Musical Offering

John Eliot Gardiner Discusses His Monumental Bach Biography

Conductor John Eliot Gardiner talks about the pleasures and difficulties of writing a monumental—but always accessible—biography of Johann Sebastian Bach.

It never happens often enough, but now and then, a subject gets the book it deserves. So it is with John Eliot Gardiner’s Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven, a biography so thoughtful, well-researched, and beautifully written that it should satisfy both the well-informed enthusiast and readers simply seeking to become better acquainted with a musical giant. Johann Sebastian Bach was such a protean composer that tomorrow someone could publish a completely different and equally wonderful biography. But in the real world here and now, it’s hard to imagine anyone outdoing Gardiner’s astonishing work any time soon.

Gardiner, not coincidentally, is a renowned, Grammy-winning conductor and a pioneering proponent of the period instrument movement, founder of the Montiverdi Choir and Orchestra, the Orchestre de l’Opera de Lyon, the English Baroque Soloists, and the Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique. A man of parts, he also runs an organic farm in Dorset, England, where he raises cattle, sheep, and feed crops.

We know roughly as much about Bach the man as we know about Shakespeare. So, because Bach himself was a man of few words, at least when it came to writing things down, a biographer has his work cut out for him. Gardiner solves this problem ingeniously, by writing about the composer’s time (the German states were just beginning to recover from the death and destruction of the 30 Years War), his religion (the Reformation was in full stride), and his profession (music was the family business, with uncles, cousins, and siblings all engaged as composers, choir directors, band leaders, organists, and teachers—all jobs Bach himself held at one time or another). And there are chapters devoted to tent-pole works such as the Passions, the B Minor Mass, and the cantatas (Gardiner knows the choral music best, so that’s what he concentrates on). The finest chapter, “Bach at His Work Bench,” recreates what it must have been like to write, say, a cantata, thinking about which musicians and singers at the composer’s disposal had the chops to handle solos, overseeing slovenly copyists (and often stepping in to copy out the musicians’ scores himself), and then hurriedly rehearsing the piece maybe a day or two before the Sunday performance, all the while thinking ahead to the next week’s number even as he spent his days running a boys’ school.

Gardiner is the first to admit that reading a book about Bach’s life and times, even one with an insider’s awareness of the music’s particular difficulties (“those long, long phrases with nowhere to breathe”), does not explain the mysterious beauty of the music itself: “Analysis of musical structure has its uses,” he writes in his preface, “but it gets you only part of the way.” But if you read Gardiner, then listen to—or better yet, try to sing or play—the pieces he’s writing about, then you can’t help learning a lot.

No stranger to a broad swath of the classical canon, the 70-year-old conductor is an expert in the Baroque repertoire, and his history with Bach goes back to childhood, when he sang the composer’s motets with his family. That began a lifelong love affair with the composer’s music, a debt that Gardiner repays with interest in this accessible but authoritative biography.

I spoke with the author when he visited New York City recently.

What inspired you to write this biography?

I think it’s to do with the discrepancy between the image that we have of him as being brilliant but forbidding and rather cerebral on the one hand, and the message that I’ve drawn from the music that is so full of vigor and life—it’s life-enhancing music that draws on dance, that draws on opera and pop music of the day and has a spiritual and a joyous side to it. There are so many different moods, so many different colors. That just fascinates me, and that I wanted to write about.

It all came from the year I spent doing nothing but Bach cantatas, the year 2000. We started in Weimar and ending up here in New York. We performed Bach cantatas on the appointed day all through the year. It was an extraordinary year, of incredible intensity. And you really got to feel, a little bit, what the wrinkles of his mind were like. It may have been delusory, it may have been that you were kidding yourself, but I began to understand some of the things that were fueling his creativity. And I wanted to write about it.

How long did it take to write the book?

Nearly 12 years. But it wasn’t as if I were doing nothing else. I am a professional conductor, and I find it terribly difficult to fight for the thinking time and writing time between professional engagements. So, if you’re conducting Mozart, Brahms, or Janacek, it’s difficult to concentrate on Johann Sebastian Bach. So that’s my excuse.

If you could write down all the hard facts that we know about him, what would it amount to? 100 pages? Less?

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Even less. In the back of my book, I put in a kind of chronology, but it’s the irrefutable facts, and I think it occupies four pages. It’s kind of pathetic really. With Bach we’ve got practically no personal letters. And the testimony of his sons should be taken with a little bit of caution because the father was so anxious, it seems, to spin a version of his own life story that’s all to do with self-improvement and hard work—everything he’d done himself--and denying really any outside influence. And yet the factual information that we have been able to piece together in the last ten years or so shows that he clearly did have mentors.

When did he recognize that he was “Bach”? That is, how aware was he of his own accomplishment?

That should be a straightforward question, but it’s not, unfortunately, because so many of his replies are opaque. When he was asked once, how did you achieve what you did, he replied, I did it through hard work, and anyone who works as hard as me will achieve the same results. Which is patently untrue. None of us can get anywhere near him.

I think he had a very strong sense of vocation. He had a very strong sense of belonging to a clan, the Bach clan, who really had a monopoly on all the major [musical] posts in Thuringia, and in concentric circles out of Thuringia. And he not only felt that as a Bach he was a privileged musician but that he had a direct link to the Old Testament musical ensembles that served in the temple of King David and King Solomon, so there was a kind of biblically sanctioned lineage between King David and himself. How about that?! That’s a strange concept. On the other hand, he was extraordinarily friendly and collegial to other composers and musicians. His house was always full of visiting musicians. He was a ferocious teacher, particularly of his own children but also of a lot of people who revered him. And yet there’s this other side of him, the square peg in a round hole. He just didn’t fit.

