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.