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Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven

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Johann Sebastian Bach is one of the most unfathomable composers in the history of music. How can such sublime work have been produced by a man who (when we can discern his personality at all) seems so ordinary, so opaque—and occasionally so intemperate? John Eliot Gardiner grew up passing one of the only two authentic portraits of Bach every morning and evening on the Johann Sebastian Bach is one of the most unfathomable composers in the history of music. How can such sublime work have been produced by a man who (when we can discern his personality at all) seems so ordinary, so opaque—and occasionally so intemperate? John Eliot Gardiner grew up passing one of the only two authentic portraits of Bach every morning and evening on the stairs of his parents’ house, where it hung for safety during World War II. He has been studying and performing Bach ever since, and is now regarded as one of the composer’s greatest living interpreters. The fruits of this lifetime’s immersion are distilled in this remarkable book, grounded in the most recent Bach scholarship but moving far beyond it, and explaining in wonderful detail the ideas on which Bach drew, how he worked, how his music is constructed, how it achieves its effects—and what it can tell us about Bach the man. Gardiner’s background as a historian has encouraged him to search for ways in which scholarship and performance can cooperate and fruitfully coalesce. This has entailed piecing together the few biographical shards, scrutinizing the music, and watching for those instances when Bach’s personality seems to penetrate the fabric of his notation. Gardiner’s aim is “to give the reader a sense of inhabiting the same experiences and sensations that Bach might have had in the act of music-making. This, I try to show, can help us arrive at a more human likeness discernible in the closely related processes of composing and performing his music.” It is very rare that such an accomplished performer of music should also be a considerable writer and thinker about it. John Eliot Gardiner takes us as deeply into Bach’s works and mind as perhaps words can. The result is a unique book about one of the greatest of all creative artists. 


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Johann Sebastian Bach is one of the most unfathomable composers in the history of music. How can such sublime work have been produced by a man who (when we can discern his personality at all) seems so ordinary, so opaque—and occasionally so intemperate? John Eliot Gardiner grew up passing one of the only two authentic portraits of Bach every morning and evening on the Johann Sebastian Bach is one of the most unfathomable composers in the history of music. How can such sublime work have been produced by a man who (when we can discern his personality at all) seems so ordinary, so opaque—and occasionally so intemperate? John Eliot Gardiner grew up passing one of the only two authentic portraits of Bach every morning and evening on the stairs of his parents’ house, where it hung for safety during World War II. He has been studying and performing Bach ever since, and is now regarded as one of the composer’s greatest living interpreters. The fruits of this lifetime’s immersion are distilled in this remarkable book, grounded in the most recent Bach scholarship but moving far beyond it, and explaining in wonderful detail the ideas on which Bach drew, how he worked, how his music is constructed, how it achieves its effects—and what it can tell us about Bach the man. Gardiner’s background as a historian has encouraged him to search for ways in which scholarship and performance can cooperate and fruitfully coalesce. This has entailed piecing together the few biographical shards, scrutinizing the music, and watching for those instances when Bach’s personality seems to penetrate the fabric of his notation. Gardiner’s aim is “to give the reader a sense of inhabiting the same experiences and sensations that Bach might have had in the act of music-making. This, I try to show, can help us arrive at a more human likeness discernible in the closely related processes of composing and performing his music.” It is very rare that such an accomplished performer of music should also be a considerable writer and thinker about it. John Eliot Gardiner takes us as deeply into Bach’s works and mind as perhaps words can. The result is a unique book about one of the greatest of all creative artists. 

30 review for Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven

  1. 5 out of 5

    Fergus

    There is always SO much to love in this vastly entertaining, musically nerdy and very thick book. I think I could lose myself in its beauties indefinitely. So much good stuff here, and I now have: Such a wealth of appreciation for the music: music that’s pretty basic in form, but outrageously complex in feeling! Such a breadth of admiration for this man Bach’s incredible achievements in - to take but one example - single-handedly developing Western music, without any help at all, to a limit There is always SO much to love in this vastly entertaining, musically nerdy and very thick book. I think I could lose myself in its beauties indefinitely. So much good stuff here, and I now have: Such a wealth of appreciation for the music: music that’s pretty basic in form, but outrageously complex in feeling! Such a breadth of admiration for this man Bach’s incredible achievements in - to take but one example - single-handedly developing Western music, without any help at all, to a limit necessitating a total discard of other ancient musical modes - still prevalent before his oeuvre became dominant! Such an amazement at this single composer, who repeated so many subtle tricks with the diatonic scale - becoming an old Isaac Newton to modern music’s iconoclastic Einsteins - that he developed a plug-‘n-play point which today’s young pop composers are still picking up for their own present-day creations... right where he left off! Such a humble bending of this knee to this one single, ingenious musical polymath whose capacious mind seemed always ready to transmute any random incident into a thundering monolith of pure stentorian sound! (Say, who was this old guy anyway, who without making much biographical noise in his life, totally KNOCKS THE SOCKS OFF any one of his lucky listeners - luckier still, if we are blessed with enough of the rudiments of tonality and performance to GIVE VOICE to any one of this Olympian’s works?) Just a quiet, pious, bargain-basement dull-type dude who minded his own business and ONLY DID MUSIC. Johann Sebastian Bach is sorta like the dull guy in a corner who puzzles for hours over a grossly abstruse mathematical conundrum... Or the kind of family guy who would rather play the same basic form of frisbee, with fancier and fancier loop-de-loops multiplying as the lazy Sunday afternoon turned to dusk, just himself - with his dogs and his laughing kids and in-laws around a warming barbecue... Or like a puny choir boy who’s not afraid to sing “thanks be to God” at the top of his voice when his turn finally comes. And really mean it! This guy was like - really, I mean REALLY, SQUARE. And how many modern composers are gonna start off in one key - and digressing through endless meanderings, variations and permutations without number - return to the same old ordinary key in the end? And always respect the laws of tonality? Not many, but if you’re dumb old Bach - practically ALWAYS. Bach is predictable. But awe-inspiring. Chromatic. But conservative with regard to never straying far from home (like a well-trained husband)? Hideously complicated. But delightfully simple-hearted. World, meet Bach. A quiet, trustworthy chap who practises what he preaches. A guy you’d trust your grandkids with. An unassuming nondescript man whose colossal compositions could rock the Pillars of Hercules off their foundations. A nice, ordinary guy who wrote PHENOMENALLY superhuman music. You know, John Dryden once said that music will eventually untune the skies. When that final day ultimately comes, I hope the angels play from a universal soundtrack... And I think they will choose Bach’s great Art of Fugue after the trumpet of Judgement peals out over humanity.’s lost, errant ways - For, as the Scrolls containing our individual judgements are unsealed, and we cower in shame in the audience, those 21 sententious notes of Bach’s masterpiece will be ominously repeated - Until the Blue Cerulean sky cracks wide open, leaving only Percy Byshe Shelley’s “White Radiance of Eternity!” Forever and Ever: Welcome, at last, folks - to the REAL, JUST WORLD.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Philippe Malzieu

