I’m trying to figure out how/what to write about John Eliot Gardiner’s Bach: Music In The Castle Of Heaven, a book that I’m reading in short bursts because it’s so rich –like a small mountain of single-malt-filled chocolate truffles.
In more than 600 pages of smallish print there are hundreds of asterisked footnotes, 10 pages of chronology, 20 pages of notes and references, almost 30 pages of index, an 8-page glossary of musical terms, wodges of illustrations… The book is almost entirely concerned with Bach’s choral works, which are discussed in a level of detail that only a Conductor (and perhaps only John Eliot Gardiner…) could possibly attempt. I have only a tenuous grasp of music theory, no background in choral music, and no vocal training, but I continue to be riveted by Gardiner’s writing, and by the insights into Bach’s life and work on just about every page. Among materials that bear upon the book are:
a nice review from The Guardian.
In my podcast archives I have Gardiner talking about his Cantata Project:
And here’s a conversation between Gardiner and Philip Pullman, covering a lot of Bach territory:
YouTube has a 90-minute BBC special on Gardiner’s take on Bach’s life that’s supremely worth watching, and you can get a quick flavor of the tenor of this program in a bit more than a minute of Gardiner’s explication of a familiar portrait of Bach:
The whole 90 minutes:
The book is full of things I feel I should already have known, from basic facts (e.g., Martin Luther did his translation of the Bible into German in Eisenach, the town in which J.S. Bach was born a couple of hundred years later) to broad historical background (the wars of the Reformation fell especially heavily on Thuringia and Saxony) and ecclesiastical detail (Luther considered congregational singing to be an especially important part of worship).
On pretty much every page there’s the wherewithal for a dramatic enlargement of what the reader knows about music history and/or music theory. An example that sends me scurrying to Spotify to hear a piece that I’m not familiar with is this passage on Monteverdi:
[Monteverdi] recognized that the hitherto unexploited potential of what Florentines called the ‘new music’ was to allow the singer’s voice to fly free above an instrumental bass line, giving it just the right degree of harmonic support and ballast. Melodic shapes and rhythmic patterns no longer needed to be tethered by the guy-ropes of rigid polyphonic structure. Before L’Orfeo no one had grasped this potential freedom to manoeuvre or used it to plot expressive rises and falls for singers that encouraged spontaneous spurts of movement; to rush, drag or clash against the metrical beat and regular strummings of the plucked continuo instruments. It was with L’Orfeo that Monteverdi made the decisive creative leap — from a pastoral play, intended to be sung and not spoken throughout, to a musical-drama with emotions generated and intensified by music. (pg 104)
Some unconscious inkling of the way the senses vary and clash in their receptivity to visual, aural and tactile stimuli may have been at the root of the anxiety that churchmen on both sides of the denominational divide in 1600 felt about religion borrowing the clothes of secular theatre. They bridled at the infiltration of ‘operatic’ techniques within their walls and liturgy. Contemporary musicians found ways, as musicians invariably do, to skirt around these rigid functional categories and, magpie-fashion, to pick and steal just what attracted them, maintaining only the thinnest formal veneer for the sake of propriety, while choosing the frame, design and modes of expression… (pg 105)
I expect to be tempted to quote passages whenever I return to Gardiner’s Bach.