Reinventing Bach Hardcover – Sep 21 2012
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"This intelligent, wide-ranging book brings Bach's eternal music into conjunction with the forces of history. Paul Elie makes us realize how even great music, if it is to last over time, must change in order to stay the same." -- Wendy Lesser
"From the stately 'Sheep Shall Safely Graze' and the solemn St. Matthew Passion to the wildly exuberant Fantasia and Gould's Goldberg Variations, the music of Bach often serves as a listener's introduction to classical music. In this brilliant and passionate appreciation, Elie (The Life You Save May Be Your Own) offers not only a brief biography of the great musician but an exceptional study of the ways that numerous musicians have rendered Bach's music through the years through various technologies. Bach's music has been interpreted to suit new inventions, from the 78-rpm record, the LP, and headphones and Walkman to the compact disc and digital file. These inventions have taken the music into new contexts, from the living room to the open road to outer space (Voyager carried a recording of the first prelude of book one of The Well-Tempered Clavier). Bach himself was an inventor, fashioning a new musical instrument, the lautenwerk, or lute-harpsichord, and composing "Inventions," short, tight keyboard pieces. Elie devotes chapters to various artists who used the technologies of their time to reconsider Bach and introduce his music to a new audience. The famed medical missionary Albert Schweitzer, for example, was also an accomplished organist whose biography of Bach as well as his recordings of Bach's Fugue in D Minor on wax-cylinder recordings introduced Bach's music to a world beyond the church. Pablo Casals recorded Bach's cello suites on 78-rpm record albums, bringing Bach into living rooms everywhere. Reading Elie's stately and gorgeous prose is much like losing oneself in Glenn Gould's Goldberg Variations, for his study convincingly demonstrates that the music of Bach is the most persuasive rendering of transcendence there is." -- Publishers Weekly (starred review)
"The author of The Life You Save May Be Your Own (2003) returns with a tour de force about Johann Sebastian Bach and a description and assessment of the recordings that have made his work an essential part of our culture. Elie, a former senior editor with FSG and now a senior fellow at Georgetown University's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, tells a polyphonic tale, weaving throughout his narrative a history of the recording industry and brisk biographies of Bach and the 20th-century performers who first recorded his work for mass audiences, including Albert Schweitzer, Leopold Stokowski, Pablo Casals and Glenn Gould. The author begins with a snapshot of Bach's pervasive presence today, then takes us back to 1935 and Schweitzer's recordings of Bach's organ works on wax cylinders. Throughout the text, Elie moves us forward in the history of technology -- from 78s to LPs to tapes to CDs to MP3s, showing how Bach managed to remain relevant. We also follow the careers of his principals; Elie's treatment of the talented and troubled Gould is especially sensitive and enlightening. Occasionally, the author enters the narrative for a personal connection, perhaps nowhere more affectingly than in his account of the time he danced in the rain on the Tanglewood grass while Yo-Yo Ma played a Bach cello suite. Elie also tells us how other cultural figures have employed the music and the man -- e.g., Douglas Hofstadter's 1979 book Godel, Escher, Bach, the 1968 album Switched-On Bach and the use of Bach in films and on TV. The author's passion, thorough research and imaginative heart produce one revelation after another." -- Kirkus (starred review)
"[Reinventing Bach] is a book of epic sweep, like a novel made up of multiple strands...Elie deploys considerable scholarship...and he writes beautifully. He makes a strong case that within less than a century a succession of new recording media...have brought Bach's music, in multiple versions, to vast numbers of new listeners at the press of a button. It is a luxury previously unavailable even to princes, who in order to enjoy live performances had to employ entire orchestras. Recording technology has made a monarch of everyone. A chapter or two into the book, you will find yourself reaching out for your 'Goldberg Variations.'" -- The Economist
About the Author
Paul Elie, for many years a senior editor with FSG, is now a senior fellow with Georgetown University's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs. His first book, The Life You Save May Be Your Own, received the PEN/Martha Albrand Prize and was a National Book Critics Circle award finalist in 2003. He lives in New York City.See all Product Description
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Paul Elie makes this case on nearly every page of his book Reinventing Bach, but it is page 71 before he asks the corollary: "How are we supposed to listen to so much music, all of it so good?" Elie is referring to Bach's compositions for organ-"near three hundred works, every one sublime"-but he could pose the question for all music that predates the gramophone. Bach factored heavily in that technological debut, and has factored in each subsequent advance since then.