There’s always this imbalance between his service to the church and his service to the secular world. If he been like almost any of his peers, he’d have gone and written operas. But he didn’t, and that’s an interesting question—why he didn’t. Was it an allergy to opera or was it simply this burning desire to work for the church? And yet he wasn’t a compliant servant to the church. There wasn’t much compliant about Johann Sebastian.

Reading the book, I felt as though I were looking over your shoulder while you thought things out. It’s a very meditative book in a way.

It is, because that’s been the cathartic experience of writing it. Until you start formulating your thoughts and putting them into prose—it’s not that you don’t know what you think about the music, but you don’t know how to articulate it. So it’s a good exercise: I know this intuitively, but now I have to justify it in terms of argument and logic and narrative, and that’s what I tried to do.

Did you begin with this sort of Rashomon-type structure, of looking at Bach from a variety of angles?

Not really, and there were quite a few false starts. My first idea was to write it as a series of preludes and fugues. The preludes would be the factual basis of his life and analysis of the music, and the fugue would be a flight of fantasy---literally: fugue—of speculation and even fiction. Then I realized that that would become much too formulaic, so I abandoned that idea. And then my [English] publisher, the commissioning editor, insisted that I cover every genre of Bach, and I said, that’s impossible, I can’t do it. I don’t feel qualified because I’m not a keyboard expert. That’s not my skill at all. I’d much rather focus on the works that I know best, which are the vocal works—the Passions, the masses, and the cantatas. So that was a tension there. And then he wanted something that was really a life and works, and this is not a life and works. It’s really much more taking Johann Sebastian Bach as the hub of the book and then you have 14 different spokes, different approaches to the man through his music. And that’s how I eventually constructed it. But there were moments when I wanted to walk right away from it because the challenge of the subject matter was just so enormous, Bach himself just being so enigmatic.

And then there was the whole business of writing about music, which is a bit of a mug’s game. There are not many people who have brought it off successfully. You’re reduced either to analysis, which is deadly for the reader, unless you’re a specialist, and I wasn’t writing for a specialist. I was writing both for a musically informed readership and a lay readership as well. Or else you’re reduced to metaphor of one sort or another. I suppose the skill comes to the degree that you’re a virtuoso, which I certainly don’t feel I am, in writing in a prose style about music that is really approachable and convincing.

Was there the divide between classical and popular in Bach’s time that exists today?

No, I don’t think there was. It’s much more pronounced today. Then there was division in the sense that popular music was written and played for weddings. But Bach wrote for weddings, too. And there’s a lot of dance music that filters into his church music. He could be populist when he wanted to.

How much does he borrow from popular songs and hymns and other composers—things he didn’t write?

Oh yes, sure. He’ll take a Vivaldi violin concerto movement and elaborate on it and rewrite it for keyboard and enrich it enormously. He’ll take a Lutheran chorale tune, which is in 8 cases out of 10 of secular origin, and all to do with secular hijinks of one sort or another, and is then Lutheranized by Luther and then is turned into this monumental girder or beam around which all the rest of the music is woven and constructed in Bach’s case. He also had a more active and alert sense of the multiplicity of usage of his own music than any composer before or since, except, oh, maybe Stravinsky—seeing that this piece of music could be adapted to a totally different context. He’s like a grandmaster of chess, in that he could perceive five or six moves ahead. That’s very intriguing.

Is there anything to the cliché that Bach was ignored or looked down on for a century or so after he died?

Not much. His sons, particularly his two eldest sons, and a lot of his pupils knew that he was matchless. He was trashed by some of his contemporaries who just did not comprehend his greatness. He was recognized early on by Mozart, Beethoven and pretty much every composer of the 19th century as being the father of counterpoint. They didn’t all know the whole oeuvre, but what they did know impressed them. Take Robert Schumann—every time he had a mental breakdown, the thing he would do to retrain his ear would be to study and perform Bach.

If you had to put together a short checklist of works by Bach for someone who doesn’t know where to begin, what would you include?

Well … I would start with the motets. I think they’re the most approachable of all his music. They’re complex but they have wonderful surface attraction and tremendous profundity as well. I would take, say, ten of the cantatas, very selectively out of the 200 or so that have survived. These are entry points, and so varied. Take Cantata 81, which is all about the storm on the Sea of Galilee—the tsunami that blows up there, that’s about as close to an opera as Bach ever got. The great works, the Passions and the B Minor Mass, are non-negotiable. The violin partitas are non-negotiable. They’re just prodigious. The cello suites. The Brandenburg concertos. And that’s before touching any of the keyboard works. You’re spoiled for choice, aren’t you? But that’s where I’d start, because that’s where I did start, with the motets.

Do you have an ideal reader?

I think my ideal reader is somebody who‘s got curiosity about the nature of genius and a nodding familiarity with the works of Bach—not a specialist’s knowledge, just somebody who wants to get close to the man having heard a few pieces, and I hope it’ll encourage more people to go and listen to the music and play it and sing it. That I would regard as a success. Anything else is a failure really.