Reinventing Bachby Paul Elie
The story of a revolution in 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 Bach's music new in our time, at once restoring Bach as a universally revered composer and/i>/p>/b>
The story of a revolution in 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 Bach's 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 Bach's music the sound of modern transcendence. The sainted organist Albert Schweitzer played to a mobile recording unit set up at London's Church of All Hallows in order to spread Bach's organ works to the world beyond the churches. Pablo Casals, recording at Abbey Road Studios, made Bach's cello suites existentialism for the living room; Leopold Stokowski and Walt Disney, with Fantasia, made Bach the sound of children's playtime and Hollywood grandeur alike. Glenn Gould's 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.
“This intelligent, wide-ranging book brings Bach's eternal music into conjunction with the forces of history. Paul Elie makes us realize how even great music, if it is to last over time, must change in order to stay the same.” Wendy Lesser
“By juxtaposing the LP and the iPod, Elie reminds us of how technology has democratized and universalized Bach . . . Elie has many strengths and strands: detailed and beautifully described moments of listening, engagingly narrated summaries of scholarship, alert attention to telling facts, and a loving knowledge of many different kinds of music, including Robert Johnson and Led Zeppelin. There's plenty of audiophile information--wax cylinder, recording, mono, stereo, different kinds of tape, 78s, long-playing records, CD's, iPods--and a lot on the placement of microphones. Wearing his learning lightly (with wonderful endnotes as a ground), Elie is polyphonic and contrapuntal . . . Elie's book is held together by chain of voices following one other as they make an entrance, step back, overlap, and enter again to reveal a new aspect against the changing conversation: Schweitzer to Casals to Stokowski to Gould to Ma. Other voices too move in and out, filling out the progressions: Tureck, Schoenberg, Einstein, Jobs, even the musically fantastic Mickey Mouse. The voice hovering over all is Elie's own, modest, serious, attuned to the whole . . . It is a pleasure to read such a serious and inventive book on Bach, and that's saying something.” Alexandra Mullen, Barnes and Noble Review
“Thoughtful and elegant . . . Elie remains throughout a thoughtful guide.” Guy Dammann, The Guardian
“In Reinventing Bach, Elie weaves . . . several lives together in order to make an effective case that Bach's music, like all classical music, can never be ‘played' exactly, with total fidelity to the source; fidelity isn't even the goal. Performed live, it has always been ‘interpreted' by conductors, musicians, singers, and scholars. In other words, no one plays like anyone else, and everyone's interpretation is inflected by his or her time and character . . . Recording technology is also what makes Elie's story about more than the interpretation and reinterpretation of musical compositions by Bach . . . Passing from shellac discs and the gramophone through LPs, cassette tapes, compressed digital files, YouTube, and smartphones, Elie assembles a satisfying history of audio recording that's as concerned with reasonable explanations of how vacuum tubes work and how to splice tape as it is with a tour of Abbey Road Studios and a description of Glenn Gould's trusty ‘wood-framed, slender-legged' folding chair . . . Conventional wisdom suggests that as a result ‘our lives are half-lives, our experience mediated, and so diminished, by technology.' What holds this new book together is Elie's belief--and here I'm tempted to call it a religious belief--that, ‘to this conviction, the recorded music of Bach is contrary testimony. It defies the argument that experience mediated through technology is a diminished thing.' Our lives are whole lives--a modern reality that recordings of Bach make obvious . . . Having arrived at the end of a several year journey, ‘touching the keys again and again with the ten digits of my two hands,' he writes, ‘putting one word after another in the hope that a couple hundred thousand of them, mastered and sequenced, will amount to a kind of music,' Elie completes what he calls a ‘spirituality of technology': his very own reinvention of Bach.” Scott Korb, The Los Angeles Review of Books
“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.” Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“The author of The Life You Save May Be Your Own (2003) returns with a tour de force about Johann Sebastian Bach and a description and assessment of the recordings that have made his work an essential part of our culture. Elie, a former senior editor with FSG and now a senior fellow at Georgetown University's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, tells a polyphonic tale, weaving throughout his narrative a history of the recording industry and brisk biographies of Bach and the 20th-century performers who first recorded his work for mass audiences, including Albert Schweitzer, Leopold Stokowski, Pablo Casals and Glenn Gould. The author begins with a snapshot of Bach's pervasive presence today, then takes us back to 1935 and Schweitzer's recordings of Bach's organ works on wax cylinders. Throughout the text, Elie moves us forward in the history of technology--from 78s to LPs to tapes to CDs to MP3s, showing how Bach managed to remain relevant. We also follow the careers of his principals; Elie's treatment of the talented and troubled Gould is especially sensitive and enlightening. Occasionally, the author enters the narrative for a personal connection, perhaps nowhere more affectingly than in his account of the time he danced in the rain on the Tanglewood grass while Yo-Yo Ma played a Bach cello suite. Elie also tells us how other cultural figures have employed the music and the man--e.g., Douglas Hofstadter's 1979 book Gödel, Escher, Bach, the 1968 album Switched-On Bach and the use of Bach in films and on TV. The author's passion, thorough research and imaginative heart produce one revelation after another.” Kirkus (starred review)
