Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven
This compelling new biography by conductor John Eliot Gardiner examines the life of one of the world's most famous composers.
Before NASA launched the Voyager spacecraft in 1977, astronomer Carl Sagan suggested that sending music to space would convey an essential truth about our species to any inhabitants of distant worlds. The biologist Lewis Thomas answered Sagan's request for ideas on possible music with this famous remark: "I would send the complete works of Johann Sebastian Bach." He paused before adding, "But that would be boasting."Skip to next paragraph
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Humanity opted to boast. While we did not include Bach's entire oeuvre, he is the most represented composer on the so-called “Golden Record” sent with Voyager, which reportedly left our solar system about one year ago.
That Bach's music was later deemed an emblematic achievement of our species would have shocked his contemporaries. He was in many ways a provincial composer situated in the specific religious and musical traditions of German Lutheranism in the early 18th century. This seemed to be Nietzsche's sentiment in 1878 when he wrote, “In Bach there is too much crude Christianity, crude Germanism, crude scholasticism. At the threshold of modern European music... he is always looking back toward the Middle Ages.” The tension between the transcendent appeal of Bach's music and its more humble origins is a major theme in Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven, a compelling new biography by conductor John Eliot Gardiner.
Though Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, and Newton had already offered satisfying secular explanations for a range of earthly and celestial phenomena, Bach's education in the late 17th and early 18th century was still thoroughly religious. He recited by rote key points of Lutheran doctrine, read selected classical authors from a theological vantage, and even learned basic numeracy in relation to Scripture. The celebrated mathematical structures and symmetries of his music, in other words, do not seem to flow directly from his formal education.
Contemporary lovers of Bach's music often tend to ignore the religious content and conviction that animates many of his greatest works. It's common to assume that Bach wrote extraordinary music despite the limitations and superstitions of his time; maybe his lifelong role as a church organist, cantor, and composer merely provided an impetus to compose and a salary. So was Bach a visionary struggling against the stifling provincialism of his circumstances, or did a life of limited travel and deep immersion in religious texts nourish and motivate his compositions? Gardiner suggests an answer that subtly combines these stark possibilities.
The idea that religious music must also be conservative and dull was challenged as early as the 16th century when Martin Luther asked why the Devil should have all the good tunes. Luther saw the utility of music largely in terms of its capacity to express the themes and stories of the Bible, but he also realized that the power of music could often eclipse the eloquence of words. "The notes make the words live," he wrote.