For M is Musick

Review – Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven by John Eliot Gardiner

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Bach, the epitome of a musician who strove all life long and finally acquired the ‘Habit of Perfection,’ was a thoroughly imperfect human being – something we don’t usually tolerate in one of our heroes.” (p. 525) These words open the fourteenth and final chapter of John Eliot Gardiner’s new book, Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven. In the thirteen chapters prior, Gardiner, founder and director of the Monteverdi Choir & English Baroque Soloists and newly appointed president of the Bach Archive in Leipzig, provides a refreshing and entertaining account of a thoroughly human musician who gave us heavenly music.

What distinguishes Gardiner’s account as a unique contribution to the mound of existing Bach scholarship is Gardiner’s perspective as performer and conductor, as one of the leading interpreters of Bach’s choral oeuvre. “I seek to convey what it is like to approach Bach from the position of a performer and conductor standing in front of a vocal and instrumental ensemble, just as [Bach] himself habitually did.” (p.xxxi) This performer’s perspective is manifest throughout the entire book in a variety of ways, from practical solutions in performance (“Success in [the “Laudamus” of the B minor Mass] depends on the two solo performers keeping the essential ‘bones’ of the folk-melody always to the fore, on making adequate provisions for breath between the phrases and on gliding effortlessly through Bach’s thicket of embellishments.” p.492), to descriptions of Gardiner’s rehearsal techniques (rehearsals during his ensemble’s 2000 “Pilgrimage” cantatas tour being described on pp. 239ff), to considerations of instruments and performance materials. (“[T]hose of us who have learnt to play or direct period instruments and listened to what they can tell us feel that we stand a rather better chance of re-entering and inhabiting Bach’s sound world than was possible when we set out thirty-five or so years ago. An ensemble of period instruments played by expert virtuosi… carries with it a colossal element of excitement and zing. The performance becomes a communal rite…” p.522)

But it is for the rich insights he provides into the music, insights that will undoubtedly enhance the listening experience, that the reader will likely be most grateful. Gardiner delves into nearly one hundred of the cantatas to varying levels of degree, with individual chapters being devoted to the two passions and to the B minor Mass. (As expected, the choral works receive the most of Gardiner’s attention, though infrequent mention is made of instrumental works). Gardiner’s comprehensive knowledge of every aspect of the cantatas – historical context, original manuscripts, structure of the music, etc. – is brought to bear in his rich descriptions. Ideally, the reader is best served by listening to the musical excerpts as Gardiner discusses them, but even if this be impossible, Gardiner’s reflections will enrich future listening experiences and serve as a valuable reference. I personally wrote the word, “Listen!” in the margins at least a dozen times, most emphatically during descriptions of BWVs 6 (pp.334-5), 25 (p.249), 101 (p.321), 106 (pp.149-52), 159 (p.335), 179 (p.199), and of the two passions. A pre-existing knowledge of this musical repertory brings significant advantage to the reader, especially since Knopf has disappointingly provided very few musical examples.

Middle and late chapters are devoted to these enlightening descriptions of the music – 9 to the Leipzig cantata cycles, 10 to the John Passion, 11 to the Matthew Passion, 12 to Bach’s text-setting idiosyncrasies and the motets, 13 to the B minor Mass. The earlier part of the book (following an opening chapter in which Gardiner gives an account of own background, of the establishment of his Monteverdi Choir, and of his personal enthusiasm for Bach) is devoted to constructing an image of Bach, adding human flesh to one of our music elusive musical “heroes.” Chapter 2 (“Germany on the Brink of Enlightenment”) serves to set the historical and contextual stage onto which Bach appears. Gardiner’s thoroughly researched account includes details of Bach’s Lutheran heritage and childhood education, the regional geographical terrain, the effects of war, and of the general quality of life. In Chapter 3 (“The Bach Gene”), Gardiner places Sebastian within the Bach lineage, describing how Sebastian’s musical training allowed him to emerge from among other gifted Bachs. If chapter 3 places Sebastian among his kin, chapter 4 (“The Class of ‘85”) places him among his peers as the lives and careers of Scarlatti, Handel, Rameau, Mattheson and Telemann are contrasted with those of Bach. Gardiner’s comparative tack here is quite effective in showing just how different Bach’s life might have been were circumstances, decisions (Sebastian’s, his peers’, and his [potential] employers’), and personal temperament slightly different. Bach’s uncertain relationship with opera receives attention here as well. Gardiner turns his attention to the role that the Lutheran faith had on Bach and his music in Chapter 5 (“Mechanics of Faith”), using three early Mühlhausen cantatas (BWVs 4 “Christ lag in Todesbanden”, 131 “Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir”, and 106 the “Actus tragicus” funeral cantata) as mini-case studies. The beautifully rich description of these works whets the reader’s appetite for later chapters devoted more exclusively to the music. Chapter 6 (“The Incorrigible Cantor”) delves further into Bach’s temperament showing how his personality affected his often-tumultuous relationship with employers. Gardiner turns in Chapter 7 (“Bach at his Workbench”) to a fascinating account of Bach’s compositional practice, providing illuminating and vivid descriptions of his working relationship with librettists, of his work with copyists in creating scores and parts, of what those manuscripts tell us about his working methods, and of the process of working with musicians to bringing his works to life. Chapter 8 (“Cantatas or Coffee?”) includes descriptions of Bach’s secular cantatas and of his workings with the university collegium during his later Leipzig years. The book’s rather meandering concluding chapter (“’Old Bach’”) both gives an account of various activities of the elderly Bach and also serves as a kind of final assessment of Bach’s legacy, once again situating Bach among his “Class of ‘85” German contemporaries.

