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Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven

John Eliot Gardiner
Published by Alfred A. Knopf in 2013

Reviewed by Nathan Jones, Doctoral Candidate in Theology and Music, Duke University Divinity School

When you see the names “Bach” and “John Eliot Gardiner” together on the cover of a superb work of art, it hardly comes as a surprise. After all, Gardiner is one of the world’s leading conductors, whose recordings of Bach’s vocal music rank as some of the finest in existence. It is surprising, then, when you see those names sharing the cover of a 600-page book.

At first glance, it looks as though Gardiner has decided to write his own Bach biography; and in a certain sense, he has. But early on, he alerts the reader to a deeper, more ambitious purpose: “rencontrer l’homme en sa creation,” to meet the man in his creation (xxx). He wants “to give the reader a real sense of what the act of music-making would have been like for Bach, inhabiting the same experiences, the same sensations” (xxx). In so doing, Gardiner argues, an image of “Bach the human being” will emerge – an image that transcends the limits of a traditional biography.

To support this massive claim, Gardiner uses a wide variety of tools: biographical data and Bachian anecdotes, musicological and textual analyses, and reports from performance experience. He refuses to pit these tools against one another, however, as if he were writing musicology against biography, or performance against musicology, or any number of other competitive arrangements. Instead, he sees these tools working together, casting light on Bach from different angles. For example, when Gardiner argues for the presence of a subversive streak in Bach, he does so from each angle: biographical documents that testify to a headstrong, sometimes belligerent, attitude toward his superiors, analyses of how text and music “collude and collide” in non-traditional ways, and experiential accounts of how Bach continually subverts expectations in the performance of his music (434).

Such a broad approach runs the familiar risk of any interdisciplinary work: breadth without depth. Yet Gardiner manages to avoid this danger by drawing on his diverse engagements with Bach over many decades. He has clearly read and internalized the major works of Bach biography and scholarship, evidenced by his fruitful dialogue with important figures like Johann Nikolaus Forkel, John Butt, and Christoph Wolff. Moreover, his technical analyses of Bach’s vocal works display a level of awareness and nuance that can only be cultivated over a lifetime of careful study. Where his account gains its most credible authority, however, is in his performance experience. Not only has Gardiner spent decades conducting Bach’s music at the very highest levels, he took two performing ensembles he created (the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists) on a “Bach Cantata Pilgrimage” to perform all of Bach’s surviving church cantatas in a single year (2000, the 250th anniversary of Bach’s death). When Gardiner wonders aloud, for example, what it would be like for Bach to pull off his manic pace of cantata performance, his speculations are far from haphazard. Instead, they are grounded in intensive research, rigorous analysis and concrete attempts to inhabit Bach’s performance world.

So from all these angles, with all this depth, what image of Bach does Gardiner meet in his music? One very much like the most authentic physical image we possess, the famous portrait by Elias Gottlob Haussmann that hung in Gardiner’s home as a child (the real thing, not a reproduction). If you cover over the lower half of Bach’s face and concentrate on his eyes, Gardiner argues, you find the stern, calculating gaze of Bach at his workbench. If you cover over his eyes, however, you find the sneaky smile and fleshy jowls of Bach after work, unwinding with food, beer and music en famille. When Gardiner meets Bach in his music, he hears both sides of this personality. He hears both the fierce concentration required of contrapuntal technique and the free, joyous embrace of life’s pleasures. He hears the same man composing those wrenching, chromatic dissonances in the B Minor Mass’s Crucifixus and then the glorious, jubilant melismas of the Et Resurrexit that follows. Gardiner’s Bach looks something like Jaroslav Pelikan’s in Bach Among the Theologians: a Christian genius whose expansive imagination resists any tidy conceptualization.

Indeed, throughout his account Gardiner goes to great lengths to discredit various tidy images of Bach. The one that irks him the most, it seems, is the “Fifth Evangelist” of orthodox Lutheran lore. As the Fifth Evangelist, Bach shows up to work early with his shirt tucked in, performing dutifully and acquiescently in service to his church and his God. This bothers Gardiner on a biographical level; we simply have too much evidence of Bach resisting authority, breaking with convention, and even sneaking off to the pub during boring bits of church. But it bothers Gardiner even more on a musical level. The aspects that we tend to prize in Bach’s music – the harmonic adventure, the intensity of emotional communication, the sense of delightful surprise – cannot be explained as the work of someone trapped in a religious past, coloring his music within the lines.

One can go overboard in this direction quite easily. In his famous defense of Bach against his devotees, Theodor Adorno portrays Bach as a musical inventor who casts off antiquated theological notions of order so as to release a truly modern music. There we find a celebration of Bach’s human genius, set off against stale explanations of divine inspiration.

Above all else, Gardiner’s account deserves high praise for its ability to transcend these reductive, binary categories. You will not find a straight-laced Christian apologist staring helplessly back at a golden age of faith; nor will you find a modern rebel needing to discard that faith. Instead, you will find an imaginative witness to that faith, shaped by resources from the past but eager to give them new, fresh expression. You will find, in the St. Matthew Passion, one of the most innovative dramatic moves made inside a traditional gospel story. At the last supper, when the disciples ask “Lord, is it I?” Bach interjects a Lutheran chorale – the kind his congregation would sing each Sunday – with the words “It is I, I who am guilty.” All of us – Judas, the disciples, worshippers in 1730s Leipzig, Bach himself, you and me – are implicated in the crucifixion. Gardiner’s Bach may not be a saint, but he most certainly is an evangelical – an evangelical intent on using whatever artistic means available to spread the good news of Christ’s incarnation. Gardiner’s concluding line puts Bach’s aim well: “to make divine things human and human things divine” (558).

In an unusual way, then, this is a remarkable piece of Christian scholarship. Gardiner never discloses his personal beliefs, and he might even shake his head at such a designation. But because he takes the fruits of scholarship and peels them open to engage with a wider horizon of Christian belief and practice, it certainly deserves the name. It is not intended as an introduction to Bach, and at times any reader will have to slog through its 600 dense pages. It is intended, however, to deepen and enrich an existing relationship with the great Saxon-Cantor. Gardiner dedicates the book to “fellow travellers through Bach’s landscape” – to those, I might add, who have ever heard, played or sung Bach and wondered with awe, “what sort of human being could create this? And who is his God?”

Cite this article
Nathan Jones, “Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 44:1 , 85-87

Nathan Jones

Duke University Divinity School
Nathan Jones is a doctoral candidate in Theology and Music at Duke University Divinity School.