- - Thursday, June 5, 2014

By John Eliot Gardiner
Alfred A. Knopf/Allen Lane, $35, 628 pages

Johann Sebastian Bach is regarded as one of the world’s finest composers. Surprisingly, this wasn’t the case in his lifetime. Born into a talented musical family, Bach wrote more than 1,000 compositions — and only lived to see eight of them published. His teaching and playing skills were widely perceived to be his strengths, rather than his writing ability.

Nevertheless, “by the end of the eighteenth century,” musical historian Christoph Wolff wrote, “Bach frequently served as the model of original genius in German aesthetics, much as Shakespeare did in England.” Called the “original father of harmony” by Ludwig van Beethoven, he was also admired by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Frederic Chopin.

Alas, Bach’s genius has sometimes been lost, or taken for granted, in the modern world of popular culture.

There’s a memorable scene in a “M*A*S*H” episode, “Love Story,” involving the great composer. Radar O’Reilly (Gary Burghoff) is enamored with a beautiful and intelligent nurse. Hawkeye Pierce (Alan Alda) gives him some tips to fake his way through discussions of history and literature. In the case of classical music, Hawkeye tells Radar, “Bach is easy. If she brings him up, you just smile and you say, “Ah, Bach.”

I’m obviously not going to make hay about an amusing line from a popular TV show. Yet it’s still worth pointing out that those two simple words, “Ah, Bach,” have both a positive and negative connotation. The former refers to the composer’s understood influence in music, whereas the latter re-emphasizes the sad fact that some people blindly accept Bach’s greatness — and haven’t the foggiest notion what makes him great.

Sir John Eliot Gardiner, a world-renowned English conductor, has helped open a scholarly window to the life, music and mystery that defines Bach. His book, “Music in the Castle of Heaven: A Portrait of Johann Sebastian Bach,” takes the German composer off his majestic perch of musical gods and closer to the land of mere mortals. He writes in the preface, “Bach the musician is an unfathomable genius; Bach the man is all too obviously flawed, disappointingly ordinary and in many ways still invisible to us.” Mr. Gardiner’s quest is to put a “face to the man,” provide “a real sense of what the act of music-making would have been like for Bach,” and prove that his subject, contrary to popular myth, “was not a bore.”

Many details of Bach’s life are shrouded in dark clouds. While he was the “acknowledged musical genius of his family,” he also “didn’t carry the DNA of the more creative family line.” Meanwhile, the “emergence of [Bach’s] creative talent is so slender, while the uncertainties and details of his development and its timing are so numerous.” It’s not even clear “of the exact role that his parents played in his earliest musical experiences” and how it “[molded] his earliest musical education.”

Hence, Mr. Gardiner embarks on a unique musical journey to theorize how a man with “pedestrian and opaque” writing could have ended up with the soul of an angel. The result is a thoughtful, well-researched account that makes a great deal of sense.

The author suggests Bach may have perceived “the invention of ideas was a matter of daily experience.”

“Like Shakespeare, he must have expected to find things to write, themes to compose.” While Bach’s personal odyssey “was to write music designed to praise God and to inspirit and captivate his listeners,” he developed his cantatas at the “twin temples” and “competing environments” of the church and coffee house. Bach’s “John Passion” was “conceived not just as a work of religious art, but as an act of worship in itself,” while the “St. Matthew Passion” showcases “his ability to combine [judgments] of a practical kind with considerations of structure, theological exegesis and narrative pacing.”

The book’s analysis of Bach’s “Mass in B minor” helps us locate the true “driving force” of the composer’s genius. His resolve was “not merely to mime the gestures of belief, nor to interpret doctrine via music of his own invention,” in Mr. Gardiner’s estimation, “but to extend the very range of music’s possibilities, and through such exploration to make sense of the world in which he lived and whatever lay beyond it.”

Few books have captured the essence of the inner Bach quite like “Music of the Castle of Heaven.” Mr. Gardiner’s admiration for Bach’s music is scintillating, and passion to prove he was inspirational and uplifting is spellbinding. With luck, it will provide the impetus for people to switch from “Ah, Bach” to “Ah-ha, Bach.”

Michael Taube is a contributor to The Washington Times.

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