By Kerry Wall
“The author talks about himself in the biography?!”, a friend asked incredulously after I summarized for him the first chapter of Music in the Castle of Heaven: A Portrait of Johann Sebastian Bach. It’s easy to see where he was coming from: one doesn’t usually sink into a 600-page tome about a composer expecting to begin with sketches from the author’s life. But the author is Sir John Eliot Gardiner, so one makes exceptions.
Gardiner, known in classical circles for founding and directing the English Baroque Soloists and Monteverdi Choir (among other historically informed ensembles), states early on that his book is more a “portrait” than a conventional biography (hence the subtitle). The bulk of his text is devoted to Bach’s liturgical choral works, particularly the church cantatas and the Passions. The great Bach instrumentals — the Goldberg Variations, the Art of Fugue, the Brandenberg Concertos and so on — are mentioned in passing if mentioned at all. What we get instead is a broad retelling of Bach’s life story illustrated through choral music: his own days as a choirboy, his work as a cantor and organist, and ultimately as the composer of dozens of liturgical and secular cantatas, the St. John and St. Matthew Passions and the Mass in B Minor. It’s hard to fault Gardiner for limiting the book’s scope; entries in the BWV catalogue number in the thousands, and any worthwhile examination subsequently has to either zero in on a select few works or merely mention the standouts in passing.
It’s also here that we can surmise the reasons for Gardiner’s semi-autobiographical first chapter. He opens with stories from his childhood — singing Bach motets with his siblings and growing up alongside one of two surviving portraits painted during Bach’s lifetime — recounts how he first came to conduct the choral works, and describes his interest in historically informed performance, which eventually led to the founding of the English Baroque Soloists and Monteverdi Choir and, later, the Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique. The chapter is light and engaging — the maestro’s memoirs, should he opt to publish any, will be a delightful read — and he manages to explain his own lifelong connection to Johann Sebastian Bach without his own presence becoming gratuitous.
The real point of the autobiographical notes really crystallizes later, as Gardiner delves into specific compositions. He often discusses the structure of the music, potential issues or challenges for musicians, singers and conductors, or recounts anecdotes from the EBS/MC 2000 cantata pilgrimage (the choir and orchestra performed each of the liturgical cantatas in different churches on the Sundays for which they were written). By providing a brief description of his own experience, Gardiner is in essence saying early on that he’s qualified to write this book. (It works: his occasional personal interjections fit into the narrative far more seamlessly than, say, Eric Siblin’s in The Cello Suites.)
Gardiner’s qualifications (which are plentiful) aside, Music in the Castle of Heaven is thoroughly researched and documented. One of the book’s greatest assets is its focus on historical context; Gardiner spends a lot of time explaining the state of Christianity and the duelling subsets of Lutheranism during Bach’s day, and the influence it had on his music. He also takes time to discuss the other members of what he calls the “class of ‘85,” other prominent composers (Domenico Scarlatti, Georg Friedrich Händel, Jean-Philippe Rameau, Johann Mattheson and Georg Philipp Telemann) whose careers both paralleled and differed from those of Bach in a number of ways.
Special attention is also given to the two Passions, chronicled in chronological order (St. John, then St. Matthew). Gardiner deftly explains what we know about Bach’s compositional process based on surviving documents, then dives into the works themselves. These chapters contain the most in-depth musical analysis in the book (not that the cantatas weren’t duly analysed). It’s important to note that while Gardiner doesn’t fall into the trap of overloading his analysis with inaccessible musical jargon, he also doesn’t oversimplify. Music in the Castle of Heaven is probably best enjoyed by readers with at least an intermediate knowledge of music theory. A glossary is provided at the back for certain terms, particularly Italian and German terms, but Gardiner refers to theoretical concepts such as scale degrees and modes on a fairly regular basis, and expects his readers to understand. (It’s probably a given that anyone who seeks out a Bach biography by a world-renowned conductor will have that level of interest in music anyway, but it’s worth mentioning.)
If there’s anything to quibble with in Gardiner’s narrative, it’s that he could have stood to include more of his own experiences when discussing the choral works themselves. His use of primary documents and secondary sources are masterful, and it’s clear that he did draw on his own savoir-faire, particularly when he highlights the challenges soloists and musicians face in the Passions or the B Minor Mass. His experience is also evident when he notes specific ways in which Bach’s works foreshadow those of Mozart, Beethoven and even Wagner. But like Bach himself, Gardiner has conducted the cantatas, Passions and B Minor Mass, and can speak directly to the emotional ramifications of preparing an ensemble and then leading it in these gargantuan works. Some additional informed speculation of how Bach must have felt wouldn’t have gone amiss.
Otherwise, Gardiner himself (ironically) notes the only remaining issue with Music in the Castle of Heaven in the acknowledgements. While thanking his wife, he reminds readers that he took on this, his first book, in his sixties. It may be too much to hope that Gardiner, still at the helm of his orchestras and choir at 71, will slow down enough to turn his attention to equally well-phrased and impeccably researched looks at the choral works of Handel and Mozart (or those memoirs), but one can hope.
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Kerry Wall is a Toronto-based web developer with a lifelong classical music habit. She can usually be found at one of the city’s concert halls or taking piano lessons at the Conservatory. She also twice ran half-marathons powered entirely by Tafelmusik recordings of Beethoven symphonies (and carbs).