Reading Journal

Reading Journal Primer – Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven

One regular feature of the blog is a reading journal. As I read a musical book, I’ll journal about various thoughts that pop into my head as the book comes along. I’ll invite you to follow along, and even have a discussion in the comments section – treat it like a sort of virtual book club. Or just take the individual observations at face value.

For my first reading journal of the new year, I’ve chosen John Eliot Gardiner’s brand new book entitled Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven. John Eliot Gardiner is a world famous conductor, and baroque music scholar. He was also one of the pioneers of the Historically Informed Performance movement – a movement whose ideologues strive to present ancient music in the way that it was originally heard. Some of their tactics include the stripping of vibrato from the music, and the use of authentic baroque instruments. A few preparatory thoughts before we dive in next week…

  • Bring a dictionary. Mr. Gardiner is one of the most erudite people you will ever read. Chances are that unless you have a Ph. D. in language studies or English lit, you’ll be receiving a vocabulary lesson from Mr. Gardiner.
  • Playing baroque music on baroque instruments. It sounds both basic and boring. Back in the 60s and 70s, when Mr. Gardiner made his name, it was neither. Musicians had fallen into the practice of playing music on whatever they had available. This had big implications on both the macro and microlevels. From the perspective of the orchestra, Bach’s orchestra was probably about 1/3 the size of our modern symphony orchestra. Imagine, for a moment, a Beatles cover band. Mmm. Yesterday, I Wanna Hold Your Hand, Help and of course, Yellow Submarine. You can’t be a Beatles cover band if Yellow Submarine isn’t in your set. Sounds great, right? Now imagine that this band has 6 guitars, 3 drum sets, and a dozen lead singers. Still excited about this cover band? I’m not. This is the effect that modern symphony orchestras have on baroque music.
  • The instruments you see on stage have actually changed quite a bit over the course of the past 400 years. Woodwind instruments have added keys to make it easier to play certain notes, the shapes of some instruments have changed, and string players use entirely different bows. The sleek, tapered baroque bows pictured below lend themselves to less heavy handed playing, and greater buoyancy. This had a big effect on the sound of the instrument, and consequently, the orchestra.

Bows pictured in chronological order – earliest baroque bows at the top, leading to the modern bow preferred by virtually every orchestral musician today at the bottom.

  • The Historically Informed Performance movement has roused quite the debate in the performance community. The practice of recreating baroque music exactly as it sounded in the 1600s & 1700s gets at the heart of the biggest identity crisis that classical musicians have: historian vs. entertainer. Put more simply, do we have a greater responsibility to honor the legends who created the music that we play, or to entertain our audiences? Is it possible that we stand a greater chance at entertaining when we prioritize our roles as musicologists, or does the history of our music stand between us and our audiences. Maestros like John Eliot Gardiner, Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Christopher Hogwood ruffled a lot of feathers when they forced the issue. I’m expecting an exciting book about discovery, conflict, and a relentless search for the best music in the world. Buckle up readers, I’m excited about this one!
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