Bach Psychology: Gothic, Sublime, or just human?

With scant primary documents to his name, Bach is nonetheless the most written-upon classic composer, which has led to a fluid historical identity.

By Michael MarkhamMarch 10, 2014

Bach Psychology: Gothic, Sublime, or just human?

Bach by John Eliot Gardiner. 672 pages.

THERE IS AN UNOFFICIAL marker in the timeline of canonical classical music. It falls around 1800, during Beethoven’s lifetime, separating composers for whom biography matters to non-academic listeners from those for whom it doesn’t. It is assumed the listener needs to know about the lives of post-1800 composers: about the onset of Beethoven’s deafness and resulting feelings of alienation in order to understand the storming anger in his music, about Chopin’s sense of exile in order to properly feel the longing expressed in his, about Schumann’s struggles with mental illness in order to properly feel the spasms between passion and introversion in his, about Mahler’s faith and disillusionment in order to feel the weight of existential crisis in his. It grows out of our desire to find personal meaning in art, to find some message encoded in all those notes. We need to believe we know what our composers were about before we can trust that we’re receiving their ideas properly. To get it wrong is somehow to do them an injustice. It certainly simplifies the process of listening. We know, with Beethoven, Chopin, Schumann, and Mahler, what sort of mood we are supposed to be in even before the music begins to play. But it also simplifies and often distorts the historical record, reducing the complicated lives of our heroes to a series of mythological icons. Elsewhere in this publication, I’ve wondered if this is a problem worth worrying over: “A thousand battalions of Mozart scholars cannot erase the image of Miloš Forman’s Amadeus. But should they try?” With the publication of John Eliot Gardiner’s Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven, a new quasi-biography of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), we’re situated comfortably on the other side of the 1800 line, back during the musical “Baroque” where we have a chance to see the problem at its thorniest, focusing on the composer who proves its most difficult test case.

For today’s classical music audiences one of the most problematic aspects of music before circa 1800 is answering the simple question “why did they make this piece of music I’m about to listen to?” The answers, for Beethoven and all composers succeeding him are comfortably familiar: Music is testimony of the self or the world of the self. It is done for Art (capital A), for the Inner Spirit, for the memory of the persecuted, to expose the existential anxiety of it all, etc. The early Romantics reached back a little bit and quickly salvaged Mozart (who, after all, should have lived to see 1800) by projecting testimony back onto him — of Oedipal strife and a difficult personality — fairy tales that still make up his mythic badge (“drunken child savant”), providing a framework for listeners to have satisfying emotional experiences when listening to him. But further beyond the wall mythology gets more difficult. As entertaining as Vivaldi's music is, and as intense as his life may have been, who seeks out his music to experience the artistic integrity of his personal testimony? No one cares what Palestrina’s relationship with his father was like, or whether or not Handel believed in authoritarian order when he wrote Giulio Cesare. So much of the daily reality surrounding the music of the more distant past gives us less heartfelt, less Romantic, less personally-resonant answers to the question “why do it?” (for the King, for the paycheck, for the Pope’s pleasure cruise) that the profundity of the music can seem to suffer for its lack of subjective, creative angst that we seem to crave and they perhaps did not.

Thus much pre-1800 music is today relieved of being much more than “mood” music. Our approach to the music of the Renaissance, for instance, often becomes caught in a circular logic that keeps us at a distance. It is beautiful, yes? It is expressive, yes? And so what does it express? Beauty. And why is it beautiful? Because it is so expressive. But what does it express? ... and on and on. The music of the Baroque, on the other hand, often represents extreme emotional states. It is not, however, the conduit of the composer's own feelings, but of the "official" emotional posture required for whatever event, patron, institution or (for the opera) story they were writing. Emotional states, during the enlightenment, were just another natural phenomenon to be illustrated and represented, like winds or water or birdsong. As Joseph Kerman put it "Baroque composers depict the passions. Romantic composers express them." The idea of personal expression had to wait for a few big cultural rifts. First, the freeing of composers from the Ancien Régime system of patrons and institutions, making them independent artists following no one's taste but their own or their public's. Second, the Napoleonic cult of the individual commanding that the artist, no less than the philosopher, look inward. As Johann Gottlieb Fichte pitched the new Romantic creed in 1792: "Turn your gaze away from all around you, and inwards on to yourself.” Once again, Mozart and Beethoven were the earliest prototypes of the new musical artist who would not or could not submit to the whims of church or aristocratic patronage and who instead struck out on their own, misfits, outlaws, non-conformists misunderstood by their era. This is all as much mythology as history, a plotline we internalized so long ago it will likely never be shaken.

