Penguin Books

John Eliot Gardiner


A Portrait of Johann Sebastian Bach


  List of Illustrations

  A Note on the Text




  1 Under the Cantor’s Gaze

  2 Germany on the Brink of Enlightenment

  3 The Bach Gene

  4 The Class of ’85

  5 The Mechanics of Faith

  6 The Incorrigible Cantor

  7 Bach at His Workbench

  8 Cantatas or Coffee?

  9 Cycles and Seasons

10 First Passion

11 His ‘Great Passion’

12 Collision and Collusion

13 The Habit of Perfection

14 ‘Old Bach’






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Sir John Eliot Gardiner is one of the world’s leading conductors, not only of Baroque music but across the whole repertoire. He founded the Monteverdi Choir and Orchestra, the Orchestre de l’Opéra de Lyon, the English Baroque Soloists, and the Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique. He conducts most of the world’s great orchestras and in many of the leading opera houses. He lives and farms in Dorset.



‘There are lots of Bachs, but only one Sebastian - and Gardiner is his prophet … Under Gardiner’s expert guidance, the gates are thrown open to Bach’s castle in heaven’ Daniel Johnson, Standpoint

‘Gardiner has a gift … the book is a pleasure to read … compelling, intense and revealing … a monumental achievement’ Gulliver Ralston, Literary Review

‘Lovers of Bach have many reasons to be grateful to Sir John Eliot Gardiner. His performances of Bach’s cantatas, Passions and motets are of historic importance, combining scholarly insight with virtuosity and blazing commitment … Now, his pilgrimage complete, Gardiner has joined the select ranks of luminary musicians articulating their experience, with this long, sumptuously illustrated survey of Bach’s life and times. The result is dazzling’ Iain Burnside, Observer

‘An absorbing portrait of perhaps the most extraordinary musician ever to have lived’ Adam Lively, Sunday Times, Books of the Year

‘Gardiner provides exhaustive satisfaction. His insights - and there are many - make the reader impatient to listen again, a sign of the best musical commentaries’ Andrew Clark, Financial Times

‘Engages deeply with Bach the composer and Bach the man. At the heart of the book there are four tremendous chapters: on the cantatas, the St John Passion, the St Matthew Passion, and the Mass in B Minor. This section becomes a goldmine of musical insight and factual detail, as Gardiner situates the works in their many contexts. Clearly, this is a very personal book … Gardiner is an expert guide who loves this music deeply’ Noel Malcolm, Sunday Telegraph

‘Monumental yet personal’ Sameer Rahim, Daily Telegraph, Books of the Year

‘Gardiner has been and remains beyond question one of the most influential performing musicians of our time … [his book] is clearly as much the result of his conducting this astonishing music as it is the product of archival research … from it there emerges precisely and vividly what the subtitle says: a portrait of Bach, not in the straightforwardly biographical sense, but as revealed by the music - what it is, how it was written, for whom, when and why. Nothing matches Johann Sebastian’ Stephen Walsh, Spectator

‘Consistently enthralling … By using the music itself as a constant source of information, Gardiner brings the baroque era’s greatest composer sharply into focus … on page after page, [readers] are bombarded with eyebrow-raising information they did not already know. The result is a Bachian banquet … delivers one fresh and compelling perception after another’ Conrad Wilson, Glasgow Herald

‘Even the digressions abound in wit and authority … Gardiner allows one to hear the cantatas as one reads, a rare gift’ George Steiner, The Times Literary Supplement, Books of the Year

‘Revelatory … Gardiner writes brilliantly about the synergy of words and music … Gardiner’s stylistic finesse is remarkable, and it reveals much about the kind of metaphorical thinking musicians - especially conductors - habitually do, translating sound into image, the auditory into the linguistic. Despite the piety of its title, Gardiner’s is a festive book, enlivened by the "joy and zest" of Bach’s "dance-impregnated music"’ Peter Conrad, Guardian

‘A wonderful book … he gives us a dazzling sequence of chapters to which we will return again and again: discussions of individual works that drive us to seek out unfamiliar pieces and listen again to those we thought we knew. Like the courtiers in the nave of the Himmelsberg we hear Bach’s music as coming to us from above’ Eamonn Lawlor, Irish Examiner

‘John Eliot Gardiner is perhaps the greatest interpreter of Bach’s music in our times. It is not just his use of period instruments or his attempts to re-imagine Bach. Gardiner, as this book amply demonstrates, reads and thinks about the music with astonishing depth’ Stuart Kelly, Scotsman

