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Publisher's Summary

Johann Sebastian Bach is one of the most unfathomable composers in the history of music. How can such sublime work have been produced by a man who (when we can discern his personality at all) seems so ordinary, so opaque - and occasionally so intemperate? John Eliot Gardiner grew up passing one of the only two authentic portraits of Bach every morning and evening on the stairs of his parents’ house, where it hung for safety during World War II. He has been studying and performing Bach ever since, and is now regarded as one of the composer's greatest living interpreters. The fruits of this lifetime's immersion are distilled in this remarkable book, grounded in the most recent Bach scholarship but moving far beyond it, and explaining in wonderful detail the ideas on which Bach drew, how he worked, how his music is constructed, how it achieves its effects - and what it can tell us about Bach the man.

Gardiner's background as a historian has encouraged him to search for ways in which scholarship and performance can cooperate and fruitfully coalesce. This has entailed piecing together the few biographical shards, scrutinizing the music, and watching for those instances when Bach's personality seems to penetrate the fabric of his notation. Gardiner's aim is "to give the reader a sense of inhabiting the same experiences and sensations that Bach might have had in the act of music-making. This, I try to show, can help us arrive at a more human likeness discernible in the closely related processes of composing and performing his music." It is very rare that such an accomplished performer of music should also be a considerable writer and thinker about it. John Eliot Gardiner takes us as deeply into Bach’s works and mind as perhaps words can. The result is a unique book about one of the greatest of all creative artists.

©2013 John Eliot Gardiner (P)2014 Audible Inc.

What listeners say about Bach

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    3 out of 5 stars
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  • David Steinsaltz
  • 22-03-15

Brilliant book badly presented

Gardiner's brilliant investigation of the man through the music is thrilling and moving. Ferguson's reading could be worse, but not much. His intonation is generally passable, but he is clearly not competent to read this book. Technical music terms, but also multisyllabic academic expressions flummox him, receiving weird emphases and pauses that force the reader to guess what is really being said, not to mention disrupting the illusion that the reader is speaking with understanding. That's not even to count the sporadic errors like "Bach finds the means to take the string out of the aggression".

Worst of all is his pronunciation of German, which is crucial to a biography of Bach. One wonders why Ferguson didn't look at the text and just decide that it would be too embarrassing: Either he should pass on the job, or spend an hour or two at least learning some of the basics of German pronunciation. He sounds like a computer programmed to pronounce English written text, fed with German writing and just ploughing through it. It would be barely less comprehensible -- and less disruptive to the reader -- if the German expressions and texts were simply cut out and replaced with silence or white noise..

35 people found this helpful

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  • Tom
  • 09-09-14

A Deep History of Bach

Is there anything you would change about this book?

I listen to about three books a week, so I have a broad experience in the varying qualities of books of various genres. I've listened to longer histories, Toland's biography of Hitler, for example, and I have to say that this history of Bach must be one of those books that just needs to be read, not heard. The narration is very precise, which does not necessarily equal pleasant reading. I ended up returning this book, simply because there was not enough movement in the narrative to maintain my interest.

What was the most interesting aspect of this story? The least interesting?

I did appreciate the scholarship in this book, but it does not make for interesting listening.

Did Antony Ferguson do a good job differentiating all the characters? How?

None at all.

Could you see Bach being made into a movie or a TV series? Who should the stars be?

Not a chance.

13 people found this helpful

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  • Stefan
  • 16-01-15

Fire the Reader!!!

Gardiner's book is fascinating, personal and based on current research, but it would be hard to imagine a reading that was less cognizant of musical or theological terms. In nearly every paragraph, the reader mispronounces terms in Latin, Italian, German and even English! It was infuriating at times, making it a struggle to listen to the end.

20 people found this helpful

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  • Silesia
  • 29-12-17

BacK ?? A bad joke !

How do I wish I had read the reviews. It is all there. When in the beginning the name pronounced as „BacK“, I knew that I could not go on. That such a brilliant author would be paired with such an incompetent reader speaks very poorly about audible. Sadly, there is no return, nor any consolation for crushed expectations.

