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 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.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 672 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; 1st edition (October 29, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375415297
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375415296
  • Product Dimensions: 6.7 x 1.6 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.2 pounds

Customer Reviews

A Report from the Field

244 people found this helpful.
 on November 1, 2013
By Bach Lover
This is, and I am sure it will continue to be, one of the most interesting, well researched and valuable of books written on J.S. Bach and his times to date. I began it the day it arrived and have barely put it down. That is saying a lot as I have been buying and listening to and reading about Bach for the past 50+ years.

John Eliot in the Castle of Heaven

53 people found this helpful.
 on January 9, 2014
By Johannes Climacus
I do not mean to derogate from Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s status as one of the great luminaries of the podium in our age–to say nothing of his status as a pioneer and perfecter of period performance practice–but in the end the capstone of his career might well turn out to have been in the medium of prose rather than musical performance! This is, quite simply, the most fascinating, engrossing, erudite and stunningly written work on the Leipzig Cantor available. Too bad it focuses primarily on his sacred music (I would love to have Gardiner’s obiter dicta on many of the keyboard, chamber and orchestral works treated only tangentially here); but within that limited scope, Gardiner has achieved something quite remarkable: a work of musical historiography that manages to combine rigorous scholarship with philosophical acumen and literary flair. As a philosopher with a keen interest in the interface between aesthetics and religion, I particularly appreciated Gardiner’s thorough understanding of the exigencies of church music within the Lutheran tradition, and his situating of tht tradition within the larger framework of Church history, scriptural exegesis and Christian spirituality. His effort to discern Bach’s character and aspirations from his church music rather than principally from the documentary evidence (which is relaitvely meager) fixes the reader’s (and listener’s) attention where it must always begin and end–namely, with the scores themselves, as performed and heard. His charting of Bach’s creative development, through the seasons and struggles of his career calls our attention anew to the status of the sacred music–particularly the Cantatas–as a kind of spiritual journal recounting the consolations and desolations of a fragile, fallible genius who also happened to be something of a mystic. For Gardiner, in the end, Bach’s sacred-musical testament amounts to the bravest and most brilliant of stands against the depredations of our human condition at its most terrifying–and *for* the transcendence to the rapture of creativity fitfully but effectually points.

An Amazing Scholarly Book, but Perhaps not a Good Choice for a Non-Musician

6 people found this helpful.
 on August 28, 2015
By Trout26
John Eliot Gardiner is arguably the best interpreter of Bach currently performing/recording. His complete Bach Cantata “Pilgrimage” and the ensuing recordings are the best that I have ever listened to. The booklets that ship with the CDs (or are available, free, on line from his web site) give a hint at the scholarly research that Gardiner did in the preparation of the Pilgrimage. This book is the icing on the cake. Although perhaps a bit “dense” for the reader with a just passing interest in Bach, this book delves, in great detail, into the geographic, cultural, political, religious, and anthropological world of Bach and shows he fit (and often did not fit) into this world. Historically, there is actually very little surviving biographical information on Bach, but weaving what is known, with contemporary writings and accounts, and making logical suppositions, Gardiner has created the most complete tapestry of Bach to date. The heart of the book is when Gardiner begins discussing individual choral works, how they relate to the scriptures on which they are based, how they relate to each other, and how they relate to the theological and political environment of the time. As I have the complete recorded cycle (which I cannot recommend highly enough), it is truly illuminating to listen to each cantata while you are reading Gardiner’s descriptive prose. Certainly not every one of Bach’s 194 cantatas are described in detail, but enough are to get a really solid grasp of Bach’s genius. Were this being presentes as an advanced course at a University, it would easily be two semesters worth of material.

More a biography of Bach’s choral work than Bach the man.