“Fascinating and engagingly written, [Reinventing Bach] emphasizes that Bach--whose greatness as a composer, for Mr. Elie, is ‘total and inviolable'--was also a pioneer of technology: not just a master organist but a master organ builder and repairer; a theoretician who investigated the possibilities of a tuning system that changed the way music sounds and is still in use; a composer who embraced the art of transcription and would not have minded at all, and maybe anticipated, that his pieces would one day be reconceived for Moog synthesizers and small ensembles of swinging, scatting singers . . . [Elie] writes beautifully about music . . . the book is a page-turner with astute accounts of Bach's life folded in.” Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times
“[Reinventing Bach is] erudite, poetic and occasionally provocative . . . Elie, an author and editor, is the kind of listener-enthusiast who once rode a train from New York to Durham, N.C., with no other company than a multidisc set of the St. Matthew Passion and an album by B.B. King. And his enthusiasm is catching.” Bill Marvel, The Dallas Morning News
“[Reinventing Bach] is structured around a well-informed and empathetic biography of Bach, intercut with lively accounts of five pioneering performers who made famous Bach recordings: Albert Schweitzer, Pablo Casals, Leopold Stokowski, Glenn Gould and Yo-Yo Ma. Linking them through their love of Bach is intriguing, even if in other respects they are slightly strange bedfellows. Elie interweaves their stories, cutting-and-pasting them into a vivid mosaic, though his sudden juxtapositions can be as jarring as they are stimulating. Elie is an acute and passionate listener, writing sensitively about music's impact on him.” Susan Tomes, The Independent
“Paul Elie's passionate and grand book . . . is a weave of stories, emulating the play of voices in Bach's music . . . Elie places a lot of faith in recordings, and writes wonderfully about their power and their atmosphere.” Jeremy Denk, New Republic
“[Reinventing Bach] is an . . . ultimately impressive testimony to Bach's power to speak to successive generations.” The New Yorker
“An appreciation of Bach that is both impassioned and subtle.” Ivan Hewett, Reinventing Bach
“Paul Elie's new book on Johann Sebastian Bach is a wonderful piece of writing that's hard to categorize: a biography of Johann Sebastian Bach, a history of recorded sound, an analysis of Bach's interpreters over the years, and a virtuoso attempt to explain why Bach is simply the greatest composer of all time . . . None of these descriptions does justice to Elie's Reinventing Bach, which is written like a great piece of music--with its own rhythm, counterpoint, moments of deep reflection, and spectacular flourishes of verbal dexterity. Elie . . . accomplishes all this by following the classic advice to writers: show, don't tell . . . Elie's felicitous word choices make this compendium consistently entertaining . . . Through all these recordings, as he notes, ‘the dead continue to speak,' and Elie's book has brought the composer and his interpreters brilliantly alive.” Melinda Bargreen, The Seattle Times
“[Reinventing Bach] is a book of epic sweep, like a novel made up of multiple strands . . . Elie deploys considerable scholarship . . . and he writes beautifully. He makes a strong case that within less than a century a succession of new recording media . . . have brought Bach's music, in multiple versions, to vast numbers of new listeners at the press of a button. It is a luxury previously unavailable even to princes, who in order to enjoy live performances had to employ entire orchestras. Recording technology has made a monarch of everyone. A chapter or two into the book, you will find yourself reaching out for your ‘Goldberg Variations.'” The Economist
“Confident and informative, unafraid to judge but never polemical, Elie's big book shows how, and asks why, Bach's works have been so valuable, and so adaptable . . . Elie gives fluent force to Bach's biography . . . You can learn a great deal of music history--and of other history: the wars of religion, the civil war in Spain, the history of television--from Elie, but he has not simply told good stories. Instead, he uses these stories (including Bach's own) to make his own always attentive and sometimes exultant claims about how Bach's compositions work, and about what great performers have done with and for them . . . Elie's ‘gratitude for the music of Bach' (as he puts it), and his attention to others' gratitude, has an inevitable spiritual cast, one consonant with Bach's writings and with Bach's life: if this music, so "manifestly a source of transcendence," does not require us to thank a Creator, its power and its persistence can make us feel glad and grateful nevertheless.” Stephen Burt, National Book Critics Circle
“Reinventing Bach is a curious and wonderful book, delightful and challenging at the same time. Among musicologists and classical music lovers, Johann Sebastian Bach's place in the canon of western music is secure, but what Paul Elie demonstrates is that Bach has a place much bigger than that . . . [Elie's prose] is cognate with the musical forms and procedures that Bach used in his own creative and very personal vein. At the end of Reinventing Bach Elie says, '...our experience of the [Bach] recordings, as the recorded life of Bach reveals, has made us fluent in the practices that traditions of the spirit prize: scrutiny of the past, communication across the ages, a reluctance to judge by appearances, and the recognition that the dead continue to speak and the sounds they make, amplified right, are a kind of music.'