And so biography for Pre-Romantic composers has often seemed superfluous to the experience of listening — merely academic, and usually pretty hopeless. Among the pre-1800 masters, Bach biography in particular is a prickly and thankless calling. It requires one to fuss endlessly over minor details, or at least to pretend to. It entails teasing phantom details from in-between precious few lines of actual primary sources, most of which are notoriously dull and legalistic. It requires you to do this while knowing that these same precious few, dull, legalistic sources have already been poured over by dozens of prior adherents to produce dozens of contradictory hagiographies and incompatible mythologies leaving us little more than a name-symbol accompanied by a jumble of tepid modifiers. To Cristoph Wolff's recent Bach: The Learned Musician, we can add a few more alternately dismissed or embraced by Gardiner: the "exemplary Teuton," the "working-class hero-craftsman," the "bewigged, jowly old German Capellmeister," the “incorrigible cantor." If none of these monikers sounds terribly appealing or particularly dramatic to you, as opposed to say, Beethoven: The Stormy Napoleonic Revolutionary, or Mahler: The Disillusioned Neurotic Spiritualist, then you are starting already to see another problem with Bach biography. When you combine the stubborn refusal of the historical record to yield much of anything tantalizing, the expectation that none of it makes it into his music anyway, and the cowing complexity of that music, the end result is not a familiar emotional character-type but a cold distance, a sense that he and his world are unreachable and irrelevant to the listening experience. Yet Bach receives more biographical attention than any composer before Mozart and remains his chief rival for sheer quantity. Unlike the other canonic masters, the popularity of Bach studies shows no sign of letting up. The early 21st century has already seen more attempts to figure him out, of both the strict academic variety (along with Christoph Wolf’s biography, there are substantial essays and monographs by Robert L. Marshall, Peter Williams, and John Butt) and user-friendly “crossover” variety (Davitt Moroney, Martin Geck, Paul Elie, Eric Siblin) than any of the other candidates, including those like Mozart and Beethoven whose source material is richer in detail and drama. This mania for redundant parsing of the same scant material remains an unusual situation. Understanding it is key to figuring out what, if anything, Gardiner’s attempt has to offer. 

His goal, on one hand, is humanization, to bring Bach closer to us. And, having throughout his life as a conductor absorbed any and all research on his favorite composer, he acknowledges many of the problems:

Even to his most ardent admirers Bach can seem a little remote at times: his genius as a musician – widely acknowledged – is just too far out of reach for most of us to comprehend. But that he was a very human human being comes across in all sorts of ways: not so much from the bric-à-brac of personal evidence such as family letters and first-hand descriptions, which are few and far between, but from chinks in his musical armour-plating, moments when we glimpse the vulnerability of an ordinary person struggling with an ordinary person’s doubts, worries and perplexities.

The anxiously modified tautology "he was a very human human being..." gives you some sense of what Gardiner fears he is up against. More than any other composer, Bach illustrates the problem of articulating the emotional mechanisms of music. There is a long tradition of disappointing hermeneutics lurking there. The mainstream of Bach reception has been characterized by a frustrating poetic reticence, a dissonance between strong claims that his music is emotive and deeply moving coupled with a refusal or inability to identify the source of that emotion in terms other than its exhaustiveness or its impressive contrapuntal achievement. The poetic potential of his music is usually tied to its stylistic breadth and technical complexity, an exercise in the monumental and the logical, which impresses only insofar as it remains aloof from emotional particularity. That distance has proven useful. The vagueness of those powerful emotions everyone claims to feel, their being tied to something so seemingly unnamable, has allowed each generation to remake Bach in whatever image suits them. It is, in other words, what makes possible that most ubiquitous and banal claim about Bach's music: that it is "Universal." That cardinal cliché is difficult for any biographer of a "great" to avoid, and Gardiner is no exception, finding in Bach's sacred music, "a universal message of hope that can touch anybody regardless of culture, religious denomination or musical knowledge."


