Paul Elie and Reinventing Bach

A wonderful new read by Paul Elie(Photo: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux)
A wonderful new read by Paul Elie(Photo: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux)

Reinventing Bach is the title of a new book by Paul Elie, a former senior editor at Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, now a Senior Fellow at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs.

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1759) is the composer considered closest to God by many. His output was astonishing. His music is both intricate, spiritual and delightful. Yet this great composer went out of fashion for 100 years after his death, and again in the early years of the 20th century.

“Leonard Bernstein used to say that if you wanted to hear Bach you had to find special little concerts in little churches,” says Elie. Bernstein wasn’t speaking so long ago. Paul Elie’s premise is that technology has made Bach available to the world, beginning with recordings by Albert Schweitzer and Pablo Casals.

Reinventing Bach is a provocative title. Did Bach need to be reinvented? What is meant by reinvented?

“I tell the story of Bach himself. I make the case that Bach was an inventor of a kind. In his work building organs and restoring old instruments, this made him a kind of inventor. The essential spirit of composition for Bach was one of invention.”

Paul Elie was speaking to me from his office in New York. “I look at the way musicians in the modern era have used new technology to make the music of Bach new, to put it in new context.”

Musicians like Pablo Casals, suddenly in the 1930s, had the ability to record Bach’s cello suites, and convey the intimacy of the suites as no one had done before. And then enabled that music to go out all over the world, instead of being played only for the people in the hall.”

Albert Schweitzer’s early recordings (1932, 1933) of Bach’s organ works both popularized this music to a global audience and tied in with the world’s perception Schweitzer as a humanitarian.

“All great artists are invented again and again in the generations after their deaths. As late of the 1930s Bach was a musician’s musician.”

I asked Elie if he meant the term reinvention more for the composer, artist or listener?

“It’s both, but I think you’re right to put the emphasis on the listener. I’m not implying that people are reinventing Bach from scratch. Bach would take a melody, often a pre-existing melody and see all the different things that could be done with it. That’s what invention is from a baroque point of view. The people whose stories I tell reinvented Bach partly by playing the music in new ways, and probably by playing it in new formats.

“Now, the listener could hear the cello suites in his own living room. So you could hear Glenn Gould playing the Goldberg Variations while driving your car. You can hear Yo-Yo Ma playing Bach’s music on the soundtrack to Patrick O’Brian’s film Master and Commander. Definitely our experience of the music of Bach has changed as much as the music has changed.”

The historical performance movement of about 40 years ago uses original instruments and smaller numbers. No more huge choruses and massive orchestras. Large, high calorie performances of Bach by conductors Thomas Beecham and Otto Klemperer going back 50 or 60 years are now considered old fashioned.

“Otto Klemperer is a big part of my book. I listen to his St. Matthew Passion at Easter every year. I don’t care if the performance style seems dated. It’s a stupendous recording. I love it. That said, there’s room for other interpretations. What people don’t really understand is that the emergence of the historical performance movement coincided with the invention of the compact disc. Now you could record longer works.

Record companies went out and did new recordings of the entire canon. The fact that that’s now the dominant approach has as much to do with the new technology, the emergence of compact disc and digital recording, as it does with tempi, markings, what kind of instrument you’re using, the things we are mostly talking about when you talk of historical performance.”

Bach’s music can be overwhelming, both for the quality and for the sheer amount of music to hear! How does one begin? What’s a good introduction to Bach’s music?

“I’d answer that in two ways: one vocal and one instrumental. People often begin with the cello suites. They are accessible. They’re played in the middle register without the very high notes and avoid the extremes of the violin works. The cello suites are a good point of entry for a person who doesn’t know much about Bach’s instrumental music. One person, one instrument, one work, a couple of microphones and six suites for cello.”

As for vocal music, I love the Bach recordings of the late Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. I especially love her performance of Bach’s cantata Ich habe genug. In that recording, you’ve got the spirit of the historically informed performance movement, a pretty tight orchestra, not too many instruments. But there’s a robustness and a passion in the way Lorraine sang, which communicates on a very deep level even if you’re hearing the recording for the first time.”

Reinventing Bach is a delightful read, good for those who may be interested in Bach’s music as well as devotees.