Gardiner truly excels in his descriptions of this heavenly music, which he obviously loves dearly. It is in his humanizing account of Bach the man that some readers may have qualms, depending largely on the expectations the reader brings to the book. Such misgivings will surely not be due to any lack of knowledge on Gardiner’s part. His thorough familiarity not only of the current Bach scholarship but also of the original manuscripts is evidence in every chapter. Copious citations and footnotes leave us confident in Gardiner’s expertise. But where gaps in our knowledge occur – gaps left by a general paucity of biographical information, by a lack of correspondence and first hand accounts, and by a less than trustworthy obituary (Nekrolog) self-servingly and hastily published by his C.P.E. Bach  and pupil Agricola –  JEG all too happy to offer missing details, often in ways that are remarkably imaginative. JEG, the consummate interpreter, gives us an interpretation of Bach that is admittedly personal (“What is presented here is very much one person’s vision.” p.xxxii). JEG, the performer, gives a stunning performance filled with imaginative conjecture that is not always supported by evidence. Several such examples are worth pointing out.

One gets the sense that some of Gardiner’s more fanciful reconstructions stem from a desire to provide a fresh take on commonly accepted views. Take for instance his questioning of the traditionally accepted reasons for Bach’s poor school attendance, namely illnesses within the Bach family, family gatherings, and an apprenticeship with his father. Gardiner finds these reasons “not altogether convincing” without ever provided any basis for doubting. “[T]here could be alternate, more disquieting explanations,” he states flatly. (p.46) Gardiner develops a habit of seeing things he wishes to see.

In Chapter 4, Gardiner proposes the idea that Bach may have visited the Hamburg opera during his trip to that city, even while acknowledging a lack of evidence and, at the same time, challenging such an eminent Bach scholar as Christoph Wolff:

“Just because the writers of his obituary do not mention the Hamburg opera or any contact with its leading light, Reinhard Keiser, does not mean that Bach ‘at the time had no particular interest in opera,’ (citing Wolff, Bach; The Learned Musician, p.65) […] Either of these men (Hamburg opera conductor Keiser or Reincken, organist and board of directors member) could easily have accompanied Bach, given him letters of introduction to attend Keiser’s theatre or even arranged for him to participate in any of the twelve operas Keiser composed for Hamburg between 1700 and 1702. We can surmise that his natural musical curiosity drew Bach as a listener into its orbit, even if, once in, what early biographers identified as an innate shyness held him back from the networking needed for success in a pressurized world whose purpose was to satisfy ‘the vanity of [its] individual executants’.” (pp.99-100)

This is quite a remarkable conclusion built on a mere assumption that “natural curiosity” would have led Bach to the opera. Being willing to venture ideas on such scanty evidence at times leads Gardiner to conclusions that are less than convincing.

Or take JEG’s curious exercise of analyzing painted portraits in order to glean character traits. Scanning a portrait of Sebastian’s father reveals to Gardiner that Ambrosius “gazes out of his portrait like a prosperous brass-player – fat-chinned, full-nosed, lazy-eyed, stubborn and evidently fond of drink.” (p.61) Fondness of food and drink is also “evident” in Sebastian’s portrait which is thoroughly read by Gardiner in the concluding fourteenth chapter (pp.545-50) as if a fortune-teller reading a palm.