This is the meaning of this curiously inventive book, a book that performs a literary counterpoint among the various stories that the author tells to enlighten our hearts and minds with the depth and spirituality of the music of Bach-but not only that. The author imitates in his craft that spirit of invention that he carefully shows characterized the music of the great master. It takes some time before the reader understands why in any deep way the personalities he chooses and their stories are allowed to invade this life of Bach, but eventually the literary invention becomes clear. It is a vehicle to engage the invention of Bach himself. The book itself is not about only the music of J. S. Bach and the effect of his music through the centuries since his death. The book is also a narrative of the technology of recording and how various well-known musicians contributed in astounding ways to the historical narrative around that technology that we usually take for granted . . . [works] are woven into the narrative, but Elie often gives interpretation and commentary that is usually spot on . . .The kaleidoscopic perspective of this book is thrilling and very satisfying.” T. Frank Kennedy, S.J., America Magazine
“Elie . . . has the ability to weave together many small stories to narrate a big story . . . Elie's narrative is like a well-crafted oratorio.” Christian Century
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Read an Excerpt
1>> This, you say to yourself, is what the past sounded like: rougher, plainer, narrower than the present yet somehow more spacious, a place high-skied and open to life.
The pipes ring out once, twice, a third time. Then with a long, low swallow the organ fills with sound, which spreads toward the ends of the instrument and settles, pooling there. The sound is compounded of air and wood and leather and hammered metal, but how the sound is made is less striking than what it suggests: the past, with all its joists and struts and joinery, its sides fitted and pitched so as to last a lifetime.
The organ is a vessel on a voyage to the past, and that opening figure is a signal sent from ship to shore—a shout-out to the past, asking it to tell its story.
Now the sound spreads emphatically from the low pipes up to the high ones and down again, tracing a jagged line of peaks and spires—an outline of the lost city of the past, a message tapped out from the other side.
2>> Albert Schweitzer recorded Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor on December 18, 1935, at the church of All Hallows by the Tower in London.
He was the world’s best-known organist, although he lived many miles from an organ; he was far better known than Bach himself had ever been, and the fact weighed on him, for he thought of Bach’s music as a refuge from his fame—as the music of an earlier, purer time.
He climbed the steps to the organ loft, took off his coat, and tried to concentrate. For two nights he had played Bach’s preludes and fugues to the empty church. It was the oldest church in the City of London, already seven hundred years old when it was threatened by the Great Fire of 1666. Now the worn stone of its walls and the smoky glass of its windows seemed to echo his fear that European civilization was ending—“beginning to melt away in our hands,” as he put it. The old City was overrun by motorcars. The organ was recent and mechanized, not the trim eighteenth-century type he favored. The windows rattled when he sounded the low pipes. He and his two apprentices took turns climbing a ladder to dampen the loose glass with towels.
Making a recording was complicated, too. The technicians spoke English, a language he had not mastered. He had to stop playing in odd places or repeat whole fugues three and four times. The recording process would never fully capture the sound of the organ in its surroundings—the essence of organ music, in his view—and he would never be a natural recording artist.
Yet as he settled behind the organ he felt at home. After two nights, he was familiar with the two keyboards and the hand-worn wooden stops. He sat upright, exhausted but invigorated, in vest and shirtsleeves, feet on the pedals, arms spread as if to echo the two wings of his white mustache, eyes on the pipes tapering up and out of sight.