    Still a book about Bach, the musician of the musicians, the boss. Why one moreover and what news? The author. John-Eliot Gardiner. An institution. The English chief was the student (and also the heir) of Nadia Boulanger. He was one of the heroes of the baroque revolution.This movement began in Holland and Germany at the end of the Seventies. The goal was to play again the Baroque music with more close to the authenticity: instrument of time, diapason with 451 herz, cord in bowel..Gustav Still a book about Bach, the musician of the musicians, the boss. Why one moreover and what news? The author. John-Eliot Gardiner. An institution. The English chief was the student (and also the heir) of Nadia Boulanger. He was one of the heroes of the baroque revolution.This movement began in Holland and Germany at the end of the Seventies. The goal was to play again the Baroque music with more close to the authenticity: instrument of time, diapason with 451 herz, cord in bowel..Gustav Leonhardt, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, René Jacobs… This period is very well told in the book of Richard Powers. It is the American chief, William Christie, which started again the baroque opera with Atys de Lully. I have a particular tenderness for Leonhardt. To allure my wife I took her along to listen to him to play of harpsichord at the Sainte-Chapelle.The setting sun lit the stained glasses of this jewelry Gothic. The tart sound of the harpsichord rose in the vaults. That went. Gardiner was one of the leaders of this revolution. With his chorus Monteverdi choir (in the great British tradition) and his orchestra English Baroque Solist, he has recorded many references of this repertoire, in particular of Monteverdi, the integral of the cantatas of Bach. When I was student in Lyon, he was chief of the Opera. I saw many of his concerts. With him we discovered "Les Boreades" of Rameau, "Scylla and Glaucus" of Léclair..He has also created the "Revolutionary and Romantic Orchestra" for the more recent repertoire. He has even endangered him in directing Pélléas which is the most boring Opera of the repertoire. The libretto is of a terrible silliness. It is the only one which managed to make it audible. Gardiner is undoubtedly the best person to write on Bach. He passed all his childhood in a farm of Dorset under the severe glance of Bach. the most famous portrait had been entrusted to his parents by German refugees (the destiny). Gardiner is an expert of the music.. He shows us Bach in all his truth : a man irritable, perfectionist, require, high worker. Scorned by the middle-class of Leipzig, ihe complains him to an inhuman work. Gardiner places us in the middle of the creative process, because he knows it by the interior. He traces to us the portrait of a so human man that he becomes to us close to him, far from the usual chromos. I advise you a film. Chronicles of Maria Magdalena Bach drawn from the chronicles of the same name.It is known recently that the second woman of Bach did not write it. It is apocryphal book written in the USA at the beginning of XX. The film is in black and white, austere like all those of Straub and Huillet. There are long plan-sequence with hieratic characters. Leonarhdt plays Bach and Harnoncourt his student.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Michael Finocchiaro

    Yet another book on Bach, are you kidding Fino? Well, yes and this one is really really good! John Eliot Gardner is one of the world's greatest performers of baroque music and this book provides insight into what for me would be the otherwise completely inaccessible world of Bach's choral music - all written in what is for me incomprehensible German. He has a great, entertaining writing style and I learned so much and loved learning about how I could appreciate the music despite not Yet another book on Bach, are you kidding Fino? Well, yes and this one is really really good! John Eliot Gardner is one of the world's greatest performers of baroque music and this book provides insight into what for me would be the otherwise completely inaccessible world of Bach's choral music - all written in what is for me incomprehensible German. He has a great, entertaining writing style and I learned so much and loved learning about how I could appreciate the music despite not understanding the words. I even went to a performance of the Passion of Saint John at the Madeleine Church in Paris and was blown away (it did help to have printed programs with German on one side and French translation on the other but I was pissed off at a few of the editorial choices of the conductor who cut out some of the coolest parts that Gardiner had gotten me all would up about!). Needless to say, I would recommend reading Wolff's excellent Bach biography first but I would also insist that this book is a passionate and incredibly informative read as well.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Yooperprof

    Four months to read this book! Some brilliant things here, but also very frustrating. Gardiner strongly believes that Bach's religious music, specifically the prodigious cantata cycles, the St. John and St. Matthew Passions, and the B minor Mass, are at the absolute center of Bach's accomplishment and identity. Fine, but he neglects Bach's stupendous "abstract" music, and really fails to address how those not attached to Bach's Lutheran variant of Christianity - how those who may not be Four months to read this book! Some brilliant things here, but also very frustrating. Gardiner strongly believes that Bach's religious music, specifically the prodigious cantata cycles, the St. John and St. Matthew Passions, and the B minor Mass, are at the absolute center of Bach's accomplishment and identity. Fine, but he neglects Bach's stupendous "abstract" music, and really fails to address how those not attached to Bach's Lutheran variant of Christianity - how those who may not be religious at all - may find Bach's work to be the most important musical accomplishment of the last millennium. This is not a standard biography; again that is fine, but if you want to know the basic data of Bach's life, this is not the place to start. (In spite of the book's 560 pages of text, Gardiner really does not touch upon J.S. Bach's family life at home, which is a little peculiar for a man whose wives went through twenty full-term pregnancies.) Gardiner is an important and extremely accomplished musician, and it is very valuable to read this appreciation of the great composer written by someone who approaches him from that angle, from someone who understands how Bach's genius is expressed through performance. Just be aware that this should not be the first, and definitely not the last, book about Bach that you read.

  5. 4 out of 5

    JQAdams

    Much to my surprise, given my interest in the subject and the widespread acclaim for this book, large portions of this were a total slog. Having gone in knowing Bach’s instrumental works somewhat better than his choral pieces, I was intrigued by getting the perspective of a choral conductor like Gardiner. Sadly, I found the author to be pretty grating in his discussion of music—not just the random speculation about what Bach “must have felt” as he wrote pieces (passages of music clearly show Much to my surprise, given my interest in the subject and the widespread acclaim for this book, large portions of this were a total slog. Having gone in knowing Bach’s instrumental works somewhat better than his choral pieces, I was intrigued by getting the perspective of a choral conductor like Gardiner. Sadly, I found the author to be pretty grating in his discussion of music—not just the random speculation about what Bach “must have felt” as he wrote pieces (passages of music clearly show Bach wrestling with his doubt about Lutheran dogma, huh?), but also the long descriptions of how the listener responds to various works (even when I completely agree with the reaction to the musical passages being described, being told that “the audience can’t help but” react in some, usually swoony, way bemuses me; I know a lot of people that do not react that way to Bach!). Some of the ways Gardiner organized the discussion of cantatas was also pretty unsatisfying, with a fair amount of jumping abruptly from one to the next. I actually largely enjoyed the biographical sections, even though they're mostly material I was already familiar with. Other than that, though, my main response to the book was relief that it was over, and more pages here are devoted to musicological analysis than to biographical content.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Barbara

    The book offers musical insights into Bach's sacred music, and also into his time and place. We are presented with the results of a lot of fascinating (and on-going) research. I love the cantatas, passions, masses... and have them all. I took helpful notes on what to listen out for in those cantatas I'm not familiar with. The Passions and the B Minor Mass are treated towards the end and I gave up at the end of the Kyrie. Reading about the B Minor Mass is a task for another time. I thought that The book offers musical insights into Bach's sacred music, and also into his time and place. We are presented with the results of a lot of fascinating (and on-going) research. I love the cantatas, passions, masses... and have them all. I took helpful notes on what to listen out for in those cantatas I'm not familiar with. The Passions and the B Minor Mass are treated towards the end and I gave up at the end of the Kyrie. Reading about the B Minor Mass is a task for another time. I thought that John Eliot Gardiner's enthusiastic prose could have done with some editing but occasionally there were inspiring passages of considerable beauty. Because of the density and convolutions of the prose style, the smallness of the typeface and the over 660 pages I found this an eye-and-wrist-straining read.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Steve

    I thoroughly enjoyed this. It’s detailed and full, from a conductor who has spent his whole career mastering Bach. It dropped 1 star for the underlying “doubts” about Bach. Otherwise it’s great.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Robert Lukins

    Gardiner has devoted a decent chunk of his life to the dissection, conducting and promotion of the works of Bach, particularly the sacred vocal pieces, and so it makes sense that this book is a love letter to this music he is so enraptured by. There's biography here and a strong sense of Bach's character, but what makes up the bulk of this book is a forensic, deep, loving, exhaustive and necessarily speculative analysis of the sacred works: the Passions, the Mass, and particularly the 200-ish Gardiner has devoted a decent chunk of his life to the dissection, conducting and promotion of the works of Bach, particularly the sacred vocal pieces, and so it makes sense that this book is a love letter to this music he is so enraptured by. There's biography here and a strong sense of Bach's character, but what makes up the bulk of this book is a forensic, deep, loving, exhaustive and necessarily speculative analysis of the sacred works: the Passions, the Mass, and particularly the 200-ish cantatas. It's more than a life's work and it's a pleasure and privilege to read. Delightful, heavy and really quite brilliant.