JEG takes the same kind of fanciful approach when looking at manuscripts. An ink blot on a title page penned by Kuhnau, one of Bach’s best copyists, is, in this sport of conjecture, attributed to an abusive outburst on the part of Bach due to a misspelling of his name in the bottom corner: “[Kuhnau] misspells the composer’s name and writes Bacch. Clearly not amused, Bach must have given his errant copyist a sharp smack: a black smudge appears right across the page – Kuhnau’s pen following the trajectory of the chastising biff.” (232)

Or the imaginative scene Gardiner paints when describing Wilhelm Friedemann’s “jittery” copying of BWV 127 under his father’s watchful eye: “[Wilhelm] gets the first note wrong […] but after the initial blip he corrects himself. The same happens with the viola part. […] Meanwhile Bach decides to take over copying the continuo part for the bass arioso himself. He is now really pressed for time. […] Caught up in the creative frenzy and elation of the moment, Bach has to rush to finish. He cannot risk the snail’s pace of his son’s progress. Perhaps the orchestra is tuning up.” (234-35) This is great drama. And apparently the “thick pen-strokes” on the manuscript of BWV 101 in the composer’s hand “by their pressure reveal his urgent intent as much as they do his failing eyesight” (323), and raindrops on the score of young Bach’s Buxtehude transcription rather bizarrely indicates to Gardiner that “it may have travelled in his rucksack.” (82)

In addition to using portraits and manuscripts to fill gaps of biographical information, Gardiner also turns to the music itself. In fact, the endeavor is central to the enterprise of the entire book, as he himself claims in its concluding chapter. Gardiner’s aim includes “scrutinizing the music and looking out for instances when his personality seems to penetrate the fabric of his notation.” (p.550) When it is that Bach’s true character emerges is up to Gardiner himself. The soprano aria from BWV 84 whose primary message is contentment with whatever lot one is given “helps us to find out how [Bach] dealt with [the] extremes” of “doing his job conscientiously and to the utmost of his abilities, on the one hand, […] and on the other, the bother of having to put up with ‘almost continual vexation, envy and persecution’.” (p. 198) BWV 178, on the other hand “exhibits such sustained defiance that one asks whether there is a submerged story here – of Bach operating in a hostile environment… How much more satisfying, then, for him to channel all that frustration and vituperative energy into the music, and then to watch as it rained down from the choir loft on to his chosen targets below.” (p.199) And the bass aria of BWV 135 is “superb, angry music executed with a palpable fury, with Bach fuming at delinquent malefactors. One can picture the city elders, sitting in the best pews, …starting to feel increasingly uncomfortable as these shockingly direct words – and Bach’s still more strident and abrasive music – hit home.” (p.200) (So this aria isn’t about Jesus giving consolation to us in our tears caused by evildoers?) And of BWV 81, “one wonders whether there is a pinch of dramatic realism here, of yawn-induced rebuke (the repetition of warum?) or even of mild satire – one of those occasions when Bach may be poking fun at one of his Leipzig theological task-masters.” (p.310) At least Gardiner wonders.

There is little question that Bach may have written his feelings into the music he composed, but using such arbitrary selection as to when his true character emerges from the notation can lead one to erect a Bach of any kind, so wide is the expression of his music. At least Gardiner acknowledges how dubious this tack is, though not until the book’s final chapter. “[O]n several occasions in the course of this book I have pointed to times when Bach allows the mask to slip and his personality to come through in his music, times when we sense his many moods: his intense grieving, his passionate beliefs, but also his tussles with faith, his bursts of anger, his rebellious subversive streak, his delight in nature or his unbridled joy in God’s creation. … These are tantalizing areas, arising from a world of subjective feeling and ultimately unprovable. Yet, treated cautiously, they provide us with a bridge – spanning the traces of Bach’s personality we think we can detect embedded in the music and such historical truths as we can establish about the nature of his character.” (pp.542-43) An extremely shaky bridge it is.

Gardiner’s episodes of conjecture sometimes result in contradiction. The story of young Sebastian’s unauthorized copying of manuscripts by candlelight during his years under the tutelage of his elder brother Christoph at once “smacks of legend” to Gardiner, being “a story heavily embroidered in the remembering and rehearsing of it” (p. 79). And yet it is taken for granted as true later when Gardiner traces Sebastian’s poor eyesight “back to the strain of that illicit nocturnal copying in his brother’s house” (p.546 footnote). The story is seemingly taken to be true merely because it served the immediate train of Gardiner’s narrative thought.

