Reinventing Bach, By Paul Elie

This biography of a great innovator of the past also asks questions about today's technology

Susan Tomes
Monday 13 May 2013 12:26 BST

What would Bach have made of today's habits of listening to music? His work was structured around court and church timetables, his music written to mark formal events and spiritual milestones.

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To hear this music you had to go to the palace or the church, and your musical encounter would be bound up with your response to the service, the building, other people. You'd never have heard Bach play the organ unless you were there in person, for the church organ is the ultimate in non-mobile devices.

From the days when music measured out our life with coffee cantatas, it's a huge jump to today's use of recorded music as the soundtrack to daily activities. Sociologists and psychologists (let alone musicians) have hardly had time to absorb the implications of this enormous change.

For centuries, music has been associated with occasions, whether the rare opportunity to hear a special performer, or the moment when you felt like sitting down with your friends to play something. Now music is omnipresent, overwhelmingly in electronic reproduction. We don't even have to try and make music ourselves. People wearing earphones are everywhere we look. Music, once a means of uniting a group of people in a shared experience, is now often used to create a ghetto of one.

In Reinventing Bach, Paul Elie claims that Bach is the perfect fit with the age of recording. Bach's music is remarkably consistent and crafted with matchless quality. Even better, everyone can sense its inclusiveness. As Yo-Yo Ma said, Bach is "almost the only composer who was both totally objective and totally compassionate".

Bach was an inventor himself; forward-looking, pragmatic, and visionary about how instruments would develop. In Elie's view, Bach would have embraced the age of technology, and might have smiled to see us jogging to the Brandenburg Concertos. It may be true that Bach has particularly benefited from the recording era, because its growth coincided with a reassessment of his music, but he is not alone in having his legacy transformed by worldwide access to recordings.

This 500-page volume is structured around a well-informed and empathetic biography of Bach, intercut with lively accounts of five pioneering performers who made famous Bach recordings: Albert Schweitzer, Pablo Casals, Leopold Stokowski, Glenn Gould and Yo-Yo Ma. Linking them through their love of Bach is intriguing, even if in other respects they are slightly strange bedfellows. Elie interweaves their stories, cutting-and-pasting them into a vivid mosaic, though his sudden juxtapositions can be as jarring as they are stimulating.

Elie is an acute and passionate listener, writing sensitively about music's impact on him. Of Casals's cello sound he writes: "It is an animal sound, all furred and tendoned. In the slow passages it is elephantine, or older – a dinosaur's cry. In the fast ones it is equine, a steeplechase run in stop-motion… Sometimes the sound is dry and nasal. Sometimes it is a chesty honk, a double lungful of sound… Sometimes, as the bow is pulled across the strings as across a row of teeth, it is a shout." Respect to him for attempting the notoriously difficult task of putting into words his synaesthetic responses to music; his solution won't be to all tastes.

Bach and his interpreters turn out to be descants to the main theme: how technology has changed us and our relationship with music. It sometimes feels as if the book's impact would be more direct had the author devoted himself openly to this topic. He feels we're blessed by the archives of recorded music we can use as "life's counterpoint", and believes that recordings have enabled performer and listener to meet in a kind of sacred space. His own love of Bach was fostered through listening to recordings, an experience he describes as feeling "more real than the rest of life".

In the closing pages, he observes that "now it is music played live that seems insubstantial and elusive, made somewhere once for a little while and then allowed to go away". This is not music to the ears of musicians. My best experiences of performing music have been indissolubly connected with the character and response of the audience. That makes each occasion different, whereas no matter how many times you listen to your favourite recordings, they're always the same.

Susan Tomes was awarded the 2013 Cobbett Medal for distinguished service to chamber music. Her book 'Out of Silence' is published by Boydell Press, and today (11 May) she presents 'Saturday Classics' on Radio 3

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