  9. 5 out of 5

    JJ

    Scarcely ever have I read a work of nonfiction written so passionately as this one. Gardiner's work tells the story of Bach's life (insofar as its events can be discerned) from its beginning through to its end, all the while examining selections from his oeuvre in detail. The most common criticism of this book I've seen in the press and on Goodreads is that it glosses over most of Bach's instrumental works. This is true. The book focuses almost exclusively on Bach's choral works and particularly Scarcely ever have I read a work of nonfiction written so passionately as this one. Gardiner's work tells the story of Bach's life (insofar as its events can be discerned) from its beginning through to its end, all the while examining selections from his oeuvre in detail. The most common criticism of this book I've seen in the press and on Goodreads is that it glosses over most of Bach's instrumental works. This is true. The book focuses almost exclusively on Bach's choral works and particularly focuses on his compositions for the church. However, the treatment of these choral works is positively forensic, and this book serves as just about as comprehensive a guide to them as any non-scholarly reader might ever ask for. Gardiner is clearly a devotee of Bach's music, and he spells out the meaning behind various pieces extremely vividly. It is often said that the skill of a good teacher lies in making the students interested (in essence, in showing enough passion in the subject to make it come alive), rather than choosing interesting things to teach. In this, I found Gardiner profoundly succesful. I'm not sure that I had ever even thought about Bach's chuch cantatas before reading this book, but by the end I have listened to a great deal of them, and have a list as long as my arm of pieces still to listen to. It's a fascinating and diverse genre that is often overlooked in the twenty-first century. Sadly, scholars don't know a great deal about the actual details of Bach's life. Where he worked and lived and by which dates he had composed which pieces - these are all things we know more than a little about, but in terms of his character and the day to day details of his life, unfortunately very little is known. Gardiner does an admirable job telling the story with the material available, but this book as a whole is primarily a musical examination of his life, rather than a strictly biographical one. One of the more unusual anecdotes from the text is included below. Bach, although certainly a brilliant man, was not always a nice one. We now move forward a few years to an episode in Bach’s first full-time post – to the saga of the recalcitrant bassoon. On one of the few occasions when Bach actually complied with the consistory’s desire for him to compose figural music, he came up with what may have been a first draft of a cantata (BWV 150), or, if not, then something very similar to it, involving a difficult bassoon solo. Setting the music in front of his raw student ensemble, the twenty-year-old Bach had either seriously miscalculated or was being deliberately provocative. His novice bassoonist, three years his senior, was Johann Heinrich Geyersbach. In rehearsal he evidently made a hash of it, and Bach showed his annoyance. As the son of a municipal music director, Bach would have been familiar with the values shared by Saxony’s instrumentalists, who were always told to be wary of Pfuscher (‘bunglers’), Störer (‘troublemakers’) and Stümpler (‘botchers’). If this was the result of having done his best to make music with an unruly lot of what would now be called late-maturing students, it merely confirmed all his misgivings. Geyersbach, for his part, was beleidigt (that superbly expressive German word which signifies both taking offence and feeling hurt), stung by the public dressing down he had received at the hands of a stuck-up young organist, known to be paid exceptionally well for doing remarkably little. The word Stümpler may have crossed Bach’s mind; instead, he called him a Zippel Fagottist. Even in recent biographies this epithet continues to be translated euphemistically as a ‘greenhorn’, a ‘rapscallion’ or a ‘nanny-goat bassoonist’, whereas a literal translation suggests something far stronger: Bach had called Geyersbach ‘a prick of a bassoonist’.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Chris

    While Bach has been part of my life since childhood, I haven't thought for more than a moment about him as opposed to his music since hearing a tape called "Mr Bach Comes to Call" when I was eight or nine. (But I heard that tape a lot. I could still recite bits of it, no question.) Gardiner's main interpretive scheme is that Bach, the man, is inferrable from Bach, the composer. Even leaving aside the intentional fallacy, which is sort of inevitable in a book that's both biography and criticism, While Bach has been part of my life since childhood, I haven't thought for more than a moment about him as opposed to his music since hearing a tape called "Mr Bach Comes to Call" when I was eight or nine. (But I heard that tape a lot. I could still recite bits of it, no question.) Gardiner's main interpretive scheme is that Bach, the man, is inferrable from Bach, the composer. Even leaving aside the intentional fallacy, which is sort of inevitable in a book that's both biography and criticism, I was surprised to find that I'm really not that interested in Bach's personal character. Given that, this was largely a slog. I also didn't quite have the theory background to follow many of the detailed arguments: I could hear what Gardiner was talking about, usually, if I heard a recording, but I couldn't infer it from the page. So why keep reading, at such length? (Besides "Lenten discipline", which, okay.) Mostly, Gardiner does what I want in a critic. He gives me a compelling reason to check out something new, and fresh insights into works I already know. There's so much Bach I haven't heard, all in principle worthwhile; but it takes something like this to make me put together a Spotify playlist of "Gardiner's Bach" and work through it. And while I've got my personal response to the major works I do know, Gardiner's close attention to Bach's creative and collaborative process do in fact provide compelling angles on the music itself. The early chapters also have some of Gardiner's own autobio, which I found intriguing in its own right. My parents, both sometime professional musicians, came of age musically in the late seventies, so Historically Informed Practice was part of the deal. My dad, famous family story, asked my mom if she wanted a diamond or a baroque oboe when he proposed, and she picked the oboe. They were obsessed for a while with a film I knew only as "the viola da gamba movie". All the Bach recordings I grew up on were from that same vein, as were the ensembles I first sang Bach in: Sprightly tempos, lean forces, North German-style organs. Part of growing up is realizing your family history is, in fact, a history. Gardiner's story made that visible to me in one small but telling way.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Al Maki

