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

In the minds of Christians who appreciate art music, whether as performers or simply as listeners, perhaps no figure so fully epitomizes what it means to be a “Christian composer” or a “Christian musician” as does Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). While Lutherans can most legitimately claim Bach as their own—the composer was a part of that tradition both as a result of his location as well as by personal conviction—Protestant musicians of all stripes look to him as an model, both for the quality of his output as well as the theological conviction with which that output is imbued. The rigorous Lutheran orthodoxy expressed in his sacred compositions has led him to be dubbed the “Fifth Evangelist,” and over the years a picture of Bach as a man of extraordinary piety has developed in the minds of some. A want of reliable firsthand biographical information about the composer has not helped matters, with competing biographies appearing periodically, some commending Bach’s piety, others viewing him anachronistically through an Enlightenment lens.

<i>Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven</i> by John Eliot Gardiner

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

Enter John Eliot Gardiner, one of the most widely acclaimed conductors of Baroque music and a recognized authority on Bach’s choral music in particular. The author’s expertise in Bach’s choral works is evident, with special attention given in Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven to the composer’s cantatas, Passion settings, Christmas Oratorio, and B minor Mass. While Gardiner’s insights into these works are fascinating, one wishes that greater attention had been given to Bach’s keyboard works; Bach was one of the greatest organists of his day, and his music for organ and for other keyboard instruments is of tremendous significance.

For the purposes of this review, it is to Gardiner’s treatment of Bach the man—more specifically, Bach the Christian man—to which I would like to direct the reader’s attention. While Gardiner never reveals his own religious commitments, judging by his writing he can perhaps best be described as a humanist, whose theistic perspective is agnostic at best. Statements like these appear periodically throughout the book:

Bach’s Lutheran faith is encapsulated in this extraordinary music. It carries a universal message of hope that can touch anybody regardless of culture, religious denomination or musical knowledge. It springs from the depths of the human psyche and not from some topical or local creed. (15)

Even to sceptical and agnostic minds, Bach’s B minor Mass radiates a recognisable and powerful spirituality, one that does not rely on creedal orthodoxy, odd though that might appear. (523)

Gardiner clearly has no desire to present himself as an orthodox Christian of any stripe, and in instances such as these demonstrates a slight desire to blunt the “creedal orthodoxy” of Bach’s work, or at least to give it a broader application. Nevertheless, Gardiner never questions the genuineness or orthodoxy of the composer’s faith, and even admits that this faith was central to Bach’s character, and to his view of the world.

Bach’s working library, estimated to have contained at least 112 different theological and homiletic works, was less like a typical church musician’s and more what one might expect to find in the church of a respectably sized town, or that many a pastor in Bach’s day would have been proud to have owned…. What it does reveal beyond his personal piety, his lifelong reverence for Luther and the central importance of Luther’s writings in both his personal and professional capacities, is that Bach was evidently deeply—and apparently uncritically—immersed in a mindset that was at least two hundred years old. (154-155)

His attempts to find more “ecumenical” applications of Bach’s work notwithstanding, Gardiner never shies away from the fact that Bach was indeed a believing Christian, and more specifically, a committed Lutheran.

While Gardiner’s work reveals a truly and even deeply Christian Bach, it does not reveal a flawless one. Bach was descended from a long line of Thuringian musicians, and was not above using his family connections to improve his own station and, later, those of his sons. Like many artists of his caliber, he was sometimes given to impetuousness, and on at least one occasion found himself in an altercation which involved swordplay. Bach’s long cantorate in Leipzig (1723-1750) saw numerous disagreements with church, school, and municipal authorities, whose various political machinations began well before Bach’s tenure and continued after his death. Bach was not even above, to coin a term, “autohagiography,” taking steps to ensure that the received understanding of his early life and training was to his liking. In short, Bach was, as are all believers, simul iustus et peccator, justified and yet still prone to sin. Gardiner writes with particular poignancy here:

…we should debunk once and for all the idea that Bach in his personal and professional life was some kind of paragon, the Fifth Evangelist of his nineteenth-century compatriots, the living embodiment of the intense religious faith and ‘real presence’ that his music seemed to transmit. Acknowledging Bach’s frailties and imperfections, far less heinous than those of Mozart or Wagner, not only makes him more interesting as a person than the old paragon of mythology, but also allows us to see his humanity filtering through into the music, which is far more compelling when we understand that it was composed by someone who, like all human beings, experienced grief, anger and doubt at first hand. This is one of the recurrent features that confer supreme authority on his music. (203)

As a Christian, this is why I find Gardiner’s treatment of Bach’s life so compelling. Gardiner does not fall into the trap that Christian biographers might of trying to portray Bach as some sort of “super-Christian,” but at the same time he does not attempt to explain away the composer’s faith or downplay its permeating influence upon his life and work. He simply presents a flawed but believing Christian man, striving to create “a well-regulated or orderly church music to the Glory of God.” (180) Indeed, and perhaps entirely by accident, Gardiner presents Bach as an exemplar of the doctrine of vocation, a redeemed sinner seeking simply to do his work “heartily, as for the Lord and not for men.” (Colossians 3:23)

In that respect, even those with little regard for art music or who understand Scripture to prohibit the kind of concerted church music Bach so ably composed can find in this man something worthy of emulation.


About Micah Everett

Micah Everett is Associate Professor of Music (Trombone/Low Brass) at the University of Mississippi, Principal Trombonist of the North Mississippi Symphony Orchestra, Interim Music Director at College Hill Presbyterian Church, Assistant Editor (Audio/Video Reviews) for the International Trombone Association Journal, and an S.E. Shires trombone artist. He is the author of THE LOW BRASS PLAYER'S GUIDE TO DOUBLING, published by Mountain Peak Music, and released two solo recordings, STEPPING STONES FOR BASS TROMBONE, VOLS. 1 and 2, on the Potenza Music label in 2015 and 2022, respectively. In addition to his professional work, he maintains an avid interest in the study of the Bible and of Reformed theology. He holds doctoral and master's degrees in music from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, a bachelor's degree in music education from Delta State University, and a certificate in systematic theology from Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary.
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