MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Another Look at Bach

Possibly the young J.S. Bach c. 1715; or possibly not; painting by J. E. Rentsch, the Elder

Possibly the young J.S. Bach c. 1715 — or possibly not; painting by J. E. Rentsch, the Elder

J.S. Bach has been much on my mind of late. I need to make time to plunge into John Eliot Gardiner’s new book on the composer, especially after George B. Stauffer’s review in the recent New York Review of Books has whet my appetite.

In Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven, Gardiner distills a lifetime of devotion and study to the music of the Thomaskantor (one of the epithets by which Germans refer to Bach). According to Stauffer, this weighty tome basically revolves around the great question of “just how Bach managed to express the inexpressible, especially with regard to death, and what life experiences stood behind his compositional decisions.”

Gardiner recently started serving as president of the Leipzig Bach Archive and has managed to create a controversial portrait by drawing on recent findings of the archive — a portrait dramatically at odds with the longstanding image of an obedient musical citizen:

Moving beyond the hagiographies of the past, he presents a fallible Bach, a musical genius who on the one hand is deeply committed to illuminating and expanding Luther’s teachings through his sacred vocal works… but on the other hand is a rebellious and resentful musician, harboring a lifelong grudge against authority — a personality disorder stemming from a youth spent among ruffians and abusive teachers. Hiding behind Bach, creator of the Matthew Passion and B-Minor Mass, Gardiner suggests, is Bach “the reformed teenage thug.”

What sounds especially fascinating is that, according to Stauffer, Gardiner roots his speculations in the music (though he apparently omits discussion of the instrumental and keyboard pieces), since he views the music as “the anchor to which we can return again and again, and the principal means of validating or refuting any conclusion about its author.”

The result is that Gardiner “forces us to rethink Bach’s life and how adversity and faith affected his vocal compositions. And [he] takes us inside his world, allowing us to see the works from the standpoint of composer, performer, and listener.”

Over at The Guardian, Peter Conrad points out that Gardiner takes Bach’s intense faith for granted in his exploration of the sacred music, yet “he still makes the effort to account for the emotional force and consolatory balm of Bach’s music in ways that are humanly engaging.”

He treats the cantatas as psychodramas, and thinks of the Passions as three-dimensional versions of opera which, rather than exhibiting the vocal and histrionic antics of sacred monsters in a fictional world onstage, address us directly when the soloists perform their hortatory arias and require us, in chorales that were sung by the entire congregation, to participate in Christ’s tragedy and in the divine comedy that is its sequel. Gardiner’s analogy for the way the Passions work comes from a literary form that could not be less spiritually exalted: he draws on theorists of the novel such as Bakhtin to explain the “dialogic threads” and complementary “subjectivities” that Bach draws together, and despite his own orthodoxy he makes frequent allusions to Philip Pullman, for whom art is our demonic repudiation of an oppressive God.

While the title Bach in the Castle of Heaven suggests something emphatically pious, Conrad adds, “Gardiner’s is a festive book, enlivened by the ‘joy and zest’ of Bach’s ‘dance-impregnated music.’ Those dances are sacral but also rowdily profane… Quoting the sociologist Émile Durkheim, he defines religion as a ‘collective effervescence,’ a shared ecstasy – more readily available, perhaps, in the mud at Glastonbury or clubbing under the arches in Vauxhall than at a church service in 18th-century Leipzig.”

Just like Shakespeare, Bach will always be the mirror of our own age as well.

Filed under: Bach, book recs

One Response - Comments are closed.

  1. James Hatch says:

    Thank you for posting this. It is always good to find a new biography of Bach. As you point out, we know relatively little about Bach’s own personal life or self-perceptions. We are lucky that he is like Shakespeare in that regard. This allows us to forget about biography or to project our own personal preoccupations onto what we do know about the artist. But the works of artists such as these always do transcend our limited experience. Any biography says as much about the writer as about the subject and as much about the writer’s time as about the subject’s. Perhaps T. S. Eliot’s idea of the “impersonal” artist is correct, after all. We gain little in listening to Bach by knowing something about his personality. Knowing about musical styles (stile antico, galant style, etc.), harmony, and counterpoint is more to the point, just as knowing something about prosody, rhetoric, and diction helps in understanding Shakespeare’s poetry. But the fact of a new biography by a prominent musician is important. Bach’s music, like poetry (as Pound said), is “news that stays news.”


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