Thirty years earlier he had renounced a life in music for one in medicine, training to run a clinic for poor people at the village of Lambaréné in the French Congo—to be a “jungle doctor in Africa,” as the press put it. He had wanted to do “something small in the spirit of Jesus”—to make his life an argument for a way of being that was grounded in what he now called reverence for life. But his act of renunciation had turned into something else: a double life in which he spent half the year in bourgeois Europe describing the poverty of Africa. Was this really the way to be of service—to become a freak, an exhibit of human virtue at its most self-congratulatory? Might it not have been better to do something small the way Bach had done, hunkering down behind the organ in Leipzig and making music that shouted from the housetops about reverence for life?
It might have been. But it was too late. At age sixty, he felt old—“an old cart horse … running in the same old pair of shafts.” He had written an autobiography as a kind of testament. He had made arrangements for the supervision of the clinic after his death. Germany was lost to Nazism. Europe was going to war again, and he was struggling, in a book, to set out the political and social dimensions of his philosophy as a corrective. For the first time in his life, the words would not come.
The recordings offered a way out. The hope of making them had sustained him on long nights in the tropics, as he played Bach on a piano fitted with organ pedals and lined with zinc to ward off moisture. The sale of them, in a pressboard album of shellac discs, would raise money for the clinic—for medicines, lamps, an X-ray machine. More than that, they would do with a few nights’ work what he had striven to do over several years in his book about Bach’s music. They would express his life as a musician and spread it across long distances. They would set the past against the present, and would put forward the music of Bach as a counterpoint to the age, a sound of spiritual unity to counter “a period of spiritual decadence in mankind.”
To his schedule of lectures and recitals, then, he had added these recording sessions at All Hallows. The technicians had brought equipment from the EMI compound in St. Johns Wood, crossing London in a specially outfitted truck, which was now parked in the lane outside. A microphone hung from the ribbed vault in the nave. Electrical cables threaded up the aisle and around the altar to the sacristy, where the disc-recording console stood at the ready.
Now a handbell rang, a signal from the technicians that a fresh cylinder was turning. It was time to make a recording.
The Toccata and Fugue in D Minor: it was in this, the music of Bach, especially, that Schweitzer felt reverence for life—felt the “real experience of life” that had led him to medicine and Africa. Making these recordings, he was fully alive. He straightened his back and began to play, repeating the opening figure once, twice, a third time.
He played for about ten minutes, pausing once while the technicians replaced one disc with another. He played Bach’s Toccata and Fugue the way he had played it in Paris in his student days: as a sermon in sound, an expression of the unity of creation that he feared lost forever.
3>> For those ten minutes Schweitzer’s life overlaps with ours. In the music, he is present to us—more so, it seems to me, than he was to most of the people who were actually in his presence while he was alive.
At the peak of his renown Life magazine called him “the greatest man in the world.” Since then he has faltered in the test of time; the adjectives once affixed to him have come unstuck, and the great man—doctor, musician, philosopher, humanitarian, and celebrity all in one—now appears a problematic, compromised figure: his project paternalistic, his methods condescending, his view of the people he worked with in Africa more akin to the crude racial stereotypes in Kipling and Conrad than to any ideal found in the gospels.
But his take on the Toccata and Fugue hasn’t lost its power. The music he made in those ten minutes is still bright, brave, confident in its cause. It beams Bach out into the night with an electric charge, which will outlast us the way it has outlasted him.
The question is: How does that happen? How does a snatch of recorded sound survive? How is it that a little night music made a long time ago can withstand the wear and tear of time?
The obvious explanation is that it is the music of Bach that survives, brought to life in Schweitzer’s performance. That composer, that work, that church, that instrument, that organist, that night—all combined to produce an “inspired” performance, one that (fortunately for us) was recorded.
That is true, but it doesn’t begin to tell the story. The performance is extraordinary, and yet so much of the power of this Toccata and Fugue in D Minor seems to be more than merely technical. The mysteries of that experience of music-making were cut into the grooves of a spinning disc that night, and now they are to be found between the lines of the recording—in the blurred edges, the high notes ground down to points, the surfaces that seem part of the structure, like the rattling windows of All Hallows.
Schweitzer characterized Bach as a technician of the sacred and a representative of a prior epoch in which spirit and technique went hand in hand. “In that epoch, every artist was still to some extent an instrument maker, and every instrument maker to some extent an artist,” he declared, setting the mechanical present against a past in which knowledge and know-how were indistinguishable. But to read Schweitzer on Bach is to recognize Schweitzer too as an exemplar of such an epoch, in which to “play” music was to take up an instrument, and in which examples of the music perfectly played were not near at hand but existed mainly in the imagination.
