Reviewed by Ben Rogers
Most evangelicals, even extremely non-musical evangelicals, are familiar with the music of J. S. Bach. It’s almost impossible not to be. After Mendelssohn’s “Wedding March,” no piece of wedding music is more popular than “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.” Many of our hymns, including such Good Friday classics as “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded,” are set to his tunes. And – for good or ill – Bach’s music is used to sell all sorts of things from life insurance to luxury cars. However, many of us are exceedingly unfamiliar with the man behind the music. For those interested in learning more about Bach the man through his music, I warmly recommend Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s new biography entitled, Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven.
I must warn you, it is not always an easy read. It is incredibly detailed – a strength of the book to be sure, but at times it can be overwhelming. It is filled with un-translated German titles and Latinisms, as well as technical musical terminology (ever heard of an appoggiatura, ritornello, or a vokaleinbua?) Thankfully, there is a glossary. Some of the comparisons with Bach’s contemporaries, though almost always adequately explained, may prove to be less than illuminating to those of us who are unfamiliar with their music. It is not even a biography in the traditional sense. The purpose of this book is to rencountrer l’homme en sa création – meet the man in his creation – and thus the focus is on his music that is linked to words (cantatas, motets, Passions, and Masses) and what they reveal about the man who composed them. Therefore, if you are looking for a short and simple introduction to Bach, look elsewhere. However, if you are a Bach fan, musician, or a novice willing to put in some intellectual and auditory elbow grease, you will find this work incredibly satisfying.
Summary and Evaluation
The author describes the chapters of the book as “fourteen different approaches, fourteen spokes of a wheel, all connected to a central hub – Bach as man and musician (xxxii).” Gardiner maintains this focus throughout, but the chapters vary considerably in terms of size, style, and substance. The shortest (ch.1) is less the twenty pages; the longest (ch.9) is almost sixty. The arrangement isn’t strictly chronological order either. Chapter 8 describes Bach’s extra-ecclesial work as the leader of the university collegium musicum, which he assumed in 1729, while chapters 9-11 provide detailed analysis of specific church works composed in 1723-1725. As long as the reader keeps the author’s purpose and method in mind, this isn’t too distracting.
Perhaps it is best to divide the chapters into three groups. The first, “Under the Cantor’s Gaze,” is a category unto itself. The subject of this relatively short chapter is Gardiner, not Bach. He recounts his lifelong interest in Bach, the celebrated Haussmann portrait that his family protected during WWII, the founding of the Monteverdi Orchestra (later renamed the English Baroque Soloists), and the birth of the Bach Cantata Pilgrimage. Though this autobiographical chapter may initially seem out of place in a Bach biography, it helps explain the genesis of this book and why he is well-suited to write it.
The second grouping of chapters consists of those which are more or less biographical and historical in nature. These include chapters 2-8 and chapter 14. “Germany on the Brink of Enlightenment,” (ch.2) focuses on the political, geographical, religious, musical, and intellectual context of Germany in the years following the devastation of the Thirty Years War. “The Bach Gene,” (ch.3) explains the Bach family musical dynasty, early musical influences, personal family tragedies, and his fateful choice of a career as an organist and church musician as opposed to joining the Hamburg opera company. “The Class of ’85,” (ch.4) compares the musical careers of six musicians of immense distinction –Scarlatti, Handel, Mattheson, Telemann, Rameau, and Bach – who were born around the year 1685. “The Mechanics of Faith,” (ch.5) analyzes the structured and systematic way Bach applied his religion to his working practices and his indebtedness to the thought, writings, and hymns of Martin Luther. “The Incorrigible Cantor,” (ch.6) exposes some of the character flaws that caused Bach to run afoul of the civil and ecclesiastical authorities on more than one occasion. When Bach’s Endzweck (artistic goal) – well-regulated church music to the Glory of God – was frustrated by his employers, the genius could become quite the curmudgeon. “Bach at His Workbench,” (ch.7) provides a fascinating glimpse into Bach’s compositional process by exploring the manuscript evidence and his working relationship with librettists, copyists, and musicians. “Cantatas or Coffee?” (ch.8) focuses on Bach’s extra-ecclesial work as the leader of the university collegium musicum and his “secular” cantatas in Leipzig. And in the final chapter, “Old Bach,” (ch.14) gives an account of his final years and concludes the works (there is no separate conclusion) by revisiting the Class of ’85 and place among his peers.