Or rather his performers have, those sometimes unwitting celebrities who interpret Bach posthumously and lend him a voice again. It seems like our generation has won an undeserved indulgence; after all, Bach's contemporaries knew him only from weekly, live church performances and palace appearances. Is it not unnatural that modern audiences in North America, Asia, or Africa should know him so much better than Europeans knew him while he lived, over 250 years ago? That is a rewording of Elie's question: how do we listen? Were vinyl and tape-recorded by irascible, sometimes neurotic virtuosos-the best way? Elie's response is an unqualified yes. For some, technological advances such as shellac and tape were as scandalous then as the pirate bays are now. So it is telling that Bach-incredibly prolific, and therefore as subject to unaffiliated recordings as any man or woman who has ever lived-was still dominant.
Those readers coming fresh off of Matthew Guerrieri's The First Four Notes should be prepared for a much wider scope. Reinventing Bach is significantly longer, and Elie introduces far more characters, many of whom do not survive their introduction. The often cruel lives suffered by pre-industrial artists are well-illustrated here, and Guerrieri's Europe-a place without light bulbs or metronomes-is downright pasteurized compared to those of Reinventing Bach. Elie reminds us that, by age ten, Bach had lost two brothers and both parents. When he was 35 he lost a wife and infant son within a year of each other. Ten of his children did not survive to adulthood. It reads as miraculous that the composer survived the pathogens and heartbreak at all, and truly unfathomable that his output was so high, so excellent, with so little duplication between any one piece and the rest.
Neither is Bach is the star of this book. He ages two years here, five years there, and composes hundreds of pieces of music while our backs are turned. Bach's list of posthumous advocates is the true emphasis; Elie introduces the perpetually nostalgic Albert Schweitzer, a German theologian and medical missionary. He presents Pablo Casals, the Spanish cellist and conductor who would become an outspoken protestor of the Franco regime, and who refused to visit in any nation that recognized Franco's leadership. In time we meet Leopold Stokowski, the cultured half of the team behind Fantasia, and soon thereafter we exchange an awkward wave with Canadian pianist Glenn Gould, "some kind of archangel" who took out a Lloyd's of London insurance policy on his hands, and suffered from deep germophobia. Elie reminds us of film score character Walter Carlos, who recorded Bach on an early version of the Moog, which was strictly monophonic and as big as a refrigerator. It is easy to forget that the 78, film soundtracks, multiple recording takes, stereo sound and the analog synthesizer once represented the technological advancement that the smart phone does today-and that some were as controversial as Napster was ten years ago-but Elie patiently, systematically reminds us.
Did all of the pieces fit together snugly? Do they ever? Schweitzer preferred life off of the grid, long before the short-lived Living With Ed. Casals wished his recordings could be sped up "in order to recover the liveliness that was lost during the mechanical process." Gould hated Fantasia and the Beatles-who, with Joni Mitchell, were jointly responsible for the Bachification of popular music-writing them off as "happy, cocky, belligerently resourceless." Gould also couldn't keep from humming during recording takes. Walter's surgical conversion to Wendy Carlos overshadows his (and her) contribution to the Bach legacy. Even Elie himself has reservations about Schweitzer's version of Toccata and Fugue in D Minor: "The sonic boxiness of it-very quality that makes it sound historic-makes it hard to listen for simple enjoyment."
At over 400 pages, the book feels long, especially when the thesis can be expressed so simply: technology only moves in one direction. There is no putting the genie back in the bottle. But do the arithmetic: dedicating one written page to every three completed works-so many of them masterpieces-is hardly long-winded. Elie seems unconvinced with his own method of drawing parallels between the lives of J.S. Bach and the lives of his interpreters, a method he abandons just as the reader is getting used to it. Perhaps a better way to describe the narrative shifts from composer to performer and back again is contrapuntal, a musical adjective that no Bach reviewer can reasonably discard. Elie can turn a phrase, but rarely does. Yet again, that leaves us breathless when he chooses to. Take for instance the Luftwaffe bombing of London, which left the church of All Hallows gutted by fire. The reader cannot help but read between the lines:
"The bells, long tied up for the nightly blackouts, were set loose as the ropes burned through, and rang wildly before falling to the ground. The tower stood reverent amid the horror as the great organ, all its lead pipes swelling at once with hot air, screamed with the pain of war and then, the cabinet burning, the pipes melting into the air, went silent."