Such platitudes, of course, tell us nothing except how easy it has been to renew Bach's music decade by decade. As anyone surveying the last hundred years will realize, and as Paul Elie pointed out last year in his Reinventing Bach, the 20th century belonged to the miraculous Leipzig cantor. While other composers had their moments, and the center of the concert hall canon might seem to tilt every so often between earlier and later Romantics, by the beginning of the 20th century it had been decided that Bach would always stand as the monad, the font, the Großvater of us all. The image of Bach as prototype has been a cultural obsession since the 1830s when the Romantics first rediscovered his great settings of The Passion of Christ. That revival, beginning with Felix Mendelssohn's historic performance of the St. Matthew Passion in 1829, the first time it had been heard since Bach's own lifetime, succeeded in doing two things for Mendelssohn's generation: it extended the German canon back a century, proving that "deep" music had always been a Teutonic thing, and it made a literal merger between Art and Religion for a generation that increasingly saw the concert hall as a site for their most spiritual and philosophical experiences.

Since that moment, Bach has been the official center of gravity that binds together the musical universe. It's not an empty honorific. "In Bach," according to Mahler, "the vital cells of music are united as the world is in God." For Brahms his music represented "a whole world of the deepest thought and most powerful feeling." The 19th century turned his off-putting complexity and biographical distance into a mechanism for confronting the sublime, that ultimate proof of Romantic ideals. Whether it was the tangle of a solo keyboard fugue, or the glacial face of the opening chorus in the St. John Passion, his music was a test, a mountain to be climbed so that one might, with pain and awe, glimpse and reach out to touch the highest possible points mortally attainable.

By the third decade of the 20th century, the sublime had met up with the mass market mechanisms of radio and recording. His most famous works were packaged for maximum virtual mountaineering, the keyboard works played in lush, gargantuan transcriptions by the likes of Rachmaninoff and Busoni or clothed in the grandest garb of all, the oversized Wagnerian symphony orchestra. If the mountaintop is too far away, and too steep a climb, then the NBC Radio Orchestra would snip off the peak and send it to your living room where it would still seem plenty big. The transcriptions by Leopold Stokowski of works like the Chaconne for solo violin or the Passacaglia and Fugue for organ were gorgeous, plodding wooly-mammoths that marked a moment of maximal popularization for Bach: Gothic Bach, Unfathomable Bach. This was the Bach world that John Eliot Gardiner was born into and would eventually help to replace.


His career as a conductor of the Monteverdi Choir, The English Baroque Soloists and the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique falls squarely into a newer phase of Bach reception, an epochal shift in what Bach symbolized and eventually what he sounded like. This new Bach, the Bach that has reigned in the cultural imagination for the last 75 years, which musicologist Susan McClary has dubbed "Pythagorean" Bach, emerged as part of the stark turn away from Romanticism following World War I. The modernist rejection of "subjectivity" and personal psychological confessionals in art led to something of a downfall for Wagner, Mahler, and most of the great 19th-century Romantics. But the disillusioned post-war avant-garde found intellectual solace in the alienating distance between Bach and the human. Unlike Wagner, and Beethoven, and Schumann, Bach was untainted by personal psychology and corruptible human desire. He again benefited from having no historical personality, seeming to float above it all in a positivistic paradise where music and number intersected free of the original sin of emotion. His difficult and seemingly flawless counterpoint could serve as a crucible for what mattered in the years of Modernist formalism: Truth, objectivity, incorruptible processual integrity. The chores of complicated composing rules seemed to the modernists the best protection from backsliding into old bad (read: Romantic) habits. For Stravinsky, Bach's fugues were "a pure form in which the music means nothing outside of itself." Even as multiple generations or artists turned for comfort to the play of abstract forms, Bach managed to remain the center of the musical universe.

Even the radical post-World War II composers of total serialism, chance music, and computer music could not fault the pristine precision of his counterpoint. Gothic Bach had given way to Harmony-of-the-Spheres Bach, a different kind of metaphysics, but one no less rooted in the sublime — The Mathematical Sublime. Think no further than the close bond between Bach and Glenn Gould, that next great mythic icon of modernist detachment. To twist Gardiner's tautology, Gould was one of the least human human beings to have ever been. Like everyone else, he found himself in Bach, imagining him as an artist "withdrawing from the pragmatic concerns of music-making into an idealized world of uncompromised invention." This, of course, is precisely what Gould did in 1964 when he retired from live performance to concentrate his efforts exclusively within the precision-bubble of the recording studio, freed from the concert hall and its stink of the human and the social. Gould, too, is now central to our mythology of artist types and, in the popular imagination, Bach has remained the music for that type: esoterics and ascetics and Beautiful Minds. It is the music to which Hannibal Lecter plans his meticulous escape in The Silence of the Lambs. It is the music obsessively plinked out by the father of Allison Janney's character on The West Wing, of course a mathematician, of course seeking structure through the spreading disorder and isolation of Alzheimer's Disease. Music, Math, and Discipline. Clarity, Structure, and Complexity.


