Gardiner BachGreetings, my fellow port swillers!

Today’s mail brought to Port Swiller Manor (astonishingly fast, I might add), a new book by John Eliot Gardiner entitled: Bach: Music In The Castle Of Heaven.

Regular friends of the decanter will know that ol’ Robbo has from time to time hooted at Sir John for his showmanship, often referring to him as “John Eliot Full-of-Himself”.  Let me state that in posting here, I in no way back down from this opinion.  I must say, though, that publicity aside – and hey, we all gotta eat – the man knows what he’s talking about.   It was some Gardiner recordings of Purcell operas – acquired by Self back in the early 80’s – that first really sparked my enthusiasm for period performances .   Since then, I have had nothing but profound respect, nay reverence for his treatments of, well, every composer I have heard him take on, from Monteverdi through Rameau, Bach and Handel, Gluck, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven and even, gawd help us, Schubert and Schumann.

(And the fact that Gardiner founded the Monteverdi Choir, of whom teh middle gel’s musickal director down the Cathedral is an alum, is a mere bonus.)

So I look forward to reading this book immensely.

I was tipped off to it by Michael Potemra’s review over at NRO.  And I particularly wanted to post about it here because of a quote Potemra gives from the book by the Hungarian composer György Kurtág (and no, I’d never heard of him before, either):

Consciously, I am certainly an atheist, but I do not say it out loud, because if I look at Bach, I cannot be an atheist. Then I have to accept the way he believed. His music never stops praying. And how can I get closer if I look at him from the outside? I do not believe in the Gospels in a literal fashion, but a Bach fugue has the Crucifixion in it — as the nails are being driven in. In music, I am always looking for the hammering in of the nails. . . . That is a dual vision. My brain rejects it all. But my brain isn’t worth much.

This.  A thousand times this.

Of course, as I’m sure from your collective eye-rolling, you know that I am no atheist myself.  But following up on this quote, I would posit to even the most dogged of rationalists the simple proposition that the musick of Johann Sebastian Bach simply cannot be explained away by any laws or combinations thereof of our physical universe.  The shear volume of his output.  The staggering intricacy, subtlety and profundity of the thought embodied in damn near every note of it.   The unquantifiable effect his musick has on our heart and soul and mind.  Under the regime of a strictly humanist perspective, reduced to the simplest of formulae, you cain’t git there from here.

Pondering this quote, I was reminded of the author Douglas Adams, creator of the great Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy trilogy.¹  Adams has caused ol’ Robbo a considerable bit of agitation because, although he had the gift to see God’s thumbprints all over Creation, he always steadily denied their existence.  His Salmon of Doubt is a great example of this, but for purposes of my argument here, his Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency is even better.  Without trying to explain the plot, I will say that in this book (one of Adams’ best, IMHO), the author paid a back-handed compliment to the celestial underpinnings of Bach’s musick, embracing all the elements I mention above.   However, to do so, he had to invent a hyper-sensitive super computer, a permanently-stationed alien survey spaceship in orbit above Earth, a vengeful alien ghost and a Cambridge don with a time-travel machine.


As it happens, tomorrow is All Souls’ Day.  I like to think that people like Kurtág and Adams, who get it without getting it, are included among those who may be saved.  I certainly will pray for them.

Anyhoo, I intend to plunge into this book right swiftly, and will let you know what I think on the other side.


¹ Yes, I know that there are actually five books to this series.  I maintain, however, that the last two were sad hack-work, done to fulfill contractual obligations, and I dismiss them from my thought.