JOHN ELIOT GARDINER’S exhaustive biography of JS Bach and analysis of many of his greatest works is a must-read for all Bach scholars and the informed amateur with an appetite to better know the man and his music. Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven, originally published in Britain in 2013, was first published in the US by Vintage Books in March 2015. This is a weighty tome of 600 pages (560 without the concluding Chronology, Glossary, Notes and Index.) The first 125 pages (four chapters) set the scene of Bach’s life, including his many forebears, notably and influentially an uncle and an older brother—both called Christoph—with whom Sebastian was sent to live after becoming an orphan at age nine. These pages also illuminate the geopolitics and religious life of Germany at the turn of the 18th century, all important for establishing context but a bit of a slog in the reading.
Gardiner, famous as a conductor and passionate about his subject, has drawn on as much of the most recent forensic scholarship as he could nail down, yet confesses to frequent conjectures in order to fill gaps that result, largely, from the paucity of written documentation by or about the great composer. Indeed, he draws his picture of the man principally from his music, especially on how he fitted music and words together, and his dramatic, sometimes theatrical, instincts. He focuses in particular on Bach’s selection and settings of sacred texts, which also include new material for cantatas and oratorios written, principally, by the contemporary poet Christian Friedrich Henrici–who went by the pen name Picander.
Gardiner’s “corrective to the old hagiolatry” draws often surprising links between his subject’s own works and those of others. He also spells out the living conditions Bach enjoyed and/or hated in some of his professional positions, and the ways he manipulated those circumstances, personally and through his music, sometimes settling scores in the most imaginative musical ways. (The Castle of Heaven, of the title, was the Himmelsburg chapel, at Weimar, where he served as court musician and organist.)
Most of Bach’s purely instrumental music was composed at Cöthen, which, as a Calvinist court, did not use music during religious services. When he arrived at Leipzig in 1723, he planned to compose three complete weekly cycles of church cantatas, but found his church and town bosses, to say nothing of his living quarters in the Thomaschule adjacent to the boys’ dormitory, so exasperating that he completed only two cycles, and those in the first two years of residency there.
Gardiner’s concentration on the cantatas is passionate and often argumentative. His juices flow as he singles out BWV 4 “Christ lag in Todes Banden,” BWV 10 “Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit” (Actus Tragicus) and BWV 101 “Nimm von uns Herr, du treuer Gott” as among the most original standouts. (No one at the Carmel Bach Festival could find evidence that the latter had ever been performed here.)
Later, Gardiner takes on the largest and most ambitious of Bach’s works, the John Passion and Matthew Passion. These works took careful planning and layout in order to provide for maximum dramatic effect. In a footnote, Gardiner quotes Simon Schama’s comparison between versions of Descent from the Cross by Rubens and Rembrandt: ‘Where the emphasis in the Rubens is on action and reaction, in Rembrandt’s version it is on contemplation and witness…doers are perforce replaced by watchers.’ “That too,” Gardiner adds, “is the main difference, albeit oversimplified, between Bach’s John and Matthew Passions.”
In his penultimate chapter, Gardiner writes in full flood about the Mass in B minor, waxing intensely on the “Kyrie” and “Gloria,” as he does on the ensuing “Symbolum Niceum” (Nicene Creed.) He also defends the succeeding sections which have been the subject of various critics, not least Bach’s late 19th century biographer Philipp Spitta.
The final chapter, “Old Bach,” examines the late masterpieces, the completion of the B minor Mass and The Musical Offering (based on a ‘royal theme’ tendered by Frederick the Great) and near-completion of The Art of Fugue. Intriguingly, Gardiner asserts that the greatness of Sebastian Bach at Leipzig could not have happened at any other time or place. The Lutheran culture that fixed his religious and philosophical character was rapidly giving way to the Enlightenment. Dresden, the Saxon seat of government with the best musical resources in Germany was Roman Catholic. He could have had a far more comfortable life in Hamburg as an opera composer. We may thank Leipzig for being the bane of Bach’s life there, without which we, and all of his musical descendants, would be much the poorer.