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?

Sienna Miller and Charlie Hunnam. Getty
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Rumbles in the jungle: highlights from the Berlin Film Festival

Upcoming releases include drama about a trans woman and an adventure in south America.

It was blisteringly cold for the first few days of the Berlin Film Festival but there was plenty of heat coming off the cinema screens, not least from Call Me by Your Name. This rapturous, intensely sensual and high-spirited love story is set in northern Italy in the early 1980s. The perky and precocious 17-year-old Elio (Timothée Chalamet) is drawn to Oliver (Armie Hammer), an older, American doctoral student who’s arrived for the summer to assist the boy’s father, an esteemed professor (Michael Stuhlbarg). Their friendship passes through stages sceptical, fraternal, flirtatious and hostile before arriving at the erotic.

Movies which insist that life was never the same again after that summer are a pet peeve of mine but this one is as ripe and juicy as the peach Elio snatches from a tree and puts to a most unusual and intimate use. (Think American Pie with fruit.) Luca Guadagnino has form as a chronicler of the holidaying rich, but his best-known films (I Am Love, A Bigger Splash) discovered trouble in paradise. In Call Me by Your Name, it’s all pleasure. A distant sense of sadness is signalled by the use of a few plaintive songs by Sufjan Stevens but what defines the picture is its vitality, personified in a star-making performance by Chalamet which combines petulance, balletic physicality and a new kind of goofball naturalism.

The clammy heat of the jungle, with all its danger and mystery, are strongly evoked in The Lost City of Z, a stirring adventure based on fact, which catapults its writer-director, James Gray (The Yards, We Own the Night), out of his usual sooty cityscapes and into uncharted South America in the early 20th century. Charlie Hunnam plays Percy Fawcett, a colonel who grudgingly agrees to referee the mapping of borders between ­Bolivia and Brazil on behalf of the Royal Geographical Society, only to be seduced by the legend of a city populated by a sophisticated civilisation. The film, which I will review in more detail next month, felt deeply satisfying – even more so than correcting American colleagues on the pronunciation of the title.

There was a less effective expedition movie in the main competition. Joaquim dramatises the journey of Joaquim José da Silva Xavier (aka Tiradentes) from colonialist stooge and hunter of gold smugglers to revolutionary icon. There is an impressive level of detail about 18th-century Brazilian life: rudimentary dentistry, a haircut undertaken with a machete. Joaquim’s severed head provides a posthumous introductory narration, presumably in tribute to the ultimate expedition film, Herzog’s Aguirre, Wrath of God, which featured a noggin that continued talking after decapitation. Yet the hero’s conversion to the cause of the exploited Brazilians is confusingly brisk, and the film feels both inordinately long and too short to have sufficient impact.

We remain in scorching heat for Viceroy’s House, in which the director Gurinder Chadha (Bend It Like Beckham) chronicles the events leading up to the partition of India in 1947. Hugh Bonneville and Gillian Anderson are Lord and Lady Mountbatten, pottering around being frightfully nice to the locals. Polite, lukewarm and almost entirely without flavour, the film closes with an uplifting romantic reunion that is somewhat eclipsed by the killing of an estimated two million people during Partition.

Away from the on-screen sun, it was still possible to feel warmed by two splendidly humane films. A Fantastic Woman is a stylish, Almodóvar-type drama about a trans woman, Marina (played by the captivating transgender actor Daniela Vega), who is subjected to prejudice and violence by her late partner’s family. Its Chilean director, Sebastián Lelio, made a splash in Berlin four years ago with Gloria, his comedy about a Santiago divorcee, but this new picture puts him in a whole other class.

The Other Side of Hope, from the deadpan Finnish genius Aki Kaurismäki, follows a bright-eyed Syrian refugee (Sherwan Haji) and the poker-faced Helsinki restaurateur (Sakari Kuosmanen) who takes him under his wing. Kaurismäki’s mixture of absurdity and altruism feels even more nourishing in these troubled times. On Saturday the festival’s top prize, the Golden Bear, went to On Body and Soul, a Hungarian comedy-drama about two lonely slaughterhouse workers. Still, Kaurismäki was named Best Director, while Lelio and his co-writer, Gonzalo Maza, won the Best Screenplay prize. Not too shabby.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit