I FIRST HEARD ABOUT Catholic writer Paul Elie’s new book in October 2008, moments before he took the stage at Fordham University for a panel discussion about Flannery O’Connor and Robert Lowell’s time together at the Yaddo artists’ colony. He’d invited me, knowing I’d enjoy the discussion. O’Connor had been a subject of Elie’s first book, which I very much admired, a group portrait of mid-century America’s most significant Catholic writers; O’Connor’s 1955 story “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” had provided Elie his title for that book, which was awarded the PEN/Martha Albrand Prize in 2003.
We had first met years before, when, as an editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, he turned down my first book, in which I out myself as a “Catholic atheist.” Nevertheless, he was kind enough to introduce me to an editor at Harper’s who ran an excerpt from that book just in time for Christmas 2005 under the title “All That I Have Is Yours: The Scars of a Christian Inheritance.” When, a few years on, I was ready with some new project for him to consider — also a memoir, also about Christianity — Elie summoned me back to his office for what he called a “pastoral visit.” While he had no intention whatsoever of buying what I was selling, he actually seemed concerned about my continuing atheism, if not the state of my soul. He also suggested I might begin writing about something other than myself.
In the time between that pastoral visit and the Fordham panel, Elie had done some excellent writing for The Atlantic, including a long, insidery piece chronicling the accession of longtime Vatican insider Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI; and an essay endeavoring to make sense of a bizarre revival during the mid-aughts — with “the ‘war on terror’ sputtering into its fifth year” — of American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, the famous father of his friend and colleague Elizabeth Sifton. (Elie also used the opportunity of the Niebuhr essay, published in November 2007, to conclude that the war “as fought — in the misbegotten hope that Iraq, with its fractious history, could be remade in our image — has been lost.”) So when I asked that fall evening what he was working on, Elie surprised me with news that he was writing a book about Johann Sebastian Bach and his interpreters — a subject not exactly of a piece, I thought, with his other offerings over the past decade, which had placed the religious and political dramas of our own day front and center.
Reinventing Bach is that new book; it was released in September. (Ever the pastor, Elie inscribed my copy: “For Scott, Christ-haunted fellow traveler.”) Like his first book, this one is a group portrait, of Bach and several modern interpreters of his compositions, including Albert Schweitzer, Pablo Casals, Leopold Stokowski, Glenn Gould, and Yo-Yo Ma. (Others make appearances, but these five are Elie’s main characters.) They live, and one by one, all but Ma die; in every case, the subsequent pages and remaining lives of the book are all haunted by the artists whose stories Elie has brought together. (This is also a feature of The Life You Save May Be Your Own; and O’Connor, apparently unsatisfied to haunt the pages of that one book alone, finds her way more than once into this new one. Interpreting Bach’s baptism, for instance, Elie writes, “Flannery O’Connor liked to say that when she wrote a story involving a baptism she had to bend everything about it into strange forms so as to convince the reader that ‘something is going on here that counts.’ Truly, that was a baptism that counted.”)
In Reinventing Bach, Elie weaves these several lives together in order to make an effective case that Bach’s music, like all classical music, can never be “played” exactly, with total fidelity to the source; fidelity isn’t even the goal. Performed live, it has always been “interpreted” by conductors, musicians, singers, and scholars. In other words, no one plays like anyone else, and everyone’s interpretation is inflected by his or her time and character.
For instance: Schweitzer, whom Elie calls “the last premodern man,” performed Bach as a long revivalist sermon against the shattering of Europe during the first decades of the 20th century. He was a biblical scholar and Christian, known in his day as a great humanitarian — “the greatest man in the world,” said Life magazine — who spent much of his life working as a doctor in Africa. In 1913, the Paris Bach Society sent him off with “an instrument that combined the features of a piano and an organ […] The inside of it was lined with zinc to ward off the moisture of the tropics.” In recent years, though, Schweitzer’s reputation has fallen; he “now appears a problematic, compromised figure,” writes Elie, “his project paternalistic, his methods condescending, his view of the people he worked with in Africa more akin to the crude racial stereotypes in Kipling and Conrad than to any ideal found in the gospels.”
Casals’s cello, meanwhile, gave us Bach as a solitary voice of resistance against Franco and any nation who recognized the Spanish State; the most powerful Bach was the Bach Casals for many years refused to play. As Elie retells the story, “the discovery of the cello and the discovery of Bach’s cello suites were [for Casals] essentially a single discovery”: in 1890, when the cellist was just 13 and living with his mother in Barcelona, he would run through those suites every day at the end of each practice session. He would not perform them in concert for 12 years, when they ultimately would become his signature pieces. And in the wake of the Spanish civil war, which sent him into exile in France, he would withhold them — along with the rest of his repertoire — from the world in protest.
