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: 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!
The orchestra starts. Strings and a few winds and brass. It sounds like a great multitude is walking--almost marching. Then the choir comes in:
The men and altos sing above Philipp Nicolai's chorale tune: Wachet auf! Wachet auf! Wake up! Wake up!
It's the story of the ten wise virgins from Matthew 25. They all had their lamps, but fell asleep when the Bridgroom failed to come when expected. When the Bridegroom finally did appear, only 5 of the virgins had enough oil.
I write this on October 22nd, a day that will mean a lot to my Seventh-day Adventist friends and readers, but not a lot to anyone else. The short version of the story says that William Miller, a Deist turned Baptist preacher studied the Bible extensively and came to the conclusion that Jesus would return to this earth to cleanse the sanctuary (see Daniel 8:14) somewhere around 1843, finally settling on Samuel Snow's date of October 22, 1844. That day, Yom Kippur, was the fulfillment of the 2300 day prophecy.
But Jesus didn't come. Later revelations showed that Jesus wasn't supposed to come that day, but instead moved on to the heavenly judgment, actively proving to the universe that God is just and that sinners who ask for his cleansing blood will receive it.
Bach to Bach...
We're in the middle movement now of the cantata no. 140. It's the very familiar "Sleepers Awake."
William Miller was the watchman. He said that Jesus was coming! With the best light he had, he even tried to set a date. But most importantly he shared the love of Jesus. That was his main point. He said "Jesus is coming," but also, more importantly, shared the love of Christ and the importance of having a saving relationship with him.
Adventists learned not to set dates. We learned that setting the date isn't important. It's just important to be ready, to have our lamps trimmed and burning.
After the Great Disappointment, William Miller didn't give up hope! He wrote in "The Midnight Cry" on December 5, 1855 the following note, "Although I have been twice disappointed, I am not yet cast down or discouraged... I have fixed my mind upon another time, and here I mean to stand until God gives me more light--and that is Today, TODAY, and TODAY until He comes, and I see Him for whom my soul yearns."
I think my favorite (or at least one of my favorite) old Advent songs is "We Know Not the Hour" (SDAH 604), especially the refrain. The women and men split several times, though only for a few notes each time. The women sing "He will come" with a dotted crunch of a full step and the men sing quarter notes in octaves "He will come." To me those quarter notes are as effective as any Baroque motor rhythm to keep the assurance of Christ's soon coming.
The Adventist pionners had faith in Jesus coming, even when their hearts had been broken by his failure to appear on October 22, 1844. But their faith never wavered. "He will come" was their eternal song.
Johann Sebastian Bach: Cantata no. 21, “Ich hatte veil Bekümmernis,” BWV 21
Choir/Orchestra: Concentus musicus Wien | Wiener Sängerknaben | Chorus Viennensis
Conductor: Nikolaus Harnoncourt
Soloists: Soprano: Anonymous Boy from Vienna Boys' Choir | Tenor: Kurt Equiluz | Bass: Walker Wyatt
CD Label/#: TELDEC 2564 69943-7
On Friday night (7.19.2013) I was scheduled to work Inspirational Classics on WSMC. The previous Friday we had gotten a box set of the complete sacred cantatas by Johann Sebastian Bach, and I wanted to be sure to use them in Sabbath programming. They're wonderful music, and have a great message to them! I've been on a journey listening to the complete cantatas by Johann Sebastian Bach, but am only on 21 (of approximately 200). I listen to them while studying the score, complete with translation.
This cantata was written to go with the readings from the third Sunday after Trinity 1713, but it wasn't performed until 17 June 1714. This cantata was for that week, but it was also written as a farewell to one of Bach's students, Prince Johann Ernst of Sachsen-Weimar. The Prince was sick, and going to a spa where he later died. It's based on a favorite Vivaldi concerto of the Prince, and the text is very comforting.
The cantata is in two parts, and the first of them is, frankly, very dreary! It starts off with the choir singing from Psalm 94:19. "I had much trouble in my heart..." They do finish the verse ("but your consolations revive my soul."), but the rest of that half almost accuses God:
"What? [H]ave You therefore, my God, in my trouble, in my fear and despair, turned completely away from me? Ah! [D]o you not know Your child? ... Once You were my delight and now have become grim towards me; I seek You in all places... yet my woe and ah! appears now, as though completely unknown to you.
In the tenor aria in the first part, Bach's librettist uses the metaphor of a boat on the ocean and compares it to how the character believes to have been abandoned by God.
That half of the cantata ends with a chorale movement with text taken from Psalm 42:12.
"Why do you trouble yourself, my soul, and are so restless in me? Wait for God; for I will yet thank Him, since He is the help of my countenance and my God."
The second part of the cantata opens with a dialogue (in both a Recitative and Aria) between Jesus and the soul of the singer:
Soul: Ah, Jesus, my peace, my light, where are you?
Jesus: O soul behold! I am with you.
Soul: With me? Here is only darkest night.
Jesus: I am Your faithful Friend, that also watches in the darkness, that might harbor dire mischief.
Soul: Dawn then with Your radiance and light of comfort.
Jesus: The hour approaches already, when your crown of battle will become a sweet refreshment.
Soul: Come, my Jesus, and revive,
Jesus: Yes, I come and revive
Soul: And delight with Your glance.
Jesus: You with my glance of grace.
Then they really get into a dialogue, and almost even an argument. These two lines parts are beings sung together, as a sort of call and response:
Soul: This soul, shall die and not live and in its pit of unhappiness completely perish? I must constantly over in anguish.
Jesus: Your soul, shall live, and not die here out of this cave of injury you shall inherit Salvation! Through this juice of the vine.
Soul: Yes, ah yes, I am lost! No, ah no, You hate me! Ah, Jesus, thoroughly sweeten my soul and heart!
Jesus: No, ah no, you are chosen! Yes, ah yes, I love you! Fade, you troubles, disappear, you pains!
There is a tenor aria (movement 10), and it shows the absolute joy experienced by a person after they experience salvation through Jesus Christ:
Rejoice, soul! Rejoice, heart!
Fade now, troubles! Disappear, pains!
Change, weeping, into pure wine,
my aching now becomes a celebration for me!
Burning and flaming is the purest candle of love and of comfort in my soul and breast,
since Jesus comforts me with heavenly delight.
The final chorus is exuberant! That's the best word I have for it. The choir and orchestra are joined by the trumpet singing words from Revelation 5: 12-13:
The Lamb, that was slain, is worthy to receive power, and riches, and wisdom and strength, and honor and glory and praise. Praise and honor and glory and power be to our God for ever and ever. Amen, Alleluia!
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.