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Bach’s Habit of Imperfection

The very fact that Bach’s music is so profound and so uplifting and the man is clearly not a saint makes it all the more interesting. 

When we think of Bach, we tend to think of perfection, the way that the preludes and fugues known as The Well-Tempered Clavier were refined, perhaps to perfection, over the last 3 decades of Bach’s life

Or we might think of how some of Bach’s obsessive interpreters, notably Glenn Gould, had grandiose ideas about finding the “perfect piano” to make the “perfect recording” that would capture the technical perfection that Bach’s music demanded.

“I believe in God — Bach’s God,” Gould once remarked

Consciously, I am certainly an atheist,” wrote the Hungarian composer György Kurtág. But “if I look at Bach, I cannot be an atheist.”

So if Bach is the voice of God, even to secular music lovers, then certainly the man himself must have been a paragon of virtue. 

John Eliot Gardiner, perhaps Bach’s foremost contemporary interpreter, is having none of this.

Gardiner, author of the new book, Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven, has a unique perspective on Bach. He is both a historian and a world-renowned conductor who has throughout his career made hundreds of recordings on the prestigious Deutsche Grammophon label.

Bach has also played a very personal role in Gardiner’s life. Gardiner’s parents were entrusted during the Second World War with the portrait of Bach featured above. It was hard for the young Gardiner to look at the musician’s “forbidding stare,” he writes, and yet his book presents an unflinching portrait of the German composer in an attempt to give a sense of “what the act of music-making would have been like for Bach.”

Along the way, we get a complex picture of Bach, the man. 

Bach is the daring rebel who “undermined widely acclaimed principles” in order to achieve “the most subtle manipulations and recasting of the human experience,” Gardioner writes.

And yet, as Gardiner explains in the video below, Bach, the orphan rebel, had a suspicion of authority that ran deep throughout his life, and made him an often domineering and unpleasant person to deal with. 

Gardiner doesn’t see any contradiction here. “The very fact that this music is so profound and so uplifting and the man is clearly not a saint makes it all the more interesting,” he says. 

Watch the video here:


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