Book review: Music in the Castle of Heaven: a portrait of Johann Sebastian Bach, By John Eliot Gardiner

A great interpreter restores to life the mysterious musician who has always inspired him

"I grew up under the Cantor's gaze": the first words of John Eliot Gardiner's book announce the extraordinary coincidence that the most celebrated contemporary portrait of Bach – sent to Britain for safe-keeping during the war – hung on the wall of the Dorset mill where he was born.

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As if to prefigure the fact that he was destined to become a leading Bach interpreter, his musical upbringing was in some ways strikingly similar to that of the composer. Like the young Bachs, the children of the Gardiner household sang unaccompanied choral music as part of their daily routine, absorbing Josquin, Byrd, Monteverdi and Bach from infancy.

Gardiner's opening chapter is a how-I-got-here account of his period-instrument rebellion against insipid concert-hall conventions, and chronicles his unstoppable progress, via the creation of his Monteverdi Choir and his English Baroque Soloists, towards the year-long "pilgrimage" during which he and his musicians performed every one of Bach's 198 extant cantatas in churches across Europe. 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.

A caveat: this "portrait" focuses purely on Bach as a composer of choral music. The Well-Tempered Clavier only merits passing reference, as do the Brandenburg Concertos and the Goldberg Variations. Moreover, as biography it's disjointed and patchy, despite dashes of colour like its eye-witness vignettes of Bach at the organ (feet flying over the pedals as though on wings). But as Gardiner notes, we know less about Bach's private life than about that of any other major composer of the last 400 years. There's no will, no gravestone, no picture of either of his wives; most of his letters have been lost, as have the manuscripts for two-fifths of his musical output. 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' (including the conductor and scholar John Butt, whom he gratefully acknowledges as his "tutor"). He sheds new light on the rowdy, brutalising 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. This prompts Gardiner to speculate that he may have been a teenage thug but, considering Bach's lifelong irascibility and resistance to authority, he later reaches a more sober conclusion: that the composer was a proto-Beethovenian rebel, "an essentially private person, turned in on himself, pouring his energy, after the death of his parents, first into his school work, and then into music".

Gardiner presents the evolution of that music in an illuminating series of chapters beginning with an evocation of life in Bach's Thuringian home town, with Germany's Christian intellectual culture on the brink of the Enlightenment. Surveying the Bach family's amazing proliferation of musical talent, Gardiner argues persuasively that it was Johann Sebastian's great good fortune to be orphaned early, since that led to his musical apprenticeship to his inspiring elder cousin Christoph.

Meanwhile, with what Gardiner dubs the Class of '85, we are shown how Bach's career diverged from those of the other great composers born in the annus mirabilis of 1685: Handel, Rameau, and Domenico Scarlatti. Why, given the fashion for opera, did Bach not take that route? Gardiner's book is dedicated to showing that in effect he did, but by eschewing the increasingly fossilised recitative/aria form in favour of a mutant version which allowed his greatest works to attain the force of Racinian tragedy.

Those works are pre-eminently the John and Matthew Passions and the Mass in B minor, that Herculean summation of all the musical styles that Bach had deployed. 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".

Only a conductor could write as vividly as Gardiner about the thrills to be extracted from every bar of Bach's majestically dramatic music, with its switchback shifts between horror, ecstasy and corybantic joy, and its plate-spinning stunts with simultaneous melodic lines. As an exploration of Bach's labyrinthine thought-processes, and as an analysis of his music's overwhelming emotional power, this book will now be required reading – ideally in tandem with Christoph Wolff's magisterial biography – for listeners and performers alike.