To fellow travellers through Bach’s landscape

List of Illustrations


1.   Georgenkirche, Eisenach (photo: Constantin Beyer)

2a  & b. Neues vollständiges Eisenachisches Gesangbuch, 1673 (courtesy of the Bachhaus Eisenach / Neuen Bachgesellschaft)

3a. ‘The Whole World in a Cloverleaf’ (courtesy of the Bachhaus Eisenach / Neuen Bachgesellschaft)

3b. ‘Buno’s Dragon’ (Universitätsbibliothek Halle: AB 51 21/ K.22)

4.   Heinrich Schütz (Leipzig, Universitätsbibliothek / bpk / Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin – Musikabteilung mit Mendelssohn-Archiv)

5a  & b. Organ tablature transcriptions (Klassik Stiftung Weimar, Herzogin Anna Amalia Bibliothek, Fol 49/11 [3, 2]. Photos: Olaf Mokansky)

6.   Concordia Cantata, title page (bpk / Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin – Musikabteilung mit Mendelssohn-Archiv)

7a  & b. The Dukes of Saxe-Weimar (Klassik Stiftung Weimar, Museen KGr/04542, KGr1982/00171)

7c. Wilhelmsburg, Weimar, c. 1730 (Klassik Stiftung Weimar, Museen KHz/01388. Photo: Sigrid Geske)

8.   Himmelsburg (interior), c. 1660 (Klassik Stiftung Weimar, Museen G 1230. Photo: Roland Dreßler)

9.   Thomasschule and Thomaskirche, 1723 (Stadtgeschichtliches Museum Leipzig, 2808 a)

10. Thomasschule and Thomaskirche, 1749 (Stadtgeschichtliches Museum Leipzig, 2708 e)

11. Six Leipzig burgomasters: Abraham Christoph Platz, Gottfried Lange, Adrian Steger, Christian Ludwig Stieglitz, Jacob Born, Gottfried Wilhelm Küstner (Stadtgeschichtliches Museum Leipzig, Porträt A 1a, A 42, A 76c, A 39, A 48b, A 50a)

12–13. Calov Bible: title page and annotation (courtesy of Concordia Seminary Library, St Louis, Missouri. All rights reserved.)

14. The Lutheran Liturgical Year (courtesy of James Thrift)

15. Bach’s First Leipzig Cantata Cycle, 1723/4 (courtesy of James Thrift)

16. Bach’s Second Leipzig Cantata Cycle, 1724/5 (courtesy of James Thrift)

17. Christian Romstet, ‘The Tree of Life’ (courtesy of the Bachhaus Eisenach / Neuen Bachgesellschaft)

18. Haussmann, Portrait of Bach, 1746 (Stadtgeschichtliches Museum Leipzig, XX11/48)

19. Haussmann, Portrait of Bach, 1748 (courtesy of William H. Scheide, Princeton, New Jersey)

20. Viola d’amore, with inset of the opening phrase of ‘Erwäge’ (photo courtesy of Catherine Rimer)

21. Oboe da caccia (photo: Robert Workman)

22. Violoncello piccolo by A. & H. Amati, Cremona, c. 1600. On loan to the Royal Academy of Music Museum from the Amaryllis Fleming Foundation (photo: Simon Way. Image reproduced by kind permission of the Trustees of the Amaryllis Fleming Foundation and the Royal Academy of Music, London)

23. Violoncello piccolo obbligato (courtesy of the Bach-Archiv Leipzig, Leihgabe des Thomanerchors)

24. Mendelssohn’s watercolour of the Thomascantorei, 1838 (courtesy of Sotheby’s)

Endpapers: Matthew Passion, fair copy in Bach’s hand, Nos. 23–4 (see pp. 414–15) (Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin – PK, Musikabteilung mit Mendelssohn-Archiv)


A. F. C. Kollmann, ‘The Sun of Composers’ (courtesy of the Bach-Archiv Leipzig)

Eisenach and the Wartburg (courtesy of the Bachhaus Eisenach / Neuen Bachgesellschaft)

Johann Hermann Schein, five-part circular canon (Niedersächsisches Landesarchiv – Staatsarchiv Oldenburg, Best. 297 J, N. 36, Bl. 10)

Adam Gumpelzhaimer, six-part retrograde cruciform canon (courtesy of the Sibley Music Library, Eastman School of Music, University of Rochester)

Johann Ambrosius Bach (bpk / Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin – Musikabteilung mit Mendelssohn-Archiv / Carola Seifert)

Georg Philipp Telemann (akg-images)

Johann Mattheson (bpk / Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin – Musikabteilung mit Mendelssohn-Archiv)

Crosses inscribed in BWV 4, Christ lag in Todesbanden (courtesy of Mark Audus)