5 people found this helpful

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  • Morgan
  • 12-09-15

Great book, frustrating narrator

This is a wonderful and thorough book ruined in this instance by a bad narrator. He has the annoying habit of halting before German words or phrases, and his pronunciation of words such as "Thuringia" is inconsistent throughout. It is all the more disappointing after hearing such flawless narrators as Grover Gardner and Simon Vance. I hope this is re-done, because I would like to enjoy it in audiobook form, but not like this.

3 people found this helpful

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  • Malachiter
  • 05-04-21

Erudite book wrecked by narrator's pronunciation

Antony Ferguson has a fine voice, but I wonder why he would elect to read a book filled with references which he clearly lacks the education to impart?
John Eliot Gardiner is an erudite curator of the finest Western musical art, fluent in Italian, German, French, and Latin. He writes with the authority of one who assumes you will follow his switches between language, because to stop for every translation would be cumbersome. Gardiner writes for an educated audience. I would think it obvious that a reader of this book should feel fully confident in the pronunciation of those languages before taking on a project of this erudition. Unfortunately, not only do cringeworthy mispronunciations happen every minute in this reading, but even simple English language words are savaged. Was Mr. Ferguson in a rush to get this recorded? As an Englishman and classically trained actor, does he struggle with his native language as much as this reading would suggest? Worse, there are strange pauses in the reading rhythm that suggest that when he arrives at a word he doesn't know, he leaves an editing space, then fills it in later (often incorrectly.) This amounts to a kind of halting, monotonous experience lacking in phrasing, narrative tension and, ... dare I say it ... music! I hope Audible will find a reader who is as conversant in continental languages as Gardiner, in order to do justice to the author's deep research and humanity.

2 people found this helpful

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  • Sudi
  • 30-03-15

3 Stars for Being Too Deep for Me

I'm trying, as an adult beginner, to learn something about music by taking violin lessons. Even playing a few Bach things, on an elementary level. The instrument is a beast and I was hoping to glean some insight into the musical process by listening to this tome.

Unfortunately, this is the second book I have had to abandon. (The first, "The Night Circus", was ended mid-listen because of lack of plot movement and character development -- it was a novel, unlike this history/biography. That abandonment was due to the author's superficial approach to the novel's structure, unlike this book's profile: way too technical and fathoms too deep for my understanding.) So alas, "Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven" is too esoteric for me, a mere musical bimbo, wanting to hear about a genius I have only recently begun to appreciate.

Someone who has a firm foundation in musical studies and performance will probably find this book accessible. I was unable to intellectually crack the musical terminologies and references to Bach and other artists' works-- through my own unfamiliarity, not because the book was poorly written or faulty in its structure. I often thought while listening that the one advantage of this audio production was (maybe) the musical references should have actually been played and incorporated into the text since there would be a reference to a passage, not only by Bach but by some other composer, and I would be lost. I just didn't know the piece and the thread of purpose in its mention was meaningless to me.

I don't know German, either, so there was nothing to forgive on my end for mispronunciation of German terms by Mr. Ferguson, something mentioned in other reviews.

But that was me. If you know music and didn't study French for your art history degree, you might really get into this work. Because chewing through and ingesting this information is real work.

And by the way, great title, Mr. Gardiner.

5 people found this helpful

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  • Kathryn
  • 15-11-14

Better read than listen to this one!

For a book about a musician, this book has the least musical narrator I've come upon. His accent is so uneven. Is he British? Aussie? American? When he is quoting something where a slight to the source is implied he seems to put on an American southerner accent. Well, the question alone of what he was trying for with this strange mix of accents is quite distracting. I really feel like he ruins a most excellent book. John Eliot Gardner's writing dances along like his conducting a Bach Cantatta. To bad the narrator has not the least lilt in his voice to accompany such a soaring narrative!

5 people found this helpful

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  • Jean
  • 29-09-14

Interesting

The author is a well known Conductor in England. He is the founder of the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists. In some ways this book is an autobiography of Gardiner and his search for information to understand Bach, wrapped in a biography of Bach.

Gardiner tells of the difficulties Bach had with his employers throughout his career and his recurrent refusal to accept authority. He tells of Bach’s life as an orphan and his problems with schools. Gardiner book is dense with fact and full of diversions. The book is also rich in informal conjectures. He writes of Back’s gradual turn from what listeners today might consider “the parochiality of the liturgical context” to “music that shows more and more signs of an almost limitless appeal.” Gardiner speculates “It is entirely possible that Bach’s growing disenchantment with Cantatas in the 1730s arose from a since that the communality of belief that he had once shared with his congregation was breaking down, and that, for whatever reason, he was now failing to make his mark.”

The author writes in a lively, conversational style. Gardiner has done an excellent job of painting us a picture of Bach considering how little information about him is available. Antony Ferguson does a great job narrating the book.

7 people found this helpful

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  • William Maxim
  • 10-01-15

Good English, poor German

I loved the narrator's moderate British diction. He failed, however, to render the frequent German titles and phrases in a consistently accurate pronunciation. He seems to know that "ei" is different from "ie," that "v" is spoken as "f" and "w" as "v," but he rarely succeeds in getting it right. Probably he took a couple of years of college German and passed at the bottom of his class.

4 people found this helpful

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  • R. Millington
  • 02-04-16

Great book .... terrible narration!

A wonderful book written by one of today's leading authorities on Bach. But my God , the narration - probably the most wooden I have ever heard. It actually sounds like one of those computer generated narrations at times. Eventually, I purchased the print book; it was the only way to really enjoy it.

12 people found this helpful

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  • Mark
  • 02-12-14

Music except the reading

What did you like most about Bach?

Everything

Who was your favorite character and why?

Bach

What didn’t you like about Antony Ferguson’s performance?

Was it read by a computer? Pace, pronunciation, emphasis all shows ignorance of the subject matter, and no effort to understand the meaning of what was read. There are many excellent out of work actors who should have done the reading.

Did you have an emotional reaction to this book? Did it make you laugh or cry?

Profound insights from the author.

Any additional comments?

The reading is shameful, and I am sure horrified John Eliot Gardiner when he heard it. A computer would have read it better....

11 people found this helpful

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  • Trevor Davis
  • 19-01-15

Atrocious narration

I was unable to listen beyond the first couple of chapters because of the appallingly inept narration. I am in agreement with the previous reviewer as to why it is so.
In addition, I found the insertion of dates for every person mentioned to seriously interrupt the flow of the narrative. It may have been preferable to omit these. When reading the print version, which I intend to do, it is easy to skim over them but when spoken out loud they jar.

8 people found this helpful

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  • Maddy
  • 11-01-15

An interesting book, appallingly read

This is a dense book written by someone who knows Bach and his music better, I suspect, than anyone else. As he says at the beginning, there is little factual known about Bach and this book is an attempt to understand more about the man through an analysis of his historical and musical context and of the music he himself composed. This is a book that needs to be well read. There are quotes in French and German and many foreign names. Unfortunately I have not been able to make it beyond chapter four and I'm going to continue reading it as a book. This is because the reader is just appalling. He makes half the words sound as though they are written in quotation marks, his pacing and intonation is often is wrong and he mispronounces common words and on one occasion the name of a well known musician. He is obviously making an effort over the short French and German quotes and the foreign names. He sounds as though reading the book is difficult, a real strain for him and he would rather not be doing it. It sounds like a task given to a schoolboy, not the performance of a professional.
I didn't want to believe the other reviewer who said the reader was so bad, as I really wanted to listen to this, but he was absolutely correct. A great disappointment and a performance the book certainly does not deserve. I have given it one star overall because the reader was just so poor.

8 people found this helpful

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  • Groover
  • 30-06-15

Interesting book, terrible narration

What could have made this a 4 or 5-star listening experience for you?

