Making the “Divine” Bach Human Again

Gardiner’s life-long immersion in Bach’s music—as performer and conductor, rather than as academic analyst—qualifies him perhaps better than anyone else alive today to recreate what it was to be the living, breathing, human Bach.

“This is what I have to say about Bach’s life’s work,” Albert Einstein once remarked. “Listen, play, love, revere—and keep your trap shut.” But how can anyone listen to the “divine” music of Johann Sebastian Bach and not wonder about a man now synonymous with classical music and, in many ways, high-brow culture itself? In Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven, Sir John Eliot Gardiner, not only one of the world’s leading conductors, but also a preeminent interpreter of Bach’s music, takes us inside the music—listening, playing, loving, and revering, as Einstein asks—to take us inside the man. Opposing the traditional view of Bach as almost God-like in his musical perfection, Gardiner unearths the imperfections of a very flawed artist who struggled with spiritual faith as well as secular authority. For anyone who’s ever felt intimidated by “BACH,” Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven will guide you into the world of Bach and allow you to experience the compelling humanity (foremost Bach’s own) embedded in every note.


“I grew up under the Cantor’s gaze,” Gardiner begins. During World War II, the refugee German owner of the famous “Haussmann Portrait” of Bach (shown above) entrusted the painting to Gardiner’s parents, who placed that “forbidding stare” in young John Eliot’s path on his way to bed each night. From that early encounter through his training as a musician and conductor all the way up to his Bach Cantata Pilgrimage project (in which Gardiner conducted all 198 surviving Bach Cantatas in a single year to mark the 250th anniversary of Bach’s death), Gardiner’s come to know Bach’s music intimately, which he sees as the key to knowing the man. “Because the emotional world of his music is so rich,” Gardiner believes, “we have a much stronger sense of Bach’s own nature imprinted in the music, with a three-dimensional character we take to be his own.”

Gardiner’s life-long immersion in Bach’s music—as performer and conductor, rather than as academic analyst—qualifies him perhaps better than anyone else alive today to recreate what it was to be the living, breathing, human Bach. Gardiner strives to erase the sanitized, almost deified Bach of previous hagiolatry (the people Einstein asked to shut their traps) and to take instead an admittedly personal, subjective approach to get at the personal through the music, which isn’t a literal diary, but rather revelatory in how the man entwined his self with his music. In getting at Bach’s heart, however, Gardiner never dismisses Bach’s head; instead, Gardiner reunites heart and head in a way that rings fresh and true, thus making the music itself less intimidating.

Even for someone familiar with Bach and his music, Music in the Castle of Heaven is an eye-opener. Using research available for decades yet unused by most scholars, Gardiner recreates the world of Bach’s youth, especially the rough and tumble schools where rival youth choirs would brawl in the streets over “busking” turf. Bach himself pulled a rapier sword on a rival musician in self defense. Gardiner muses whether Bach the star pupil of later years was actually “a reformed teenage thug.” An orphan by the age of 10, Bach fought for everything he had. That familiarity with death (which would continue with the death of his first wife and the death of 10 of his 23 children before the age of 3) etched deep contradictions into Bach’s personality, perhaps none as striking as the paradox of Bach’s “tacit acceptance of the hierarchical order that came with his time and his religion” coexisting “signs of constitutional truculence and a recurrent refusal to accept authority” that, at least on one occasion, landed the composer in jail. We usually associate such rebelliousness with the Romantic Beethoven, not the Baroque Bach. Once you learn that the elderly Bach taunted a musical enemy as “Dreck-ohr” or “dirty ear,” you recognize that, in some ways, the little orphan boy who escaped the chaos of overcrowded, violent schools by the force of his determination and musical gifts never truly grew up.

Gardiner charmingly recreates the larger musical context of Bach’s rise by imagining a “Class of ‘85” (1685, that is). Someone placing a bet in 1703, when the class reached 18 years of age, might have put the German George Frideric Handel or Italian Domenico Scarlatti at the head of the classical composer class. Close contemporaries Frenchman Jean-Philippe Rameau, German Georg Philipp Telemann, or the German prodigy Johann Mattheson would have been in the running. Bringing up the rear, alas, would be the provincial, small-town organist Bach. What held Bach back? And what made him beat the odds in the eyes of posterity? At the time, opera stood as the fast track to the big time. Handel embraced the genre and cashed in. Bach, despite some exposure to opera, remained less cosmopolitan than his “classmates” and never wrote an opera, choosing instead to compose what Gardiner sees as the “mutant opera” of cantatas, motets, masses, and passions.

Music in the Castle of Heaven excels when Gardiner digs into the music itself, although these passages might scare those not already familiar with the works. (I wish the book included a companion CD, because Gardiner’s insights continually set me scouring my collection and the internet for the music.) Gardiner makes the significant point that, although we think of Bach as a religious composer, the bulk of his secular works (often played in the seedy, prostitute-inhabited coffee houses of the day) outweighs that of his devotional music. While those secular works give us a glimpse of Bach’s earthier side, the sacred works “outweigh” them in the sense of revealing Bach’s take on the weightier issues of life, death, faith, and doubt. Bach’s cantatas recreated the cyclical nature of eternity itself, as Gardiner demonstrates through text and colorful charts. In diving into the St. John and St. Matthew Passions, Gardiner shows how Bach “colluded” and even “collided” with the standard theology of his day, thus often arriving at a new, radical interpretation of the Good Book, just as his rule-breaking religious hero, Martin Luther, once did.

