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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.
Hardcover: 672 pages
Publisher: Knopf; 1st edition (October 29, 2013)
Product Dimensions: 6.7 x 1.6 x 9.6 inches
Shipping Weight: 2.2 pounds
A Report from the Field
240 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
48 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 outstanding revelation of Bach’s choral works for those who know music.
87 people found this helpful.
on November 28, 2013
By Amazon Customer
I really like this book, although I probably won’t finish it. I have about 50 of Gardiner’s cantata recordings and other works but I am not a musician and don’t read music. The book is a wonderful synthesis of historical information on Bach and Gardiner’s intuitions derived from his intimate knowledge of the music, especially the choral works. But I can’t “hear” the music when Gardiner describes it, and I can’t read he notes he shows.
Wonderful biography, best read while listening
9 people found this helpful.
on March 2, 2014
By C. Tomasi
Little is known of specific events in Bach’s personal life, so this book is in part a work of inference and conjecture from limited sources. However, the reconstruction is very honest, data-driven, and rigorous, and resists the temptation to fill in blanks just to build a nice story. The author, conductor John Eliot Gardiner, is one of the main experts in Bach’s choral work, and the book focuses on those aspects of the composer’s production. Gardiner is also a good historian and an engaging story teller. He has an enormously broad and deep knowledge of history, culture, and music, and paints a compelling picture of Germany in Bach’s time as a backdrop for the more personal aspects of this biography and for the musical aspects of some of Bach’s best pieces. The first four chapters can be read as a regular book. Once you get to chapter 5, it’s best to listen to the cantatas and other pieces discussed in the book before reading, because their discussion is specific and detailed. Bach’s music is intimately tied to the lyrics, so reading those (in German if you can) is useful as well. You do not need to know musical theory or notation to understand the book, though: This book is for everyone who is interested in Bach, and is very readable. Once I encounter a new piece in my reading, I stop to download the music (directed by Gardiner when available) from iTunes, read the text of the piece from the web while listening, and then continue reading the book. I find this experience fulfilling, uplifting, and tremendously enjoyable.
13 people found this helpful.
on December 15, 2013
By Robin Gill
I agree with much that “Bach Lover” said in his review. I read the whole thing – though I skimmed the more technical parts that can be best appreciated slowly in conjunction with the music he discusses. The emphasis is on the sacred choral music – the cantata cycles, passions and the B Minor Mass. But even if you go lightly on the details like I did, the story is still compelling and the portrait of Bach, the man and his time, comes through. Recommended without reservation.
Highly recommended to Bach lovers
17 people found this helpful.
on January 8, 2014
By Amazon Customer
Gardiner’s reputation as a musician needs no comment, but as an historian he competes with the best in this book. His attention to detail, historical analysis, and measured conclusions from incomplete fact set this book apart from biographies of adulation. for readers who want to delve beneath his extensive analysis he provided copious footnotes with further analysis.
a book for musicologists and musicians,
16 people found this helpful.
on March 9, 2014
By Marianne S. Hollander
I found it overwhelming for me, a layperson, interested in Bach’s music but unable to have the patient understanding for compositional and conducting details. The author’s relationship to Bach is very moving and increased my admiration for him. I will donate the book to the library of the Music Department of Cal State Univ. Fullerton. (I am a member of Music Associates who supports this department.) I consider it a “must have” for that library.
Extraordinary musical biography
4 people found this helpful.
on March 30, 2015
By Tracy Rowan
If you’re a musician or a musical scholar, you’re going to get a whole lot more out of this book than someone like me. I took piano lessons for several years until my teacher told my parents to “sell the piano.” Still, it isn’t so densely musical that a lay person can’t get something out of it. I understand virtually nothing about the technical side of music, and yet I enjoyed this book immensely.
Great experience of one of the best arts in human history, when combined with ~$900 extra spending.
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