[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book as yet unpublished called ‘My Second Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’. The content of these may change before further publication.]


Music in the Castle of Heaven

John Eliot Gardiner, 2013

Alfred A Knopf, 2013.  Bound in cloth boards; rebound with quarter leather, and slip case.

Were it not a kiss of death, we might call John Eliot Gardiner a Renaissance man – if only because he has dedicated his life to reviving things that matter from the distant past.

Gardiner was born in Dorset at a village with the ancient name of Fontmell Magna.  It was the subject of a royal grant in 932 to the nuns of Shaftesbury on condition that they would song fifty psalms after Prime and offer masses at Terce.  The Doomsday Book of 1086 recorded that Fontemale was in Sixpenny Hundred.  This, then, is not a novel village.

Gardiner was born in 1943.  His father is called ‘a rural revivalist’.  His grandfather was an Egyptologist.  At King’s College, Cambridge, he studied history, Arabic and medieval Spanish.  He began conducting as an undergraduate, and conducted the Cambridge and Oxford Singers in a tour of the Middle East.  In 1968 he founded the Monteverdi Orchestra.  He made his opera debut with The Magic Flute in 1969.  He went on to become a leading conductor around the world.  He specialises in the baroque, in particular, Bach.  He has founded choirs and orchestras.  In the year 2000 he set out on his Bach Cantata Pilgrimage performing Bach cantatas in Europe and the United States over fifty two weeks.  In 2013, he published this book, Bach, Music in the Castle of Heaven.

Gardiner was introduced to music singing at home and in the church choir.  He therefore comes from a background where he was born into choral music.  He married a violinist and they had three daughters.  His second wife is the granddaughter of Victor de Sabata.  He resides on a farm in the ancient village.  It is of course an organic farm and it is said that the because of his unorthodox approach to gardening, the locals call him ‘Uphill Gardiner.’  Given his attachment to the old, it may not surprise that Gardiner will not go near Wagner.  ‘I really loathe Wagner – everything he stands for – and I don’t even like his music very much.’

In short, Gardiner – or, if you prefer, Sir John Eliot Gardiner, CBE, Hon FBA – is the sort of guy who makes you and me wonder what we have done with our lives.  He is also strikingly imposing to look at and is subject to the kind of vituperation that strong conductors may attract from lesser musicians.

Gardiner might therefore promote angst among those with a chip on their shoulder. As if on cue, The Spectator chimes in with a piece from The Heckler.   ‘Why does John Eliot Gardiner have to be so rude?’  It’s a shame that this once decent journal can descend to this bitchy and heckling gossip – mostly taken off the Net – but at least Australians might be relieved to see that they are not alone by being debased by envy in the face of their betters.

The book begins.

Bach the musician is an unfathomable genius; Bach the man is all too obviously flawed, disappointingly ordinary and in many ways still invisible to us.  In fact we seem to know less about his private life than about that of any other major composer of the last four hundred years.

The book ends this way.

Monteverdi gives us the first gamut of human passions in music, the first composer to do so; Beethoven tells us what a terrible struggle it is to transcend human frailty and to aspire to the Godhead; and Mozart shows us the kind of music we might hope to hear in heaven.  But it is Bach, making music in the castle of heaven, who gives us the voice of God – in human form.  He is the one who blazes a trail, showing us how to overcome our imperfections through the perfections of his music; to make divine things human and human things divine.

There are some big calls there.  Has Gardiner made good on them?

It is not long before you recall not just that you are reading the work of a maestro, but one brought up in the tradition of family and church singing; one trained in history; and one who observes the seasons while cultivating the land.

Even with the powerful layer of Protestant theology added to the inhabitants’ lives, the forest remained both mysterious and threatening, as can be seen in the paintings by Luther’s friend Lucas Cranach, in the woodcuts by Albrecht Dürer, emphasising its engulfing luxuriance, and in the landscape paintings of Albrecht Altdorfer.  Music was there to give strength as well as to placate the tutelary sylvan gods.  It is surely no accident that in a land of such communal music-making, so many folk songs rich in woodland themes should have survived.  The power of song here was perhaps not quite that of the Australian Aboriginals – the principal means by which they marked out their territory and organised their social life – but it did not lag far behind, the thinnest of membranes separating song, creation myth, landscape and boundaries.

Historians of the common law are familiar with the sometimes occult powers of the ancient German forests, but here we see a strong, independent mind, one not to be confined by intellectual, much less academic, demarcation boundaries.

Throughout the book, the author links language and music – as Luther did so strenuously.  Luther was called the German Cicero and he maintained that without music, man is little more than stone.  He asked why the devil should have all the good tunes and said that the whole purpose of harmony is the glory of God.  Gardiner quotes a German philosopher as saying that the chorales retained the moral effectiveness (a ‘treasury of life’) that German folk-poetry and folksong had once possessed but by his day had lost.  The moment the poet begins to write slowly, in order to be read, art may be the winner, but there is a loss of magic of ‘miraculous power’.  (This last point is fundamental and shows that you cannot skip footnotes.)