If this had been read by someone who could bring the story alive this would have improved the product no end. J E G is a passionate person, this narration is like someone reading the phone directory aloud.

Would you ever listen to anything by John Eliot Gardiner again?

Yes, if the audio product was produced by people who care.

Would you be willing to try another one of Antony Ferguson’s performances?

Nope.

What reaction did this book spark in you? Anger, sadness, disappointment?

Huge disappointment.

Any additional comments?

If there's a talent for turning a highly interesting book into something that's an audio flop, audible have found the correct people in the narrator / producer of this audiobook.

6 people found this helpful

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  • Mr. Mj Chambers
  • 22-03-15

At least pronounce Bach correctly please!!

What would have made Bach better?

Having a reader who had a working knowledge of the classical music world-several misprints(?) Trevor Pincock?? Trevor Pinnock surely. And as mentioned above the name Bach is not the same as the noise made by a dog!

6 people found this helpful

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  • MR S M EVANS
  • 23-08-18

Morally Audible ought to re-record this one!!

This is one of the very best books available on the subject and is of massive value to specialists and general readers alike. Not for the first time for Audible Inc. recordings (see also John Julius Norwich's book about Shakespeare's Kings) a great book is WRECKED by the choice of a narrator who demonstrates not the slightest familiarity with the subject matter. In this case, a book full of German, Latin and Italian names, places and musical terms is narrated by someone who has taken no trouble at all to master the fairly easy rules of pronunciation. He reads it like a robot. Was any editorial care taken at all? I think not. A massive lost opportunity and a true disgrace. I would have thought that hundreds of proficient readers could have been found who would have done a much better job for about £2000.

4 people found this helpful

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    5 out of 5 stars
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  • Chris N.
  • 09-11-20

Trevor Pinnock - not PinCock!! Bonkers narrator.

The narrator makes so many crazy mistakes such as the one above regarding the famous harpsichordist Trevor Pinnock.... This actually increased my enjoyment - in a perverse humourous sense -'it was so bad that it was good' - although I don't think most people would see it that way!!.
Extremely insightful and deeply informed book though. Only to be expected from Gardiner whose recordings of the cantatas, passions etc..are sublime.

2 people found this helpful

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  • Enobarbus
  • 05-08-20

Fails the Turing Test

WARNING! Either this audiobook is being "read" by a machine or somebody at Audible has deliberately chosen an actor who sounds exactly like a machine in order to test whether customers will tolerate a cheap, mechanical reading. There are too many mispronunciations to count: recitative, Webern, elegiac, Emmaus, viola, timbre, concertante, oboe d'amore, Goethe, Montaigne, palliative .... and the voice has no understanding of the subject, of the cultural context or of music. The delivery is SO dull: monotonous, tonally colourless, pedestrian, and unrelentingly harsh. It is as if the voice thoroughly dislikes doing the job, has no enthusiasm for the task, no vocal range. Whoever at Audible allowed this recording to be published should be sacked: it's obvious he didn't bother to listen to it. So many embarrassing mistakes: who is BARK? And one wonders at the mentality of issuing an audiobook about Bach's music but cutting out ALL the musical examples on which the analysis rests. Doesn't Audible understand written music? How Bach works on the ears?

This is a grotesque production because Gardiner's book is one of the most erudite, fascinating, quirky, stimulating, illuminating books about the greatest of all composers. He is no Taruskin but he knows this music so thoroughly from the inside that every page is full of engaging insights and often provocative, only sometimes simply daft reflections. The book should be on every music lover's shelf, every school syllabus. but NOT in the shoddy recording. I hope everyone who buys this volume will demand a refund. If Audible thinks it can get away with robotic readings it will make this the default, money saving option.

“Music in the Castle of Heaven’ will transform the way you think, not only about Bach, but about art and everything it touches. For insight and intelligence, breadth of scholarship – both musical and literary– for passion and intensity, and the ability to communicate complex matters and rich historical detail in everyday language, this book dwarfs every other book on music I’ve read – even Sullivan on Beethoven even, its ground breaking way, the magnificent, magisterial Taruskin.