It is necessary to revisit Bach’s complicated reception history because it is out of all of this that Gardiner hopes to bring back to human form his "very human human being." It is a tall order, and a motivation one may not immediately trust considering how much Gardiner’s own recordings have helped to solidify the modernist view. As he relates it in Music in the Castle of Heaven, he experienced that version of Bach early on in his studies with Nadia Boulanger who preached the Stravinskyan catechism of discipline and order: "She insisted that the freedom to express yourself in music, whether as a composer, conductor or performer, demanded obedience to certain laws." His own recordings, part of the wave of "historically informed" interpretations using original instruments and claiming to resurrect the performing styles of Bach's own era, have come to define the sound of Bach for the current generation of listeners. Those initial claims to "authentic reconstruction" have long been put aside, and we have (most of us) come to admit that we like this sound not for its historical authenticity but for how well it matches up with our own Mondrian-esque view of Bach: sleekness, clarity, momentum, almost superhuman precision (with Gardiner's Monteverdi Choir often at tempos that take the breath right out any mere humans foolish enough to try and sing along). Gardiner's interpretations are only the most successful of an entire generation of conductors (along with those of Sigiswald Kuijken, Phillipe Herreweghe, Nikilaus Harnoncourt, and Masaaki Suzuki among others) whose sound lays bare the abstract lines in Bach's counterpoint by eliminating all of the distractions of older, Romantic performing styles: too much vibrato, too much rubato, too much dynamic swelling, not to mention too many performers. It would be impossible to overestimate how important Gardiner's recorded legacy is to contemporary Bach reception. As novel and shocking as his recordings may have seemed to my own teachers who grew up on Otto Klemperer and Wilhelm Furtwängler, I am just young enough that his 1990 B-Minor Mass recording on Archiv was the first I heard, as was his St. Matthew Passion, and most revelatory to me, his recording of Bach's Magnificat. Today, for my students, Gardiner's Bach is "normal" Bach, and those earlier conductors seem shocking, impossibly foreign, as from a lost and bizarre era.

The book, then, surprises. Given this reputation for clarity and precision, it is surprising that Gardiner's inner dialog with the composer is such a humanely messy concoction of the spiritual and the psychological. One wonders if the motivation for the book is not to provide something of a correction to his own public reception. That a great performer may look back on his career and fear that everyone has missed his point all along must be daunting. Though one suspects that the 30-year-old Gardiner, caught up in the heady days when the "authentic performance movement" was laying siege to record labels, might have written a different book. Much of Gardiner's current view seems to have been born of the extraordinary project he undertook in 2000, dubbed the Bach Cantata Pilgrimage. While hardly as austere an experience as the name implies (it was backed by a major record label and documented by a BBC camera crew), it was still a powerful testament to our continuing Bach obsession — a full year spent living life as an itinerant cantor, moving from one church to another throughout Europe, preparing and rehearsing two complete, often unfamiliar, Bach cantatas each week along with a number of other Bach monuments, some two hundred total pieces of difficult music all conforming to the liturgical calendar that was the composer's own constantly ticking task master. That intensity of focus, of having one's international conducting career turned for a year into the comparably claustrophobic vocation of Lutheran cantor, in short the pretense of "walking in the composer's shoes," seems to have shaken loose a lot in Gardiner. He speaks of it like an evangelist bringing back answers from the desert:

Following Bach’s seasonal and cyclical arrangement of cantatas for an entire year provided us with a graphic musical image of the revolving wheel of time to which we are all bound...solving the enigma of how this music brimming over with vigour and fantasy could have emerged from beneath the wig of that impassive-looking cantor...

The punishing pace of creativity and the picturesque settings seem to have provoked a sort of vision quest, part time-travel fantasy and part genuine insight into how distant a figure as Bach might actually be. It is no surprise, then, that the most satisfying sections of the book are those where Gardiner lets us into that inner dialog by reconstructing his thoughts during moments when he is swimming in the music during rehearsal or performance. Some of this talk is very much in line with the Pythagorean orthodoxy:

to convey what it feels like to be in the middle of it – connected to the motor and dance rhythms of the music, caught up in the sequential harmony and the intricate contrapuntal web of sounds, their spatial relations, the kaleidoscopic colour-changes of voices and instruments...the way it exposes to you its brilliant colour spectrum, its sharpness of contour, its harmonic depth, and the essential fluidity of its movement and underlying rhythm.

