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Union Books (Aurum Publishing Group)
£25.00 498 pp.
To borrow the author’s own description, this is a book about Johann Sebastian Bach and his interpreters, a study of the way the music of Bach has been reinvented in our time.
Glenn Gould re-recorded the Goldberg Variations in 1981. His 1955 recording had been a cultural touchstone, like Lolita or Annie Hall. The Goldberg Variations themselves became touchstones too, heard in the films The Silence of the Lambs and The English Patient, and in an episode of The Sopranos. On the first anniversary of the 9/11 attacks the music of Bach was at the World Trade Center site. Yo-Yo’s friend Steve Jobs introduced the iPad to the press by playing Bach on iTunes.
Bach’s reputation has changed, a change that coincided with the spread of recording technology. Author Paul Elie, who lives in New York City and is a senior fellow at Georgetown University, posits that the era from 1930 to the present - which he calls the age of recordings - defines our times. That era sets us apart from our ancestors as distinctly as democratic capitalism, indoor plumbing or air travel, he says. Elie also argues that, more than any other classical composer, Bach anticipated this state of things. And, for most of a century now, technology has been the means of classical music’s survival. This, then, is an account of the revival of a traditional art through the very technology that was supposed to be its undoing, the past as prologue, the reinvention of Bach in our lifetime.
The account begins by considering Albert Schweitzer’s 1935 recording of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, written when J S Bach was in his teens. Next comes a lengthy contemplation of Pablo Casals. What the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor had represented for Albert Schweitzer, the cello suites became for Casals. Then the author takes a detailed look at Leopold Stokowski, leading to his work on the Disney film Fantasia, and so on. Throughout Elie's book much engaging writing is offered, exemplified by his account of Tanglewood and hearing Yo-Yo Ma in the rain:
“Ma struck the first notes of the sixth suite, the rain caved in on us. Back and forth across the neck of the instrument went the bow… The rain poured down, puddling in the lawn and soaking us. We moved into a patch of sodden grass… we danced, spinning and whirling along with the music as it raced out headlong, outdoing itself. Culturally, it was a rich moment - a work of a German musician played by a Chinese-Franco-American cellist in a New England concert hall named for a Japanese conductor [Seiji Ozawa Hall] and modelled after a Shaker barn. But for us it was not a cultural moment; it was a physical one. This cello piece was a dance, and we were dancing - dancing to Bach.”
A most enjoyable book; Paul Elie is to be congratulated.
John Robert Brown
Review first published in Classical Music, spring 2013. Used by kind permission. Reproduction forbidden.