Saturday, January 3, 2015

Music in the Castle of Heaven

I am not the fastest reader you will meet. Then again, John Eliot Gardiner's biography of Bach is not meant to be rushed. Still, last year's Christmas gift from my Karen has been my companion for the better part of the past year (and I do mean the better part). It is with some regret that I came to the end yesterday.

J. S. Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven was much anticipated last year. It was published and released whilst I was working away at my theology thesis on Bach. I worried that it would come out soon enough that I would have to take it into account at the 11th hour. Then I worried that if I started reading it during the editing process, I would lose heart. So I (wisely? cravenly?) chose not to begin reading it until I had submitted my own to my readers.

Wisely, I think. (And yes, cravenly, too, alas.) There are a number of points, ideas, and illustrations that would have served me nicely in the thesis. Indeed, the chapter, "Collision and Collusion," addresses the main point of my thesis - the relationship of Bach's musical choices to articulate meaning. Sure, I'll use that whenever I talk about my thesis!

But the most personal response I take away from this excellent, magisterial work, is the cheek - the sheer gall - that I would attempt a thesis on the master and his work. Albert Schweitzer, in his landmark two-volume work on Bach, famously said (vol.2, p. 52) "No one can conduct one cantata properly unless he knows them all." Well, and now in our day there is John Eliot Gardiner, among the tiny elite who can be said to truly qualify. He is our day's Schweitzer; our generation's appropriate biographer.

Like Schweitzer, he may be proved wrong on certain points. Astonishingly, there are still documents and artifacts that surface related to Bach. But also like Schweitzer, this work will be read a century hence.

More to say later. For now, it is good enough for me that I finished this book during Christmas, during the season of contemplation of the Incarnation. Gardiner (no traditional Christian believer, by his own admission) concludes the book thus: But it is Bach, making music in the Castle of Heaven, who gives us the voice of God - in human form. He is the one who blazes a trail, showing us how to overcome our imperfections through the perfections of his music: to make divine things human and human things divine. (558)

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