Gardiner stresses the communal nature of choral work.  Opera was very Italian, and very communal since it involved the audience.  The Italians sound a little like the English at soccer or the Spaniards at a bullfight – or some Lutheran Germans in a church.  Gardiner speaks of Thuringia (a part of Germany) after Luther’s time when even the smallest parish church had its own pipe organ framed by a curved choir gallery where local craftsmen or farmers could sing during the service.  He tells of doing a cantata concert in the town of Eisenach on Easter Day 2000.  (This also is in a footnote.)  The pastor invited Gardiner and members of his choir and orchestra to lead part of the singing.  In the middle of the Mass, they were suddenly joined in the organ choir by a group of local farmers who sang a short litany in Thuringian dialect and then left.  (It’s a great story.  From any other source, we may be inclined to doubt it.)

Here is the author on the beginning of opera.

Claudio Monteverdi, amazingly, provided all of these missing elements in the very first through–composed work for the stage… He recognised that the hitherto unexploited potential of what the Florentines called the ‘new music’ was to allow the singer’s voice to fly free above an instrumental base line, giving just the right degree of harmonic support and ballast… The radicalism of L’Orfeo may not be fully recognised by audiences even today.  In an age when the emotional life of human beings was becoming a topic of the utmost fascination – with philosophers and playwrights trying to define the role of passions in human destiny, and with painters as varied as Velazquez, Caravaggio and Rembrandt all intent on betraying the inner life of men and women – Monteverdi stood head and shoulders above the contemporary musicians in the consistent way he explored and developed musical themes of ‘imitation’ and ‘representation’.  We now refer to L’Orfeo as an opera and think of it as the beginning of the genre; but that is because we are looking at it backwards via the perspective of Wagner or Verdi.  To Monteverdi, it was a… fable in music…

Gardiner reminds us:

In Bach’s day, the arts were still expected to impart some explicit moral, religious, or rational meaning.  It was not until the second half of the century that aesthetic concepts such as ‘the ‘Beautiful’ and ‘the Sublime’ began to uncouple the artistic from the scientific and the moral’

And one might add, from God(The footnote cites another scholar as saying that students of aesthetics would abandon the idea that music ‘should serve an extra-musical, religious or social end.’  Why can’t we just enjoy the music?)

People coming to Bach late commonly go for The Well-tempered Clavier, The Goldberg Variations or, above all, The Saint Matthew Passion.  It is up there with King Lear and the Pieta.

In the same way that we buy tickets for King Lear and come away chastened, sobered, and put in our place, so Leipzigers…flocked to the Thomaskirche on a Good Friday, hoping that the excitement and harrowing uncoiling of the human drama would still hold them in thrall, knowing full well that they would be distressed (and perhaps disappointed if they found they weren’t.)

Even the most devout atheist or unrelieved agnostic cannot help being blown away, as the saying goes, by the Chorus, and what leads to it, Sind Blitze, sind Donner, ‘one of the most violent and grandiose descriptions of unloosed passion produced in the Baroque era.’  We speak of the moment of the arrest of the man called Christ.  For artistic daring, this is up there with Michelangelo’s depiction of the moment of the creation of Man.

And it reminds us of how much we might lose from music if we continue to banish God from it.  Nietzsche said: ‘This week I heard The Saint Matthew Passion three times and each time I had the same feeling of immeasurable admiration.  One who has forgotten Christianity truly hears it here as Gospel.’  Gardiner also quotes William James on ‘right to believe – religion, like love, like wrath, like hope, ambition, jealousy, like every other instinct eagerness and impulse…adds to life an enchantment which is not rationally or logically deducible from anything else.’  A contemporary composer says:

Consciously, I am certainly an atheist, but I do not say it out loud, because if I look at Bach, I cannot be an atheist……A Bach fugue has the Crucifixion in it.  .In music, I am always looking for the hammering of the nails… That is a duel vision.  My brain rejects it all But my brain isn’t worth much.

This book is impeccably produced in every way – it is the result of industry and care, as well as insight, intellect, and grace.  The scholarship is broad without ever looking shallow.  Sir John, as he now is, may not be able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, but he can teach us to cross boundaries and jump fences until we come within view of those broad sunlit uplands.  It is little wonder that the gnats felt a need to strain after this camel.  Off hand, I find it hard to think of a book in this collection that is more enlightening than this one.

2 thoughts on “MY SECOND TOP SHELF – 3

    • Yes, Walter. This is the second of four I have written. A version of the first is on Amazon/Kindle. I am going to make a proposal to the Folio Society.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s