Allen Lane, £30 Order at a discount from the The Independent Bookshop

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.

Get this book at the discounted price of £23.95 from The Independent Bookshop or call 0843 0600 030


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.

Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
Arts and Entertainment
Contestants during this summer's Celebrity Big Brother grand finale
tvBroadcaster attempts to change its image following sale to American media group
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidate on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
Arts and Entertainment
Kate Bush: 'I'm going to miss everyone so much'
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’


Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'


Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from


Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
    Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

    'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

    The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
    Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

    Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

    A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
    The 10 best smartphone accessories

    Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

    Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

    Liverpool v Real Madrid

    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
    West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster