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Music in the Castle of Heaven
A Portrait of Johann Sebastian Bach
John Eliot Gardiner
Allen Lane (an imprint of Penguin Books)
John Eliot Gardiner grew up under Bach's gaze. The celebrated Haussman portrait of Bach (there are two, in fact, from 1746 and 1748) had been given to Gardiner's parents for safe-keeping during World War Two, taking pride of place on the first floor landing of the old mill in Dorset where Gardiner was born.
In many ways Bach is still invisible to us, says Gardiner, partly because Bach turned down the opportunity to submit a written account of his life and career when the opportunity arose. "Do we really need to know about the man in order to appreciate and understand his music?" he asks. Gardiner contends, however, that the purpose of this portrait is very different from that of a traditional biography. He quotes Albert Einstein: "This is what I have to say about Bach's life and work: listen, play, love, revere - and keep your trap shut," and asks: "Why should it be assumed that great music emanates from a great human being?" We must be thankful that Gardiner has ignored Einstein's advice.
After Cambridge, where he had read Classical Arabic and medieval Spanish, Gardiner studied with Nadia Boulanger in Paris. Boulanger, by then eighty and partially blind, put Gardiner on a course of Hindemith's Elementary Training for Musicians, which waspublished in 1946 and, timeless, remained in use well into the 1960s.
In his third year at university Gardiner was allowed a year off to perform Monteverdi's Vespers, never previously performed in Cambridge. His Monteverdi Choir started life "as an anti-choir, in reaction against the well-mannered euphony and blend," which characterised the celebrated chapel choir at King's. Later, Gardiner heard a performance of the John Passion under Benjamin Britten, which he describes as "fatally English." Nevertheless, Gardiner exudes enthusiasm and sparkle, with a vital sense of relevance, being ever-aware of the work of his eminent contemporaries: Christopher Hogwood, David Munrow, Trevor Pinnock and, on the continent, Nikolas Harnoncourt. he quest is to rediscover that élan vital [vital impetus] in the music that appeals to us now, he says, suggesting that surprisingly often centuries-old music turns out to feel more modern than whole swathes of music from the last hundred years.
Many tiny revelations make this 650-page account vivid and alive. Gardiner draws attention to Bach's penmanship, describing it as a "calligraphic miracle." The rules of the day for the collegium musico in Gréiez (similar to Bach's Leipzig) deplored "The habit of musicians doodling [fantasieren] on their instruments between pieces." We even learn that Martin Luther spent ten months in Eisenach (Bach's birthplace) "troubled and desperately constipated!"
Truly, a magnificent biography.
John Robert Brown