Heaven’s Playlist

Reinventing Bach
Paul Elie
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $30, 498 pp.

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...

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About the Author

Nicholas Clifford, a professor emeritus of Middlebury College, has written about Shanghai history in the early twentieth century.