What We’re Reading: My Recent Delight!

Music in the Castle of Heaven by John Eliot Gardiner

by Joyce A. Berkman

In 1963 our first son was born. We named him, Jeremy Saul Berkman, in part after Johann Sebastian Bach. My husband, Lenny, and I have always shared a deep reverence for Bach’s compositions, deeming Bach (1685-1750) as the premier composer, the musical fount, of modern Europe.  I trace my devotion to his work not to my early piano study but to my attendance at the Carmel Bach Festival during the 1950s. This internationally acclaimed summer festival, founded in 1935 by two extraordinary female art entrepreneurs and lifelong partners, Dene Denny and Hazel Watrous, introduced me to the range and majesty of Bach’s work.  The many concerts, master classes, open rehearsals, recitals, lectures, that took place initially over four days cast a spell on me. This spell strengthened after Lenny’s and my trip to Leipzig, where Bach spent most of his adult career. We visited St. Nicholas Church — where Bach’s works were performed in his lifetime, and whose bells launched the collapse of the Soviet Union — and St. Thomas Church, where Bach served as Cantor in 1723 and where so many of Bach’s Cantatas and Passions premiered.

In this extensive, captivating biography and critical study of Bach, John Eliot Gardiner blends his analysis and performance experience of Bach’s music with his interpretations of Bach’s complex personality, historical situation and musical genius. Gardiner evokes his Dorset, England childhood under the daily gaze of one of the two extant portraits of Bach, painted by Elias Gottlob Haussmann in 1748. Among today’s leading conductors of Bach’s choral compositions, having presented all of Bach’s 200 cantatas in a single year, Gardiner links what he learned through conducting Bach to his evolving grasp of Bach’s musical goals and compositional strategies.[1]

Although Gardiner’s concerts and recordings primarily present Bach’s sacred music, he wards off any conclusion that he or the music itself aims to implement particular church doctrine. Rather, he insists that Bach’s work “springs from the depths of the human psyche and not from some topical or local creed.” (15)

Before Gardiner wrote this riveting biographical, historical and musicological study, he had also scoured existing scholarship on Bach and on early modern European history. Gardiner had already published various studies of early modern music and on Bach which had garnered him numerous honors and awards, even knighted in 1998 by Queen Elizabeth II. Shortly after the publication of this biography, Gardiner became the president of the Leipzig-Archiv, which, together with the Staatsbibliothek in Berlin, is the central co-holder of Bach primary documents. Bach Digital, a collaborative enterprise of the Leipzig Archive, the computing center at Leipzig University and the Staatsbibliothek, is in the process of digitizing every extant work Bach autographed, making these sources widely accessible.

Fortunately, Gardiner’s university training was as much in history as in musicology, amply evident in this biography. He informs the reader in text and copious footnotes about essential documentary sources, interconnects past and present historiography, and addresses many of the controversies rife among Bach scholars

Unlike the plenitude and diversity of primary sources that bear on Bach’s professional career, primary sources on Bach’s personal life are woefully sparse. Far more documents appear to be extant, especially correspondence between other composers of Bach’s time and their family and friends, than we have for Bach.  Further, Bach did not leave us a memoir or autobiography.  At best we have a hastily written obituary by Bach’s second son and one of his pupils, the Nekrolog.  Gardiner laments that we “know less about his private life than about that of any other major composer of the last 400 years.” (xxv)  Equally unavailable are sources on audience response to initial performances of Bach’s works.  With a twinkle, Gardiner muses, “Might one or two adverse, even waspish, comments overheard from the congregation as it filed out of church…goad him towards his own brand of dare-devilry and to still bolder experiments?” (317)

At the heart of Gardiner’s treasure trove of sources, naturally, are Bach’s musical texts and music themselves. Gardiner perceptively infers Bach’s religious outlook and psychological insights from many of these.  As one of countless examples, Bach’s Actus Tragicus, which he composed at age 22,  underscores a lifelong motif in Bach’s approach to death: a desire to soothe and offer hope, yet “never saccharine, self-indulgent or morbid.” From the “yearning dissonance given to two gambas, to the ravishing way the recorders entwine and exchange adjacent notes, slipping in and out of unison… we are being offered music to combat grief.” (149) Bach surely had his share of grief. By age nine he had lost both parents. His first wife died early, and 12 of his 20 children died before they turned three. Death was an omnipresent trauma for him and for those he knew.  (I immediately dashed to YouTube to hear Actus Tragicus, which, I feel, does bear out Gardiner’s claim.) Sadly, although we’re overwhelmed by the plenitude of Bach’s compositions, e.g. cantatas composed weekly for two straight years, many of his compositions are lost, including many cantatas and his St. Mark Passion. 

Gardiner’s major thesis is the dual reality of Bach’s unparalleled musical genius and very human, problematic personality: “Bach the musician is an unfathomable genius; Bach the man is all too obviously flawed, disappointingly ordinary and in many ways still invisible to us.” (xxv).   Resisting prevalent hagiography of Bach while also utterly in awe of his musical genius, Gardiner treads a middle ground in which he presents Bach’s artistic and personal struggles within a tumultuous political, economic, societal, religious, and cultural historical reality, an array of forces pressuring Bach to conform to ruling religious and artistic beliefs and musical conventions, which he subverts as much as he can. Gardiner faults the hagiographic bias as concealing Bach’s “everyday self, the self that lived beside, beneath and within the narrative of his most un-ordinary music-making” (525) and  offers examples of Bach’s irascible, prickly, petty behavior, (203) epitomized in the chapter  “The Incorrigible Cantor.” When the Leipzig Council hired Bach, his Cantorate included serving as Director of the St. Thomas Boys Choir and as Director of Music for the main city churches. Assessing Bach as man and as musician Gardiner deems Bach’s character failures as “less heinous than those of Mozart or Wagner”. 

