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
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
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
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,