So far so Gould: sequences, spatial relations, colors, contours, lines. But as the book progresses, Gardiner reveals another layer of his current thinking about the composer, through both his perspectives on those same dull primary sources, which unfortunately he chooses to revisit in great detail, and through his favorite individual passages of the cantatas and Passions, which happily he does in just as much detail. The biographical half of the book shines in those sections when he imaginatively recreates the feel of the places Bach lived, penning him in a much smaller and uglier world than one might wish to imagine. Gardiner's biographical Bach is impressively small: not a German but a Thuringian, not part of a Lutheran community but part of a family-clan, not a citizen of the Enlightenment but an overworked and alternately obsequious and litigious crank mired in the petty squabbles of provincial town life. Remote from the big thinking that usually makes up the intellectual context of Baroque studies, Bach's world as presented by Gardiner is decidedly un-sublime. While far too conjectural in its details to be taken as an authoritative biography, it is a welcome antidote to the sweeping historical movements which usually serve as the "context" of important artist's lives: The Enlightenment, The Baroque, The Holy Roman Empire. Bach's world is too small for such big frames. Gardiner usefully reminds us that it is entirely possible to live "in the Enlightenment" without knowing it or showing many signs of it. It is a common sense point that some academic writers of epistemological "top-down" history might heed more often.

With a Huizinga-esque flair, Gardiner depicts Bach's milieu in terms calculated to pull him off the mountaintop of "pure music." From the rough and tactless scrounging required of preceding generations of the great "Bach Clan" to survive the grey landscape of the Thirty Years War ("the malaise which through most of the previous century had blighted the struggles of their parents’ and grandparents"), to Bach's own dingy coming of age in the brutish boy's schools of Eisenach and Ohrdruf with their Caravaggiesque gangs of knife-wielding ruffians ("brawls...[that]...developed unchecked while the burghers stood by, impotently wringing their hands...[over the] territorial division of the town between these embryonic Jets and Sharks or Mods and Rockers"), all the way to the petty arguments that made up much of his life in a Leipzig run by "a formidable alliance of secular and religious powers whose methods of subjugating employees had been honed over time and who were expert at making life difficult...," Gardiner shows a consistent flair for the drab and depressing.

As in Huizinga's history writing, the rough detail in this portrait of a querulous, often petty cantor and his dour world is meant to shock and alienate the reader. In breaking the composer out of his abstract cocoon, Gardiner also manages to break down the stereotype of the detached ascetic inhabiting a world of pure intellect. But that distance, once achieved, and the reader's predictable recoil from the grubby reality offered up, is actually just a step toward Gardiner's next goal, to locate in Bach some basis for a tragic persona that can serve as a framework for reading his works psychologically and autobiographically. The goal is not without merit. For listeners, it promises a renewed emotional resonance between we moderns and Bach's sacred music that goes beyond the old saws of purity or complexity. The tactics, however, are predictable and problematic. To pull Bach, and only Bach, across the 1800 wall and into the world of authentic testimony, Gardiner needs to pick and choose when to allow him to be a very human human being living in his very small human world, and when to allow him the luxury of transcending that world in order to communicate his "universal" message. It is a difficult needle to thread.

The Bach that emerges is heavily marked by that rougher, darker setting. But the resulting scars are arranged into a familiar pattern, that of the romantic outsider. He is orphaned, death-obsessed, outlaw, non-conformist, a sullen misfit. He is "battle scarred" from disputes with both civic and court authorities, scars that include the memory of imprisonment and the threat of destitution. He rejected the career path of his more successful contemporaries toward the soulless but profitable theatre music of larger urban centers out of pure artistic integrity ("not from any Lutheran prudery but simply because the music he heard there left him cold"). Instead he propagated "mutant" musical forms that were largely misunderstood by his own audiences and bosses. He is set upon by smaller musical minds who question his lack of a university education. Thus even Bach, the supreme technician (and posthumous terrorizer of conservatory students the world over), is able to fill the Romantic role of the unschooled, or at least un-institutionalized, outsider. He stands alone as a complex psychological figure among a collection of shallow and imperious straw men: despots, bureaucrats, venal patrons, abusive pedagogues, jealous academics, frivolous popular composers (Telemann serves as the main foil here), and audiences craving easy delights. Bach alone is allowed the luxury of introspection and depth because Bach alone is tasked with having something important to say to us directly. The personal flaws of this "imperfect man" selected for our inspection are consistently of the anti-hero variety. He is, in short, every bit the visionary and martyr we've come to expect from artistic hagiography. The process is completed when Gardiner makes the final turn so familiar to us from our side of the 1800 wall, revealing that the ultimate primary source for Bach's biography is the testimony of "the music itself."

