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Writing the Book on Bach

Johann Sebastian Bach has long been a consuming passion of conductor John Eliot Gardiner, who has now written a book on the composer. DAVID PATRICK STEARNS looks at the ways in which Gardiner's relationship with Bach has evolved.

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Photographed by Sim Canetty-Clarke in London
© Sim Canetty-Clarke 2014
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In rehearsal at Usher Hall for the 2008 Edinburgh Festival
© Clive Barda/ArenaPAL 2014
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Portrait by Elias Gottlieb Haussman
© Image Asset Management Ltd./Alamy 2014

Among the great composers, J. S. Bach occupies the largest psychological blank spot. The facts of his resumé are clear enough, as he migrated from Weimar to Cothen to Leipzig. The motivation behind writing his hundreds of church cantatas, the great Saint Matthew Passion and much else is pretty obvious. But some of his greatest works came into the world uninvited by any outside party — The Art of Fugue and, most of all, the Mass in B Minor — and sprang from an inner life that's utterly unknown. How much was religious obligation? Religious devotion? His correspondence is mainly about getting things done, and it leaves most of us wanting much more.

John Eliot Gardiner poses the "Who was Bach?" question in his engagingly written (and sometimes quite poetic) Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven (Knopf, 628 pp). The book is constructed on the bedrock of Gardiner's 2000 Bach Cantata Pilgrimage, in which he performed 200-plus cantatas in a single year, according to the church calendar for which they were written. That well-publicized event and the acclaimed recordings that followed buy Gardiner a certain amount of immunity from the beady-eyed scrutiny of musicologists. Having performed about as much Bach as a single person can, he is allowed to get closer to the heart of matters without having to conclusively prove anything.

Such options are essential with a figure as towering and as checkered as Bach. But even with Gardiner's keen observational sense and charismatic writing, Bach doesn't quite emerge in three dimensions. The ultimate question we're left with is this: with all due respect to Gardiner's strenuous efforts, does knowing the man behind the genius change the way the music is heard and performed? 

Much of the world subscribes to the idea that music is a means of inner self-expression, perhaps to the point of confession. That's true sometimes. At the very least, a composer's outward personality often dictates the perimeters of a piece, the choice of medium, story and text. But how much does that personality translate into notes on the page? Or does the music come from another place, a different compartment of the brain or inspiration from on high?

Igor Stravinsky bragged that listeners would never sense that his life was completely falling apart during his Symphony in C. Gustav Mahler wrote some of his darkest music when he had every reason to be happy. Among performers, violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter knows probably fifty percent of the composers whose music she performs and was married to one of them (André Previn). Yet she contends that her study begins and ends with the score and she wouldn't play Beethoven any differently were she married to him. The equation is reversed with conductor Iván Fischer: he comes to certain operas with all sorts of perverse ideas about what they say (in Bluebeard's Castle, for instance, the title character is not such a bad guy), but there's nothing perverse in his empathetic, middle-of-the-road music-making.

Yet none of this reasoning deters our need to know the personalities behind the notes. During the "was-Schubert-really-gay?" debates of the 1990s, hardened heterosexual academics at New York University (where I attended graduate school) were burning with curiosity about this possible piece in the composer's psyche. They simply had to know. Meanwhile, authoritative biographies have told us what Aaron Copland was like in bed and how terrific Mahler looked, during his summer vacations, without a shirt. 

There's no harm done in laying out this kind of information — but where does it get us? The possibility of a gay Schubert casts a different tint on the rejected hero of Die Schöne Mullerin but doesn't change any fundamental perceptions. If shirtless Mahler suggests the kind of investment he had in his own maleness, it makes his creative breakdown amid the Symphony No. 10, upon discovering that his wife, Alma, was having an affair with a younger man, a tad more understandable. But just a tad. It's a highly speculative leap. 

With Bach, Gardiner examines the composer's depressed, orphaned circumstances following the Thirty Years War. The musical dynasty from which he came saved him with the educational opportunities he needed. We've long known that Bach was a ruffian and a street brawler; Gardiner goes further with a portrait of eighteenth-century schools that sound much like their modern, inner-city counterparts. No wonder the more mature Bach bullied his way through complicated church and music politics, even retaliating against a nasty bassoonist by writing him music that was sure to embarrass him publicly. Bach never went to musical finishing school in Italy as did Handel. Maybe that's why Bach seems not to have pursued opera, given the less-exalted Germanic examples around him.

Being a church musician, he heard the least applause of any major composer. Church officials barely appreciated his music. Who knows if congregations did? He was paid one-sixteenth of what Dresden-based Adolph Hasse and his singer wife got. Yet Bach seems to have been largely unaffected by his lack of outside affirmation, except with his decision to stop composing cantatas after writing a couple hundred on a near-weekly basis. One hears Handel's discouragement at the end of his opera-composing career. But Bach thrived on adversity — "a man of restive intelligence," Gardiner calls him, "heading for 'a life of more or less perpetual vexation and hindrance' (his own expression)." No doubt this portrait of Bach is also a reflection of the revisionist, sometimes contrarian Gardiner.

