John Eliot Gardiner is one of the world’s leading conductors, not only of Baroque music but across the whole repertoire. He founded the Monteverdi Choir and Orchestra, the Orchestre de l’Opéra de Lyon, the English Baroque Soloists, and the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique. He has conducted most of the world’s great orchestras and in many of the leading opera houses. He lives and farms in Dorset, England.
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Excerpt from book:
Under the Cantor’s Gaze
In the autumn of 1936 a thirty-year-old music teacher from Bad Warmbrunn in Lower Silesia suddenly appeared in a Dorset village with two items in his luggage: a guitar and a portrait in oils of Bach. Like old Veit Bach, the founder of the clan, escaping from Eastern Europe as a religious refugee almost four centuries earlier, Walter Jenke had left Germany just as Jews were being banned from holding professional posts. He settled and found work in North Dorset, married an English girl and, with war imminent, looked for a safe home for his painting. His great-grandfather had purchased a portrait of Bach in a curiosity shop sometime in the 1820s for next to nothing. Doubtless he did not know at the time that this was – and still is – by far the most important Bach portrait in existence. Had Jenke left it with his mother in Bad Warmbrunn, it would almost certainly not have survived the bombardment or the evacuation of Germans from Silesia in the face of the advancing Red Army.
I grew up under the Cantor’s gaze. The celebrated Haussmann portrait of Bach1 had been given to my parents for safekeeping for the duration of the war, and it took pride of place on the first-floor landing of the old mill in Dorset where I was born. Every night on my way to bed I tried to avoid its forbidding stare. I was doubly fortunate as a child in that I grew up on a farm and into a music-minded family where it was considered perfectly normal to sing – on a tractor or horseback (my father), at table (the whole family sang grace at mealtimes) or at weekend gatherings, outlets for my parents’ love of vocal music. All through the war years they and a few local friends convened every Sunday morning to sing William Byrd’s Mass for Four Voices. As children my brother, sister and I grew up getting to know a grand miscellany of unaccompanied choral music – from Josquin to Palestrina, Tallis to Purcell, Monteverdi to Schütz, and, eventually, Bach. Compared to the earlier polyphony, Bach’s motets, we found, were a lot more difficult technically – those long, long phrases with nowhere to breathe – but I remember loving the interplay of voices, with so much going on at once, and that pulsating rhythm underneath keeping everything afloat. By the time I was twelve I knew the treble parts of most of Bach’s six motets more or less by heart. They became part of the primary matter in my head (along with folksongs, ribald poems in Dorset dialect and heaven knows what else, stored in my memory) and have never left me.
Then, during my teens, I came to know some of his instrumental music: the Brandenburg Concertos, the violin sonatas and concertos (with which, as a distinctly average fiddle-player, I often struggled – and usually lost – between the ages of nine and eighteen, at which stage I switched to the viola), some of the keyboard pieces and several cantata arias for alto, of which my mother was very fond. Even now I cannot hear arias such as ‘Gelobet sei der Herr, mein Gott’ (‘The Lord be praised’) or ‘Von der Welt verlang ich nichts’ (‘I ask nothing of the world’) without a lump in my throat, rememberin“[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
Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven is an inspiring book. . . . [it] is a superb, timely, thought-provoking, authoritative and extremely useful and readable book. It should find its way onto any serious music-lover’s shelves. From there it must often and regularly be taken off and read.”
“[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
“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.”
“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