Gardiner the historian emerges definitively in his claim that Bach’s “church music, unique in the history of music, could have happened only at this time, in this place and under these circumstances” (527). Gardiner cites the role of Thuringian geographical and societal landscape on young Bach and the toll of constant warfare and devastation on the lives of prior generations of Bach’s family. Bach was fortunate to be born when many families enjoyed relative freedom from such dire circumstances. 

In accounting for Bach’s creative brilliance and immense compositional legacy, Gardiner explores the complicated interplay between nature and nurture, and compares the Bach family with other famous musical families of his era.  Gardiner describes Bach’s family’s long history of musical performance, including regular family chorale singing. Composed by Martin Luther, these chorales, often adapted folksongs, molded the “close synergy between Luther and Bach.” (129-130)   

Ever widening the frame of his study, Gardiner adds the role of chance.  When nine-year-old Bach was orphaned, he joined the household, in Ohrdruf, of his oldest brother Johann Christoph Bach, which became a most fortuitous turn of events.  This musically talented brother introduced him to Georg Böhm, young Bach’s principal mentor. Böhm eased Bach’s entrée into the “rich cosmopolitan life of Hamburg, with its new opera house and its many fine church organs “.  Bach was privileged to learn from the city’s “great organ-builder Arp Schnitiger at close quarters…” (90)

Bach’s time in Ohrdruf was brief. Family needs, political conflicts, professional ambitions and musical ideals sparked Bach’s sequence of moves around Germany. Even when he settled permanently in Leipzig, his work took him to other cities for short periods of time.  None of these cities met Bach’s musical vision.  Bach, notes Gardiner, had a “lifelong obsession” a “pipe dream” of composing in a paid position that would enable him to compose freely in conformity “with the way the God-inspired Temple music was organized in the time of King David” (195). He wanted the freedom to create music “to the glory of God” in his own distinct way. Though this desire spurred many of his moves, he did not find the freedom he sought anywhere, even in Leipzig, with its “innate conservatism, artistic indifference and discord…a creaky structure, undermanned and underfunded” (196), but he resolved to meet this goal, his “Endzweck” regardless, and soon exhibited a dazzling “fecundity.” (290)

Gardiner deftly places Bach within the wider development of the European Enlightenment.  Its emphasis on science and mathematics posed no problem to Bach. For him, music was a science and pervasively mathematical, at its best expressing the harmony of nature and the cosmos. Gardiner cites Theodore Adorno’s claim that “Bach was the first to crystallize the idea of the rationally constituted work” (14)

German society, including Leipzig’s, was increasingly secular, “the community of belief and convention…was starting to alter, or even to break down.” (278) Although known as the city of churches, Leipzig remained indelibly Lutheran, yet its population of roughly 30,000 experienced no religious consensus. The six main Lutheran churches with 22 services bitterly contested views of Lutheran doctrines. (278). Factions split churches and the local government; tensions divided church and lay authorities.  In countless forms, social class, professional, religious and gender differences stratified the city’s system of status and power.

Bach upheld various older musical conventions while appropriating new musical styles.  Various arresting chapters probe Bach’s Janus-faced musical orientation, looking past and forward.  Opera is one of many examples. Though spurning creating secular opera, he was a superlative dramatist. Using Biblical, rather than secular, narrative as his text, he created an operatic “mutant”. (102).  Gardiner attributes to Bach the creation of “a synthesis” of myriad past and present musical idioms.

In the process of creating this synthesis, however, Bach could not remove himself from the political and ideological tumult that surrounded him.  In one of the most absorbing chapters, “Collision and Collusion,” Gardiner reveals the ways Bach deployed “the interplay – even friction – between words and music in his church cantatas” thereby yielding ambiguous and contradictory meanings from Gospel texts. (439, 447).  Irreverent Bach deliberately altered a key word in a homily (197) or highlighted through musical choices theological confusions and inconsistencies. Bach exploited music’s ability to transcend words so as to “chip away at people’s prejudices and sometimes toxic patterns of thinking” (477). Gardiner lauds Bach’s commitment to the truth of human experience, applying his “boundless invention, intelligence, wit and humanity to the process of composition.”(xxxiv)

In conclusion, a few words about this biography’s title. It derives from Weg zum Himmelsburg (The Way to the Castle of Heaven), the name for the painted cupola in the palace church of Duke Wilhelm Ernst of Weimar, the cupola and court music library destroyed, alas, by fire in 1774. The cupola’s inspired design appears in one of the volume’s many vivid illustrations, inviting the reader to hear the chords from the organ gallery where Bach performed early in his career, 65 feet above floor level, as those chords descended to its listeners below as though from heaven. Ultimately, Gardiner beholds Bach, with all his human deficiencies, striving to compose at a heavenly level of perfection, his efforts yielding triumphs of transcendent glory.


[1] Gardiner focuses exclusively on Bach’s choral work, which reflects Gardiner’s conducting experience.

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