The Toccata and Fugue recording registers the technique of that age. By professional audio standards, it isn’t a “good” recording. It isn’t clear or accurate; it isn’t high fidelity, not even close. At times the great organ seems to wheeze, its sound as small and fragile as an accordion’s; in range, the recording goes from black to gray, from muddy to soupy, from loud to a little less loud.
This lack of fidelity is the source of its power. Recordings usually become more transparent the more you listen to them, until you feel that the recording is the music itself. Not this one. This is a recording, and it sounds like one: the more you listen to it, the more audible its extramusical qualities become. It is an old recording, and it sounds its age: the dark corners and muddied entrances are pockets of mystery; the hiss of the tape transfer is the sound of the mists of time.
It sounds like the past, that is. It isn’t timeless; it is full of time, dyed with it. Yet it isn’t historical, an artifact of a certain time. It is full of the European past prior to 1935.
Across London T. S. Eliot—sharp nose, knotted tie, emphatic Adam’s apple—was bent over a typewriter, pondering the afterlife of the past. “Time present and time past / are both perhaps present in time future”: so goes the formulation that he came up with in the beginning of his Four Quartets, and so it is in Schweitzer’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. The recording evokes the night a long time ago when the music of Bach (“in appentency, on its metalled ways”) coursed through the pipes of a big organ at a church in London; it evokes the past of Bach himself, emerging from a tribe of musicians in the Black Forest; and it evokes the longer past that found late expression in Bach’s music—the past of castles and cathedrals, of incense and stained glass and torchlight, of plague and pestilence and bloodletting, angels and devils, saints and martyrs.
“Age confers on all music a dignity that gives it a touch of religious elevation,” Schweitzer remarked, and the phrase—“a touch of religious elevation”—characterizes this recording. The age of the recording, and the epoch it calls forth, suggest a grandeur that the present lacks. This is the past as a time more complicated than ours, one that sponsored an encounter with life more direct and dramatic than the ways we live now.
Even as the recording gives us access to that past, it reminds us that we will never hear the past whole. It sends two signals that blend into one: it brings the past close to us, and it makes clear how distant the past really is, makes decline and fall audible.
That is what it does to me, at any rate. To me, it is the Toccata and Fugue in D minor, the one that sets the expectations for all the others. And yet it is unsettled and unsettling. The sonic boxiness of it—the very quality that makes it sound historic—makes it hard to listen to for simple enjoyment. The qualities of awe and wonder that it suggests have an alienating affect. This is the past made real, the sound of an era done and gone; it leaves the listener on the wrong side of history, in life’s postlude, a man in a room clamped into headphones.
Schweitzer entered the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor into the record in London on December 18, 1935. Now that performance, meant to evoke the past, is itself a piece of the past. The further we get in time from it, the more antique the recording sounds, the more awe it calls forth. A diminished thing, it points to the thing itself. It is a relic or fossil, a bony shard of sound; it is a relic of the true cross, light from a dead star.
For all that, it is a beginning, not an ending. “And time future contained in time past,” Eliot in the poem went on, and the recording, even as it evokes the past, faces forward. Like Enrico Caruso’s aria recordings (from the first decade of the twentieth century), or Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives sides (from 1925 and 1926), or the Carter Family’s records of the twenties, it stands at the junction of the age of recordings and the ribbon road of time—call it pre-recorded—that had gone before. Like those recordings, it delivered on the promises of the new technology. Performed by Schweitzer, recorded and distributed around the world by EMI and its subsidiary Columbia, in the half century after 1935 this recording made Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor one of the best-known pieces of classical music, as familiar as a church bell tolling the hour.
The Toccata and Fugue in D Minor is a beginning in another sense, too. It was composed when Johann Sebastian Bach was in his teens, some 230 years before it was etched onto a disc at All Hallows: early in Bach’s career and in the classical tradition. Now great in age, it was made when Bach, and Western music, and modern Europe, were still young; it is the sound of a much earlier beginning.
4>> “Music is one of the best arts; the notes give life to the text; it expels melancholy, as we see in King Saul. Kings and princes ought to maintain music, for kings and princes should protect good and liberal arts and laws; though private people have desire thereunto and love it, yet their ability is not adequate. We read in the Bible, that good and godly kings paid and maintained singers. Music is the best solace for a sad and sorrowful mind; by it the heart is refreshed and settled again in peace.”