More crucially, Gardiner opens up Bach's compositional process and progression of thought, tracing the different incarnations of certain musical ideas with beautifully detailed accounts of what music was added and subtracted along the way and why. All of this helps one internalize Bach's music on a deeper level. Still, the development of a convincing, idiomatic manner of Bach performance in recent decades is more a product of knowing Bach's world than of knowing him.

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Conducting the English Baroque Soloists in Bach's Oster-Oratorium for a Proms concert at Royal Albert Hall, 2013
© Chris Christodoulou/Lebrecht Music & Arts 2014

Perhaps the closest one can come to gauging the impact of personality on performance is with Gardiner himself. Of course, one could ask him. Though can any conductor truly say whether a tempo choice arises from biographical research or natural musical evolution?

The best point of comparison lies in the Mass in B Minor, which Gardiner recorded in 1985, analyzed for nearly an entire chapter in the new book and performed again in radio broadcasts from 2010 in Aldeburgh and 2013 in London. In large-scale performances, much of it is buried in too much sound. Perhaps that's why conductors from Arturo Toscanini to Wolfgang Sawallisch venerated the piece but wouldn't touch it. The old ways didn't work so well; new ones weren't yet invented. Have you ever noticed how few Baroque recordings made before 1975 hold up? Until Joshua Rifkin's famously radical early 1980s experiment with one singer to a part, I only heard 60 percent of the Mass in any given performance. 

The piece itself is a paragon of singularity — part Catholic, part Lutheran, just for starters. "Unsurpassed and unsurpassable" are Gardiner's words for this colossal work, which he describes as "a comprehensive survey and a unique synthesis of all that [Bach] considered to be best in his own church music, as well as that of his predecessors and contemporaries." The first sections were written in 1733 as an entrée to Dresden; the work then lay dormant for twelve years, until it was taken up again in 1745, possibly to celebrate the end of the Silesian War. Then, for even murkier reasons, he finished it in 1749. Gardiner ventures a guess that "the clumsy, effortful handwriting" in the final section signified a race against encroaching blindness to complete the Mass in celebration of the then-under-construction Dresden Hofkirche.  

Gardiner has resisted ultra-small-scale performances, preferring relatively mid-sized forces — the Monteverdi Choir's central office reports that the chorus number hovers at thirty — and refusing to let the piece become what he once called "the B-minor madrigal." The younger Gardiner revealed the musical edifice with ruthless attention to detail, brimming with philosophical imperatives, mostly reactions against old-style Bach. The performance was as much about what it didn't do as what it did do, in a road map of strictly prescribed tempos and balances followed precisely and efficiently by the performers. 

In 2010 and 2013, rules had given way to boundaries within which the musical fantasy of the performer was free to be released. Within a similar framework, performing forces of similar size but more expansive tempos that still only add a mere two minutes to the 2010 performance, the older Gardiner explores the story behind the music with ever-deepening specificity.

When he talks about the Christe Eleison as "the intimate language of a Neapolitan love duet for two sopranos," the singers take on the expressive responsibilities of eighteenth-century divas. Tempos considered speedy in 1985 are typical now, and singers know better how to handle them. The words were often left to take care of themselves in 1985. In the Gloria, the 2010 performance wants you to know how glory feels. Movements such as Osanna that once tootled along on their own momentum acquire more drive, power and purpose in 2010. The coloratura choral passages have more aspirating in 2010 and even more in 2013 (which is increasingly unfashionable in some early-music circles), though that's the cost of a more incisive performance with heightened light and shade.

A little information, which is what we had about Bach thirty years ago, may be dangerous. Viewing the composer as some vague, non-specific shade breathing down the performer's neck can easily prompt interpretive conservatism or falling back on received ideas.

More biographical information, however, still doesn't tell you what to do. Knowing Bach's personality doesn't mean you'll adopt historically-informed performance practice, or reject it. One hopes that biography will provide enough context to give performers a sense of what not to do. With any luck, knowing Bach better makes him part of one's inner family, liberating performers to take more chances.

But there are limits. Gardiner in 2013 occasionally steps over a line: basses are overbearing, inflections overstated and intricate passages played more for flash than for sense. It happens with the best conductors. Just because composers feel like family doesn't mean that they are family. Nonetheless, too much biography is better than too little. Bach was once performed by Leonard Bernstein, Leopold Stokowski and Eugene Ormandy; their idiosyncracies having been sternly reformed by Baroque specialists, the big Bach works were turned into special-occasion festival pieces. Now, with Bach as a more immediate personality, the music is returning to mainstream symphonic concerts conducted by Alan Gilbert, Yannick Nézet-Séguin and Simon Rattle. Can there ever be too much Bach in the world? spacer 

DAVID PATRICK STEARNS is music critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer. He is also arts journalist for WRTI-FM, reviews opera for Gramophone magazine and WQXR's Operavore blog and has his own blog, Condemned to Music, on ArtsJournal.com. 

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Current Issue: August 2014 — VOL. 79, NO. 2