A celebrated conductor of baroque music debuts with an examination of Bach’s compositions, descriptions of various works and some inferences about the genius who created them.
Although Gardiner celebrates Bach’s accomplishments through this dense, demanding but rewarding work, he reminds readers continually that the composer was no saint—“a thoroughly imperfect being,” he calls him near the end. But the author’s focus is not so much on the man but on the music. Gardiner does explain the various geographical moves Bach made in his career, his duties in the various venues where he worked, the amazing demands from his employers—and from his own work ethic; the author writes about Bach’s coevals, his marriages, and his children and extended family. But all is in service to the principal item on his agenda: the music. Gardiner is an unabashed Bach fan, praising the composer throughout, even comparing his music to the voice of God. However, he recognizes human weaknesses, as well—for example, his contentious relationship with authority. Gardiner takes us through the major types of works—the cantatas (including some interesting passages about the Coffee Cantata), the St. John Passion and St. Matthew Passion, the motets and the Mass in B Minor. Some of his detailed analysis will leave behind his general readers but will surely animate musicians and musicologists. Although he occasionally alludes to extramusical worlds (mentioning Uncle Remus stories, Philip Pullman, Shakespeare, cake-baking and a variety of famous painters), Gardiner’s textual world is principally a musical one. He also examines Bach’s Lutheranism and how he revealed his religious ideas in the music—and in the interactions between the music and the words. He speculates that near the end of Bach’s life, the composer seemed to express some doubts about life beyond the grave.
An erudite work resting on prodigious research and experience and deep affection and admiration.