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#3135590 07/08/21 03:40 PM
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This looks interesting, but there are so many. I've always found it hard to decide which biography to read, for any subject. Anyone have a favorite?

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https://www.amazon.com/Bach-Castle-John-Eliot-Gardiner/dp/1400031435/ref=sr_1_2?crid=1EP6UEXJVOI36&dchild=1&keywords=john+eliot+gardiner&qid=1625775312&s=books&sprefix=john+elliot+g%2Caps%2C159&sr=1-2

This book got great reviews but I found it very complex and gave my copy to a professional musician after struggling through a little of it.

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I have Gardiner's "Music in the Castle of Heaven," and put it down - to definitely resume it - after 310 of its 558 pages of text (not to mention an additional 70 pages of "Chronology," "Glossary," "Notes," and "Index." It's definitely not a quick read.

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Thanks for the replies. FYI, I Googled both Castle of Heaven and The Learned Scholar book linked in my original post. Found this NY Times review of Castle of Heaven, referencing Learned Scholar.

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Christoph Wolff’s “Johann Sebastian Bach” and “Bach’s Musical Universe” are phenomenal.

Robert Greenberg’s “Bach and the High Baroque” is on audible and it’s great fun.


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I enjoyed Castle of Heaven, but Gardiner's writing is very..dense...there's an awful lot of words just to convey each thing he wants to say. And it's quite technical musically.

A bio that I found more accessible and "lighter" is Malcom Boyd's "Bach". There is still a lot of musical analysis but it's easier to read overall.

If you want a bio that is less focussed on the music and more on the society in which Bach lived, I can recommend "Bach’s Changing World - Voices in the Community", by Carol K. Baron. This explores the secular and religious (and even political) background at the time that Bach was alive and how he would have interacted with it.


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The Wolff bio is certainly an excellent one, certainly one of the most complete. You also have the historical Forkel, Schweitzer and Spitta. There is Klaus Eidam, though it is less scholar but very easy to read. There is also Malcolm Boyd in the great musicians series.

After that there are numerous books which focus on certain specific topics.


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Originally Posted by scirocco
I enjoyed Castle of Heaven, but Gardiner's writing is very..dense...there's an awful lot of words just to convey each thing he wants to say. And it's quite technical musically.
[...]

I agree that the writing is both dense and scholarly. For anyone considering John Eliot Gardiner's book, Music in the Castle of Heaven, I would add the following caveat which I have lifted verbatim from Peter Conrad's review of the book in The Guardian, 30 October, 2013, and how it might pertain to those (pianists) interested in Bach's keyboard and other works:

His book is not a biography, but its guesses about the inner life of an impersonal man are shrewd.

This interrogation of the man, however, is intermittent; Gardiner's concern is the work – or at least some of it. He concentrates on the cantatas, having performed all 200 of them during a single year, on the liturgical feasts for which they were intended, in a devout pilgrimage that took him to churches in 13 European countries and on a detour to New York. There are long and revelatory chapters on the St John and St Matthew Passions, and on the B Minor Mass, considered by Gardiner to be "the most epic of all journeys in music". But apart from the "Coffee Cantata", anything secular – the Brandenburg Concertos, the orchestral suites, keyboard works such as The Goldberg Variations and The Well-Tempered Clavier – is excluded.


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BruceD #3136750 07/12/21 02:20 PM
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Originally Posted by BruceD
Originally Posted by scirocco
I enjoyed Castle of Heaven, but Gardiner's writing is very..dense...there's an awful lot of words just to convey each thing he wants to say. And it's quite technical musically.
[...]

I agree that the writing is both dense and scholarly. For anyone considering John Eliot Gardiner's book, Music in the Castle of Heaven, I would add the following caveat which I have lifted verbatim from Peter Conrad's review of the book in The Guardian, 30 October, 2013, and how it might pertain to those (pianists) interested in Bach's keyboard and other works:

His book is not a biography, but its guesses about the inner life of an impersonal man are shrewd.

