Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Music In The Castle Of Heaven

Music In The Castle Of Heaven

A Portrait of Johann Sebastian Bach

By John Eliot Gardiner

Published on October 3rd 2013 by Allen Lane/Penguin

If you are looking for a short introduction to the life and works of Bach, this is NOT the book you are looking for.  This outstanding volume is positively encyclopaedic in its scope, approach, scholarly erudition and size, clocking in at 600 pages in the digital edition and all the while retaining its author's enthusiasm and love for Bach.

Sir John Eliot Gardiner is a world renowned musician and conductor who has a truly phenomenal passion for Bach, having played and sung the composer's works since he was a young child; he has harnessed this performer's intimate knowledge with his background as a historian to produce a thoroughly comprehensive portrait of  the life and times of the whole Bach family from its earliest recorded instances, though its primary focus is on the Master himself, Johann Sebastian Bach.  It is a delight to learn so much about Sir John's own musical journey through life at the opening, which sets the scene for the rest of the book.

 The influences of Luther on the teaching of music to children, the political situation of Germany, the history of Protestantism and the rise of the Pietist movement  as it comes into conflict with the rise of the Baroque and a more orthodox Lutheranism as well as the influence of the Enlightenment in scientific and philosophical matters all had a significant impact upon the social milieu in which Bach lived and worked, and all are described. The question of how the Bach family produced so many musicians is the subject of a chapter on its own, though we are reminded that many of the extensive dynasty were very average musicians at best.

There is an in-depth analysis of many pieces of music and I found it a delight to become acquainted with so very many pieces I had not previously encountered, listening to them wherever possible, often via YouTube, as I was reading Sir John's commentaries in the book. The sheer prodigious output of Bach is almost unbelievable; the liturgical music he composed for the Sundays and feast days  of the Christian year in cantata form alone is staggering. I particularly enjoyed learning about so many other great composers who were either more or less contemporaneous or influential on J S Bach, and how this amazing musical jigsaw puzzle of sources and  influences fits together. The nuts and bolts of composition make for absorbing reading even for me, and I cannot read a note of music.

This is a truly remarkable book and I cannot recommend it too highly to anyone who likes music.

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