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Lives joined in Bach's counterpoint

23 November 2012

Andrew Davison reads thoughts on music in an apologetic vein


Two musicians: Pablo Casals and Albert Schweitzer "ponder war and peace", in a photo from the Albert Schweitzer Papers, Special Collections Research Centre, Syracuse University Library

Two musicians: Pablo Casals and Albert Schweitzer "ponder war and peace", in a photo from the Albert Schweitzer Papers, Special Collections Research...

Reinventing Bach
Paul Elie
Farrar, Straus and Giroux £19.99
Church Times Bookshop £18 (Use code CT517 )

THIS book bounds along, multifaceted and rejoicing in it. It is fashioned from an infeasibly broad range of strands, and only a writer of Paul Elie's stature could bring it off.

Ostensibly, Reinventing Bach emerges from the intersection of a handful of biographies - of Johann Sebastian Bach and his principal interpreters over the past century, and the cultural history of recording, from the wax cylinder to the iPod. It is also, however, almost a history of the 20th century as a century of war, and a partial autobiography. Although a book about music, it is very "writerly", scrupulously conceived in both detail and structure.

Elie chooses as principal interpreters Albert Schweitzer, Pablo Casals, Leopold Stokowski, Glen Gould, and Yo-Yo Ma. Other performers, who feature on only a few pages each, include Rosalyn Tureck, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, and Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. These vignettes leave us wanting more, and yet the book probably holds together only because a handful of performers occupy centre stage.

Elie's seemingly narrow emphasis on recordings of Bach is a perfect illustration of the plenitude to be found in any corner of creation - not least when that corner belongs to human culture. Indeed, plenitude in finitude emerges as a central theme, since Bach's music is built on invention, the exploration of the boundless possibilities in even a humble tune. Reinventing Bach is a meditation on revival and return in new forms, on counterpoint, and the old made new, whether in Bach's own musical "borrowings", in transcription, or in recording and re-recording.

Towards the end, Elie becomes more confessional, although in a sense the book is a work of gentle apologetics throughout. "Possibly", he says, what he has written "smells of the church". He describes his book as an "offering" - to Bach, certainly, but also to God, since Elie is no idolater attempting to construct "a religion around the music of Bach". No: "The religion out of which Bach constructed his music is religion enough."

We read various assessments here of the value of Bach's music: as consolation, for instance, or as preparation for moral labour. Most perceptive of all is the suggestion that this music is supremely "supererogatory". It is "enough and more than enough", and recording only amplifies this superabundance. As Elie almost writes, Bach's music is an embodiment of grace. As evidence, listen to the Gratias agimus tibi ("We thank you for your great glory") of the B-minor Mass. The trumpets hug the soprano line, but then peel off, adding an unexpected fifth part to the counterpoint, and then a sixth. This is how the superabundance of grace sounds. Listen; read this book; and be, indeed, thankful. 

Dr Andrew Davison is Tutor in Doctrine at Westcott House, Cambridge.

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