    “here is what many of us consider the most beautiful and profound manifestation that man is capable of in complex harmonious sounds that capture in an inexplicable way the joys and suffering we experience in our earthly lives” John Eliot Gardiner, a man who spent much of his life conducting and interpeting Bach's music wrote this to explain what he thought was the most representative part of Bach's body of work - his Leipzig cantatas - and why they are important. He presents Bach's life and work “here is what many of us consider the most beautiful and profound manifestation that man is capable of in complex harmonious sounds that capture in an inexplicable way the joys and suffering we experience in our earthly lives” John Eliot Gardiner, a man who spent much of his life conducting and interpeting Bach's music wrote this to explain what he thought was the most representative part of Bach's body of work - his Leipzig cantatas - and why they are important. He presents Bach's life and work from a number of points of view: his family and the overwhelming presence of death in the 17th century; his devout Lutheranism; the state of his craft at the time; the politics of his workplace; what's known of his work methods; as well as an analysis of some of the works. What emerges is a man who was uniquely fitted to express aspects of the human condition as movingly as perhaps can be done. As well as giving me insight into a great artist it also opened my eyes to the cantatas which I now see as a very large body of rich and varied music. Up until now my interest in Bach had been for his keyboard music. The book has two difficulties. If I were to tell any of my friends that I know a great 700 page book about church music I don't think any of them would ask for the title. Also there's a couple of hundred pages of relatively light musicology. But for people who find Bach's music moves them in a way they don't experience otherwise, it might be worth a try.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Cris

    This could have used a lot of editing. Gardiner's talent given its due, his story and career do not belong in a bio of Bach. And while I find the examination of the musical culture as influenced by a religious climate interesting, it is honestly not necessary to go into a history of the forest of Thuringia or to spend chapters discussing obscure Bach relatives before getting to the absolute little sure known about Bach.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Dan Glover

    Well, its taken me a very long time to read this book and its not a fault of the book. This is part biography of Bach, part biography of his music and the imagination that birthed it, and part evocative description of Bach's sacred music itself. There is much to commend here. Gardiner is one of the foremost experts on Bach today, and not because he has read nearly everything there is to read about Bach, although he has probably done so judging from the footnotes and endnotes (the former are all Well, its taken me a very long time to read this book and its not a fault of the book. This is part biography of Bach, part biography of his music and the imagination that birthed it, and part evocative description of Bach's sacred music itself. There is much to commend here. Gardiner is one of the foremost experts on Bach today, and not because he has read nearly everything there is to read about Bach, although he has probably done so judging from the footnotes and endnotes (the former are all worth reading as they are full of gems, the latter are typically only citation details). Gardiner is himself a musician and conductor and has undertaken one of the most interesting and unique feats of musical exploration ever conducted (pardon the pun, and see below). Gardiner is a leader in the recent trend (since the '70s) in musical exploration which attempts to play the music of a particular composer or era (for Bach, the Baroque) in the way its original hearers would have experienced it. As such, performances will be played on period instruments (ie. gut strings rather than steel, instruments crafted using original techniques rather than modern, etc.) and played in the way they likely would have been originally played (ie. in churches rather than concert halls, unamplified, and often at a much quicker pace than modern sensibilities usually gravitate toward). Gardiner's "insider" perspective on Bach's music as interpreted through Bach's life and religious convictions as well as through having stood in Bach's place as conductor throughout a full church calendar cycle is really what makes this book special. Gardiner is at his best as an author when he is at his best as a conductor. The book describes at great length not only the musicology and the performance but also the psychology and theology of some of Bach's most well known works. These descriptions often soar along verbally, mirroring the score itself as it is playing back in the mind of the author. I have to admit that prior to reading this book, Bach was already my favourite composer. However, while reading this book, I purchased (or was given by a friend who himself masterfully plays Baroque music on period instruments) several CDs of Bach's music, as many as possible of which were conducted by Gardiner, performed by his famous Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists and recorded in churches or cathedrals. I have to advocate for this way of reading this book. Listening to the very work, performed (or as Bach might have preferred to think of it, offered) in as close as possible to the way it would have originally been sung and played, while reading Gardiner's often emotional and spiritual descriptions of the works is among the closest I've ever come to reading in four dimensions [perhaps to be compared with reading C.S. Lewis's "A Grief Observed", while working through the delayed grieving process two years after my mother's death and finding that my favourite author had struggled with much of the same thoughts and feelings, or reading some of the Psalms or parts of Job or Ecclesiastes and finding my heart or mind crying out in unison with the sacred speaker, or being caught up into worship upon wrestling through a demanding text of Scripture or theology...but I digress]. I've classified this as a biographical/historical work, but there are profound observations of psychology, theology, philosophy and doxology here as well. I did not always agree with Gardiner's rendering of Bach's Lutheran psychology or of Bach's own spiritual struggles. I thought perhaps where Gardiner sometimes detected doubt in Bach's scoring of a particular portion of the gospels or other Scripture, one could just as easily interpret a tried but steady faith or a determination to believe the promises of God despite the upheavals of this earthly life (Bach lost an uncle and both parents by the time he was 10, and he lost his first wife and several of his children - 10 if I recall). Or perhaps as is more likely, it is a combination of all of the above. But even where I wondered if Gardiner was misinterpreting the inspiration behind some of Bach's scores or some of his margin notes in his favourite Bible commentaries, I know that I am far richer for having had someone like Gardiner lead me into the inner world of Bach and his music. Gardiner is somewhat uniquely qualified to write this book. Not only has Bach been in the forefront of his consciousness since he was a child and his family had a famous original portrait of Bach hanging in their stairwell, "overseeing" the home, but Gardiner set out on a unique and mind-blowing "Bach cantata pilgrimage" in 2000 with his orchestra and choir, playing all (yes, ALL) of Bach's sacred cantatas in a 52 week period in churches around Europe and the US. This meant that they performed nearly everyday for a year, sometimes more than once a day, something that Bach himself would have done in his post as Thomascantor in Leipzig. When one does this, one really gets inside the head and heart of the great master even as he himself was inhabiting the seasons of the church year, recounting and witnessing as they do to the history of redemption through the life and work of Christ. If someone wants a basic and general introduction to Bach, I highly recommend not this. If you want to begin to understand Bach's sense of sacred mission, his motivations, and above all the tapestry of his sacred music itself in all its variation, complexity, energy and beauty, this deep-dive is your guide.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Daniel Mitterdorfer

    Abandoned - too dry and flowery.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Christy

    A long, detailed book, full of wonder at Bach’s genius without painting him as an inaccessible saint. Gardner balances between the earlier romanticization of Bach and the more recent stripping Bach of his faith. He attempts to show how Bach is compelling both spiritually and musically and delights both the believer and nonchristian listener. There is much in-depth exploration, and it is worth it to read and consider every detail.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Alan Braswell

    Music theory is concerned with primary how composers make music. Music in The Castle of Heaven is such a book. The music director, John Elliot Gardner, who has conducted nearly the entirety of Johann Sebastian Bach catalog, has set out in these pages of how Bach made his music. From the portrait of Bach which stared at him when he was a small boy to as a conductor of a orchestra in which one learning is on going. In the very first chapter of the book one sees how Bach's mind is formed as a young Music theory is concerned with primary how composers make music. Music in The Castle of Heaven is such a book. The music director, John Elliot Gardner, who has conducted nearly the entirety of Johann Sebastian Bach catalog, has set out in these pages of how Bach made his music. From the portrait of Bach which stared at him when he was a small boy to as a conductor of a orchestra in which one learning is on going. In the very first chapter of the book one sees how Bach's mind is formed as a young boy because of the influence, either by force or by acceptance, the overwhelming influence of the Lutheran Church. It is that religious body which keep Bach going back to all the rest of his life as he delightly studied the Scriptures. One reviewer mentions that John Elliot Gardner either skipped over or lightly touched on other portions of Bach's cannon of works. The focus being mainly on the two Passions. The two Passions, Matthew and John, are where we get a true and complete portrait of Bach. As there is contained within all the liturgy that Bach learned way back when he was a small boy reciting the Lutheran Confessions.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Nigel Ewan

    Gardiner is a fantastic author who exudes a contagious passion for Bach. Unfortunately, my limited knowledge of the German language, music theory, and Baroque music in general made it difficult for me to fully engage with his in-depth treatments of much of Bach's work, particularly his St. John and St. Matthew Passions, to which Gardiner devotes a chapter each. It's an instructive biography of Bach with a huge side of musicological analysis that left me longing to improve my own understanding.

  18. 5 out of 5

    John

    During the last year, as the result of our decision to purchase symphony tickets and the need in my classroom to have quiet background music as students read, I’ve been listening to a lot more classical music. I’ve always listened some--off and on--but recently it’s been a lot, and Bach has always been my favorite. I decided to read a biography of the great composer and was excited to read the endorsements of the recent bio--John Eliot Gardiner’s Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven. This seemed During the last year, as the result of our decision to purchase symphony tickets and the need in my classroom to have quiet background music as students read, I’ve been listening to a lot more classical music. I’ve always listened some--off and on--but recently it’s been a lot, and Bach has always been my favorite. I decided to read a biography of the great composer and was excited to read the endorsements of the recent bio--John Eliot Gardiner’s Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven. This seemed to be the work to read. Unfortunately, upon reading the book, I have found that I had a misimpression of what the book really was. Gardiner’s work is less a straight biography than it is an explication of Bach’s cantatas and the two Passions--with an occasional eye toward the ways Bach’s personality and life shape the music. The result is that this book is written for an audience in possession of much more specialized knowledge than I have. The book was, as a result, more dense and dryer in spots for me than it would be for other readers. This is likely much more a flaw with the reader, in this case, than it is with the writer. Those things said, I thought that I learned a lot about Bach’s music and his life, and while much of Gardiner’s writing about the music flew straight past me, not all of it did, and I’ve found myself listening to Bach even more since reading the book and doing so more attentively. I should probably listen to a lot more Bach and read a good bit more about him and revisit this book again in the future.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Josh Brown

    This book did a really good job avoiding common issues I have with books about music: that is, it actually talked about the music, instead of avoiding the subject with biographical speculation that leaves you feeling cheated or like the author didn't really understand it in the first place. Gardener has clearly spent a lot of time both thinking about and performing Bach's entire vocal music catalog, and it shows. There was s biographical aspect to this book, but the line between biography and This book did a really good job avoiding common issues I have with books about music: that is, it actually talked about the music, instead of avoiding the subject with biographical speculation that leaves you feeling cheated or like the author didn't really understand it in the first place. Gardener has clearly spent a lot of time both thinking about and performing Bach's entire vocal music catalog, and it shows. There was s biographical aspect to this book, but the line between biography and analysis was clearly drawn and though it was crossed at points, it was crossed in a way that shows real understanding of the difficulty of such a move. My only criticism may have more to do with the nature of the music being written about than the writing itself: but when he got into the finer points of so many different cantatas, mass and passion movements, I found it dense, but very quick. I couldn't hold his ideas about a given piece in my head while listening to it, and eventually gave up trying to coordinate my listening with the writing, just hoping Gardiner's ideas about different pieces would somehow stick. Bach wrote so much different music that it is always overwhelming to try to get hold of it, even if the angle you are working from is relatively limited. At some point I always give up and just listen, which of course is fine, but I wanted Gardiner to mediate that process just a bit more than he did.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Jean

