Synopses & Reviews
The story of a revolution in classical music and technology, told through a century of recordings of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach
In Reinventing Bach, his remarkable second book, Paul Elie tells the electrifying story of how musicians of genius have made Bachs music new in our time, at once restoring Bach as a universally revered composer and revolutionizing the ways that music figures into our lives.
As a musician in eighteenth-century Germany, Bach was on the technological frontier—restoring organs, inventing instruments, and perfecting the tuning system still in use today. Two centuries later, pioneering musicians began to take advantage of breakthroughs in audio recording to make Bachs music the sound of modern transcendence. The sainted organist Albert Schweitzer played to a mobile recording unit set up at Londons Church of All Hallows in order to spread Bachs organ works to the world beyond the churches. Pablo Casals, recording at Abbey Road Studios, made Bachs cello suites existentialism for the living room; Leopold Stokowski and Walt Disney, with Fantasia, made Bach the sound of childrens playtime and Hollywood grandeur alike. Glenn Goulds Goldberg Variations opened and closed the LP era and made Bach the byword for postwar cool; and Yo-Yo Ma has brought Bach into the digital present, where computers and smartphones put the sound of Bach all around us. In this book we see these musicians and dozens of others searching, experimenting, and collaborating with one another in the service of Bach, who emerges as the very image of the spiritualized, technically savvy artist.
Reinventing Bach is a gorgeously written story of music, invention, and human passion—and a story with special relevance in our time, for it shows that great things can happen when high art meets new technology.
"From the stately 'Sheep Shall Safely Graze' and the solemn St. Matthew Passion to the wildly exuberant Fantasia and Gould's Goldberg Variations, the music of Bach often serves as a listener's introduction to classical music. In this brilliant and passionate appreciation, Elie (The Life You Save May Be Your Own) offers not only a brief biography of the great musician but an exceptional study of the ways that numerous musicians have rendered Bach's music through the years through various technologies. Bach's music has been interpreted to suit new inventions, from the 78-rpm record, the LP, and headphones and Walkman to the compact disc and digital file. These inventions have taken the music into new contexts, from the living room to the open road to outer space (Voyager carried a recording of the first prelude of book one of The Well-Tempered Clavier). Bach himself was an inventor, fashioning a new musical instrument, the lautenwerk, or lute-harpsichord, and composing 'Inventions,' short, tight keyboard pieces. Elie devotes chapters to various artists who used the technologies of their time to reconsider Bach and introduce his music to a new audience. The famed medical missionary Albert Schweitzer, for example, was also an accomplished organist whose biography of Bach as well as his recordings of Bach's Fugue in D Minor on wax-cylinder recordings introduced Bach's music to a world beyond the church. Pablo Casals recorded Bach's cello suites on 78-rpm record albums, bringing Bach into living rooms everywhere. Reading Elie's stately and gorgeous prose is much like losing oneself in Glenn Gould's Goldberg Variations, for his study convincingly demonstrates that the music of Bach is the most persuasive rendering of transcendence there is. (Sept.)" Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
A “grand and passionate” story of the transcendent power of music in our time
Reinventing Bach tells of the ways extraordinary musicians have used the art of recording to make the music of Bach new in our time.
Johann Sebastian Bach is a beloved composer and an elusive one. A pipe organist, court composer, and master of sacred music, Bach is often seen as a throwback, but he was a pioneer in his own time. In Paul Elies book of “epic sweep, like a novel made up of multiple strands” (The Economist), Bachs life and work inspire modern musicians of genius to reinvent his music to thrilling effect through the art of recordings. We see Albert Schweitzer cutting 78s in a London church via a mobile rig, Pablo Casals alone with a cello and microphone at Abbey Road Studios, and Leopold Stokowski persuading Walt Disney to feature Stokis own grand orchestrations of Bach in Fantasia. With the brilliant, odd pianist Glenn Gould, the reinvention of Bach is in full swing—through the Beatles and Switched-On Bach and Gödel, Escher, Bach, up to Yo-Yo Ma, the cellist who has cleared space for Bach in the digital realm.
Reinventing Bach is at once a “page-turner” (The New York Times) and “impressive testimony to Bachs power to speak to successive generations” (The New Yorker). As the Seattle Timess reviewer put it, the book “is written like a great piece of music—with its own rhythm, counterpoint, moments of deep reflection, and spectacular flashes of verbal dexterity.”
About the Author
Paul Elie, for many years a senior editor with FSG, is now a senior fellow at Georgetown Universitys Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs. His first book, The Life You Save May Be Your Own, received the PEN/Martha Albrand Prize and was a National Book Critics Circle award finalist in 2003. He lives in New York City.