The music gives us shafts of insight into the harrowing experiences he must have suffered as an orphan, as a lone teenager, and as a grieving husband and father. They show us his fierce dislike of hypocrisy and his impatience with falsification of any sort; but they also reveal the profound sympathy he felt towards those who grieve or suffer in one way or another, or who struggle with their consciences.

Much of this is merely an extension of the call made over ten years ago by Robert L. Marshall for bolder attempts at Bach Biography. There is much resonance between Gardiner's portrait of Bach and Marshall's suggested method, to extend back to Bach the posthumous Freudian couch sessions practiced so provocatively (and questionably) by Maynard Solomon in his biographies of Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert. Both Marshall and Gardiner fixate on Bach's experience of loss. Marshall goes so far as to posit that an obsession with death and human frailty, not to mention a deep attraction to Lutheran orthodoxy, might be explained as a retreat from the anxiety of being twice orphaned, first by parental death, and then by brotherly abandonment. It is a method that requires inflating poorly documented, sometimes partially guessed, bits of biographical detail with intense emotional consequences. Gardiner's musical analyses flow freely from this font. Simply put, Bach's personal experience of loss, coupled with his fervent immersion in Lutheran doctrine, led him to a uniquely honest understanding of shame, of temptation, and of the desire for redemption. Such themes, of course, never go out of fashion and were staples as well of Baroque opera and of the sacred works of Vivaldi, Telemann, and scores of other composers. But Gardiner singles out Bach for an "authentic" religious conviction in contrast to the shallowness of his more theatrical contemporaries. To revisit and rewrite Kerman's formula, "Baroque composers depict the passions....except for Bach, who expresses them." One of us after all. This coupled with Bach's unmatched willingness to forego the beautiful and the pleasurable in favor of uncomfortable moments of pain, rage, and revulsion separates him from those others. At its best such diagnoses invest old music with a new and contemporary psychological power, a process that leaves one conflicted, offending the historian while stirring the concertgoer. Being both myself, I've long since learned to stop worrying and enjoy the resulting neurotics made out of Mozart, Beethoven, Mahler, Ives, et al., and so I am fully prepared to do the same for Bach. But we should never forget who the patient on the couch really is.

Gardiner's task is made easier by the predictability of the resulting trope. We all know the artist type that we expect to be born of such angst. The gateway from slim source material to mythological archetype is a bit like Platform Nine and Three-Quarters at King's Cross Station. It will always be there for you if you run confidently enough at it. In Music in the Castle of Heaven, this dimension of testimonial expressivity remains Bach's special prerogative among Baroque composers, a special status essential to the book's final and most substantial argument, that among the music of that entire era Bach's sacred vocal works are uniquely relevant to our modern condition.

Gardiner provides us two different vantage points on Bach's testaments. Based on his experience during the Bach Cantata Pilgrimage, he is the perfect guide to walk us through a diachronic survey of an entire year's cycle. It is an ambitious analysis offering glimpses of a composer responding to the challenge of producing a new sacred composition every week — a complex of moving Rembrandtian musical portraits of humans in distress. For a few cantatas and for the two extant Passion settings he gives us extreme close-ups, visiting with each movement and scene at a level of detail that allows us to luxuriate in the conductor's vision of his newer darker Bach. His reading of Christ Lag in Todesbanden (BWV 4) demonstrates the surprising zeal of a 22-year-old's commitment to Lutheran eschatology. The text and governing melody, harshly ritualistic and tribal, are by Luther himself.

No innocence could be found.
Thus it was that Death came so soon
And seized power over us –
Held us captive in his kingdom,

Bach's musical setting weeps, wails, and roars with striking realism even as it astounds in its intricate textures. The result is a grim reminder of how effective Luther's language and Bach's music can be at bringing abstract theological concerns down into the world of everyday mortality:

Timeframes overlap here: first that of pre-regenerate man, then those of the Thuringians of both Luther’s and Bach’s day, scarred by their regular brushes with pestilential death.