There’s scarcely a wasted word, a silly speculation. Gardiner is more fully steeped in Bach through his rich experiences of a lifetime’s living and performing the music, and steeped in so much of the other music which helps contextualise it, exploring the cultural territory, struggling with the dirty business of getting the music performed, recorded, justified – a single-minded struggle, rather like Bach’s, or like Christ’s, much like any prophet’s in a sneering and hostile world, in an indifferent, complacent and semi-comatose world, addicted to junk TV and trivial pursuits.

If you have time to read nothing else, treat yourself a couple of hours to lose yourself in the run up to the first performances of the two passions: twin Everest peaks of the mighty sweep of the cantatas and everything else Bach wrote: two towering masterpieces, so different, complementary, twin leaps of faith by Bach- in every sense of that phrase: defying the probability of comprehension by the performers, by the congregation, by the dunder-headed bureaucrats always threatening to scupper the entire, audacious undertaking.

This is the story of the greatest art we have, triumphing over expectations, over probability, over contingencies, over Doubt: another, even more ambitious undertaking than “King Lear” and Hopkins’s sonnets. So far ahead of their times, so unwavering in the belief of what can be achieved through burning faith, unremitting graft, singleness of purpose, blazing determination in the face of the sceptics ...

“Of course, with Faith and hard work, we can walk on water!”

Bach’s achievement is on a different scale, even from Shakespeare’s: even more universal because music is an international language. Currently, the finest performances of these works are by a band of mostly Japanese musicians, steeped, like John Gardiner in England, in the music.

This book is inspirational: we hear, feel, experience Bach’s music lifting off the page as we read, suddenly the whole oeuvre, from the violin partitas to the b minor mass, making far more sense than we’d ever intimated, as we realise what he was up to, the way his mind worked, the breadth of vision, just how much he achieved in that unglamorous career, off the beaten track. A man largely forgotten for the next hundred years.

Bach’s achievements are inspirational for all time because the Christian myth he dramatises probably comes the closest to any universal, unifying conception of reality – cosmic and human – our civilisation is likely to generate, and also because it transcends its own dogmatic particulars in a way nationalist Ring for example can’t even begin to do. We don’t need to share Luther’s particular reading of the story to be inspired by the concept. Only a narcissist will find nothing here to build upon.

It is a self-transcending vision, an attempt to show everything in some kind of intelligible, purposeful liberating, life-affirmative coherence. Bach’s music is so technically masterful, wide ranging, virtuosic, more innovative than anyone’s likely ever to match. As with Shakespeare and the written word, there’s enough here to keep all of us busy for the rest of our working lives, learning from and building with the massive, ingenious Lego system of tonal harmony Bach’s bequeathed us, music at once so technically all embracing and intellectually challenging and yet grounded in, expressive of sensual delight and human passion. Has anyone else plumbed the depths of grief, despair, disintegration so movingly and also taken us to such serene heights? Will there ever be a dramatic experience as devastating as the opening chorus of the St John Passion or one as sublime as the closing pages of the St Matthew? All human experience is there, lies somewhere between those two peaks.

Bach’s is the story of someone almost devoid of vainglory – everything he did was educational, the disinterested pursuit of excellence, leading people to appreciate the glory of Creation and of human creativity. His furious engagements with the sour-voiced idiots who tried to limit what might be achieved was nothing to do with pride or self-promotion. Quite the reverse. If any man dedicated his life to the pursuit of excellence, the search for truth as illuminated by Art for the enrichment of all of us, it was Bach. Although there was more than enough to satisfy them, Bach’s target audience wasn’t the glitterati or the educational elite. It was the ordinary parishioners at their Sunday devotions. Shakespeare’s audience and Dickens’s. Ordinary folk touched by a divine spark.

***

1 person found this helpful

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  • Hugo
  • 21-02-19

Great book, poorly read

Its clear that the narrator has no clue about the subject with so poor German, French and Latin translations. A bit of preparation is advisable..

1 person found this helpful