Tuesday, 1 March 2016

Music in the Castle of Heaven

That’s the title of John Eliot Gardiner’s magnificent 600-odd page book about J.S. Bach. The title might seem off-puttingly gushing, but in fact refers to the ‘Weg zum Himmelsberg’, a painted cupola in a church where Bach worked. Besides it is clear that Gardiner really does consider Bach’s music ‘heavenly’, and that he is right.

Just as Alfred Brendel understands Schubert better than Franz himself did, so Gardiner understands Bach better than J.S. himself did. This book will tell you — I nearly said ‘all you need to know’ about Bach, but there is no end to what can be said about Bach, and it would be philistine to divide the knowledge into ‘needed’ and ‘not needed’. Certainly there must be very few people — and I don’t claim to be one of them — who could engage with all Gardiner has to say here. If you just want one book about Bach then this is the one, and it is a joy to have found it, also a relief: at least one other recent fat tome about Bach, Paul Elie’s ‘Reinventing Bach’, turns out to be a farrago of silliness and ignorance; I suppose it only got published because its publishers were even more silly and ignorant than its author.


It was serendipitously said by a schoolboy once that Bach was a ‘habitual father’, and the popular image of him is as the paterfamilias, surrounded by children who themselves became composers, and working respectably as Kappelmeister in various churches of which he was a pious and obedient member. Actually it wasn’t quite like that: his deeply spiritual interpretation of Lutheranism was in fact no longer fashionable, and he had many arguments with the church or city authorities who when not telling him how to compose made life difficult for him by paying him peanuts and fobbing him off with incompetent musicians.

On one occasion he called a certain bassoon player — the bassoon was only just rising from its clumpy honking peasant origins to being a sophisticated modern instrument; something wittily parodied later by Beethoven in his ‘Pastoral’ symphony — where was I? Oh yes; he called the bassoon player a ‘prick’.The bassoonist responded by lying in wait for him with a bunch of cronies in the town square one night, and hitting Bach with a cudgel. Bach drew his dress-sword in self-defence. Disgracefully, the authorities took the bassoonist’s side. This is just one, and a comparatively trivial one, of the vicissitudes that beset Bach, whose likewas often far more rackety than is generally imagined. But all his life, Bach just carried on writing music, signing each piece ‘S.D.G.: Soli Deo Gloria’.

There never was and never will be a greater composer.



P.S. Bach got his own back on the prick of a bassoonist by including in his next church cantata a long, difficult, exposed solo for bassoon.

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