The voice of God?

JS Bach

A brilliant, festive study of JS Bach uses literature and painting to illuminate his 'dance-impregnated' music. Peter Conrad filed this review for The Guardian.

Music in the Castle of Heaven: A Portrait of Johann Sebastian Bach by John Eliot Gardiner (Penguin Australia)

Bach might be John Eliot Gardiner's godfather, a few centuries removed. Gardiner actually grew up under the eye of the bewigged Lutheran cantor: a portrait of him had been entrusted to Gardiner's parents – who raised their brood with sung graces at mealtimes and traditional country dances afterwards – for safekeeping during the war. On his way upstairs to bed, the young Gardiner always flinched from the zealot's ‘forbidding stare.’

At the end of his long book, after a lifetime spent studying and conducting Bach's choral works, Gardiner finally has the courage to return that stern gaze.

In Princeton, where the portrait is now located, he looks both at it and through it, discerning the character of this most detached and unconfiding of artists. The nose is still beaky, and the eyelids have a weary, elderly droop. But Gardiner now fastens on the ‘fleshly lips and jowls’ that tell of Bach's partiality for food and drink: severity is countered by sensuality. And he detects a glint in those fixed, asymmetrical eyes – a hint of the mad exuberance and raging complexity vented in his fugues or in the wild cacophony when the chorus in the St Matthew Passion demands Christ's death. Bach's supremely ordered music, Gardiner suggests, is engaged in a desperate struggle to keep chaos at bay.

His book is not a biography, but its guesses about the inner life of an impersonal man are shrewd. Gardiner notes how inured Bach must have been to pain and grief: he lost his parents during childhood, and 12 of his own 20 children died before reaching the age of three. He also emphasises his insurgent temper. Employed as the supposedly obedient servant of clerics and town councils, he consistently defied their orders, absented himself without leave, and composed music that baffled and sometimes offended them. Studying a manuscript copied by one of Bach's underlings, Gardiner notes that the pen suddenly veers off the page, and concludes that the master had just boxed the dozy pupil's ears.

This interrogation of the man, however, is intermittent; Gardiner's concern is the work – or at least some of it. He concentrates on the cantatas, having performed all 200 of them during a single year, on the liturgical feasts for which they were intended, in a devout pilgrimage that took him to churches in 13 European countries and on a detour to New York. There are long and revelatory chapters on the St John and St Matthew Passions, and on the B Minor Mass, considered by Gardiner to be ‘the most epic of all journeys in music.’

But apart from the Coffee Cantata, anything secular – the Brandenburg Concertos, the orchestral suites, keyboard works such as The Goldberg Variations and The Well-Tempered Clavier – is excluded.

It may be that Gardiner, who imagines Bach constructing a graduated stairway that ascends from earth to heaven, doesn't recognise such a thing as non-sacred music. Listening to Bach, he believes he is hearing ‘the voice of God’, and he approvingly paraphrases a medieval worldview by declaring: ‘God is still the only true creator.’

The rest of us, who love and are moved by Bach's music but have less interest in glorifying his grim Jehovah, are admonished by a quote from the composer György Kurtág: Bach, he said, impelled him to forget his own atheism.

Luckily, Gardiner's approach is far from doctrinaire. Taking faith for granted, he still makes the effort to account for the emotional force and consolatory balm of Bach's music in ways that are humanly engaging. He treats the cantatas as psychodramas, and thinks of the Passions as three-dimensional versions of opera which, rather than exhibiting the vocal and histrionic antics of sacred monsters in a fictional world onstage, address us directly when the soloists perform their hortatory arias and require us, in chorales that were sung by the entire congregation, to participate in Christ's tragedy and in the divine comedy that is its sequel.

Gardiner's analogy for the way the Passions work comes from a literary form that could not be less spiritually exalted: he draws on theorists of the novel such as Bakhtin to explain the ‘dialogic threads’ and complementary ‘subjectivities’ that Bach draws together, and despite his own orthodoxy he makes frequent allusions to Philip Pullman, for whom art is our demonic repudiation of an oppressive God…

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