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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Women don’t make concept albums: how BBC Four’s When Pop Went Epic erases popular music’s diverse history

Why are the only albums blessed with the grandiose description of “conceptual” the ones made by white men?

Tonight, BBC Four airs a documentary exploring the history of the concept album called When Pop Went Epic: The Crazy World of the Concept Album. Presented by prog rock veteran Rick Wakeman, the programme set out to “examine the roots of the concept album in its various forms”, as well as cycling through the greatest examples of the musical phenomenon.

“Tracing the story of the concept album is like going through a maze,” says dear old Rick incredulously, while ambling round a literal maze on screen, just so we fully get the symbolism. But if the history of concept albums is a labyrinth, Wakeman has chosen a gymnastic route through it, one filled with diversions and shortcuts that studiously avoid the diversity of the format’s history. He imagines the concept album to begin with Woody Guthrie’s 1940s record about poverty and class struggle in America, Dust Bowl Ballads, following on with Frank Sinatra’s Only the Lonely (1958) and The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds (1966), before moving on to big hitters like Sgt Pepper and Tommy. It quickly seems apparent that the first albums blessed with the grandiose description “conceptual” are the ones made by white men, and Wakeman’s history credits them with inventing the form.

What about Duke Ellington’s Black, Brown and Beige (1943-58), a history of American blackness? Miles Davis’s Milestones, a 1958 LP-length experiment with modal harmonies? Sun Ra’s particular blend of science fiction and Egyptian mythology on albums like The Futuristic Sounds of Sun Ra (1961)? When Wakeman reaches what he considers to be the first from a black artist, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On , he notes that it “comes from a musical culture where the concept album was quite alien”.

Certainly, Motown was a towering monument to the power of the single, not the album, but we know that one of Gaye’s greatest inflences was Nat King Cole: why not mention his 1960 concept album, centring  on a protagonist’s varied attempts to find The One, Wild Is Love? Wakeman does recognise the importance of black concept albums, from Parliament’s Mothership Connection to Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, but his history suggest black concept albums begin with Gaye, who is building on the work of his white predecessors.

It takes rather longer for Wakeman to pay his respects to any conceptual woman. 53 minutes into this 59 minute documentary, we discover our first concept album by a woman: Lady Gaga’s The Fame. The only other female artist discussed is Laura Marling, who, perhaps not coincidentally, is also a talking head on the documentary. That’s two albums by women out of the 25 discussed, given cursory attention in the last five minutes of the programme. It feels like a brief footnote in the epic history of conceptual albums.

Jean Shepherd’s Songs of a Love Affair is perhaps the earliest example of a female-led concept album that springs to my mind. A chronological narrative work exploring the breakdown of a marriage following an affair, it was released in 1956: Shepherd has a whole two years on Sinatra. Perhaps this is a little obscure, but far more mainstream and influential works are equally passed over: from themed covers albums like Mavis Staples’ duet record Boy Meets Girl to more conventionally conceptual works.

The Seventies was a decade that did not solely belong to pasty men rambling about fantasy worlds. Female-fronted concept albums flourished, from Manhole by Grace Slick, conceived as a soundtrack to a non-existent movie of the same name (1974) and Joni Mitchell’s mediations on travel in Hejira (1976), to Bjork’s debut, an Icelandic covers album (1977), and Heart’s Dog & Butterfly (1978).

The Eighties were no different, featuring gems like Grace Jones’ Slave to the Rhythm (1985), which pulled a single track into a wild variety of different songs; the Japanese distorted vocal experiment Fushigi by Akina Nakamori (1986), and Kate Bush’s playful faithfulness to A and B sides of a record, producing “The Ninth Wave” as a kind of mini concept album on Hounds of Love (1985).

Wakeman skips over the Nineties in his programme, arguing that conceptual works felt hackneyed and uncool at this time; but the decade is peppered with women making thematically unified works from Madonna’s Erotica (1992) to Hole’s mediations on physical beauty and trauma, Live Through This (1994) and The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998).

Since then, women arguably led the field of conceptual albums, whether through the creation of alter egos in works like Marina and the Diamonds’ Electra Heart, Beyoncé’s I Am… Sasha Fierce or through focusing on a very specific theme, like Kate Bush’s 50 Words for Snow or in their storytelling, like Anaïs Mitchell’s Hadestown and Aimee Mann’s The Forgotten Arm. Wakeman includes no black women artists in his programme, but today, black women are making the most experimental and influential conceptual records in modern pop, from Janelle Monáe and Kelis to Erykah Badu, and, of course, Beyoncé. It’s no coincidence that Lemonade, which would have been considered an abstract conceptual album from a male artist, was immediately regarded as a confessional piece by most tabloids. This issue extends far beyond one documentary, embedded in the fabric of music writing even today.

Of course, concept album is a slippery term that is largely subjective and impossible to strictly define: many will not agree that all my examples count as truly conceptual. But in his programme, Wakeman laments that the phrase should be so narrowly defined, saddened that “the dreaded words ‘the concept album’ probably conjure up visions of straggly-haired rockers jabbering on about unicorns, goblins and the end of the world”. Unfortunately, he only confirms this narrative with a self-serving programme that celebrates his musical peers and friends, and ignores the pioneers who would bring variety and colour to his limited classification. 

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.