Martin Luther was a music lover: a natural singer who incanted his sermons from the pulpit, a player of the lute (his namesake instrument), the author of hymns so stirring that a foe of his claimed they had “killed more souls than his [prose] works and sermons.”
Famous as a reformer, Luther was also a revivalist, and in him these two dispositions, these two ways of making the old world new, were fused. The reformer works to change the structures of things, striving to produce a glimpsed ideal. The revivalist calls for a change of heart, recalling a prior state of ardor. Luther did both: he evoked a purer past as the model for a purer future. After him, reform and revival would run in counterpoint through the Protestant experience, and so through the modern West—through religion, politics, culture, the arts.
Music was a key to Luther’s approach. It was a “handmaid to theology” and a straight line to the human heart. A hymn such as “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” combined aspects of the old church and the new: a tune familiar from the Latin missal, the fresh words of the German vernacular, and an image that at once gave shelter and sent the believer onto the ramparts.
This use of music fit in with a striking change in the lives of Christians in Europe: the change from image to text, from a church that communicated its truths through paintings and frescoes, tapestry and statuary, reserving the sacred language Latin for the clergy, to churches that cherished the Bible as the Word of God and proposed that God’s ways could be known not through ritual but through the Word only. The effects of this change were dramatized best at the other end of the era it brought about—by Victor Hugo in Nôtre-Dame de Paris, published in 1831. The novel is set 250 years earlier, in 1482, and the great French cathedral is seat and symbol of a civilization under threat—under threat from the newly invented printing press. From “the origin of things up to and including the Christian era,” Hugo explained, the “great book of mankind” was its sacred architecture, which gave visual evidence of the past. Now the printing press had emerged as a rival. “This will kill that,” Hugo had the archdeacon Dom Claude darkly prophesy, meaning that “the book of stone, so solid and durable, would give way to the book of paper, which was more solid and durable still.”
It is commonly said that the printing press stimulated Protestantism, as Luther’s revival spread hand in hand with the new technology. And yet the taking of the Bible and other books to ordinary people had a surprising side effect: even as it enabled those people to read, it brought about a shift from a visual culture to an aural one—“prescribed a new precedence of ear over eye,” as one historian put it, of sound over sight. “Faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God”: this verse from the Letter to the Romans was one of Luther’s cherished texts, and his reforms turned much of Europe away from paintings, sculpture, and architecture and toward argument, preachment, and song.
5>> Veit Bach, a baker, liked to strum a cittern at the mill while wheat was ground into flour. He went from Hungary to Thuringia in eastern Germany in 1600 in flight from religious strife. There, over the next hundred years, music-making Bachs descended from him like loaves multiplied. Veit Bach begat Hans Bach and Casper Bach; from Hans came Johann Bach and Christoph Bach and Heinrich Bach; from Christoph came Georg Christoph Bach and Johann Ambrosius Bach and Johann Christoph Bach, and from Heinrich came Johann Christoph Bach and Johann Michael Bach and Johann Günther Bach.
Many of the male Bachs became church musicians. They tutored each other. They arranged for one another to get jobs as organists, mastering the instrument best suited to Luther’s reforms. They married into other musical families, extending the Bach influence. They were a clan, even a dynasty, centered in Thuringia—Eisenach, Erfurt, Arnstadt—and there the surname Bach came to mean musician: when one of the family players died, a town councillor at Erfurt put out a request for “a new Bach.”
Eisenach, a small town in the foothills of the Thuringian Forest, had a reputation exceeding its size, and was full of reminders that it was a place of consequence. Up a mountain in the forest outside of town was the Wartburg, as formidable a castle as any in Europe, with twin stone lookout towers rising over a walled village set on a huge, repelling slab of rock. There in the twelfth century the local landgrave had held a singing contest, which became part of the lore of the place. There a generation later Elisabeth, princess of Hungary, had married a local prince, then founded an almshouse and hospital for the poor, and her great piety and good works led the Catholic Church to canonize her. There in 1521 Martin Luther, apostate and in flight, found a hideout in the castle, which he had known since his years as a student at the Latinsschule in town. In a planked room in the castle he translated much of the Bible into German, creating a proof-text for reformation and for the spread of vernacular language in Germany and throughout Europe.
The castle and the forest surrounding it were a reminder of something else: that the town centered there had been carved out of the wild through human effort.