Johann Theile, Harmonischer Baum (Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin – PK, Musikabteilung mit Mendelssohn-Archiv, D-B/Am. B 451)

Heinrich Müller, engraving from Himmlischer Liebes-Kuss, The Battle with Death’ (© The British Library Board. 1560/303, pl 23)

Leipzig street music (Stadtgeschichtliches Museum Leipzig)

Endzweck (courtesy of Stadtarchiv Mühlhausen, StadtA Mühlhausen 10/*(Stern) Fach 1/2 No 2a fol. 34)

Extract from the draft charter for the Thomasschule (Stadtarchiv Leipzig, Stift. VIII B. 2d, Bl. 235)

Assessment of thirteen boy altos (Stadtarchiv Leipzig, Stift. VIII B. 2d, Bl. 247 v)

Division of choristers into four choirs for five city churches (Stadtarchiv Leipzig, Stift. VIII B. 2d, Bl. 549)

Bach’s MS of the Sanctus, BWV 232iii, with sketched melody for BWV 133, Ich freue mich in dir (Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin – PK, Musikabteilung mit Mendelssohn-Archiv)

Aide-mémoire from BWV 135, Ach Herr, mich armen Sünder (courtesy of the Bach-Archiv Leipzig)

‘Entwurff’ (courtesy of the Bach-Archiv Leipzig)

Copyist’s slip in BWV 135, Ach Herr, mich armen Sünder (courtesy of the Bach-Archiv Leipzig)

Wilhelm Friedemann’s errors in BWV 127, Herr Jesu Christ, wahr’ Mensch und Gott (courtesy of the Bach-Archiv Leipzig, Leihgabe des Thomanerchors)

Copyist errors in BWV 140, Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme (courtesy of the Bach-Archiv Leipzig, Leihgabe des Thomanerchors)

Sperontes, Singende Muse an der Pleisse (courtesy of the Bach-Archiv Leipzig)

Street lighting in Leipzig (Stadtgeschichtliches Museum Leipzig, S/23/2001)

Market square, Leipzig, with celebrations for Friedrich August II of Saxony (Stadtgeschichtliches Museum Leipzig, 802)

Zimmermann’s coffee-house (Stadtgeschichtliches Museum Leipzig, Mü.III/42 b)

Seating plan of the Thomaskirche, 1780 (Courtesy of Breitkopf & Härtel)

Johann David Heinichen, Musicalischer Circul, with key breakdown of the John Passion (redrawn by James Thrift)

Interior of the Thomaskirche, Herbert Stiehl (Beiträge zur Bach-Forschung, Vol. 3 (1984)) (courtesy of the Bach-Archiv Leipzig)

Matthew Passion, Gerne will ich mich bequemen, with square brackets added (courtesy of Mark Audus)

Jesu, meine Freude, structure.

Haussmann, Portrait of Bach, 1748: three details (courtesy of William H. Scheide, Princeton, New Jersey)

Canon triplex à 6 voci (detail, stave with middle note and two clefs, p. 548) (courtesy of Howard Moody)

Fuga a 3 soggetti, Contrapunctus XIV (Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin – PK, Musikabteilung mit Mendelssohn-Archiv)

Heinrich Müller, engraving from Himmlischer Liebes-Kuss, ‘Earthly/Heavenly Concert’ (© The British Library Board. 1560/303, pl 26)


Copper engraving of the sun – considered the embodiment of goodness and perfection – with Bach at its centre and surrounded by other German composers as its ‘rays’, designed by the English organist Augustus Frederick Christopher Kollmann and published in the Allgemeine musicalische Zeitung, Vol. I (1799). Haydn is said ‘not to have taken it amiss, nor that he was placed next to Handel and Graun, still less that he found it wrong that Joh. Seb. Bach was at the centre of the sun and hence the man from whom all true musical wisdom proceeded’.


I owe an immense debt to three amazing women: to Tif Loehnis, my niece, goddaughter and former literary agent, who gave me the encouragement and belief to get started; to Debbie Rigg, my long-suffering PA, friend and ally, who typed innumerable drafts of the manuscript and witnessed my pitifully slow coming to terms with a computer; and above all to my wife Isabella, who cherished and nurtured a husband daft enough to embark on writing a first book in his sixties and, who when asked, often came up with a formulation that was clearer than my own. They would all know that, although I had chosen to write about Bach, I am equally (though differently) drawn to the three ‘B’s – Beethoven, Berlioz and Brahms – and could have mustered equivalent fervour for writing about Monteverdi, Schütz or Rameau. But Bach is utterly central to my life as a musician, and, as Haydn is said to have remarked when shown this copper engraving by A. F. C. Kollmann (1799), Bach was indeed ‘the centre of the sun and hence the man from whom all musical wisdom proceeded’ (see illustration).

I owe special thanks to John Butt for acting as an inspirational ‘tutor’; to the path-finding brilliance of Laurence Dreyfus; to Nicolas Robertson, whose gimlet eye has saved me from further gaffes (and whose own book on Bach must surely follow); to Robert Quinney for his astute criticism; to the generous support of Peter Wollny and Michael Maul of the Bach-Archiv, Leipzig; and to the expertise of David Burnett, who answered my litany of cris de cœur with friendly forbearance. I would like to thank all three of my daughters – Francesca (for sharing with me a writer’s woes), Josie (a brilliant line editor) and Bryony (a saviour when gremlins threatened to make whoopee in my laptop) – for putting up with a frequently distracted parent.

Last but not least, I would like to thank Donna Poppy for her exemplary and tactful copyediting and Jeremy Hall for running to earth the illustrations and without whose eagle eye and attention to detail the design and look of the book would have been compromised. My thanks to all of the above, plus the many friends and distinguished colleagues (listed below) who read and commented on sections of the book and who encouraged me to find my voice as a writer, to be true to it and to resist the insidious pressures to conform:

Sir David Attenborough

Manuel Bärwald

Reinhold Baumstark

Tim Blanning

Michael Boswell

Robert Bringhurst

Neil Brough

Gilles Cantagrel

Rebecca Carter

Sebastiano Cossia Castiglioni

Eric Chafe

Kati Debretzeni

John Drury

Iain Fenlon

Christian Führer

Hans Walter Gabler

Andreas Glöckner

Bridget Heal

the late Eric Hobsbawm

Colin Howard

Emma Jennings

Jane Kemp

Ortrun Landmann

Robin Leaver

Robert Levin

Fiona Maddocks

Robert Marshall

Gudrun Meier

Howard Moody

Michael Niesemann

John Julius Norwich

Philip Pullman

Richard Pyman

Jane Rasch

Catherine Rimer

Stephen Rose

William and Judith Scheide

Richard Seal

Ulrich Siegele

George Steiner

Richard Stokes

Andrew Talle

Raymond Tallis

Ruth Tatlow

James Thrift

Teri Noel Towe

David Watkin

Peter Watson

Henrietta Wayne

Geoffrey Webber

Peter Williams

Christoph Wolff

Hugh Wood

David Yearsley

My thanks also go to the Master and Fellows of Peterhouse, Cambridge; the librarians of the UCL, of the Rowe Music Library in King’s College, Cambridge, of the Music Department of the Cambridge University Library and of Oxford’s Bodleian Library; the staff of the Bach-Archiv, Leipzig; the BBC TV team who worked with me on a documentary entitled Bach: A Passionate Life (2013); and to Stuart Proffitt as commissioning editor and to the Penguin team of Richard Duguid, Rebecca Lee, Stephen Ryan and David Cradduck for their professional and friendly input during the final stages of preparation. Thanks also go to Granta magazine, who commissioned a small part of the material used in this book in Granta 76: Music, in 2001.

For providing illustrations gratis, my thanks go to the following individuals and institutions:

Mark Audus; Bach-Archiv Leipzig; Bachhaus Eisenach/Neuen Bachgesellschaft; Breitkopf & Härtel; Concordia Seminary Library, St Louis, Missouri; Catherine Rimer; William H. Scheide/Scheide Library, University of Princeton; Sibley Music Library, Eastman School of Music, University of Rochester; Sotheby’s London; Stadtarchiv Mühlhausen; James Thrift.


A Note on the Text

For the sake of brevity the Sundays in the liturgical year will be abbreviated as follows: Tr + 1 (the first Sunday after Trinity); Epiphany + 4 (the fourth Sunday after Epiphany).

The author’s recordings of Bach are available on Soli Deo Gloria ( and Deutsche Grammophon (

Complete texts and translations of the cantatas are available on and in Johann Sebastian Bach: The Complete Church and Secular Cantatas, Richard Stokes (trs.) (Long Barn Books, 1999).

Monetary units:

1 pf. (pfennig)

1 gr. (groschen) = 12 pf.

1 fl. (florin or gulden) = 21 gr.

1 tlr (thaler) = 24 gr. (or 1 fl. + 3 gr.)

1 dukat = 72 gr. (or 3 tlr).


