounded by embassies, and I got to see the (rebuilt) Adlon Hotel, which is where Murphy lives in Vienna Prelude. It was bombed to smithereens in WWII, but was rebuilt after the fall of the wall.
From Unter den Linden we went home and went to bed.
Love to all!
Date: Tuesday, July 8, 2014 (for Sabbath, July 5, 2014)
Time: 11:08 pm local time (5:08 pm EST)
Sabbath dawned far too early, and I went down to have my warm Swiss cheese sandwich for breakfast. Yummy… I’m very much ready for some scrambled eggs or apple and raisin muffins. We had to leave the hotel by about 8:30 to catch our train to Lutherstadt Wittenberg.
When we got to the town, we walked for about a mile until we found the old town. There we walked down the long street until we came to the town square, which contains a statue of Luther and one of Melantholen (I don’t remember how to spell his name).
We continued down the street until we came to the Schlosskirche (Castle Church) where Martin Luther had nailed his 95 Theses to the door. Last year when Dad and I had gone to the church it was closed and there was a gate up so we couldn’t get up to the door. This year, in addition to that closing and the gate, almost all of the church was covered in what was effectively bubble wrap. They are renovating the church for the 500th anniversary of the day the Theses were nailed to the door. That’s coming in 2017, so I’ll have to be sure to get there then.
We went around the corner, past the church, and found an unused staircase. We all sat down, and Joel and I were in charge of the church service. I taught the group to sing A Mighty Fortress in German, and then we sang a version of it in English. They didn’t seem to care, but I got to do it, and the Laughlins, Kathy, and the Wohlers enjoyed doing it. The Wohlers thanked me for it later.
Joel gave the short “sermon” which basically consisted of telling about his car accident, and then saying how we could very easily see that God, the Mighty Fortress, was in charge. The day before, after visiting Checkpoint Charlie, one of our group fainted due to dehydration, but we could see that God was in control. In everything that has gone wrong, we can see that God is protecting us and keeping us safe.
On our way out of town we stopped and went into the courtyard of Luther’s house. There Dr. Wohlers told us a little bit about Katharine von Bora, his wife. He quipped that she probably wasn’t the best preacher’s wife, since she couldn’t even play the piano. I quipped right back that the piano wouldn’t be invented for 200 years.
We all got on the train again, this time heading for Leipzig, the home of Bach for some 27 years. Last year I had been there, and so when we were released to go find food, I led my group to the Italian restaurant that Dad and I had enjoyed the year before. I got a pizza this time around, and it was quite delicious.
From there we walked to the St. Thomas Church (which was maybe a 3 minute walk). Bach had been the official town music director, which put him in charge of all music in the 4 churches in town. St. Thomas was the “first church,” which means that his new music premiered in the St. Thomas church. We got to experience a concert of absolutely amazing music, most of which would have premiered in that church.
The concert started with an organ transcription of Bach’s famous chaconne for violin. It continued with a motet by Heinrich Schutz, Bach’s motet Jesu meine Freude (Jesus, Priceless Treasure), and his cantata no. 167. I was about the only person to love the concert, but I did love it with all my heart.
After the concert we waited around for a while, then took a subway train back to the train station. From the station we made it back to the Berlin Hauptbahnhoff, which brought us back to our hotel.
Later in the evening Joel and I went down to the market, and I bought a bag of gummy bears that weighted a kilogram (2.2 lbs). After we got back, a few of the girls came and knocked on the door to see if our roommates wanted to go to the Laundromat with them. They declined, but Joel and I jumped at the chance for clean clothes.
It was a fifteen minute walk to the Laundromat, but it was much nicer than the one in Florence. It was actually inside a building instead of what looked like a garage. And there was ample seating (and enough washers and dryers). After a few goof ups, we got clean laundry, and went back to the room. I soon fell asleep, which is also where I’m heading now.
Love to all!
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.