Music in the Castle of Heaven

by John Eliot Gardiner (2013)

Judged solely on the virtues of the author’s ability to transfer his experience as a musician to the page, this is a superb book. It is essentially a summary of Bach’s prodigious cantata cycles, the St. John Passion, the St. Matthew Passion, and the B minor Mass. John Eliot Gardiner knows these works intimately, and it shows.

But this is a 672 page book. It reflects Gardiner’s belief that, “the danger with Bach was always one of overload: he simply had too much to say.”p. 439

Unlike the book’s subject, however, I’m not convinced that the author can justify this tome’s verbosity.

I enjoy books that weave analysis and story. Paul Hillier’s Arvo Pärt dissects the composer’s evolution toward his tintinnabuli style while giving some personal insight into performance.I made a playlist that contains almost every piece that Hillier references. It’s a pleasant listen.

It’s highly technical. Another one of my favorite books is Charles Petzold’s The Annotated Turing: A Guided Tour Through Alan Turing’s Historic Paper on Computability and the Turing Machine. Petzold manages to strike the perfect balance detailing Turing’s life and exploring the mathematician’s groundbreaking paper.

I think the secret to those two books is their brevity. They do not cover a lifetime of work. Gardiner’s effort spans Bach’s entire life in detail and yet it feels like very important things are missing. There is little mention of his massively influential keyboard works nor his home life, which included two wives and twenty children.

Music in the Castle of Heaven focuses on Bach’s creative mind. The process of composing described by Gardiner balances Bach’s divine gifts with his banal humanity. The former is embodied by the composer’s expression of his religious faith. The latter is see with the man’s countless battles with church bureaucracy. This is the book’s strength. As an artist myself, I greatly appreciate the practical painting of genius.

Bach’s genius was his gift of harmony. In the composer’s own words, “The through-base is the most perfect foundation of music … that results in a well sounding Harmonie to the Honor of God and the permissible delight of the soul.”p. 225

Bach self-consciously used his gift to express the divine.

Gardiner goes into exquisite detail to covney the connection between Bach’s faith and the music we hear. The author gives me a sense of how Bach expertly depicted the stories of Christendom, of which I am largely unfamiliar. Consider this example from the St. Matthew Passion:p. 421-422

In the starkest of contrasts ‘Gebt mir meinen Jesum wieder’ (No. 41) is an outburst of Christian remorse to match that of Judas: a peremptory demand for the release of the captive Saviour by the very man who betrayed him. […] For once in the Passion the singer behaves conventionally at first, entering with the same melody as the violin ritornello, but is soon launched into Picander’s second phrase, Seht, das Geld, den Mörderlohn (‘See the price, the murder’s wage’). This properly belongs to the B section of this, the most succinct aria of the Passion, though we are still in the A section (so that technically this becomes a ‘through-composed’ aria). We can dismiss this as yet another instance of Bach finding his own reasons to play fast and loose with the accepted symmetry of the da capo form, until we realize that this particular brand of subversion aptly expresses the disorientation that underlies Judas’ - and our - distress at the consequences of blood money.

Now expand that over six hundred pages and you get a sense of Music in the Castle of Heaven. The sheer level of detail may become lost on even seasoned Bach aficionados. But the read is worth it for the occasional glimpse into the rich world of Bach that Gardiner offers.