BD Bach-Dokumente, Vols. I–III
BJb Bach-Jahrbuch
BWV Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis, Bach’s work-list
JAMS Journal of the American Musicological Society
JRBI Journal of the Riemenschneider Bach Institute
JRMA Journal of the Royal Musical Association
KB Kritische Berichte (critical commentary to the NBA)
LW Luther’s Works: American edition (55 vols.), St Louis, 1955–86
MQ Musical Quarterly
NBA Neue Bach-Ausgabe
NBR New Bach Reader
SDG Soli Deo Gloria, Bach’s habitual dedication of his music to God’s glory (also the record label of Monteverdi Productions)
WA Luthers Werke: Kritische Gesamtausgabe (65 vols.), Weimar, 1883–93
WA BR Luthers Werke: Kritische Gesamtausgabe. Briefwechsel (18 vols.), Weimar, 1930–85
WA TR Luthers Werke: Kritische Gesamtausgabe. Tischreden (6 vols.), Weimar, 1912–21

Bach’s field of activity in Northern and Central Germany.


Bach the musician is an unfathomable genius; Bach the man is all too obviously flawed, disappointingly ordinary and in many ways still invisible to us. In fact we seem to know less about his private life than about that of any other major composer of the last 400 years. Unlike, say, Monteverdi, Bach left behind no intimate family correspondence, and very little beyond the anecdotal has come down to us that can help in painting a more human portrait or to allow a glimpse of him – as son, lover, husband or father. Perhaps there was a fundamental reluctance in him to pull back the curtain and reveal himself; unlike most of his contemporaries, he turned down the opportunity to submit a written account of his life and career when the opportunity arose. The limited, heavily edited version that we have inherited is one he himself spun and handed down to his children. It is not surprising some have concluded that Bach the man is something of a bore.

The idea that a more interesting personality lies behind this apparent disjunction between the man and his music has exercised his biographers from the very beginning, with inconclusive results. In any case, do we really need to know about the man in order to appreciate and understand his music? Some would say not. Not many people, however, are content to follow Albert Einstein’s summary advice: ‘This is what I have to say about Bach’s life’s work: listen, play, love, revere – and keep your trap shut.’1 On the contrary, in most of us there is an innate curiosity to put a face to the man behind the music that holds us so tightly in its grip. We yearn to know what kind of a person was capable of composing music so complex that it leaves us completely mystified, then at other moments so irresistibly rhythmic that we want to get up and dance to it, and then at others still so full of poignant emotion that we are moved to the very core of our being. Bach’s sheer stature as a composer is baffling and in many respects out of scale with all normal human achievement, so we tend to deify him or to elevate him to the superhuman. Few can resist the temptation to touch the hem of the garment of a genius – and, as musicians, we want to shout about it from the rooftops.

Yet, as can be seen from the Chronology (p. 559), there are pitifully few incontrovertible facts to support such an idealised view of Bach the man. In adding to them, it seems we must content ourselves with a handful of mostly dull and clumsy letters as the sole indications of his patterns of thought and of his feelings as an individual and as a family man. Much of his writing is pedestrian and opaque, consisting of detailed reports on the workings of church organs and worthy testimonials for his pupils. Then comes an endless stream of complaints to municipal authorities on his working conditions and gripes about his pay. There are also fretful self-justifications and sycophantic dedications to royal personages, always apparently with an eye to the main chance. We sense entrenched attitudes but seldom a beating heart. Even sparring polemical exchanges were conducted at second hand through an intermediary. There is no proof of his having compared notes with his peers, although we may infer that he did do this from time to time (see p. 63), and little to enlighten us about his approach to composition, his attitude to work or to life in general.* His usual answer (as reported by his first biographer, Johann Nikolaus Forkel) to those who asked him how he had contrived to master the art of music to such a high degree was blunt and unilluminating: ‘I was obliged to be industrious; whoever is equally industrious will succeed equally well.’2

Faced with this paucity of materials, his biographers from Forkel (1802), Carl Hermann Bitter (1865) and Philipp Spitta (1873) onwards have been driven back to the Nekrolog, the obituary hastily written in 1754 by his second son C. P. E. Bach and his pupil Johann Friedrich Agricola, to the testimony of his other sons, pupils and contemporaries, and to the web of anecdotes, some of which he himself could well have embroidered. Even with these, the picture which emerges is for the most part formal and two-dimensional: that of a musician who insists he was self-taught, of a man discharging his responsibilities with aloof rectitude, and of someone totally immersed in the making of music. Once in a while, when his eyes lifted from the page, we get flashes of anger – a cameo of an artist driven to distraction by the narrow-mindedness and stupidity of his employers and forced to live, in his own words, ‘amid almost continual vexation, envy and persecution’.3 This has opened the floodgates to conjecture – ingenious attempts made by successive biographers to straddle the chasm-like gaps in the sources from which they have squeezed every last drop, and to supplement them with speculation and inference. This is the point where mythology takes hold – of Bach as exemplary Teuton, as a working-class hero-craftsman, as the Fifth Evangelist, or as an intellectual of the calibre of Isaac Newton. We seem to be battling not just with the nineteenth-century bias towards hagiolatry but with peculiarly resistant twentieth-century strains of politically inflected ideology.

