Is Bach The Voice Of God In Music?

John Eliot Gardiner's new portrait is the culmination of a lifetime's devotion to the great composer

Daniel Johnson

There are lots of Bachs, but only one Sebastian — and Gardiner is his prophet. It is hard to believe that Sir John Eliot Gardiner is only just 70. He has been performing Bach for as long as I can remember — longer, actually, because he founded the Monteverdi Choir and Orchestra (later renamed the English Baroque Soloists) already as a budding conductor in the 1960s, before the rediscovery of period instruments and performances. He later extended the pursuit of authenticity from baroque to classical and romantic music by founding the Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique. As a teenager in the 1970s I heard Gardiner conduct with tremendous energy at the Proms — dashingly attired, I recall, in a white dinner jacket of which my grandmother did not approve. He was still just as energetic last month, when he conducted the Easter and Ascension Oratorios with the same force in an unforgettable late-night Prom. Forty years on, his Bach-playing has matured into something miraculous: at once spontaneous, virtuosic and as authentic as humanly possible, at least in the present state of our knowledge. 

Surprisingly, given an academic distinction which ranges far beyond music, Gardiner has waited until now to write a book — but it was worth waiting for, being the summa of a lifetime’s theory and practice in the interpretation of Bach. Music in the Castle of Heaven (Allen Lane, £30) is not a biography — that job has already been done for our time by Christoph Wolff in Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician-but a more personal “portrait”. There is a difference, after all, between the Bach of a musicologist and the Bach of a musician. Gardiner explains that his aim is “to give the reader a real sense of what the act of music-making would have been like for Bach”. In this book, Gardiner devotes a lifetime’s artistic experience to submerge us in Bach’s magical sound world.

In Gardiner’s youth and my boyhood, the image of Bach was still overshadowed, at least at my grammar school, by his best-known biographer and performer, Albert Schweitzer. The Alsatian medical missionary, theologian and organist had died in 1965 at the height of his fame, celebrated for the African field hospital that earned him the Nobel Peace Prize, the Order of Merit and a reputation for holiness that did not outlive him for long. By 1970 Schweitzer was already being satirised as a character in the Good versus Evil cricket match sketch by Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, pounding away on the organ in the bushes. If anything, their satire was too gentle. The doctor’s unashamedly racist attitude to his African patients would not pass muster today, any more than his volumes on the “historical” Jesus or those on Bach, whom he saw in mystical terms and whose works he used to play for the edification of Wagner’s widow Cosima and her anti-Semitic acolytes. Even Schweitzer’s edition of the organ works has long been superseded. 

Yet the old-fashioned Lutheran view of Bach as the “Fifth Evangelist” is not completely at odds with Gardiner’s portrait, as the celestial castle of its title indicates. As Gardiner relates, to mark the 250th anniversary of Bach’s death in 2000, he conducted all 198 surviving church cantatas in one year, according to the liturgical calendar, in 50 cities and 13 countries. This Bach cantata pilgrimage — the recordings of which remain as an aural monument, both to the composer and to Gardiner — was unique, not only in musical but also in ecclesiastical history. The cantatas are of course only one of many facets of Bach’s oeuvre; but their sheer quantity and quality, encompassing his entire career, provide an inexhaustible fount of inspiration. Christianity is central to Bach’s music, not just because his was a deeply religious time and place, but because only a composer who saw music-making literally as worship could have produced works of such a kind and on such a scale. Bach annotated his copy of the Calov Bible, now preserved in Leipzig, with 348 marginalia, including the following, which might serve as his credo: “NB. Wherever there is devotional music, God with his grace is always present.” Gardiner comments: “This strikes me as a tenet that many of us as musicians automatically hold and aspire to whenever we play music, regardless of whatever ‘God’ we happen to believe in.”

Bach’s God, however benign, does not believe in letting humanity take it easy. Unlike his older contemporary Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, Bach never believed that his was the best of all possible worlds: on the contrary, its suffering was made tolerable only by redemption at the hands of Jesus, “the man of sorrows”. Aged 22, he was already composing the miraculous work of consolation, the Actus Tragicus. Against George Steiner’s dictum that Christian drama by definition cannot be tragic, Gardiner contends that the two Bach Passions, especially the later St Matthew Passion, belong squarely in the grand tradition of classical tragedy that extends from the Greeks to Shakespeare, Racine and beyond. He sees the revival of non-operatic music drama as “one of Bach’s great achievements”, pre-empting those of Mozart and Wagner: “Bach set in motion a new burgeoning of the genre, leading his listeners to confront their mortality and compelling them to witness things from which they would normally avert their eyes.” However, Bach expected his audiences to use their imagination to visualise the tragic events evoked by his music, and Gardiner has an aversion to the staging of the Passions as “proxy-operas”. They were written for the church, not the theatre; “extraneous aesthetic baggage” can only distract from and diminish this music. “Their power lies in what they leave unspoken,” he concludes. “We ignore that at our peril.” Amen to that.