These chapters provide the main details of his life and place him in his historical, intellectual, and musical context. Gardiner is extremely well versed in a number of different disciplines whose lines converge on Bach. In addition to his vast knowledge of music history, which we might expect from a conductor of his caliber, I was particularly impressed by his knowledge of German history and Lutheran theology, as well as the vast body of Bach scholarship. Those interested in a more traditional biographical presentation may be left wanting a more, but it must be remembered that this is not a traditional biography. Even so, these chapters taken together as a whole left me with significant gaps in Bach’s timeline, and on more than one occasion I had to look elsewhere to fill in the gaps. Thankfully, these deficiencies were more than made up for by the third group of chapters.
In these chapters (chs.9-13) Gardiner provides a superb historical, structural, musical, theological, and liturgical walkthrough of some of Bach’s most important church. The subject of “Cycles and Seasons” (ch.9) is the first (1723-24) and second (1724-25) Leipzig cantata cycles. The “First Passion” (ch.10) and “His Great Passion” (ch. 11) are dedicated to The Passion of St. John and The Passion of St. Matthew respectively. “Collision and Collusion” (ch.12) discusses the relationship between words and music in Bach’s cantatas and motets more generally. And “The Habit of Perfection” (ch.13), which is my favorite chapter of the entire book, is devoted to Bach’s crowning achievement – Mass in B Minor.
Simply put, this book is worth owning simply for these chapters. With Gardiner at your side, Bach’s Passions and Mass will take on new life. Think of them as commentaries and approach them as such. Read and then listen; listen and then read. Savor instead of speed-read. They are gems. Follow the same approach with the cantatas as well. I found that most of the cantatas Gardiner dissects can be found in multiple online formats. Better yet, purchase the author’s own recordings that were made during the Bach Cantata Pilgrimage, which include his own notes and translations.
In addition to enriching your listening experience, these chapters will give you a new appreciation for Bach the theologian. Though examples of his remarkable theological sophistication abound throughout his church music, two of the more noteworthy are the different, but complimentary, presentations on the atonement in his two surviving Passions. In the Passion of St. John Bach presents the crucified Messiah as the great victor over sin, death, and hell – a view known as “christus victor.” However, in the Passion of St. Matthew the emphasis falls on Christ’s vicarious and substitutionary death as the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” – a view knows as the “satisfaction theory.” This is just one instance – and there are many – where Bach’s impressive knowledge of Christian doctrine and the particular nuances of the different gospels become evident, and Gardiner is to be commended for bringing it to light.
Finally, these chapters demonstrate why Bach is the consummate church musician. Luther argued that the task of church music, and thus the task of the church musician, was to “make the Word live,” and throughout these chapters Gardiner shows how Bach braided music and theology to do just that. Nowhere does he do it better than in his analysis of the Mass in B Minor. This chapter is simply outstanding. My copy is marred beyond recognition with highlighting, underlining, and marginal notes. Rather than listing examples let me simply encourage you to read Gardiner and listen to Bach – you won’t be disappointed.
Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven is a challenging, but ultimately delightful, biography of J. S. Bach written by his greatest living interpreter. For those wanting to get to know Bach through his music there is nothing comparable. It will take most readers some time to get through this 558 page work. It will take even longer if you listen as you read. Those who do, however, whether they be musicians, Bach fans, or novices willing to put in some extra work will be richly rewarded.
Buy the books
Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven