Stephen Walsh

Was Bach as boring as this picture suggests?

The composer was a complex genius, shows John Eliot Gardiner in Music in the Castle of Heaven

Was Bach as boring as this picture suggests?
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Music in the Castle of Heaven

John Eliot Gardiner

Allen Lane, pp. 629, £

What, one wonders, will John Eliot Gardiner be chiefly remembered for? Perhaps, by many who have worked with him, for his notorious rudeness to performers and colleagues. At one point in his marvellous new book on Bach he refers to the master ‘losing his rag with musicians’ (as a corrective to the ‘Godlike image’ of Bach that posterity has tended to prefer), and one senses a not entirely veiled sympathy: one struggling director excusing another, admittedly greater, but in that respect at least no different.

For while Gardiner doesn’t, as far as I know, compose, he has been and remains beyond question one of the most influential performing musicians of our time. The book’s first chapter chronicles his gradual emergence as a force in what we all blithely used to call Early Music: his distaste, as a Cambridge undergraduate, for the King’s College Willcocks style (Bach’s ‘Jesu meine Freude’ ‘sung in English with effete and lip-wiping prissiness’), his admiration for Thurston Dart’s ‘Sherlock Holmes-like approach to musicology’ and the ‘most un-English ardour’ of George Malcolm’s performances with the Westminster Cathedral choir.

His own significant conducting career began with Monteverdi’s Vespers, but gradually expanded in both directions, culminating (perhaps) in the great Bach cantata pilgrimage of 2000, but with many fascinating excursions besides. His ‘Pilgrimage to Santiago’ (medieval and Renaissance music) is one of the few CDs I can play and replay, and his LSO Barbican programme of Stravinsky’s Apollo and Oedipus Rex last spring quite simply set new standards of musical grasp and intelligence for the concert performance of those works.

Gardiner has never been a jetsetting allsorts conductor. You only have to read his insert notes for the Bach pilgrimage recordings to see that he is a musician who thinks long and hard about the works he intends to programme, researches text and context in great detail, but — and this is the crucial factor — knows how to convert knowledge into a profound sense of what makes the music work. He talks a lot about ‘the brilliant, indefatigable sleuths’, toiling away in the Bach-Archiv in Leipzig. Yet there is nothing dry or dusty about his own scholarship or the way it feeds into his performances: nor, we can now add, the way it feeds into his book, which is clearly as much the fruit of his experience conducting this astonishing music as it is the product of archival research. It’s a fat book, very detailed and erudite and sometimes, though not essentially, technical. But from it there emerges precisely and vividly what the subtitle says: a portrait of Bach, not in the straightforwardly biographical sense, but as revealed by the music — what it is, how it was written, for whom, when and why.

There is no great shortage of books on the master, and one needs to know what this one offers that the others by and large don’t. At its core is a penetrating study of the vocal works that Gardiner has specialised in conducting: the cantatas, the two Passion settings, the motets and the B minor Mass.

The instrumental works are not quite ignored, but they are sidelined, in express defiance of Charles Rosen’s protest against the ‘fashionable placing of the cantatas as Bach’s principal achievement’. Rosen, a keyboard player, regretted what he called ‘the overemphasis on extra-musical symbolism’. Gardiner is unashamedly interested in precisely that aspect of Bach’s text-settings, and especially the elements of drama which, he maintains, were an offshoot of the baroque enthusiasm for theatre, and even in some ways a greater expression of that enthusiasm than the vacuous opera seria that soaked up so much of the musical energy of Bach’s contemporaries.

There’s no attempt here to survey the cantatas, all two hundred and something of them. Instead Gardiner locates the composer in his various postings —Mühlhausen, Weimar, Cöthen, Leipzig — then allows the music to materialise selectively within its changing environment. In the process we learn a lot about Bach himself, and the picture is more rounded than I can remember from even the best general studies.

Bach, evidently, was no dullard in a wig. Gardiner even analyses the well-known Haussmann portraits (one of which hung in his parents’ house when he was a child), and discovers ‘someone a lot more complex, nuanced, and, above all, human’ than the standard image.

Complex, no doubt. Gardiner’s account of the early Mühlhausen cantatas, with their amazingly original response to the routine Lutheran requirement of a musical equivalent of bible readings, sent me straight back to the music (mainly Gardiner’s own recordings); and I was still cross-listening — the book, the music, the book, the music — when I got to Leipzig’s Thomasschule and the apocalyptic word-painting of cantata 20, ‘O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort’, which I thought I knew, and now realise I didn’t. But even Gardiner is finally struck dumb by this masterpiece:

We hear the gurgling of the forbidden water and the continuo playing a last furtive snatch of the ritornello. Then, dissolve … fade out … silence. Extraordinary.

Bach had and has a bad reputation for small-minded awkwardness. He was a late product of a time when composers were still a part of households, unless, like Handel, they had an entrepreneurial spirit and started their own companies, or, like Mozart a few years later, they wearied of their menial status and went perilously freelance. The Bachs, a long-standing Thuringian dynasty of church organists and town pipers, were less inclined to break away from municipal duties. Gardiner finds some of the ancestral music well worth investigating and, probably, influential.

But nothing matches Johann Sebastian; and when you think of the supreme brilliance and spectacular originality of cantata after cantata, of the St John Passion (which Gardiner admires almost above everything), of the St Matthew and the monumental B minor Mass (perhaps completed in 1745, Gardiner suggests, as a ‘Mass of Peace’ at the end of the Second Silesian War), it’s hardly surprising that their composer raged against the trivial, rule-bound philistinism of church and municipal bureaucrats who only wanted a quiet life undisturbed by the febrile imaginings of one of the greatest of all geniuses.

Bach, Gardiner insists and demonstrates, was emphatically not a bore; and nor, emphatically, is this book.

Available from the Spectator Bookshop £23.95, Tel: 08430 600033. Stephen Walsh’s Mussorgsky and his Circle will be published later this month.