Review: Music in the Castle of Heaven: A Portrait of Johann Sebastian Bach by John Eliot Gardiner 

Music in the Castle of Heaven [2013] – ★★★★

I was obliged to be industrious. Whoever is equally industrious will succeed equally well“. Johann Sebastian Bach

The music of Bach is complex, inventive, awe-inspiring and brimming with mathematical precision and religious fervour. The man behind it appears equally stern and unreachable. But, who was Johann Sebastian Bach really and how it came about that a cantor operating in a rather small region of Germany managed to compose music of such brilliant contours, imaginative force and spiritual depth that it now forms much of the foundation of our classical music and is worshipped by many across the globe? In this non-fiction, British conductor John Eliot Gardiner aims to shed light on these precise, still puzzling questions. Music in the Castle of Heaven is an illuminating account of Bach’s life and music that starts from the premise that to understand Bach’s art we have to first immerse ourselves in the very essence of his time and place of birth. Numerous factors influenced Bach and made him into a musician we know today – familial, historic, socio-economic, cultural, educational – and without knowing these we cannot fathom Bach’s mind and how it worked. Gardiner strikes at the very heart of Bach’s genius, presenting us with a complex and sometimes contradictory musician who was also a very empathetic man.

Gardiner presents a non-linear narrative of Bach’s life, which, though at times confusing, is still very insightful. Johann Sebastian Bach was born in 1685 in Eisenach in the heart of the Thuringian forest, southern Germany. Like Mozart, he was born into a musical family, but had a strict Lutheran upbringing and lost both of his parents when he was still rather young. This trauma probably contributed to him becoming so withdrawn, but also resilient later in life. This resilience, but also strict discipline, faith and belief in his own abilities, played a role in his later professional success. Bach’s cousin, Christoph Bach, was one of the biggest influences on Bach as a child, demonstrating to young Bach that music can be “a receptacle in which to pour all of his life’s anguishes, one’s faith…and one’s passion and [it can] act as a…vehicle for self-expression” [Gardiner, Penguin Books, 2014: 74].

The Goldberg Variations [1741] is one of the better known compositions of J. S. Bach that was also used to a brilliant effect in the most successful films of the 1990s – The English Patient and Silence of the Lambs.

We read about the influence of Bach’s first teachers and his early aspirations to become a virtuoso organist. In his life, Bach did manage to become a much esteemed and admired court, school and municipal organist, cantor, composer and music director. There is an interesting chapter in the book on Bach’s brilliant and equally versatile contemporaries – musicians George Frideric Handel and Domenico Scarlatti were born in the same year that Bach was – 1685! (and Jean-Philipp Rameau and Georg Philipp Telemann were only two and four years his senior respectively). The author provides fascinating episodes from Bach’s daily life, and we get the feel for Bach’s temperament and habits and how these shaped him as a musician and composer, influencing his music. Gardiner is adamant that the historic, socio-economic and cultural atmosphere in which Bach lived and worked had a decisive say in his music. Much like Beethoven, Bach had to work in an intricate, “hierarchical urban environment” [2014: 248], being heavily reliant on the system of patronage, and also battled bureaucracy and ecclesiastical regulations in producing work. It is in this difficult environment he came up with pieces of pure technical and inventive brilliance, and his previous thorough training in canon-singing must have been of immeasurable help: “his knowledge of harmony was so profound that it was practically mathematical in effect. He knew how every single note and key related to each other, what could be done with every chord and with every change in direction” [Gardiner, Penguin Books, 2014: 210].

Bach composed a large amount of religious music, but he was also living in times when Church was the focal point of the individual, family and community’s lives. His schooling was indistinguishable from both religious and musical schooling: “his earliest experiences in music were…indivisible from its role in acts of worship…” [Gardiner, Penguin Books, 2014: 55]. This is very important to bear in mind to understand Bach as a man and as a composer, and later we also learn just how central religion was to Bach’s psychology and philosophy. Bach dedicated much of his art to God’s glory, and “a high proportion of Bach’s music, unlike that of his peers, was addressed to a church congregation, rather than a lay audience” [Gardiner, 2014: 126]. The appeal of Bach’s music to religious followers must have been extraordinary, but the curiosity here is that the secular segment of society (and society was growing secular in Bach’s time) was also finding Bach’s music quite entrancing (it was heard both in churches and coffee-houses). We are all concerned with human matters because we are all humans and Bach’s music talks about our humanity and our struggles. It is on this basis that it feels so transcendental, enabling even non-religious listeners to appreciate its beauty, nuances, depth of vision and unshakeable belief: Bach’s music “carried a universal message of hope that can touch anybody regardless of culture , religious denomination or musical knowledge, it springs from the depths of the human psyche”;…“his art celebrates the fundamental sanctity of life, an awareness of the divine and a transcendent dimension as a fact of human existence” [Gardiner, 2014: 15, 523]. Thus, the final part of the book dissects Bach’s famous pieces, including his Cantatas (for example, Actus Tragicus and Leichtgesinnte Flattergeister), Mass in B minor, St John Passion and St Matthew Passion, with the author providing much insight and historical context into each of these masterworks by Bach.

Although Gardiner is needlessly repetitive in the book’s second half and focuses solely on Bach’s religious music (the giant bulk of the composer’s work), Music in the Castle of Heaven is still an accessible book which will delight Bach’s fans and those curious about his music alike. The author understands the importance of the effect of the society on the composer and his development, showing us clearly how Bach’s immediate environment and different factors from his childhood, schooling and work contributed to the man’s standing and psychology, essential elements to grasp in order to understand Bach’s music. Gardiner’s goal is achieved – Johann Sebastian Bach finally comes across as a human being, a man with ordinary faults and troubles, rather than some distant and isolated genius destined for success.

See also my biography reviews of other classical music composers – Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Mozart: The Man Revealed) and Ludwig van Beethoven (Beethoven: A Life in Nine Pieces).

10 thoughts on “Review: Music in the Castle of Heaven: A Portrait of Johann Sebastian Bach by John Eliot Gardiner 

  1. I agree — and it’s certainly true for me — that Bach’s religious music speaks to those who are non-religious or of a different creed, and is as capable of moving them as it is those who are believers.

    And of course there is the fact that composers of the time were perfectly capable of adapting their secular music for religious occasions and vice versa (often simply changing texts of vocal compositions) — and that suggests to me that they might have regarded beautiful music as having innate spirituality.

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  2. Yes, a great observation. I read there was this divide between Bach who viewed music as something sacred and in service of God and the majority of his contemporaries who fell for the theatrical Italian style opera which Bach looked down upon, but later also experimented with and his music reflects a great deal of awareness of this popular music, too. I guess for him any true music could not but reflect spirituality and I bet he thought that even his secular music about coffee or feasts still had this symmetrical structure or internal logic and therefore by its very nature must have only one origin – divinity. This is especially so since he thought that any inspiration was not to be found, but simply discovered from a range of options that had always been available.

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    1. The notion that inspiration is “simply discovered from a range of options that [have] always been available” is a lovely one, Diana.

      It reminds me that an “invention” — which we usually think of as emanating from rational processes in an individual’s brain — actually derives from the Latin invenire, “to come upon, stumble across”; in other words an invention is a concept or physical object that was always there, just waiting to be discovered at some point in history, by the right person at the right time.

      I can see that Bach would accede to this idea of his coming across the ideal melody or chord sequence to express what needed to be expressed, given that he constantly worked at his vocation.

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  3. Diana – this is a very interesting and informative post. I have known of John Eliot Gardiner for a long time and have great admiration for him as a conductor and musical scholar; and for his recordings of works of Handel, Beethoven, etc. I have attended several performances conducted by him in New York.

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  4. “his knowledge of harmony was so profound that it was practically mathematical in effect. He knew how every single note and key related to each other, what could be done with every chord and with every change in direction” … This is brilliant insight, especially the first sentence.

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