Gardiner uncovers (or injects) much that is new and worth the reader's time. The St. John and St. Matthew Passion settings get particularly engaging analysis, fitting to their position in Gardiner's view as the greatest example of music's ability to mimic tragedy and to force passive listeners into a recognition of their culpability in the world they inhabit:

[they]...animate the conventions of tragic myth and tragic conduct….leading his listeners to confront their mortality and compelling them to witness things from which they would normally avert their eyes.

These close readings have a lot to offer. They are rich in technical detail for those that want that in a music book, and bold in their emotional lunges for those who will skip past the shop talk of rhythms and counterpoints. But Gardiner's hope is for more than mere compellingness. It is for relevance. His book is a failure if it cannot frame Bach's Passions as something more than historical artifacts of a proto-enlightenment. That is the reason he doesn't go too far into that world before pulling up. Others have already delved farther into what Gardiner almost sheepishly calls "the delicate issue of religious belief," questioning the ability of today's audiences to connect to a music so deeply rooted in convictions that many of us do not share or may even outright reject. Richard Taruskin offers that if one digs far enough into the real historical Bach, one finds a worldview worth truly recoiling from, a world of enforced consensus, absolutist ideology, anti-individualism, misogyny, and small-minded bigotry: "pre-Enlightened—and when push came to shove, a violently anti-Enlightened—temper...Such music was a medium of truth, not beauty, and the truth it served—Luther’s truth—was often bitter....Even when Bach is not expressing actively anti-Enlightenment sentiments...his settings are pervaded with a general antihumanism." This, according to Taruskin, is why "only a handful of Bach’s cantatas can be said to have really joined the modern performance repertory, and a thoroughly unrepresentative handful at that."

Gardiner offers us some relief from that "abandon ship" position, coaxing us to dip a toe into real history, just enough to give us something more real than Pythagorean Bach or Mountaintop Bach, just enough to darken the mood a bit for audiences who like their music pathological but not demagogic. History, in Music in Castle of Heaven, is in the service of contemporary experience. It must bend to achieve Gardiner's goal, which is to convince us that Bach's sacred vocal music remains socially relevant. It contains, after all, vivid and relatable depictions of very human human beings at their most pathetic, guilty, ashamed, supplicating, desperate. Gardiner believes above all else that exposure to these works is good for us in a way that even Bach's own instrumental music cannot match. Simply put, it fosters empathy:

although Bach is habitually required to deal with such towering universal themes as eternity, sin and death, he shows he is also interested in the flickers of doubt and the daily tribulations of every individual, recognising that small lives do not seem small to the people who live them.

The extent of this belief is on stark display on the CD covers to the recordings that coincide with the Bach Cantata Pilgrimage. Released by Gardiner's own label, each CD features a photograph by Steve McCurry, best known for National Geographic's famous cover photo of 12-year-old Sharbat Gula. The CD covers all attempt to repeat the power of that iconic image, a single person staring directly at the camera and thus, challengingly, into the eyes of the listener/holder of the CD. What changes from photo to photo is ethnicity, gender, traditional clothing or makeup. Like Gula, known across America and Europe not by her name but by a reductive formula — "The Afghan Girl" — (direct object + ethnicity + gender = human), the people in the photographs are all easily reduced to interchangeable symbols of exoticness. They are ethnically and geographically diverse, with the notable absence being the white European or American that one might presume is Gardiner'sexpected Bach CD purchaser. If their ethnicity does not establish their "otherness,” then their indigenous dress, makeup, or ceremonial posture certainly does — a cascade of very human humans, all very different than you. Shuffle the deck of humanity and buy the complete box set! It is easy to read this exercise as naively exploitive orientalism. But I am willing to give Gardiner the benefit of an earnest belief that these images press the same issue as the music, asking us to confront the ultimate test of empathy — distance. It is easy to feel for the person near you, or the person who most resembles you. The consequences of their suffering are clearer and closer. The true test is how compelled one is to act on behalf of someone far away, who does not resemble you, and who you will never meet. It is a bold and clumsy attempt to make a strong claim that Bach's sacred music has powerful work to do still today, the highest order of work, of making the world a better place all the way from the private to the global:

for beleaguered humanity at all times and in all places – from instances of false accusation in private or domestic life to the outrages under regimes of torture.

