Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven
John Eliot Gardiner
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One of the Best Books of the Year
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Johann Sebastian Bach is one of the most unfathomable composers in the history of music. How can such sublime work have been produced by a man who seems so ordinary, so opaque—and occasionally so intemperate?
John Eliot Gardiner grew up passing one of the only two authentic portraits of Bach every day on the stairs of his parents’ house, where it hung for safety during World War II. He has been studying and performing Bach ever since, and is now regarded as one of the composer’s greatest living interpreters. The fruits of this lifetime’s immersion are distilled in this remarkable book, grounded in the most recent Bach scholarship but moving far beyond it, and explaining in wonderful detail the ideas on which Bach drew, how he worked, how his music is constructed, how it achieves its effects—and what it can tell us about Bach the man.
a Scarlatti. Fresh and bucolic, it is a rougher and less charming equivalent to Handel’s Acis and Galatea. Perhaps this is what recent commentators intend when describing it as a ‘pathbreaking work’ and ‘a milestone in Bach’s creative development’.48 Salomo Franck’s text for BWV 208 is frankly banal. The stock Classical allegorical characters he introduces (besides Diana these are Pales, Endymion and Pan) are little more than cardboard cut-outs. The ‘dramatic’ plot is simplicity itself. Diana
him by Neumeister in 1711, and his cantata based on it was performed in Eisenach shortly afterwards, and perhaps also in Weimar, where Telemann was held in high esteem by Bach’s employer Duke Ernst August. From the opening solo, in which Isaiah compares the seed (55:4–15), and the impact of the weather on its germination and growth, to the Holy Word, it is obvious that Bach’s setting of 1713 (BWV 18) is going to be the more adventurous – and more excitable, too, at moments when he disregards the
perfect example of His creative power. It was one of the great avatars of the Enlightenment, Gottfried Leibniz, who famously said, ‘Music is the hidden arithmetical exercise of a mind unconscious that it is calculating.’42y The purpose here has not been to mock the ignorance of German society, nor the backwardness of the Latin School system, so much as to emphasise that Christianity – in its revisionist Lutheran Orthodox form – still occupied centre-stage in the school curriculum and, as a
Ob turbas, a Domino Cantore Arnoldo excitatas, scholae nostrae valedixerunt, cited in J. Böttcher, Die Geschichte Ohrdrufs (1959), Vol. 3, p. 34. 23. Ob intolerabilem disciplinam Domini Cantoris Arnoldi in hanc classem translati sunt, cited in ibid., p. 34. 24. Terry, Bach: A Biography, pp. 26–7. 25. Lyceum Matrikel, quoted in F. Thomas, ‘Einige Ergebnisse über Johann Sebastian Bachs Ohrdrufer Schulzeit’ in Jahresbericht des Gräflich Gleichenschen Gymnasiums 24 Ohrdruf für das Schuljahr
in hand, demanding an apology for the insult. Bach is caught completely unawares. Geyersbach strikes out and hits him full in the face. Bach draws his rapier in self-defence. The situation turns ugly, and there is a scuffle broken up by the intervention of the other students. Eventually Bach dusts himself down and continues on his way. Next day he goes straight to the consistory to lodge a complaint. The clerk reports him as saying that, since ‘he did not deserve such treatment and was thus not