For the conductor Leopold Stokowski, perhaps best known for his involvement with Walt Disney’s Fantasia, Bach was music for children — classical music’s best audience, he believed. As director of the Philadelphia Orchestra, Stokowski, who was born in England in 1882 but sometimes “claimed Krakow or Pomerania [as his birthplace] when the mood struck him,” he established what were known as Young People’s Concerts. No adults were permitted. Elie details a performance of Saint-Saëns’s Carnival of the Animals when Stokowski teased the children about an elephant he had backstage.
They groaned incredulously. “You do not believe me? Or perhaps you do not want to see an elephant?” He went back stage and returned leading an elephant by the ear. They whooped it up. He went back again and returned with two more elephants. A musician rose from his chair and spoke into Stokowski’s ear: there was a whole herd of elephants on the street outside, trying to get in. Conductor and musician went to the stage door and shouldered it shut, holding back the thundering herd — and then Stokwoski regained the podium and led the orchestra in part five of the Carnival, “The Elephant,” for a transfixed audience of children and elephants.
Then there’s Glenn Gould’s Bach, which, especially in his Goldberg Variations from 1955, is ecstatic. Born in Toronto in 1932, Gould was “a prodigy, raised at the piano” who was “found to have perfect pitch at age three.” He was a master of the piano known for his perfectionism, quirks, and idiosyncrasies, including a kind of hypochondria. By Elie’s account, though, Gould’s obsessiveness, especially in the recording studio, has been misunderstood. The studio has usually been seen as a tool of his perfectionism, “enabling him to choose between takes based on microdistinctions of color and emphasis,” but “outtakes from the [Goldberg] sessions, since made available, suggest that in 1955 he used the recording studio in the opposite way: to maximize risk-taking, to push each short piece to its furthest physical, musical, and spiritual extreme.”
Whereas with the others you can’t help but hear the interpreters themselves within their interpretations, Yo-Yo Ma’s Bach is perfectly pure; stripped of autobiography, “it faces forward and outward,” says Elie. “A hundred years after the advent of recording, transparency has been achieved.” The most compelling storytelling about Ma in Reinventing Bach can be found in Elie’s description of a concert he attended with his wife Lenora at Tanglewood, where the Boston Symphony Orchestra performed in the summer. A storm rolled in during Ma’s performance of Bach’s fifth suite, and most of the crowd left. Not Elie and his wife.
We stayed; just as Ma struck the first notes of the sixth suite, the rain caved in on us. Back and forth across the neck of the instrument went the bow, gaining in intensity if not getting faster, as if the cellist were taking the steps of a tall staircase two at a time. The rain poured down, puddling in the lawn and soaking us. We moved into a patch of sodden grass where a tartan blanket had been; and we danced, spinning and whirling along with the music as it raced out headlong, outdoing itself. Culturally, it was a rich moment — a work of a German musician played by a Chinese-Franco-American cellist in a New England concert hall named for a Japanese conductor [Seiji Ozawa Hall] and modeled after a Shaker barn. But for us it was not a cultural moment; it was a physical one. This cello piece was a dance, and we were dancing — dancing to Bach.
For all their differences, what these Bach interpreters all share is an experience of both setting down and listening to recorded music. This is what makes them — and us — essentially different from everyone who came before. “[O]ur experience of recordings,” Elie claims, “defines our age and sets us apart from our ancestors as distinctly as democratic capitalism, indoor plumbing, or air travel.” Recording technology is also what makes Elie’s story about more than the interpretation and reinterpretation of musical compositions by Bach, the “greatest of Protestant artists.” (Indeed, “Bach’s greatness is,” for Elie, “total and inviolable.”) Passing from shellac discs and the gramophone through LPs, cassette tapes, compressed digital files, YouTube, and smartphones, Elie assembles a satisfying history of audio recording that’s as concerned with reasonable explanations of how vacuum tubes work and how to splice tape as it is with a tour of Abbey Road Studios and a description of Glenn Gould’s trusty “wood-framed, slender-legged” folding chair.
