The image of Johann Sebastian Bach that has come down to us through the centuries — that of a self-taught, flawless man who, in pious isolation, composed some of the world’s greatest musical masterpieces — is largely due to Bach himself. It was an image he wanted desperately to preserve, and his second son, C.P.E. Bach, and his student Johann Friedrich Agricola obliged, publishing a lengthy, idolatrous obituary notice in 1754, a few years after the composer’s death. Thus was the Bach mythology created. And yet, as the esteemed English conductor John Eliot Gardiner writes in this exhaustive study — the summation of a lifetime’s absorption in the baroque master’s religious music — Bach may have been “an unfathomable genius,” but he was also self-important, peevish and something of a rebel, to name just a few of his lesser-known traits.
In “Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven,” citing evidence unearthed in East German archives, Gardiner constructs a harrowing picture of Bach’s schooling in the towns of Eisenach and Ohrdruf, where superstition and parochial Lutheranism prevailed over the findings of Copernicus, Kepler, Newton and Galileo. Academic issues aside, Gardiner describes “the Eisenach boys of the time [as] typical ruffians: rowdy, subversive, thuggish, beer- and wine-loving, girl-chasing, known for breaking windows and brandishing their daggers to impress.” More disconcerting is the suggestion that the boys were sexually abused. Were Bach’s frequent absences from school really due to his mother’s poor health and because he was apprenticing with his father, as has been traditionally argued? Or were there more insidious reasons for his truancy?
A culture of sadism may have existed, but we do not know whether Bach was a perpetrator, victim or bystander. And to suggest that Bach may have been “a reformed teenage thug,” as Gardiner does, based solely on what has been discovered about the behavior of his classmates, may go too far. But Gardiner isn’t being controversial for controversy’s sake. The point, I think, is to humanize a man who, over the years, has been all but sainted and, by doing so, to make the case that the loftiest works Bach composed for the church — the nearly 200 extant cantatas, along with the motets, the B minor Mass and the two monumental Passions, of Saint John and Saint Matthew — are shot through with fear, anxiety, longing, humor, joy and suffering.
Along with such conductors as Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Christopher Hogwood and Trevor Pinnock, Gardiner was at the forefront of the period-instrument movement of the 1970s and ’80s, helping to define how the music of the baroque period is performed today. And it is Gardiner’s experience as a conductor that informs so much of this book. Not only does he explain the harmonic, contrapuntal and polyphonic underpinnings of Bach’s music, as any scholar might, he also comments on these scores from practical experience, having spent countless hours working out instrumental balances and sonorities, textures and dynamics, in concert halls and churches alike. In 2000, the 250th anniversary of Bach’s death, Gardiner conducted all of the sacred cantatas — an almost unthinkable feat.
Still, Gardiner seems to wrestle with a fundamental problem: how to approach music imbued with Lutheran theology in the secular setting of the concert hall. The cantatas, after all, were written as an integral part of the church service. Furthermore, Gardiner writes, the “dedication of [Bach’s] art to God’s glory was not confined to signing off his church cantatas with the acronym S[oli] D[eo] G[loria]; the motto applied with equal force to his concertos, partitas and instrumental suites.” Even if we accept that Bach’s faith had “less to do with dogma and far more with a quest to lay bare the human condition and to find ultimate meaning in life,” the question remains: Does a listener need to be religious to truly enjoy and be moved by this glorious music? And what about the musicians themselves, among whom there are plenty of devoted atheists?
In my own violin-playing days, no other experience could better suggest a sense of the infinite, of sublime perfection transcending the everyday world, than playing through Bach’s mighty Chaconne in D Minor — a sensation undiminished by the absence of religion in my life. But works such as the cantatas (including the Christmas Cantatas, written explicitly for services during the season), the six-part Christmas Oratorio and the Passions are a different proposition, in that Bach entwines music and religious text so masterfully in their pages. Gardiner acknowledges this, but he also advises agnostics and skeptics to look for the “universal message of hope” in Bach’s music, which “can touch anybody regardless of culture, religious denomination or musical knowledge.” In other words, listen to these pieces the way you would read Tolstoy or view a Michelangelo. Bach’s art, after all, “celebrates the fundamental sanctity of life, an awareness of the divine and a transcendent dimension as a fact of human existence.” This is far easier to appreciate if Bach is seen not as a deity, not even as the foremost composer and organist of his day and the progenitor of the most distinguished musical family of the 18th century — but as a human being like any of us.
Bose is the managing editor and fiction editor of the American Scholar.
Music in the Castle of Heaven
By John Eliot Gardiner
Knopf. 629 pp. $35