A nagging suspicion grows that many writers, overawed and dazzled by Bach, still tacitly assume a direct correlation between his immense genius and his stature as a person. At best this can make them unusually tolerant of his faults, which are there for all to see: a certain tetchiness, contrariness and self-importance, timidity in meeting intellectual challenges, and a fawning attitude towards royal personages and to authority in general that mixes suspicion with gain-seeking. But why should it be assumed that great music emanates from a great human being? Music may inspire and uplift us, but it does not have to be the manifestation of an inspiring (as opposed to an inspired) individual. In some cases there may be such a correspondence, but we are not obliged to presume that it is so. It is very possible that ‘the teller may be so much slighter or less attractive than the tale.’4 The very fact that Bach’s music was conceived and organised with the brilliance of a great mind does not directly give us any clues as to his personality. Indeed, knowledge of the one can lead to a misplaced knowingness about the other. At least with him there is not the slightest risk, as with so many of the great Romantics (Byron, Berlioz, Heine spring to mind), that we might discover almost too much about him or, as in the case of Richard Wagner, be led to an uncomfortable correlation between the creative and the pathological.

I see no need for us to stand Bach in a flattering light or to avert our eyes from possible movement in the shadows. Some recent biographies try to put a brave face on his personality and interpret everything in a rosy way, one belied by the surviving sources. To do so is to underestimate the psychological toll that a lifetime, not so much of tireless application, as of bowing and scraping to his intellectual inferiors, could have had on his state of mind and well-being. Any Godlike image that we superimpose on Bach blinds us to his artistic struggles, and from that point on we cease to see him as a musical craftsman par excellence. Just as we are so accustomed to seeing Brahms as a fat old man with a beard, forgetting that he was once young and dashing – ‘a young eagle from the north’ as Schumann described him after their first meeting – so we tend to see Bach as a bewigged, jowly old German Capellmeister and attach that image to his music, in the face of all the youthful exuberance and unparalleled vitality that his music so often conveys. Suppose instead we start to view him as an unlikely rebel: ‘someone who undermined widely acclaimed principles and closely guarded assumptions [about music]’. This, Laurence Dreyfus suggests, ‘can only be good, since it allows us to take those inchoate feelings of awe which many of us feel upon hearing Bach’s works and transform them into a vision of the composer’s courage and daring, thus letting us experience the music anew … Bach and his subversive activities might provide the key to his achievement, which, like all great art, is attuned to the most subtle manipulations and recasting of human experience.’5 Dreyfus’s refreshing and persuasive corrective to the old hagiolatry is in perfect accord with the line of inquiry I will pursue in the central chapters of this book.

That is just one side of the coin. For, despite all the recent flood of scholarly writing on individual aspects of Bach’s music and the heated controversy over how it was once performed and by whom, Bach as Mensch continues to elude us. Sifting through the same old piles of biographical sand for the umpteenth time, it is easy to assume that by now we have exhausted their potential to yield up fresh nuggets of information. I do not believe this to be the case. In 2000 the American Bach scholar Robert L. Marshall, sensing that a comprehensive reinterpretation of Bach’s life and works was long overdue, claimed that he and his fellow scholars were ‘avoiding this challenge and we knew it’. He was certain that ‘the surviving documents, as recalcitrant as they are, can be made to shed more light on Bach the man than may first appear’.6 Marshall has since been vindicated by the brilliant, indefatigable sleuths working in the Bach-Archiv in Leipzig, even if the exciting new evidence uncovered by them has so far only been partially assimilated. As its research director, Peter Wollny, described it to me, the process is ‘like picking up the odd shard of marble from the foot of a statue: you don’t really know whether it is part of an arm, an elbow or a kneecap, but it is still Bach’s and you need to alter your speculative image of his completed statuary from the new evidence’. Might there, then, be more priceless nuggets still lurking somewhere in the archives? With the opening up of libraries in countries of the former Eastern Bloc and the avalanche of sources suddenly available to scholars via online digital access, the chances of their discovery are higher now than at any time in the last fifty years.*