Music in the Castle of Heaven seems meant to complete a triad: striking musical performances, provocative visual imagery, and now a book-length exploration of these works, step by step, psychological trauma by trauma. But this brings us back to where this essay began, prompting the question of why it requires so many pages of biographical backup? Why the need to establish that the message we receive from this astounding music is rooted in Bach's own psyche and endorsed by his own intentions? Twenty years ago, during the great "authentic performance" debates, this same question was asked of performers like Gardiner who claimed "historical verisimilitude" as a justification for their new performance style rather than simply admitting that they played the way they wanted to because they (and we) liked the sound. Gardiner's own rhetoric was called into question back then as an example of the poietic fallacy, the idea that the only, or most valid, meaning of a musical work is one derived from the composer's own thought process. It is a habit that leads us to credit our own feelings to someone else — someone whose mind we cannot hope to read, but whose authority we crave — the composer or author as lawgiver. The debate is long settled so far as performance is concerned, and performers in the new style have (mostly) accepted that, as Taruskin sneakily commended them, "being the true voice of one's time is...roughly forty thousand times as vital and important as being the assumed voice of history." But reading Music in the Castle of Heaven, it seems as if Gardiner, the author, learned nothing from the trials of Gardiner, the performer, or at least thought he might slip old habits by in another form.

Take for a final example his readings of Cantatas 178, 179, and 135, the texts of which center on spiritual hypocrisy (from BWV 178: “wicked men … conceiving their artful plots with the serpent’s guile” and from BWV 179: “Likeness of false hypocrites, We could Sodom's apples call them, Who, with rot though they be filled, On the outside brightly glisten.”). The music is filled with strident, heavily articulated orchestral slicing, fiery long-winded chewing-outs for melodies, and unexpected harmonic thunderclaps. For Gardiner, the one thing that is missing is personal testimony:

such sustained defiance that one asks whether there is a submerged story here – of Bach operating in a hostile environment, How much more satisfying, then, for him to channel all that frustration and vituperative energy into his music,…This is superb, angry music executed with a palpable fury, with Bach fuming at delinquent malefactors. One can picture the city elders, sitting in the best pews, listening to these post-Trinitarian harangues, registering their intent and starting to feel increasingly uncomfortable as these shockingly direct words – and Bach’s still more strident and abrasive music – hit home.

Perhaps. Certainly the notion reinforces Gardiner's own Bach mythology, Bach again as prototype, this time of the outsider anti-hero — proto-Beethoven. It is attractive. But whatever satisfying defiance this music parallels in modern listeners — anger at hypocritical corporate double-speak or outraged moralizing at ignorant power-wielding political hacks — is both self-evident in the sound and already built in to our cultural moment. It does not require the backing of Bach's imaginary diary or visions of puffed-up Leipzig burghers.

In the end, the book is an argument for these difficult works to be kept alive, sprinkled with a fear that in our age of spiritual skepticism, and our new $.99/track digital music marketplace, Bach's shorter instrumental works (and heaven forbid Vivaldi's brilliant and breezily accessible concerti and arias) may be better built to thrive. But the case for relevance, and the call to keep the cantatas from fading, will be made between Bach's music, his performers, and us. The answer to the question "why should we listen to this?" does not have to coincide with the answer to the question “why did he write it?"

If one has any doubts, look around at how many different Bachs are coexisting today, when more than a century of shifting performance styles and emotional perspectives are all streaming together on Youtube: Romantic Bach, Modern Bach, Gothic Bach, Pythagorean Bach, ascetic Bach, Lutheran Bach, audacious virtuoso Bach. You can choose whichever you'd like today, and a different one tomorrow. They all once claimed to be "the real" Bach — proof of how the process of reception is the history that matters. Just be aware, when reading Music in the Castle of Heaven, that John Eliot Gardiner's tragic orphan-empath is only one Bach among those many. No more or less accurate to the “true” past, but perhaps more prepared to survive the immediate future.


Michael Markham is an assistant professor of Music History at the State University of New York at Fredonia. His writings on Baroque music and performance spaces, on solo song, and on J. S. Bach have appeared in Gli spazi della musica, The Cambridge Opera Journal, The Opera Quarterly, and Repercussions.

LARB Contributor

Michael Markham is an assistant professor of Music History at the State University of New York at Fredonia. His writings on Baroque music and performance spaces, on solo song, and on J. S. Bach have appeared in Gli spazi della musica, The Cambridge Opera JournalThe Opera Quarterly, and Repercussions. Two recent essays can be found in The Music Room in Early Modern France and Italy: Sound, Space, and Object published by Oxford University Press and The Music History Classroom published by Ashgate.


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