    The author is a well known Conductor in England. He is the founder of the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists. In some ways this book is an autobiography of Gardiner and his search for information to understand Bach, wrapped in a biography of Bach. Gardiner tells of the difficulties Bach had with his employers throughout his career and his recurrent refusal to accept authority. He tells of Bach’s life as an orphan and his problems with schools. Gardiner book is dense with fact and The author is a well known Conductor in England. He is the founder of the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists. In some ways this book is an autobiography of Gardiner and his search for information to understand Bach, wrapped in a biography of Bach. Gardiner tells of the difficulties Bach had with his employers throughout his career and his recurrent refusal to accept authority. He tells of Bach’s life as an orphan and his problems with schools. Gardiner book is dense with fact and full of diversions. The book is also rich in informal conjectures. He writes of Back’s gradual turn from what listeners today might consider “the parochiality of the liturgical context” to “music that shows more and more signs of an almost limitless appeal.” Gardiner speculates “It is entirely possible that Bach’s growing disenchantment with Cantatas in the 1730s arose from a since that the communality of belief that he had once shared with his congregation was breaking down, and that, for whatever reason, he was now failing to make his mark.” The author writes in a lively, conversational style. Gardiner has done an excellent job of painting us a picture of Bach considering how little information about him is available. I read this as an audio book downloaded from Audible. Antony Ferguson does a great job narrating the book.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Toby

    It's certainly not a straightforward read, but you have to admire the scholarship, years of experience and verve of John Eliot Gardiner's writing. This is a man who knows Bach's choral works right from the inside and as such can provide insights that few others can. This is not a conventional biography - like Shakespeare, Bach leaves us with only fragments from which to draw a life portrait - nor is it an exhaustive study of his music. The orchestral works are only mentioned in passing. This is It's certainly not a straightforward read, but you have to admire the scholarship, years of experience and verve of John Eliot Gardiner's writing. This is a man who knows Bach's choral works right from the inside and as such can provide insights that few others can. This is not a conventional biography - like Shakespeare, Bach leaves us with only fragments from which to draw a life portrait - nor is it an exhaustive study of his music. The orchestral works are only mentioned in passing. This is fundamentally a book about Bach's cantatas, two epic cycles orbiting the stars of the John and Matthew passions. There is always going to be a problem in writing about music. Art can be illustrated in lavish colour plates, poetry can be quoted. Music can only be heard. I listen to a Bach choral work almost every day and have all his cantatas, but even then when arias and obbligatos are referenced it becomes too much of an effort to track down the relevant track and play it. Those very familiar with Bach's Big Three (John, Matthew and the B Minor Mass) will find his chapters on those works easier to follow. At the end of the book I was left knowing not that much more about Bach the man, but with a greatly enhanced appreciation for the magnificence of his works which surely put him, along with Shakespeare at the apex of European art and culture.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Jackson Cyril

    Great Book. Gardiner's extensive experience in conducting Bach's music sets for a brilliant exposition on the topic of Bach using his music as an important source of information. His detailed analyses of Bach's cantatas in particular shed light on the passions and tribulations of Bach the man. In it we come across a man as passionate as Beethoven at one point and one who has the ability to please like Mozart at another, all while staying within the parameters of the world he was living in. And Great Book. Gardiner's extensive experience in conducting Bach's music sets for a brilliant exposition on the topic of Bach using his music as an important source of information. His detailed analyses of Bach's cantatas in particular shed light on the passions and tribulations of Bach the man. In it we come across a man as passionate as Beethoven at one point and one who has the ability to please like Mozart at another, all while staying within the parameters of the world he was living in. And more than any of these other composers's music, to truly understand Bach's music one needs to understand his times, his environment and the religion of the day. Bach was a Lutheran to the core, and it seems like he saw himself as a sort of successor to Luther. As far as the writing is concerned, Gardiner is a master storyteller who weaves together various strands of evidence and pieces together a fascinating read. He has an enviable command of the English language and his flow in presenting the material is remarkable.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Nancy Moffett

    So interesting in a boring way! I loved the detailed exposition of the cantatas, but there were too many details about Bach's employers and speculations about his psychology. I object to the condescending way John Elliot describes Bach's spiritual life. Why does he assume that a man of Bach's genius is incapable of having a genuine relationship with God? Still, I learned a lot about the cantatas and hope to reread portions of this as a resource

  24. 4 out of 5

    Ian

    Some really interesting insights into Bach's work and life. Occasionally felt like the same point was being made multiple times, but the interweaving of his life story and the musicology was great, and made me go and listen to a few pieces of Bach I didn't know.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Timothy Munro

    Vivid, enlightening, occasionally provocative bio in which Bach's vocal music comes to dramatic life in Gardiner's evocative (and occasionally clumsy) prose. Justified or not, I feel closer to both Bach the man and Bach the composer...

  26. 5 out of 5

    Ron Mentzer

    What an amazing book. Gardiner's book provides insight into the forces that shaped Bach and his music. The middle section is rather technical and almost requires you to read them while listening to the works discussed. It was worth them time that it took to carefully read this work.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Jim Becker

    Gardiner not only gives a history of Bach, but also gives a detailed "walk-through" of 3 Bach masterpieces. Very thorough and gives the reader an insight to Bach's genius.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Caroline

    Interesting, at times a little too much extrapolating beyond our evidence, but wow it made me miss singing all those things!

