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.

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)

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

This article first appeared in the 30 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Should you bother to vote?

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The attack on Les Bleus was an attack on the soul of France - that's why Euro 2016 must go ahead

As a continent reels politically from the refugee crisis and emotionally from the Paris attacks, football must find a new, confident voice.

After the Paris attacks, the great Bill Shankly’s words have rarely been so tested: “Some people believe football is a matter of life and death. I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you, it is much, much more important than that.”

As bombers detonated their suicide belts outside the Stade de France, French and German football fans cheered what they thought were fireworks. They were unaware that it was the opening salvo in a night of barbarity. One of the bombers had a ticket for the game but, mercifully, was turned back at the turnstile. Had his bomb gone off inside the stadium, the immediate loss of life, plus the panicked stampede and two more suicide bombers lying in wait outside for escaping fans, could have produced a death toll higher than at Hillsborough, Bradford, Heysel or either of the Ibrox ­stadium disasters.

The French intelligence services have yet to conclude publicly whether the attacks were timed to coincide with the prestigious friendly or whether the crowd of 80,000 was simply another target of bloodthirsty convenience on an already preordained date. Either way, there’s no mistaking that an attack on Les Bleus was an attack on the soul of France. In the aftermath, the Germany-Netherlands friendly game was called off and Belgian football went into lockdown.

How should British football respond? To those who think that the sport is just 22 players kicking a ball around a field, this may seem a peculiar question. But ever since the tail end of the 19th century, when football escaped from its self-enforced ghettoisation in Britain’s public schools, it has had a greater purpose.

More than any other sport, football has been intertwined with politics. As Harold Wilson said: “It’s a way of life . . . a religion.” When President Rowhani of Iran wanted to bolster his image as a new kind of leader, he didn’t deliver a speech but tweeted a picture of himself wearing an Iranian football top, watching a match. Franco’s dictatorship clung to the all-conquering Real Madrid and punished FC Barcelona. On Robben Island, ANC prisoners idolised Billy Bremner of Leeds United and successfully demanded the right to play football.

In October, one of the biggest protests against the closure of the north-east’s steelworks was from 10,000 Middlesbrough fans at Old Trafford. When Catalans challenged hikes in transport costs, they boycotted public transport from the Camp Nou. The biggest “Refugees Welcome” signs in Europe weren’t produced by governments but by fans of the Bundesliga champions, ­Bayern Munich.

So while the singing of the Marseillaise at the England-France match at Wembley was a “hairs on the back of the neck” moment, most of us understand that it’s not enough. What is less well known is that this wasn’t the first time that one of the world’s few genuinely inspiring anthems has been performed in earnest in British football. A century ago, bands took to the pitch to play patriotic British, French and Russian music – not out of altruism but military necessity. The British army was under intense pressure at Ypres and urgently needed new volunteers. The War Office turned to football.

For many, the journey to Loos, Flanders and the Somme started with a routine visit to cheer on their local team. Their sport transported them from a home football field to their foreign killing fields. Many clubs, including Everton, held military training on their pitches, while Manchester City’s then stadium, Hyde Road, became a 300-horse stable. Hundreds of players died serving in the Football Battalion.

But for too long our national sport reflected Britain’s lack of ease with diversity. From the 1920s, the religious sectarianism that poisoned the west of Scotland was allowed to fester in Glasgow’s football. The sport’s tolerance of recreational racism became widespread. Outside stadiums, right-wing extremists sold their propaganda while, inside, black players were vilified – even by their own supporters. Football’s racism corroded its heart and was rationalised in its head: it was allowed on the pitch, cele­brated on the terraces and accepted in the boardroom and far too many changing rooms.

And now, as a continent reels politically from the refugee crisis and emotionally from the Paris attacks, football must find a new, confident voice. The sport and its fans cannot sit on the subs’ bench at a time like this.

In a nation where only one in five male workers joins a trade union, football is a rare regular collective experience. It is more authentic than click-and-connect social media communities. Despite high ticket prices, football offers the one place where thousands of working-class men, including many politically disenchanted young men, come together in a common cause.

British football has long since jettisoned its ambivalence regarding racism. But for organised extreme right-wingers, Islamophobia fills the space vacated by the anti-Irish “No Surrender” tendency on the sport’s fringes. Although the number of top-flight British Muslim players is infinitesimally small, the streets of Bradford, Blackburn and Birmingham teem with young British Muslims kicking a football. More clubs can harness their power to inspire and increase their ­involvement in community counter-­radicalisation strategies. Clubs should also take the lead by having zero tolerance for Islamophobia, training stewards and backing fans who stand up to fellow supporters.

And, finally, the European Championships, for which all the home nations bar Scotland have qualified, must go ahead in France next summer. There’s no liberté in cancelling. In the name of fraternité, let’s all back France as our second team. Allez les Bleus!

Jim Murphy is the former Labour MP for East Renfrewshire and leader of Scottish Labour 2014-15.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State