Gardiner’s take on Bach reminded me of Stephen Greenblatt’s approach to Shakespeare in the controversial Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare. Greenblatt took heat over making leaps from the texts and the histories of the era to assumptions about Shakespeare’s life and mind. Gardiner may face similar complaints. But when you consider how little we know about Bach and Shakespeare—two giants of Western Civilization—outside of their works, isn’t working from that foundation a valid, if not heroic, effort? Paul Elie’s Reinventing Bach and James R. GainesEvening in the Palace of Reason: Bach Meets Frederick the Great in the Age of Enlightenment, just to name two other recent popular books on Bach, may be more universally accessible than Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven, but neither match Gardiner’s epic sweep or his exacting eye and ear for detail. Just as Gardiner draws parallels to artists such as Rembrandt and Caravaggio in illustrating a point about Bach, Gardiner’s portrait in this book draws favorable parallels to the portrait that dominated his childhood—an honest, wrinkles and warts, but ultimately warm and bright-eyed masterpiece.

Despite all that Gardiner knows and shares about Bach, he expresses over and over in Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven his frustration over our inability to know how the person in the church pew or corner of the coffee house received the music when it was first played. Amazingly, scraps of new documentation of Bach’s existence are always emerging from the shadows of some archive, but those scraps tantalizingly only hint at the bigger picture. In the end, we only have the music and how we feel about it now. As Gardiner proves, Bach’s music “gives us the voice of God—in human form.” Bach’s imperfections are our own, yet are conveyed in “the perfections of his music,” Gardiner concludes. Bach’s humanity transcends time and space to show us how to “overcome our imperfections” and, just as Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven does with the master himself, “make divine things human and human things divine.”

[Image: Elias Gottlob Haussmann. Portrait of Johann Sebastian Bach (detail), 1746. Image source.]

[Many thanks to Alfred A. Knopf for providing me with a review copy of Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven.]

Related Articles

How does alcohol affect your brain?

Explore how alcohol affects your brain, from the first sip at the bar to life-long drinking habits.

(Photo by Angie Garrett/Wikimedia Commons)
Mind & Brain
  • Alcohol is the world's most popular drug and has been a part of human culture for at least 9,000 years.
  • Alcohol's effects on the brain range from temporarily limiting mental activity to sustained brain damage, depending on levels consumed and frequency of use.
  • Understanding how alcohol affects your brain can help you determine what drinking habits are best for you.
Keep reading Show less

Scientists sequence the genome of this threatened species

If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx a team of DNA sequencers has figured that out.

Surprising Science
  • A team at UMass Amherst recently sequenced the genome of the Canadian lynx.
  • It's part of a project intending to sequence the genome of every vertebrate in the world.
  • Conservationists interested in the Canadian lynx have a new tool to work with.

If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx, I can now—as of this month—point you directly to the DNA of a Canadian lynx, and say, "That's what makes a lynx a lynx." The genome was sequenced by a team at UMass Amherst, and it's one of 15 animals whose genomes have been sequenced by the Vertebrate Genomes Project, whose stated goal is to sequence the genome of all 66,000 vertebrate species in the world.

Sequencing the genome of a particular species of an animal is important in terms of preserving genetic diversity. Future generations don't necessarily have to worry about our memory of the Canadian Lynx warping the way hearsay warped perception a long time ago.

elephant by Guillaume le Clerc

Artwork: Guillaume le Clerc / Wikimedia Commons

13th-century fantastical depiction of an elephant.

It is easy to see how one can look at 66,000 genomic sequences stored away as being the analogous equivalent of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. It is a potential tool for future conservationists.

But what are the practicalities of sequencing the genome of a lynx beyond engaging with broad bioethical questions? As the animal's habitat shrinks and Earth warms, the Canadian lynx is demonstrating less genetic diversity. Cross-breeding with bobcats in some portions of the lynx's habitat also represents a challenge to the lynx's genetic makeup. The two themselves are also linked: warming climates could drive Canadian lynxes to cross-breed with bobcats.

John Organ, chief of the U.S. Geological Survey's Cooperative Fish and Wildlife units, said to MassLive that the results of the sequencing "can help us look at land conservation strategies to help maintain lynx on the landscape."

What does DNA have to do with land conservation strategies? Consider the fact that the food found in a landscape, the toxins found in a landscape, or the exposure to drugs can have an impact on genetic activity. That potential change can be transmitted down the generative line. If you know exactly how a lynx's DNA is impacted by something, then the environment they occupy can be fine-tuned to meet the needs of the lynx and any other creature that happens to inhabit that particular portion of the earth.

Given that the Trump administration is considering withdrawing protection for the Canadian lynx, a move that caught scientists by surprise, it is worth having as much information on hand as possible for those who have an interest in preserving the health of this creature—all the way down to the building blocks of a lynx's life.

Why cauliflower is perfect for the keto diet

The exploding popularity of the keto diet puts a less used veggie into the spotlight.

Purple cauliflower. (Photo: Shutterstock)
Surprising Science
  • The cauliflower is a vegetable of choice if you're on the keto diet.
  • The plant is low in carbs and can replace potatoes, rice and pasta.
  • It can be eaten both raw and cooked for different benefits.
Keep reading Show less