And just how sincere was Bach’s devotion to his Lutheran Christian faith? At some points, Gardiner casts doubt based on evidence that is hardly convincing. Of the transition passage between the Confiteor and the Et expecto in the B minor Mass, Gardiner “detect(s) traces of Bach’s own struggles – with tonality, counterpoint and harmony – but perhaps even with belief.” (p.482) “To what degree was he truly convinced by Christian dogma, especially the kind that emphasized personal faith and the rewards of salvation? asks Gardiner. “These are questions to which no very convincing answers can be found in the archives,” he flatly answers. (146) Yet many answers are indeed provided by Gardiner throughout the book, from descriptions of Bach’s extensive theological library, which according Robin Leaver “many a pastor in Bach’s day would have been proud to have owned” (155), to frequent reference to marginalia written in Bach’s own copy of Calov’s Bible commentary, to numerous characterizations of musical numbers in his choral works as deep expressions of a sincere faith, to simply stated affirmations that his “Lutheran zeal was sincere (and there are no grounds to believe that it wasn’t).” (p.453) One gets the sense that Gardiner’s flair for the dramatic and propensity for stating ideas that serve the immediate train of thought regardless of their credibility or the extent to which he believes them perpetually guides his prose.

If Gardiner’s historical methodologies are at times dubious, his jaded attitude toward analysis is simply curious. From the outset, Gardiner tells us that analysis will not get us very far. “The techniques we habitually use to analyse music when it is joined to verbal expression are of little use. We need a different tool-kit.” (xxxiii) This is exceedingly strange since Gardiner uses analysis throughout the entire book when describing Bach’s music. (In fact, several reviewers have lamented the amount of music theoretical verbiage Gardiner employs as off-putting to the average reader.) In my opinion, Gardiner uses analysis remarkably well, for instance, when discussing the Trauer-Ode, BWV 198, intended to commemorate the death of Queen Christiane Eberhardine, Electress of Saxony.

“First he builds up the sonic profile by introducing each of the eleven upper lines one by one, each evoking a bell of a different size – from the smallest via the tap-tap chiming of the flutes, to a sustained tolling of middle-sized bells in the oboes and a haze of plucked strings, to the deep, sonorous booming of the larger bells in the gambas and continuo that clang ominously in regular fourths and fifths. By now we have moved from D with a flat seventh in the oboe via a diminished seventh to C minor, a minor ninth on E. Then, below the third inversion of the dominant seventh on C#, comes an abrupt (and by the standards of the day, impermissible) rocking back and forth from E# to A in the bass, before the bells peter out one by one in the same order as they began. What this tonal analysis seems to be telling us is that, as a result of the queen’s death, time has stopped working with its normal God-appointed regularity – that with her demise the natural world is out of kilter.” (p. 221)

Just as with Gardiner’s historical methodologies, the extent to which such theoretical description is off-putting will largely depend upon the reader’s expectations and background. But for those who are willing (and able) to follow these analytical threads, their understanding and experience of the music can be enhanced. The number of asides in which Gardiner sets up a dichotomy between analysis and performance is unfortunate, as Gardiner himself demonstrates that the one can (and should) assist the other in tandem.

Given all these considerations, readers should modify expectations accordingly (if necessary). When done, the rewards from Gardiner’s book will far exceed any shortcomings. Gardiner’s account of Bach is one that indeed humanizes. If the exercises in imaginative conjecture sometimes run wild, the more legitimate historical exercise of counterfactuals (the “what if?” game) serve the purpose of bringing the composer to life. (cf. p.527) What if Bach had accepted the offered position in Halle? What if Bach did not receive the Leipzig appointment? What if Bach had turned to opera? These are very legitimate questions that further show just how different things might have been had Bach’s circumstances and temperament been even slightly different. If anything, musings such as these leave the reader eternally grateful that circumstances of Bach’s life led him to compose such a rich repository of masterpieces in the cantatas, passions, motets, and the “great catholic Mass.”

Gardiner, the consummate performer, has given a tour de force performance in this book. It is consistently engaging, elegantly written, and extremely informative with numerous extra-musical sources and ideas (from painting, to psychology, to science, to architecture) to assist and vivify the reading experience. Chiefly, it is imaginative, both a prerequisite and byproduct of being a superb interpreter of music. And perhaps it is exactly this quality that distinguishes this book from other Bach accounts. We have Gardiner to thank for a valuable reference for all future hearings of Bach chorale works and for a vividly refreshing image of one of the great heroes of our Western tradition.

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