Does this belie the book's most glaring flaw? It is such a lovely passage and so feverish with nostalgia that there is no chance of his description stopping with objective reporting. The reader is forced to wonder if Elie suffers at least some of the retrogressive longings he so cleanly dismantles when they are voiced by others. Even so, Reinventing Bach establishes Elie as another Bach performer, and for the most part this recording is a painstakingly researched, lovingly considered, and deftly-written book.
About 35 ago, after largely ignoring him, I discovered Bach as a personal source of intellectual fascination and spiritual solace. The catalyst for me was a recording: the second of Glenn Gould's two recordings of the Goldberg Variations, recorded in 1981. It also came at a time when I was suffering hand pain from working on a big chamber piece by Brahms. Bach's music was not merely something that I could listen to, but also explore on my own. Badly, I know; even his simpler pieces are deceptively difficult. But there has been some Bach score or other on my piano ever since. And playing has led in turn to more listening, in an era in which Bach is available on recordings everywhere, in every medium from solo instrument to giant mass, and in every interpretive style.
So it is a wonderful resource to have this history of Bach recording, and the artists who have laid down milestones along the way: Albert Schweitzer with the organ music, Pablo Casals with the cello suites, Rosalyn Tureck as merely one of a series of Bach interpreters on the piano who include Glenn Gould, of course, right on (though briefly) to Keith Jarrett and Simone Dinnerstein. He deals with Big Bach as promoted by Leopold Stokowski (and opened to vast audiences through Disney's FANTASIA) and Ascetic Bach as in Rifkin's performances of the St. Matthew Passion and B-minor Mass with one singer to a part. He deals with Wendy Carlos playing Bach on a synthesizer, the Swingle Singers adapting instrumental pieces as jazzy vocal scat, and even with some crossovers with the pop world. Elie's musical descriptions are wonderful, but you do not have to rely on them. The glory is that you can sample just about everything he mentions by a click or two on YouTube, proof positive of his first assertion.
So what's not to like? The book contains far too much information about too many subjects, and lacks focus in prioritizing between them. For example, any given chapter may contain:
• The circumstances of the making of a particular recording.
• A description of the work performed in that recording.
• The life of the performer, both before and after the recording.
• An installment in an ongoing history of the life of Bach.
• An installment in an ongoing history of sound recording.
• Parallel events in world history.
• Further thoughts on artists featured in earlier chapters.
In the first two chapters, focusing on one artist and one work—the D-minor Toccata and Fugue recorded by Schweitzer and the Cello Suites by Casals—the intensity of that focus provides a strong enough armature on which to hang all the rest. There is a lot of interest in how these two artists reflected Bach's moral values with a personal asceticism: Schweitzer by working half the year as a doctor in Gabon, Casals through his self-exile and ceaseless work against the Franco regime. But the Stokowski chapter proliferates with a host of non-Bach detail about Disney and the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the Tureck chapter segues into a long section on Glenn Gould, as though one were merely the back-up player to the other.
I looked in vain for insight on my own twin approaches to Bach, intellectual fascination and spiritual solace. It was there somewhere, I suppose, since Elie is attuned to just about everything, but it was buried in the excess of other information. I learned a great deal about the ubiquity of Bach in our time, but did not get a strong sense of why. But perhaps I need to turn back to the music for that. The thing that moved me most in the book was Elie's account of how my Peabody Conservatory colleague Leon Fleisher turned back to Bach as part of his thirty-year recovery from the loss of function in his right hand. His description moved me to watch his performance of "Sheep May Safely Graze" again on YouTube, and recall how Leon played it at the memorial service for another colleague some years ago. It is a study in quiet beauty: just the pianist almost motionless at the piano, his hands—both hands—gliding over the keyboard without a wasted movement, and that centuries-old message of consolation and peace.
Reinventing Bach could just as well be called Celebrating Bach, in different countries, different times, different media. The music of Bach runs through the book (not really; I spent a lot of time on Youtube chasing down performances), holding together a history of the twentieth century.
Just about every day that I read this book, I posted a sentence or two on Facebook, hoping to get someone else to join the party.
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