How music gave Bach what real life could not

John Eliot Gardiner has spoiled the field for everyone. His portrait of J S Bach is magnificent.

New Statesman
German President Horst Koehler looks at portraits of Johann Sebastian Bach and his father at the Bach Archive in Leipzig on what would have been Bach's 325th birthday. Image: Getty

Music in the Castle of Heaven: a Portrait of Johann Sebastian Bach
John Eliot Gardiner
Allen Lane, 672pp, £30

Few gifted musicians succeed in replicating the excitement of their performances when they turn instead to the tricky business of describing and then explaining genius. They often struggle. Now John Eliot Gardiner has spoiled the field for everyone. His portrait of J S Bach is magnificent.

No one is better qualified to attempt the task, because his musicianship is matched by his sure-footedness in Bach scholarship, but he decided, in a characteristic reflection of his personality, to produce a life of the composer that goes far beyond a conventional account of his habits, his stormy passage from church to church and the story of his music. Gardiner has tried to explain the most elusive connection of all: between the hidden structures in his work and a personality of which we know surprisingly little.

The result is an expedition into Bach’s world that is sometimes daunting but more often dazzling. His picture of Lutheran practice and Bach’s milieu as a teenager at the end of the 17th century is revelatory. You feel as if you are in a Latin school in Thuringia, learning about the movement of the spheres, or following faithfully the rigid pattern of the Lutheran liturgical year in church, Sunday by Sunday. Bach’s world is not only meticulously described but makes sense. A system of beliefs that will be foreign to most readers springs fully formed from these pages and illuminates the man.

Illumination is required because Gardiner starts off with a feeling of frustration at the blank spaces in the Bach story. Fortunately, he looks for the answers in the music. Anyone who saw the BBC2 television documentary at Easter in which Gardiner explained his journey may have been a little alarmed at some of the diversions into amateur psychology, as if the idea were to make sense of Bach’s hidden feelings. (I suspect an overeager editor.) Worry not, the book dispels any such fear.

Take the riveting account here of the St Matthew Passion, finished in the mid-1730s and, in Gardiner’s words, “unique in its scope and grandeur”, with an autograph score that he describes beautifully as a calligraphic miracle. Most of us have heard this Passion more often than Bach did and it is important to remember that the form is more familiar in the 21st century than it was in the 18th.

Bach probably heard his St John Passion only four or five times and each time differently, because he kept fiddling with it. And yet in this description, these choral masterpieces are part of a life’s work that absorbs naturally the preludes and fugues, the cantatas and the familiar solo and orchestral pieces as elements of one world, as well ordered as if it were one of the orreries that in Bach’s time tried to replicate the mysterious but perfectly balanced movement of the heavenly spheres. Puzzling in their brilliance, but permanent.

Gardiner’s search for Bach’s personality and his genius never loses touch with the notes on the score. When he set off in 2000 to conduct all the cantatas over a period of 52 weeks across Europe and the United States, he was acknowledging the importance of recovering the circumstances that governed Bach’s time in Germany, but his point was that the composer had managed to use that fixed set of obligations to cast a light that still shines on people to whom the familiarity and understanding of that world is lost for ever.

Gardiner had a good start. Thanks to the chance arrival in his Dorset village in 1936 of a Silesian refugee with two items of baggage – a guitar and an old oil painting – he grew up on the family farm looking every day at one of the two authenticated likenesses of Bach painted by Elias Gottlob Haussmann. It haunted him. The consequence was that when he embarked on a life in music, he was bound to search for the man behind the canvas – that familiar, heavy, bewigged face that seems to say very little about what was seething underneath. Having explored Bach’s traumas – the composer was scarred by early losses and tragedy in the family – he plunged into the seemingly miraculous imagination of the music and his conclusion is reassuringly straightforward.

“Perhaps music gave Bach what real life in many respects could not: order and adventure, pleasure and satisfaction, a greater reliability than could be found in his everyday life,” Gardiner writes. It also completed experiences that otherwise would have been found only in his imagination.

He produces a brilliant flourish to finish. In one of the Haussmann portraits, there is a page of music, a canon, transcribed by Bach at the back of the Goldberg Variations and held in the composer’s hands for the artist. Anyone looking at the picture sees it the other way round but the canon works perfectly as a different piece, back to front. Bach’s expression doesn’t look playful but he is suggesting that nothing is as it seems.

Gardiner’s evocation of the sheer exuberance of that hidden Bach is thrilling, leaving indelible images. Think of Mozart in the Thomaskirche in Leipzig in 1789 (two years before he died) looking at the parts of a double-choir motet by Bach that had caused him to leap out of his seat with excitement and ask for the parts to be brought to him and laid out on the floor. “What’s this?” he said as he looked at the score.

One of the many joys of this book is Gardiner’s admission that for him, after a lifetime of performance and study, the question is still worth asking.

James Naughtie’s books include “The Making of Music” (John Murray, £9.99)