This interrogation of the man, however, is intermittent; Gardiner's concern is the work – or at least some of it. He concentrates on the cantatas, having performed all 200 of them during a single year, on the liturgical feasts for which they were intended, in a devout pilgrimage that took him to churches in 13 European countries and on a detour to New York. There are long and revelatory chapters on the St John and St Matthew Passions, and on the B Minor Mass, considered by Gardiner to be "the most epic of all journeys in music". But apart from the "Coffee Cantata", anything secular – the Brandenburg Concertos, the orchestral suites, keyboard works such as The Goldberg Variations and The Well-Tempered Clavier – is excluded.
And, if I remember correctly, understanding what's in the book requires either knowledge of the cantatas or willingness to listen to a lot of music before reading the chapters.

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Originally Posted by pianoloverus
Originally Posted by BruceD
Originally Posted by scirocco
I enjoyed Castle of Heaven, but Gardiner's writing is very..dense...there's an awful lot of words just to convey each thing he wants to say. And it's quite technical musically.
[...]

I agree that the writing is both dense and scholarly. For anyone considering John Eliot Gardiner's book, Music in the Castle of Heaven, I would add the following caveat which I have lifted verbatim from Peter Conrad's review of the book in The Guardian, 30 October, 2013, and how it might pertain to those (pianists) interested in Bach's keyboard and other works:

His book is not a biography, but its guesses about the inner life of an impersonal man are shrewd.

This interrogation of the man, however, is intermittent; Gardiner's concern is the work – or at least some of it. He concentrates on the cantatas, having performed all 200 of them during a single year, on the liturgical feasts for which they were intended, in a devout pilgrimage that took him to churches in 13 European countries and on a detour to New York. There are long and revelatory chapters on the St John and St Matthew Passions, and on the B Minor Mass, considered by Gardiner to be "the most epic of all journeys in music". But apart from the "Coffee Cantata", anything secular – the Brandenburg Concertos, the orchestral suites, keyboard works such as The Goldberg Variations and The Well-Tempered Clavier – is excluded.
And, if I remember correctly, understanding what's in the book requires either knowledge of the cantatas or willingness to listen to a lot of music before reading the chapters.

One reason it took me as long as it did to get as far as I did get in the Gardiner book was that I often paused in my reading to listen to one of the Cantatas or one of the other works singled out by Gardner, while following along with the score from IMSLP. It could have ended up being a real study rather than just an informative read; profitable, yes, but very time-consuming.

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Originally Posted by pianoloverus
And, if I remember correctly, understanding what's in the book requires either knowledge of the cantatas or willingness to listen to a lot of music before reading the chapters.

I would say that you could still enjoy the book without specific knowledge of Bach's music - there is quite a lot of just basic life and work information that is of interest. It is a genuine biography, even if there's some speculation. And some of the musical information is general.

But if I had to put a figure on it, I'd agree that for fully half of the book you would feel that you were missing something if you didn't go back and revisit the music before re-reading. I did a certain amount of re-listening but it would be a lot of work to do it all for someone like myself with only passing familiarity with Bach's works. When Gardiner is in musical analysis mode rather than life biographical mode he's right in at the detailed level of intervals and note durations.


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Resurrecting this to say that I ended up reading “Johann Sebastian Bach – the Learned Musician”. Enjoyed it. Could have used more explanations of period instruments and geo-politics. Had to Google a good bit. Then re-read “Evening in the Palace of Reason”. This is a book about an incident only briefly described in Learned Musician – Bach’s improvisation of a three-voice fugue at the request of Frederick the Great using a long, highly chromatic subject Frederick claimed to have written. Bach later wrote a multiple movement suite employing the subject – sent to Frederick as a “Musical Offering”. It includes short biographies of both Bach and Frederick. Might be of interest to Bach-o-philes.


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