One of the most absorbing aspects of Gardiner’s book is his ambitious attempt to describe Bach’s actual process of composition, as far as this can be gleaned from the evidence of manuscript scores and other contemporary sources. With the help of the self-effacing but omniscient Bach archivist Peter Wollny, Gardiner reconstructs the three compositional stages: inventio, elaboratio and executio. While composing a cantata (BWV 135) straight into full score — a rare gift, but also a necessity, for reasons of speed and economy — he ran out of space and had to wait five minutes for the ink to dry (no blotting paper yet) — “time perhaps for a coffee with Anna Magdalena, but perhaps also long enough to risk the train of thought (and invention) being broken”. So Bach scribbled a little mnemonic at the foot of the page, a shorthand way of reminding himself how he meant the piece to continue. For Bach, invention was not the same as creation — only God could create ex nihilo — but was rather “an uncovering of possibilities already there”. Asked for his secret, the old cantor is reported by his first biographer, Johann Nikolaus Forkel (who was writing within living memory), to have replied that it was just bloody hard work: “I was obliged to be industrious; whoever is equally industrious will succeed equally well.” 

That advice must have been a bitter pill for his three composer sons, who were indeed equally industrious but rather less successful. One of them, C.P.E. Bach, known as Emanuel, left us valuable insights into his father’s work habits. Sebastian was a demanding teacher, but took great pains not to miss a spark of talent: “As for the invention of ideas, my late father demanded this ability [of his pupils] from the very beginning, and whoever had none he advised to stay away from composition altogether.” Emanuel evidently passed this test, and relished seeing his father’s reaction on hearing a work for the first time: “When he listened to a rich and many-voiced fugue, he could soon say, after the first entries of the subjects, what contrapuntal devices it would be possible to apply, and which of them the composer by rights ought to apply, and on such occasions when I was standing next to him and he had voiced his surmises to me, he would joyfully nudge me when his expectations were fulfilled.” On this uncanny mastery of elaboratio, Gardiner comments: “Like a chess grandmaster, Bach is able to predict all the next conceivable moves.”

Impressive as was Bach’s sheer musicianship, it does not bring us to the heart of the matter. Why does this composer, above all others, inspire a down-to-earth Englishman such as Gardiner to break into ecstatic prose about “his balletic joy in the praise of his maker and his total certitude in the contemplation of death”? Nor is there anything new about this. In 1827, Gardiner’s early 19th-century precursor in the rediscovery of Bach, the Berlin choirmaster Carl Friedrich Zelter, wrote to his friend Goethe, then the greatest living poet: “Could I let you hear some happy day one of Sebastian Bach’s motets, you would feel yourself at the centre of the world, as a man like you ought to be. I hear the works for the many hundredth time, and am not finished with them yet, and never will be.” Gardiner does not merely see Bach as a source of spiritual solace or sentimental uplift, but as a truly Christian antidote to the specifically religious vices of intolerance and hypocrisy — the “redemptive way back” to what Bach himself called “good neighbourliness”.