The Eisenach town hall has a tower with twin porticoes near the top. Twice a day, at ten and five, Johann Ambrosius Bach climbed to the balcony of the tower and played a tune through a trumpet; sometimes a folk tune, sometimes a chorale. He was the Hausmann, or town musician: he arranged music for religious services, council meetings, and wedding receptions, hiring others from the guild of town musicians, or freelancers—so-called “beer-hall fiddlers” and the like. He had come of age in Erfurt, thirty miles away. Arriving in Eisenach for an audition, he was recognized straight off as remarkable and was hired on the spot. He and his wife, Maria Elisabeth, had conceived a child, who died in infancy, and then conceived another; and in Eisenach they conceived five more. He earned enough to support the family and a gaggle of apprentices in an ample house on Lutherstrasse, just off the market square. An artist painted his portrait: a florid, bearded, robust man, made to appear the more so because the collar of his white shirt was open to the chest—the iconographic touch that indicated a horn player.
Three of Ambrosius Bach’s cousins died, probably of the plague, in the winter of 1682. By the time Ambrosius and Elisabeth conceived another child in the summer of 1684, three of his brothers had died, and two others would die in the years to follow. He was thriving in Eisenach, but he faced death on all sides.
6>> The child, a boy, was born on March 21, 1685, and was baptized Johann Sebastian in the stone font of the Georgenkirche two days later. Sebastian was not a family name; it was taken in recognition of a forester by that name who stood as a witness at the baptism.
The story of J. S. Bach’s ancestry is usually told to affirm that he came into a great musical family whose expectations he was destined to fulfill. But the documents tell a different story, of ordinary elements wrought, as in a fugue or canon, into a pattern that is logical but not inevitable—that might have turned out otherwise.
As an adult Bach wrote an account of the “musical inclination” in his family, and this text became the basis for a hand-drawn family tree. The tree is a grotesquerie, a forest unto itself. From a narrow trunk, the branches are heavy with offspring. The descendants do not descend—they ascend aggressively, rising up shoulder to shoulder, out of the grip of their parents like snakes wriggling free of the underbrush toward the light.
That history of musical inclination also serves as the basis for scholarly grids of the Bach lineage: births, deaths, marriages, children. Complex as mazes, these give order to the Bach family ties, joining relatives at right angles and bracketing off fact from conjecture. But they also make clear, as a row of gravestones in a churchyard might, that the Bachs were not the stable, sustaining family of legend. They lost as many members to disease as they gained in childbirth. They increased and multiplied in defiance of death.
There were sixteen male Bachs in Johann Sebastian’s generation. The question of talent arises: Why should Johann Sebastian be a genius and not one of the others?
He survived: that is one reason. Just before he was born, three other Bach children died in infancy. Two months after he was born, his brother Johannes Jonas died, age ten. The year he turned six—1691—his older brother Balthasar died, age eighteen. The next year his cousin Jacob, who lived with the family after the deaths of his own parents, died in his early twenties. In the spring of 1694, when Bach was nine, his mother, Maria Elisabeth, died. His father, Ambrosius, remarried quickly to a woman twice widowed. Then, twelve weeks and a day later, Ambrosius died. At age ten Bach was an orphan.
His eldest brother, Johann Christoph, was already married and out of the house, working as a church organist in Ohrdruf, thirty miles away. Bach and a middle brother, Johann Jacob, went there to live with him.
Johann Sebastian had heard his father play the trumpet, had seen his uncle play the organ and take it apart; he had watched them make music their livelihood. In Ohrdruf, he became a musician. Through music, his brother Johann Christoph had gained a kind of independence. He would try to do likewise. The Bachs were numerous, well placed, and devoted to their kin, but these were not obvious advantages to an orphan of ten, surrounded by death. They were systems of dependence. This family was no dynasty; it was a forest that he had to find a path out of, a maze he had to master.
7>> The two most vivid stories of his childhood make the point emphatically; in them he is as independent as a member of a musical clan could hope to be.
In Eisenach he had been out of the Latinsschule for long stretches as his parents were dying. In Ohrdruf, he was enrolled in the local lyceum and established himself as the most brilliant student there, even though he was the youngest.
In Eisenach he had learned to play the violin from his father. In Ohrdruf, he learned to play the clavier, or keyboard. He studied the rules of composition, devising fugues in multiple voices until he was “a pure and strong fuguist.” He mastered the works of prominent composers by copying their manuscripts in his own hand.