4 people found this helpful.
 on August 9, 2015
By Rennfahrer
This is truly an excellent work, and all the reviews here are accurate in that respect. “Erudite,” “thoroughly researched,” etc. What must be clearly understood before embarking on the journey that is reading this book is this work is much more about the music than the man, and furthermore this work is heavily concentrated on Bach’s choral work. Naturally, such works are Gardiner’s passion (no pun intended given the exhaustive analyses of Bach’s Passions in this book) beginning with how he got his own start in music and what his own professional musical concentrations are and have been. This is all well and good and sensible given Bach’s own upbringing and his tenure as Thomaskantor in Liepzig. The book also, for the same reasons, has a great deal of talk on Lutheranism and Bach’s cantatas. Again, goes with the territory. For one steeped on the clavier works either from one’s own piano lessons or listening to Glenn Gould, or to one familiar with the cello works recorded by Casals and Ma, again the choral emphasis seems heavy. Most importantly from my perspective of wanting to find out more about the man himself, I disagree with most reviewers here because to me this book does not read as about the man but rather about his choral works. Contrast this approach with that of Solomon’s Mozart or Thayer’s Beethoven biographies. With Solomon and Thayer we learn much more about the men behind the timeless music. Here we learn less about J.S. Bach the man and more about how Lutheranism influenced Bach’s choral works and how those works are constructed musically. If the reader wants to find out more about Bach the man in general, this is not the place to start one’s research.

An Encyclopedia, not a Biography

2 people found this helpful.
 on January 5, 2016
By Cabin Dweller
Page 557, the next to last page, quotes a Bach biographer: “There is no music so demanding to realize in sound, and so quick to reveal a lack of understanding or lack of integrity in approaching it.”

"Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven" reveals the life and genius of Johann Sebastian Bach through his music.

 on July 14, 2017
By Mike Powers
Because of my long-held fascination with, and love for, the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, it only seemed natural that I would eventually begin seeking out biographies of the great composer. Many years ago, I read Christoph Wolff’s masterful “Bach: The Learned Musician.” Now I have just completed another fascinating study of Bach’s life: “Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven” by John Eliot Gardiner.

Flawed masterpiece

9 people found this helpful.
 on January 12, 2016
By Book Lover
This book is unquestionably valuable for the insights it contains from one of the great conductors and interpreters of the music of Bach. It also has an interesting chapter at the start in which the writer reveals something of his own musical pedigree, to assist the reader with understanding his perspective on the music. It is impossible not to be awed by the writer’s knowledge of his subject.

Rich feast

7 people found this helpful.
 on March 28, 2014
Gardiner writes well, with a broad understanding of art, history, and, of course, musicology. His ability to delve into the depths of Bach’s work borders on the astounding, and provides a tremendous window into the nuances of the cantatas and other sacred works. Some have criticized the lack of attention paid to instrumental music; perhaps there will be a second volume to complement this one.

The perfect balance between scholarship and anecdote.

 on March 30, 2017
By Richard S.
Although used, the book arrived in pristine condition. The content is earthly and heavenly. Gardiner is expert in combining superior scholarship with intelligent, thought-provoking discussions about performance practice that reveal and surmise the essence of Bach’s extraordinary musical and spiritual language. The read is both informal and formal – appropriate to each anecdote, historical reference, and rehearsal preparation. As I read, I feel like Gardiner is sitting across from me with a nice Chablis. He’s authentic and accessible. The book is easy to put down and come back to – like a welcome visit from an old friend.

Demanding but Rewarding Read

6 people found this helpful.
 on February 15, 2014
By P. J. Smith
The great advantage of this book is that, although it’s about Bach’s music, it is nonetheless very readable — though of course demanding of attention. As has been said of the book, it concentrates on what Gardiner knows best — the cantatas and vocal music — and slights the instrumental music, but Gardiner’s knowledge of the cantatas is so thorough and deep that it makes the book represent not only the vocal music but all of Bach’s output. One les led inevitably back to the music itself (would that one or two CDs were included! — but his achievement is remarkable. Few books on music lead the reader inexorably back to the music itself — this one does.

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