Heaven’s Playlist

When Gregory XIX came to Rome after the papal election, he brought with him from his Burgundian monastery the violin on which he was accustomed to play Bach’s partitas and sonatas, and when he sought to canonize the composer as St. Jean-Sébastien, he deemed it a matter of courtesy first to gain the approbation of Lutheran leaders. He sought to do so by inviting a group of them to a weeklong Bach festival at Castel Gandolfo. Bishop Hammerschmied of Hamburg conducted the small orchestra from the harpsichord, while the violinist pope, acting as concertmaster, hoped that the music would win over the naysayers, both Lutheran and Catholic, who were bound to object to his extraordinary proposal.

The story—a fiction, alas—can be found in Johannes Rüber’s glowing short novel Bach and the Heavenly Choir, published in 1956 and now unjustly forgotten. Paul Elie’s Reinventing Bach inspired me to re-read Rüber to see if his book was as good as I’d found it many decades ago (it is). Elie, of course, will be remembered by many readers as the author of The Life You Save May Be Your Own, a study of four American Catholic writers and thinkers that appeared in 2003. The central conceit of his new book is that Bach’s music can be a thread to hold together a history of the recording of music and its effects. The book is also a great song of love and admiration for the unofficial saint’s music and its performers.

Sound recording, even in its most primitive form (on wax cylinders, around 1900), was a new phenomenon, detaching single performances from their chronological and geographical settings and making them replicable in other places and at other times. Mendelssohn’s famous performance of the St. Matthew Passion may have helped revive a taste for Bach’s larger works, but of course we have no idea how it sounded to his Berlin audience in 1829. By the end of that century, though, performances could be captured: Caruso, Nellie Melba, Nikisch, Stokowski, singing or playing into large acoustical horns. After 1925, electrical recording greatly improved the process, and today we can hear not only how our contemporaries play Bach, but also how Albert Schweitzer’s organ and Pablo Casals’s cello sounded in London in the 1930s. And if the phonograph made such music relatively affordable, radio broadcasting made it free.

Spread through the book, along with the story of recorded music, is a look at the life of Bach, his education, and his services to and compositions for various churches and aristocratic patrons in northern Germany. Quite rightly, Elie insists on Bach’s Lutheranism and the ways it helped form his work. Since Luther, Elie remarks, religious revival has been a “distinctive Protestant practice, rooted in the conviction that something vital is passing out of this world and can be saved only through ardent personal devotion and a return to the original sources of inspiration.” Not surprisingly, the Bach revival shares these characteristics. (“In Jean-Sébastien, faith has become music,” as Rüber’s Pope Gregory puts it.) In a sense, Bach never needed reviving—his work was assiduously studied by Mozart and Beethoven, for example. But if Mendelssohn did launch such a revival in 1829, Elie argues that the technological possibilities of recording have led to a virtual reinvention in how Bach’s music can be perceived, played, and used.

Schweitzer and Casals are among the performers Elie examines in some detail. So is the conductor Leopold Stokowski. My generation was taught to sneer at his full-scale symphonic transcriptions of Bach’s works, with the lush strings and rich winds of the glowing Philadelphia sound. Of course we were wrong, overlooking the enormous amount those recordings did to bring Bach to those who never darkened the doors of either the concert hall or the Lutheran churches where he had been kept alive (read, for instance, Elie’s examination of Stoki’s work on Walt Disney’s Fantasia). Halfway through the book Elie begins an extended riff on the pianist Glenn Gould, whose extraordinary 1956 recording of the Goldberg Variations could be heard with just one flip of a long-playing record. Over half a century later, I still clearly remember the first time I listened to it. Just out of the Navy, on my way to graduate school, and (though I didn’t know it at the time) within a year to be married to the love of my life, everything seemed fresh and exciting. Despite the snobbish dogmatism of a twenty-five-year-old questioning the propriety of playing Bach on the piano rather than the harpsichord, I knew that I was listening to something that could enlarge the whole horizon.

His recording was monaural, but technology did not stand still, and within a few years we had stereo (in 1981, Gould gave us the Goldbergs again in the new medium). Meanwhile musical performance, long since liberated from the confines of church and concert hall, was presently set free even from the home stereo through such developments as digital recording and the CD and portable players such as the Walkman and Discman, and later the iPod and various Apple-inspired spinoffs. All this Elie describes, and though some Bach interpreters (like Casals, Schweitzer, Gould, Yo-Yo Ma, and John Eliot Gardiner) get more time than others, he also pays attention to those who, quite apart from Bach, found the new recording technologies liberating and instructive. Elie makes unexpected and illuminating connections: on November 23, 1936, he reports, as Casals sat recording the cello suites in EMI’s Abbey Road studios, across the ocean in San Antonio the great blues singer Robert Johnson was making recordings “that are for the modern blues what Bach suites are for the cello: at once their high point and their point of origin.”

Without taking sides, Elie describes the arguments that broke out in the 1970s over “period music,” or historically informed performances and “original instruments” (what would Bach have done with a modern Steinway in Leipzig?). He writes of successors to Gould and Casals like Simone Dinnerstein, whose self-financed performance of the Goldbergs in 2007 became an instant best-seller (there are now over 175 recordings of this piece), and Yo-Yo Ma (“your typical Paris-born Asian all-American boy,” a Harvard classmate called him), as well as those musicians who incorporate Bach into their own inventions and compositions. Elie describes Bach’s music issuing from dank New York clubs and from buskers in Penn Station, Bach mashups, Bach on the koto and the Moog synthesizer, Bach on saxophones, Bach’s presence when the Wall fell in 1989. This all has a commercial side, and why not? As photographs of attractive and highly talented young violinists on CDs can help sell Bach, Bach himself can return the favor. “Vermont is the very definition of peace,” a local real-estate agent writes on her website. “If you want to know how this peacefulness feels, just crank up the Bach cello suites on the stereo and page through these bucolic Addison County properties.” Perhaps too recent even for Elie’s book is the dawning of Spotify, a Swedish music-streaming service introduced in the United States just over a year ago. With it, a reader can take Elie’s reference to (for example) BWV 590 and instantly call up more than two dozen recordings of the lovely organ Pastorale in F (including Helmut Walcha’s, my own favorite).

There are a few minor details Elie doesn’t cover. I expected at least a reference to the Bach Choir of Bethlehem, whose Pennsylvania Moravian traditions helped keep Bach alive, and which gave the country its first performance of the entire B-minor Mass back in 1900. I’d also have liked a mention of the New York City Ballet’s brilliant 1971 production of the Goldberg Variations, choreographed by Jerome Robbins, with a single piano accompanying the dancers in their complex figures.

Rüber’s Pope Gregory closes his Bach festival at Castel Gandolfo with his own performance of the Partita in E major for unaccompanied violin, which he considers an unanswerable argument for the composer’s sainthood. Whether we would choose that particular piece, or the Goldbergs, or a monumental work like the St. Matthew Passion, most of us would probably agree.

Published in the 2012-10-26 issue: 

Nicholas Clifford was professor emeritus of Middlebury College, and a frequent contributor to Commonweal.

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