  29. 5 out of 5

    John

    Perhaps no other composer is as important to classical musicians, and indeed to Western music as a whole, than Johann Sebastian Bach. Though he is not my favorite composer personally, I readily acknowledge that his was a musical genius unmatched by any other composer of any other era, before or since. It seems natural, then, that as a musician, I should be aware of who this man was, and understand the gravity of his accomplishments. John Eliot Gardiner chooses to approach this by attempting to Perhaps no other composer is as important to classical musicians, and indeed to Western music as a whole, than Johann Sebastian Bach. Though he is not my favorite composer personally, I readily acknowledge that his was a musical genius unmatched by any other composer of any other era, before or since. It seems natural, then, that as a musician, I should be aware of who this man was, and understand the gravity of his accomplishments. John Eliot Gardiner chooses to approach this by attempting to reveal the man through his music, which is so often emotionally riveting in a multitude of ways. I wanted very much to love this book. And while it was indeed a well-written and exceptionally researched volume, it unfortunately left me disappointed in several areas. First of all, I think it might have been a bit deceptive to advertise this book as a biography. While there is biographical information to be found in the book- the first few chapters succeed in shedding light on his turbulent upbringing- the vast majority of it was made up of musical synopses of Gardiner's favorite cantatas. These are done very well, but they quickly become wearisome. I found myself skipping lines after while, which I did not expect to do when I started reading. I understand that Gardiner is scrutinizing these works to reveal Bach's nature by also contextualizing them, but it gets tedious after nine or ten cantatas. I learned frustratingly little about the dynamics of Bach's family life, his personal correspondence, or other important facets of his life aside from a chapter or two on his upbringing. Compounded with this issue is the almost exclusive focus on Bach's church music, specifically his cantatas and the John and Matthew passions. These are very important works, for sure, but either mentioned only in passing or ignored entirely are seminal works like The Well Tempered Clavier, the Art of Fugue, the Notebook for Anna Magdalena, the Christmas Oratorio, and perhaps most noticeably absent, the Brandenburg Concerti. Perhaps the subtitle of the book is meant to imply its focus on sacred music. But even this is rather vague. While these issues certainly detracted from the experience of reading the book, I feel obligated to acknowledge that this is indeed an admirable effort from Mr. Gardiner. I can tell that he put no shortage of effort into writing this book, and his extensive experience in researching and performing Bach's music is evident. But this is not where I would recommend you start if you are looking for a comprehensive biography of J.S. Bach. If you are already readily familiar with the stations of his life and his church music, you will have a more fulfilling experience reading this book. While I certainly enjoyed reading this, it just falls short in too many ways to be truly called a "great" biography. Its focus is simply too narrow and the amount of musical synopsis to be found is a bit overwhelming. Nevertheless, any musician would do well to add this to his or her library. I will certainly return to this book in the future once I have acquired a more thorough knowledge of Bach's repertoire.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Chris

    This book is part biography, part a study of the music Bach wrote for church services. Read this book for its discussion of Bach's conception of his church music and especially for the author's comprehensive and thoughtful insights into several of Bach's works that he discusses in depth. The book begins like a typical biography, covering Bach's early life and influences. The main difference is that the author explains his involvement in a musical group that played Bach's cantatas sequentially for This book is part biography, part a study of the music Bach wrote for church services. Read this book for its discussion of Bach's conception of his church music and especially for the author's comprehensive and thoughtful insights into several of Bach's works that he discusses in depth. The book begins like a typical biography, covering Bach's early life and influences. The main difference is that the author explains his involvement in a musical group that played Bach's cantatas sequentially for one year, using only traditional instruments. This experience shines throughout the book and is probably one of the best reasons to give it a read. Following the discussion of Bach's early life and influences, the book continues on with Bach's struggles finding work and starting off as a composer. The author provides insights during this portion of the book, but they don't compare to what comes later once Bach arrives in Leipzig and starts writing cantatas. At this point, lack of familiarity with the music Bach wrote at the time being discussed will make the book harder to read, as will a lack of familiarity with the basic beliefs of Lutheranism. The author argues that certain cantatas were composed in intentional sequence, and then discusses how they relate to each other. Some of the discussion touches each piece as a whole, while other parts focus on given movements and even measures in certain cantatas. Although enlightening and engaging, it can be hard to follow without either having the score in front of you or being familiar with the cantata under discussion. I very much wish this book came with a guide to which pieces will be discussed in each chapter and how many pages will cover each piece. Later, the chapters move to Bach's passions and his D Minor Mass. For each of those chapters, I found it helpful to listen to the work being discussed before and after the chapter, but since that takes such a long time I would recommend listening after reading if you can only do one. Listening after reading the author's write-up of each of these larger pieces is listening with new ears. Finally, the book ends with a move toward a typical biography, describing the highlights of the last years of Bach's life. My main criticisms of this book are the lack of a music guide to go along with the book, the author's repeated, mostly unsupported claims about how Bach's audiences reacted to his music, and the author's bad habit of explaining things and only afterwards letting the reader know that what we just read was speculation based on somewhat informed guesses from very little information. Although I appreciate the author noting the sparse evidence supporting his speculations, he keeps coming back to them as if, despite the lack of evidence, we should take them as true. I recommend the read in conjunction with listening to at least some of the music. If you are interested in certain works from Bach's large collection of church music, it might be worth reading only the chapter(s) that addresses the work. Probably not the best book if you want to know about Bach's entire body of work, but a wonderful look at this limited body of Bach's work.

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