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Johann Sebastian Bach is one of the most unfathomable composers in the history of music. How can such sublime work have been produced by a man who (when we can discern his personality at all) seems so ordinary, so opaque—and occasionally so intemperate?
John Eliot Gardiner grew up passing one of the only two authentic portraits of Bach every morning and evening on the stairs of his parents’ house, where it hung for safety during World War II. He has been studying and performing Bach ever since, and is now regarded as one of the composer’s greatest living interpreters. The fruits of this lifetime’s immersion are distilled in this remarkable book, grounded in the most recent Bach scholarship but moving far beyond it, and explaining in wonderful detail the ideas on which Bach drew, how he worked, how his music is constructed, how it achieves its effects—and what it can tell us about Bach the man.
Gardiner’ s background as a historian has encouraged him to search for ways in which scholarship and performance can cooperate and fruitfully coalesce. This has entailed piecing together the few biographical shards, scrutinizing the music, and watching for those instances when Bach’s personality seems to penetrate the fabric of his notation. Gardiner’s aim is “to give the reader a sense of inhabiting the same experiences and sensations that Bach might have had in the act of music-making. This, I try to show, can help us arrive at a more human likeness discernible in the closely related processes of composing and performing his music.”
It is very rare that such an accomplished performer of music should also be a considerable writer and thinker about it. John Eliot Gardiner takes us as deeply into Bach’s works and mind as perhaps words can. The result is a unique book about one of the greatest of all creative artists.
“[I]t is Gardiner’s experience as a conductor that informs so much of this book. Not only does he explain the harmonic, contrapuntal and polyphonic underpinnings of Bach’s music. . . he also comments on these scores from practical experience, having spent countless hours working out instrumental balances and sonorities, textures and dynamics, in concert halls and churches alike.” —The Washington Post
“The Leipzig Kapellmeister's music is one of mankind's greatest achievements. John Eliot Gardiner has been Bach's most eloquent champion on the podium for decades and, now, in this extraordinary book.” –The Wall Street Journal, *Best Nonfiction of 2013*
“[I]t is hard to imagine what the English maestro John Eliot Gardiner. . . might do to surpass Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven in its commitment, scope and comprehensiveness. . . . [He] has done a masterly, monumental job of taking the measure of Bach the man and the musician.” —The New York Times
“With Bach we seek the elusive man hiding, perhaps, under the dense, spectacular music. . . .As eloquent a writer as he is a musician, Gardiner brings to his study the invaluable perspective of the practitioner. . . . One of the stars of the revolution over the past 50 years that has brought period instruments into the mainstream of early-music performance. . . . [Gardiner’s] depth of knowledge permeates his writing.” —The New York Times Book Review
“Mr. Gardiner writes in the refreshing voice of a man who has studied and performed Bach's music for decades. . . . Like his conducting, the author's writing is lively, argumentative and passionate. He believes deeply in Bach's music and wants to understand each aspect of its construction. . . . Bach's music is one of mankind's greatest achievements, and his genius touches upon matters eternal and profound. His choral music is less well-known than it should be—especially the cantatas, which Gardiner lauds as "gripping musical works of exceptional worth." Spurred by Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven, many listeners will discover them for the first time. In performance and now in print, Mr. Gardiner is Bach's most eloquent champion.” —The Wall Street Journal
“It never happens often enough, but now and then, a subject gets the book it deserves. So it is with John Eliot Gardiner’s Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven, a biography so thoughtful, well-researched, and beautifully written that it should satisfy both the well-informed enthusiast and readers simply seeking to become better acquainted with a musical giant.” —The Daily Beast
“Gardiner presents a nuanced account of the constellation of personal, musical, religious, and cultural forces that shaped Bach’s astonishing body of compositions. He writes with the care of a scholar, the knowledge of an expert musician, and the passion of a believer (in Bach if nothing else).” —The Christian Science Monitor
“An erudite work resting on prodigious research and experience and deep affection and admiration.” —Kirkus (starred review)
"There is something awesome about John Eliot Gardiner's achievement in this book: the interpretation of what to most of us can appear a great and mysterious force by a man whose entire life has prepared him for the task. Stunning." —Tom Holland
“Typical John Eliot to combine so much erudition with even more passion and enthusiasm. It made me want to rush and listen to all the pieces whether familiar or unfamiliar. A treasure chest.” —Simon Rattle, principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic
“There could be no better-qualified guide to the mysteries behind Bach’s music than the conductor who has breathed new life into its performance. . . . Bach is a shadowy figure, despite his fame in his own lifetime. This doesn’t prevent Gardiner from making arresting observations based on his own research and others’. He sheds new light on the rowdy, brutalizing schooling Bach must have received, the street-brawls he got involved in at 15, and on his drawing a rapier on an incompetent bassoonist three years later. . . . Gardiner interrogates the structure of each work without getting trapped in the dry academicism which bedevils much Bach scholarship: he never loses sight of the sheer viscerality of Bach’s effects, which obey Luther’s injunction that ‘Christ’s Passion must be met, not with words or forms, but with life and truth.’ ” —The Independent
“While Gardiner draws on the latest scholarship relating to Bach and his world…it is at the same time a highly personal and passionate piece of writing, animated constantly by his practical engagement with performing Bach’s music. For as he points out at the outset, the peculiar power of Bach’s music lies in the fact that it is both cerebral and also full of of-the-moment physicality—it is ‘music so complex that it leaves us completely mystified, then at other moments so irresistibly rhythmic that we want to get up and dance to it.’” —The Sunday Times
“[T]here is nothing dry or dusty about [Gardiner’s] own scholarship or the way it feeds into his performances: nor, we can now add, the way it feeds into his book, which is clearly as much the fruit of his experience conducting this astonishing music as it is the product of archival research. It’s a fat book, very detailed and erudite and sometimes, though not essentially, technical. But from it there emerges precisely and vividly what the subtitle says: a portrait of Bach, not in the straightforwardly biographical sense, but as revealed by the music—what it is, how it was written, for whom, when and why.” —The Spectator
“There are lots of Bachs, but only one Sebastian—and Gardiner is his prophet.” —Standpoint
“Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven is a unique portrait of one of the greatest musical geniuses of all time by one of the greatest musical geniuses of our own age. John Eliot Gardiner uses his extraordinary immersion in Bach’s music to illuminate Bach the man more brilliantly than in any previous work, and has created his own deeply moving work of art.” —Amanda Foreman, author of A World on Fire
“A superb achievement, scholarly, lively, controversial and judicious. Like all great biographies of creative artists it builds a bridge from the past to the present and brings the work to new life.” —Ian Bostridge
“John Eliot Gardiner’ s book is, apart from anything else, a tremendous feat of narrative: he has the rare gift of always putting the camera in the right place. He tells this long and richly involved story in a way that makes everything clear, and sets the life and the music in a historical perspective where every detail is relevant and every comment illuminating. Simply as a biography this is splendid, but the fact that it comes with such a wealth of musical understanding and experience makes it invaluable. I learned an enormous amount, and I know I'll return to it again and again.” —Philip Pullman