Bach Unwigged: The Man Behind The Music

Byquynh anh lita

Jul 10, 2023

This rare portrait of Bach, by Elias Gottlob Haussmann, hung in John Eliot Gardiner’s home during World War II. courtesy of William H. Scheide, Princeton, N.J

Johann Sebastian Bach has been a central figure in the life of British conductor John Eliot Gardiner since he was a youngster. On his way to bed, he couldn’t help glancing up at the famous 18th-century portrait of Bach that hung in the first floor landing of the old mill house in Dorset, England where Gardiner was born. It was one of only two fully authenticated portraits of Bach by Elias Gottlob Haussmann, painted around 1750, and came to the Gardiner home in a knapsack, delivered on bicycle by a Silesian refugee who needed to keep it safe during World War II. Bach’s music also hung in the air of the Gardiner home. Each week the musically inclined family gathered for serious singalongs, which included Bach’s motets.

It’s a scene Gardiner sets at the beginning of his new book, BACH: Music in the Castle of Heaven, published today by Knopf. From his childhood interactions with Bach, Gardiner would grow up to become one of the composer’s greatest champions, creating his own orchestras (English Baroque Soloists and Orchestre Révolutionaire et Romantique) and choir (Monteverdi Choir) to play the music in historically informed performances.

Gardiner’s obsession with Bach culminated in 2000, when he and his musical forces (and a team of recording engineers) embarked on a massive pilgrimage. Traveling around Europe and the U.S., they performed all of Bach’s sacred cantatas (about 200 of them) on their appropriate Sundays in different churches.

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