Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Book Review: Bach, Music in the Castle of Heaven, by John Eliot Gardiner

John Eliot Gardiner is a giant in the early music/period instruments world, and he's basically been active all of my life. He's one of those musical animals I don't understand, though; a conductor. So, I want to get this out of the way right up front: This is a monumental work, but it is not aimed at composers like me. In fact, I'm not sure who the target audience for this book is. Musicologists - another breed beyond my comprehension - perhaps. There wasn't anything for the theorist in me either, and I can't help but think that even an educated connoisseur would be completely baffled by this book.

He's English and I'm an American - US and Canadian dual-citizen, so I mean American in a broad sense - so there are the usual u-phillic/z-phobic English spelling fetishes to deal with, but barriers to this book go well beyond that. Since it's a book about music, he employs the curiously English crotchets and quavers terminology - something I refused to even learn because it's so patently ridiculous - and he has this vast classically-educated vocabulary, which I find tiresome, frankly. His approach seems to be, why use, "assistant" when I can whip out the, "amanuensis?" Since my writing and composing philosophies can both be reduced to three words - economy of expression - I don't like this at all. I found myself having to leave the well-ordered comfort of my wingback reading chair to shuffle off to the computer to look up some obscure word quite often, and I have a Master of Music degree!

Then there is the sheer length of the book - over five-hundred pages - so it took me over a month to slog through it. Seriously, I could only stand to read some several pages at a time. A large part of the problem is that the book is filled with subjective opining on Bach's music, and even though I'm a Lutheran, and so open to theological rationale, I didn't agree with much of it. Another huge, gaping maw is the utter absence of musical examples - I think there was only one - to back up any of his opinions with technical analysis.

You know what this book reminds me of? Ulysses by James Joyce. I know it's great, but I get very little out of it (Some of the details of Bach's day-to-day life were nice, but most of the book is describing the passions and the B Minor Mass). So, I guess I'd recommend this book to hearty souls, but your basic, b-flat musician would probably enjoy James R. Gaines' Evening in the Palace of Reason or Christoph Wolff's Bach: The Learned Musician much more, as I did. I couldn't put either of those down.

Bottom line is, for me, this book would have been twice as good if it was half as long and chock full of musical examples


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