Gardiner grapples with the mystery of Bach’s genius most valiantly in his penultimate chapter on the B minor Mass, whose “Byzantine or Venetian splendour” he sees as a final, monumental demonstration of the composer’s “habit of perfection”, by setting the most universal, “catholic” text of all: the Ordinary of the Mass. This, Gardiner claims, is Bach’s Nunc Dimittis, the consummation devoutly to be wished and his farewell to the world. Recent scholarship, notably Christoph Wolff’s, suggests that although Bach’s “Great Mass” has long been known to be a palimpsest of “parodies” or borrowings from earlier works, assembled over decades, much of the music breaks new ground. Indeed, the Et Incarnatus of the Symbolum Nicenum may be the last completed movement Bach ever wrote. This sublime invocation of incarnation and redemption may owe something to Pergolesi, but is unprecedented in its synthesis of the joy and grief of lost innocence. In the subsequent return to doctrinal affirmation, a “shadow passes over this illuminated missal” in the passage that evokes the forgiveness of sins and the resurrection of the dead. Bach’s usually rare corrections are scrawled all over this section of the autograph score. This, the “eschatological crossroads of the entire Mass”, is for Gardiner perhaps the darkest moment in Bach’s entire career, when “we are privy to his vulnerability and his doubts”, before the crisis is resolved, the anxious et expecto (“and I look for”) becomes a confident credo resurrectionem mortuorum in a “jubilant collective sprint to the finishing line”. Gardiner is emphatic that the B minor Mass has the power to inspire even the most godless, precisely because it “does not rely on credal orthodoxy, odd though that might appear”. Rather, Bach’s “art celebrates the fundamental sanctity of life”. So it does, but “sanctity of life” is the last thing that the new atheists wish to celebrate. Bach’s sacred music is accessible to all, but as Gardiner’s analysis of the B minor Mass shows, to ignore his struggles to make sense of “credal orthodoxy” and just let the music wash over you is to render it two-dimensional.

Here Gardiner betrays his origins as a child who grew up to be not so much God-fearing as Bach-fearing. Born in 1943, his fate was influenced by the war in a unique way, for the old Dorset mill where he grew up was also the place of safety for the most important and widely known image of Bach: the 1748 Haussmann portrait. This picture had been brought to England in 1936 by a German-Jewish refugee, Walter Jenke, who thereby saved it from the destruction that later befell his native Silesia. Gardiner’s family looked after it and, as he recalls,   “every night on my way to bed I tried to avoid its forbidding stare”. John Eliot grew up surrounded by Bach musicians, including Imogen Holst and Nadia Boulanger, who not only drummed harmony and counterpoint into him but bequeathed him her priceless collection of scores. Appalled by the mannered and saccharine singing of Bach he encountered when he went up to King’s College, Cambridge, he resolved to incite a musical revolution in performance. The rest is part of the history of authenticity in music, including the lifelong quest to “demystify Bach”.

It is hardly surprising that such a distinguished conductor takes it for granted that others will share his reverence for Bach the man, whose fiery personality he discerns both in his music and in anecdotes passed down by musicians — ripping off his wig and stamping on it in moments of rage, for instance. Gardiner describes his own reaction to seeing the Haussmann portrait again in Princeton some 60 years after it left his childhood home: “The overall impression is of someone a lot more complex, nuanced and, above all, human than the formal posture of a public figure would seem to allow.” 

Yet Bach’s humanity is inseparable from his faith in God’s mercy. Blind, crippled by a stroke and dying, he dictated his “deathbed” chorale BWV 668a, Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sein (“When we are in desperate straits”), which directly addresses God: “Turn not Thy gracious countenance / From me, a poor sinner.” Nothing, it is safe to say, could be less congenial to the “Olympian” mentality of modern man. “It is Bach,” Gardiner defiantly declares, “making music in the Castle of Heaven, who gives us the voice of God — in human form.” For that reason Bach must remain a closed book to those for whom the category of divinity is meaningless, and hence deny that it is possible “to make divine things human and human things divine”. Music — even Bach’s music — cannot be “divine” unless God is a presence, unseen and perhaps unconscious, in our lives. We instinctively reach for theological metaphors when we experience the numinous quality of sacred art and music. But for these words to mean anything, we must have at least some confidence that the universe itself has meaning. Bach puts us back in touch with that numinous, on occasion even visceral, presence of the divine. And this involuntary response tells us that there is something transcendental within us, at the very core of our being, that recognises itself in this music. We are made in the image of God, the Bible tells us; in the same way, our music is a distant echo of Paradise. 

Bach’s achievement is so colossal, so immortal, that it can obscure the fact of mortality, the finitude of humanity, which music exists to make bearable. We who doubt, as Bach himself doubted, the promise of eternal life can take comfort from music that gives us a foretaste of God’s love. At the end of Dante’s Divine Comedy (in Clive James’s magnificent new translation), the poet’s journey culminates in an ecstatic vision of  “the love that moves the sun and stars above”. Music, like love, has the power to move the immovable, to melt the hardest heart, to bring hope to the hopeless. A musical legacy that encompasses all human life but also transcends it was bequeathed to us by Bach. Under Gardiner’s expert guidance, the gates are thrown open to Bach’s castle in heaven — a place that, like the isle in Shakespeare’s Tempest, “is full of noises, sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not”. By hearkening to a music that is not quite of this world, we are granted an intimation of the next.

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