Elie’s passion for recorded music is also what makes Reinventing Bach as religious as anything he’s ever written — and not only because his subject is, once again, a religious artist. His central contention is that, even in our secular age, Bach’s music remains “the most persuasive rendering of transcendence there is” — more persuasive than O’Connor, more compelling than any pope, more prophetic than Niebuhr. “[A]nd its irreducible otherworldliness, its impress of eternity even in a ringtone or mix tape,” he writes, “suggests that these qualities have not, in fact, been mediated out of existence, but are there for us to encounter in our lives if we are open to them.”
Today, this transcendence is available on demand; we don’t wait on the whims or passions of a Casals or a Stokowski but simply press (or, more often, click) play. Though Viennese violinist Fritz Kreisler had made recordings of Bach as early as 1904 — “they sound like field recordings, sugar in the raw” — for Elie’s purposes, ours is an era ushered in by Schweitzer’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor and brought to a fitting climax with Yo-Yo Ma’s cello solo at the memorial of Steve Jobs, co-founder and CEO of Apple, a company whose iPod+iTunes revolutionized the way we listen to recorded music. And more than any other classical composer, Elie says, Bach — himself an inventor and designer of musical technology — prefigures this revolution. It’s no coincidence that when introducing the iPad, Elie tells us, Jobs made it play Bach. (That we all nowadays play music the way Jobs did is a fact Reinventing Bach presents graphically, with each new vignette headed with what seems like a track number and fast-forward symbols: e.g., “>>2>>.” By the book’s sixth part, “Strange Loops,” we’ve moved with Elie into the days of digital readout: “>>02>>.”)
We can know Schweitzer’s Bach — or Gould’s, or Casals’s, or Stokowski’s — because they preserved it in recordings. The same goes for Ma, no matter that he’s still alive, which is, after all, the point: his recordings alongside theirs are a reminder that he won’t always be, and knowledge of this fact — perhaps especially for each of us in our own variously recorded lives — is, as Elie presents it, “at once a benefit and a quandary:”
In the age of recordings, the past isn’t wholly past and the present isn’t wholly present, and our suspension in time, our intimacy with the most sublime expressions of people distant and dead, is a central fact of our experience.
Conventional wisdom suggests that as a result “our lives are half-lives, our experience mediated, and so diminished, by technology.” What holds this new book together is Elie’s belief — and here I’m tempted to call it a religious belief — that, “to this conviction, the recorded music of Bach is contrary testimony. It defies the argument that experience mediated through technology is a diminished thing.” Our lives are whole lives — a modern reality that recordings of Bach make obvious.
Elie himself makes any number of appearances throughout the book, glossing debates among Bach biographers or offering a moment of modern history that might seem out of place in someone else’s record of recorded music over the past century: Dorothy Day prepares a peace demonstration at New York’s City Hall in June 1955, days after Flannery O’Connor attended a Tennessee Williams play on Broadway; 50 years later, millions flock to Rome to mourn the passing of Pope John Paul II (Elie among them, on assignment for The Atlantic). The book opens with another pilgrimage Elie makes to an upstairs room in the Musikinstrumenten-Museum-Berlin to see “the thing itself — the Bach cembalo,” his “unstrung, unplayable” harpsichord. But he is most present near the end, at home listening to iTunes, which makes his Bach endlessly playable: “The cable box recorded 12:01, digital noonday. I got up, checked my email, sliced cold chicken. The light in the apartment had changed a little. The [Musical] Offering proceeded sequentially, flaring up into the major key.”
He’s aware by this point that the book he is writing possibly “smells of the church.” But the religion you find in Reinventing Bach is hardly at all about the institutions that have for centuries shaped the spiritual lives of believers like Elie. Instead, he finds in Bach and his interpreters what the scholar and former nun Karen Armstrong would call the “spiritual attitude” and “transcendent value” necessary, as he puts it, to see technology itself as a “source of awe and wonder.” And now, having arrived at the end of a several year journey, “touching the keys again and again with the ten digits of my two hands,” he writes, “putting one word after another in the hope that a couple hundred thousand of them, mastered and sequenced, will amount to a kind of music,” Elie completes what he calls a “spirituality of technology”: his very own reinvention of Bach. And for this, after all his hard work, Elie expresses only gratitude for what the composer has given us, both “unbidden and unexpected, a gift outright,” or what religious people call the grace of God.
“What could be better,” Elie concludes, “with children safely to sleep and a spouse a whisper away, than to spend a thousand and one nights with Bach in the middle of one’s life?” A whole haunted life. A life half over. A whole half left to live. That is enough, and more than enough, to be grateful for.