Music in the Castle of Heaven: A Portrait of Johann Sebastian Bach, by John Eliot Gardiner, Penguin, RRP£30, 672 pages

In October 2000 Sir John Eliot Gardiner and his choir performed four of Johann Sebastian Bach’s sacred cantatas in Leipzig’s Thomaskirche, the church where Bach had combined the functions of teacher, choirmaster, organist and composer. For the English conductor, renowned for his Bach interpretations, it must have been a moving occasion – standing where Bach had stood, re-creating the Leipzig Cantor’s oeuvre within the walls that had inspired it.

Gardiner’s visit was designed not just to pay homage to Bach on the 250th anniversary of his death. There was a more ambitious purpose: the recording of as many as possible of the composer’s 200-plus cantatas within the scope of a choral “pilgrimage” across Europe and the US. It was a feat that no musician had attempted since Bach himself. For two years in the mid-1720s Bach composed his cantatas at the rate of one a week – a phenomenal burst of creativity. Gardiner only had to perform them, a process that took longer than two years, but it left him in even greater awe of the composer than he had thought possible.

Portrait of Bach (1748) by Elias Gottlob Haussmann
Portrait of Bach (1748) by Elias Gottlob Haussmann © William H Scheide

It is this sense of wonderment, distilled through omnivorous study of manuscript scores, that Gardiner communicates in Music in the Castle of Heaven, his monumental “portrait” of the German baroque composer. As a boy, Gardiner lived in a house bearing one of the two authenticated paintings of Bach. Although it was sold 60 years ago, when Gardiner was 10, the inscrutable bewigged musician made a lasting impact. This book leaves the impression that, ever since, Gardiner has been on a mission to uncover the man behind the gaze.

Showing the headstrong gusto for which he is famed in the music profession, Gardiner dismisses most Bach biographies as “hagiolatry” and insists that, until historians at Leipzig’s Bach Archive delve deeper into material left dormant during east Germany’s communist era, the best way to approach Bach’s personality is through familiarity with his music. In other words, with the exception of a few predominantly English musicologists that he trusts and quotes ad infinitum, the most reliable authority must be, er, Gardiner himself – the man who, to judge by the opening chapter, almost single-handedly revealed the truth of Bach’s music to modern ears.

That does not mean that this, Gardiner’s first book, is insufficiently backed by historical research or spoiled by self-justification. Its author rightly points out that, despite recent advances in Bach scholarship, little has surfaced to illuminate the composer’s early years, his personal life or the workings of his mind. What Gardiner offers is an intimate knowledge of the choral music – he ignores the equally significant instrumental works – and a powerful sense of its cultural context, structural evolution and doctrinal intent.

So, if you want a balanced biography, this is not for you. The opening chapters are chaotic, lurching from self-reverential auto­biography to a jumbled account of Bach’s Lutheran background. The seven years he spent producing the Brandenburg Concertos and other masterpieces at the Calvinist court in Cöthen are dismissed in a paltry page and a half.

But if you want a detailed analysis of the cantatas, the two Passions and Mass in B minor, and a feeling for their wondrous piety, Gardiner provides exhaustive satisfaction. His “portrait” reads like a pilgrim’s progress, in which a privileged man-of-the-modern-world is transformed by Bach’s musical revelation and faces his own mortality – triggering the very confession of moral frailty and faith-in-salvation the cantatas were designed to induce in 18th-century listeners.

If this suggests Gardiner has gone uncharacteristically weak at the knees, so be it. Once he hits his stride, nearly halfway through, his proselytising drive can be infectious. Discussing the allegorical dialogue between Jesus (bass) and the Soul (soprano) in an early cantata, he explains how Bach juxtaposes the “archaic” viola da gamba with the “modern” oboe and basso continuo, “blending these instrumental timbres before their final convergence to reflect the unity of Jesus and the Soul”.

In “Erbarme dich”, the best-known aria in the St Matthew Passion, the way the alto voice seeks to emulate the angelic solo violin, but manages only segments of the melody, underlines “the emotional tug of Bach’s music on the listener”, prompting a “recognition of those failed endeavours to live up to a Godlike ideal”. Such insights – and there are many – make the reader impatient to listen again, a sign of the best musical commentaries.

In spite of some amateur psychology, the portrait emerges of a composer who, unlike his contemporaries Handel, Telemann and Rameau, preferred the regularity of the church calendar to courtly favour; who was prodigiously hard-working as well as obstinate; and whose “defining quality lies in how he conveys his understanding of what it is be human, with all our faults, fears and blind spots”.


Andrew Clark is the FT’s chief music critic

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