There is also the possibility that, by focusing on the familiar sources and desperately trying to add to them, all the time we have been looking in one direction, while missing evidence of the most revealing sort that is right under our noses: the evidence of the music itself. It is the anchor to which we can return again and again, and the principal means of validating or refuting any conclusion about its author. Self-evidently, the more closely you scrutinise the music from the outside as a listener, and the more deeply you get to know it from the inside as a performer, the better are your chances of uncovering the wonders it has to offer – and not only that, but of gaining insight into the man who created it in the first place. At its most monumental and imposing – say, in The Art of Fugue or the ten canons of the Musical Offering – we come up against membranes so impenetrable as to thwart even the most persistent search for the face of its creator. Bach’s keyboard works maintain a tension – born of restraint and obedience to self-set conventions – between form (which we might describe variously as cool, severe, unbending, narrow or complex) and content (passionate or intense) more palpably and obviously than does his texted music.† Many of us can only marvel and retreat, surrendering to seams of thought that run more profoundly and more immutably in their dispassionate spirituality than in almost any other kind of music.

The moment words are involved the attention is deflected away from form and towards meaning and interpretation. Part of my aim in this book is to show how clearly Bach’s approach in his cantatas, motets, oratorios, Masses and Passions reveals his mind at work, his temperamental preferences (including, where it applies, the very act of choosing one text over another) as well as his wide-ranging philosophical outlook. Bach’s cantatas are of course not literally diary entries, as though he were straightforwardly penning a personal narrative. Entwined in the music and situated behind these pieces’ formal outer shell are the features of this intensely private, multifaceted human being – devout at one moment, rebellious the next, deeply reflective and serious for the most part, but lightened by flashes of humour and empathy. Bach’s voice can sometimes be heard in the music and, even more importantly, in the way traces of his own performance are woven into it. These are the tones of someone attuned to the cycles of nature and the changing seasons, sensitive to the raw physicality of life, but buoyed up by the prospect of a better afterlife spent in the company of angels and angelic musicians. It is this that has prompted the book’s title, describing both the physical reality – the ‘Himmelsburg’ in Weimar was Bach’s workplace for nine formative years – and providing a metaphor for the seat of divinely inspired music (see pp. 182, 299–300, 458 and 553–4). The music gives us shafts of insight into the harrowing experiences he must have suffered as an orphan, as a lone teenager, and as a grieving husband and father. They show us his fierce dislike of hypocrisy and his impatience with falsification of any sort; but they also reveal the profound sympathy he felt towards those who grieve or suffer in one way or another, or who struggle with their consciences or their beliefs. His music exemplifies this, and it is in part what gives it its authenticity and colossal force. But most of all we hear his joy and sense of delight in celebrating the wonders of the universe and the mysteries of existence – as well as in the thrill of his own creative athleticism. You have only to listen to a single Christmas cantata to experience festive elation and jubilation in music on an unprecedented scale, one beyond the reach of any other composer.


The purpose of this book is rencontrer l’homme en sa création.7 Its aim is therefore very different from that of a traditional biography: to give the reader a real sense of what the act of music-making would have been like for Bach, inhabiting the same experiences, the same sensations. By this I am not proposing a direct correlation between works and personality – more that the musical side is able to refract a broad range of life experiences (many of which may not in essence be so very different from ours), something which is set at an angle to the habitual connection between life and works. Bach’s personality was developed and honed as a direct consequence of his musical thought. The patterns of his actual behaviour were secondary to this, and in some cases can be interpreted as the result of an imbalance between his life as a musician and his everyday domestic life. By looking at the twin processes of composing and performing Bach’s music, we can put the human likeness of the composer himself into relief – an impression that can only be strengthened by the experience of re-creating and re-performing it now.

I seek to convey what it is like to approach Bach from the position of a performer and conductor standing in front of a vocal and instrumental ensemble, just as he himself habitually did. Naturally I am aware that this is treacherous ground, and that any ‘evidence’ drawn from it can easily be dismissed as subjective and invalid – just ‘an updated version of the romantic view of music as autobiography’, one that claims ‘an impossible authority’ for its speculations.8 It is of course tempting to believe that one can understand a composer’s aims while under the influence of the emotion the music evokes, although this may not be the case at all.* But that does not mean that subjectivity per se is inimical to more objective truth or undermines its conclusions. Ultimately all truths are subjective to one degree or another, except perhaps those of mathematics. In the past Bach scholarship has suffered from the distancing, or in some cases the removal, of the subject (the author) from the object (the composer) of the study. But once an author’s subjectivity is virtually expunged or remains unacknowledged, it follows that facets of Bach’s personality are closed off to investigation. In the introductory chapter I explain the background to, and nature of, my own particular subjectivity. This may be forgiven, I hope, should others, as a result, be encouraged to analyse their own subjective responses to the composer and to consider the extent to which those responses have given rise to the conception that we have of him.

Writing this book over several years has meant searching for ways in which scholarship and performance can cooperate and be made to coalesce fruitfully. It has entailed delving into the evidence that could shed new light on Bach’s background, piecing together the biographical fragments, re-examining the impact of his orphancy and the circumstances of his schooling, scrutinising the music and keeping a weather-eye out for those instances in performance when his personality seems to rise through the fabric of his notation. Despite the huge debt I owe to the experts and scholars who have guided me and perhaps averted me from disaster, what is presented here is very much one person’s vision. I have set out to provide a straightforward structure (though not always articulated in strictly chronological order): fourteen different approaches, fourteen spokes of a wheel, all connected to a central hub – Bach as man and musician. Each spoke, though it bears a relation to its neighbours and opposites, is there to guide the reader from one point to another within its specific topic. Each of these ‘constellations’ (Walter Benjamin’s description of much the same thing) explores a different facet of his character and each proposes a fresh vantage point from which to view the man and his music.

In counterpoint to this I have introduced a series of footnotes in the spirit of the biographer Richard Holmes: ‘as a sort of down-stage voice, reflecting on the action as it develops, and suggesting lines of exploration through some of the biographical and critical issues raised’.9 Nevertheless I am not trying to be comprehensive – far from it. If you are looking for analyses of the monumental works for clavier and organ or for individual solo instruments, this is not the place to find it: they could never be treated in depth alongside the vocal music and would need a separate volume to themselves.* My focus is on the music I know best – the music that is linked to words. I hope to show that, because of their connection with words and texts, there are things said in the cantatas, motets, Passions and Masses that are unsurpassed in Bach’s output, things which up to this point no one had ever tried or dared to say, or been able to say, with sounds. I find that the practical familiarity this brings opens the door to fresh views on why and how particular works evolved as they did, on how they are sewn together and on what they seem to tell us about the man who composed them. For me the excitement of rehearsing and performing these works – in effect living inside them over a concentrated span – has lit a fire which has burnt with increasing heat ever since I first encountered them. It is this rich, sonorous world and the delight I take in it, both as a conductor and lifelong student of Bach, that I most want to convey.

As a listener, critic or scholar you normally have a margin of time in which to measure and reflect on your response to Bach’s music. Analysis of musical structure has its uses, but it gets you only part of the way: it identifies the mechanical bits, and describes the component engineering, but it doesn’t tell you what it is that makes the motor purr and hum. As with many composers, but particularly in Bach’s case, it turns out to be much easier to trace the craftsman-like procedures he used to elaborate and transform musical material than to define or penetrate to the core of his initial inventive formulations. Whereas over the past century musical analysis has brought us far in comprehending Bach’s craftsmanship, the techniques we habitually use to analyse music when it is joined to verbal expression are of little use. We need a different tool-kit.

Performance, on the other hand, removes the last possibility of sitting on the fence: you are obliged to commit to a view and an interpretation of a work in order to present it with full belief and conviction. I try to convey what it feels like to be in the middle of it – connected to the motor and dance rhythms of the music, caught up in the sequential harmony and the intricate contrapuntal web of sounds, their spatial relations, the kaleidoscopic colour-changes of voices and instruments (singly and severally as well as in their collisions). This is perhaps the sort of task that astronauts would have faced in describing the moon if we hadn’t actually seen their images on our screens back on earth; or that confronts those who, having taken hallucinogenic drugs, emerge from a dream world with (what I imagine to be) weird sensations whirring around inside them, struggling to convey what it felt like to be in a parallel dimension under their influence.

Imagine, instead, what it feels like to stand chest-deep in the ocean, waiting to snorkel. What you see are the sparse physical features visible to the naked eye: the shore, the horizon, the surface of the sea, maybe a boat or two, and perhaps the bleached outline of fish or coral just below, but not much else. Then you don your mask and lower yourself into the water. Immediately you enter a separate, magical world of myriad tints and vibrant colours, the subtle movement of passing shoals, the waving of sea anemones and coral – a vivid but wholly different reality. To me this is akin to the experience and shock of performing Bach’s music – the way it exposes to you its brilliant colour spectrum, its sharpness of contour, its harmonic depth, and the essential fluidity of its movement and underlying rhythm. Above water there is dull quotidian noise; below the surface is the magical world of Bach’s musical sounds. But even once the performance is over and the music has melted back into the silence from which it began, we are still left with the transporting impact of the experience, which lingers in the memory. Strong, too, is the sense of a mirror being held up to the man who created this music in the first place – one that vividly reflects his complex and rugged personality, his urge to communicate and share his view of the world with his listeners, and his unique capacity for bringing boundless invention, intelligence, wit and humanity to the process of composition.

Emphatically, Bach the man was not a bore.