The emulation of the exempla classica was the key to the Baroque, but a well-known story suggests that Bach took the practice to an extreme. It goes like this. In the house in Ohrdruf where they all lived—husband, wife, infant, and younger brothers—Johann Christoph kept a collection of sheet music locked in a cabinet with latticed wood doors. Bach, now perhaps twelve, yearned to make music, not run through the exercises his brother assigned him, which he had already mastered. One night while the others were asleep he slipped a hand through the latticework, took hold of a sheet of music with thumb and forefinger, drew it out through the slats, and copied the notation onto a fresh sheet. Working by moonlight, he copied the manuscript the next night, and the next, until the moon entered a new phase. After six months of moonlit nights he had a complete work. Finally one morning he brought the fresh piece of sheet music to the clavier and played it—whereupon his brother took the music from him.
The story feels like a legend, but it originated with Bach himself. More than a legend, it is a parable of his dedication to music, and an account of the pattern of his education, in which he learned to write music (he explained) “largely through observation of the works of famed and skilled composers of the time and through earnest reflection of his own.” It suggests his determination to push past the examples of his relatives—church and town musicians, not composers or virtuosi—and master a broader musical tradition for himself. It brings him close to us: a teenager in a small town, up late, alone in the dark, sitting rapt next to a piece of cabinetry with music coming out of it.
8>> “Poor boys with good voices” were sought for scholarships by a school in Lüneberg, near Hamburg in the north, the other end of the country from Thuringia.
Bach was fourteen when he finished school at Ohrdruf. He was the youngest in the class by several years. In the choir he was still a treble—a boy soprano. It would be a loss of opportunity for him—so obviously gifted—to end his schooling and go to work as a musician, as his elder brother Johann Jacob had done. But there was no money in the family for university, and it was a strain for him to stay with his brother: Johann Christoph’s wife, Dorotea, had given birth to two children, and there would be nine in all.
Early in 1700 he went north to Lüneberg in the hope of getting a scholarship. It was a bold move. About this, Christoph Wolff, the most scrupulous of Bach’s recent biographers, is emphatic: in setting out for Lüneberg “the boy demonstrated an astonishing degree of independence and confidence, for he was the only one of Ambrosius’s children … to break out of the family’s ancestral territory.” Wolff is just as emphatic about the motive: Bach went north out of a strong “desire for emancipation and autonomy.”
He got the scholarship. He moved north. Then his voice broke. He kept his scholarship, singing lower parts and playing violin in the orchestra. Already adept at the clavier, he turned to the pipe organ.
9>> The organ loft is where art and religion met, and where the forces of tradition and progress converged and went into new forms.
The pipe organ was in the service of a tradition of sacred music a thousand years old, going back beyond Luther’s reforms to the Middle Ages, the monasteries, the end of Rome, the catacombs. Built into the back wall of the church, the organ was a bulwark of the mighty fortress; and yet the organist was unusually self-sufficient—facing the instrument, with his back to the minister and congregation, elevated and walled into a space all his own.
The Bach family’s emergence as a musical dynasty coincided with the emergence of the pipe organ at the center of German musical life. Organs of one kind or another had existed since antiquity, and Gothic churches were equipped with organs, but with the Reformation came a surge of innovation: pedals were added, pipes were grouped in sections according to their sound, and a large bellows (pumped by a hired operator) kept air moving steadily through the instrument. Suppressed by Protestant rules against graven images, the German craftsman’s skill in the fashioning of sacred space found expression in the organ as a piece of handiwork: the pipes were ever more elaborately shaped, the cabinet and pipe-mounts more intricately carved, until pipe organs adorned the otherwise spick-and-span churches the way the music they made adorned the service.
By 1700 the pipe organ was a mechanical wonder: a device that made use of wood and wire, air and fire, to produce a range of sounds as various as any chorus or orchestra.
That Bach turned to the organ does seem inevitable. Half a dozen of his uncles were organists, and a local congregation had had one Bach or another as its organist for more than a century. His uncle Johann Christoph was “a real wonder of an organist” and had renovated an old organ in Eisenach, making it the best of its kind in the region. At the age of fifteen, his brother Johann Christoph had studied the organ with Johann Pachelbel, the most admired organist in their part of Germany.
Johann Christoph had shown Bach how to play the organ. But the instrument at St. Michael’s church in Ohrdruf, though not old, was so broken down (Johann Christoph complained) that “almost nothing good could be played on it.” The organ in Lüneberg, by contrast, was a good-size instrument with three manuals, or keyboards, and a full array of pipes. Here at last was a pipe organ as a piece of advanced technology.
Lüneberg also had an exceptional music library, with works by 175 composers, Protestant and Catholic, German and French and Italian, living and dead. There were plenty of examples of the musical forms of the time: passacaglia, toccata, fugue, chorale prelude, fantasia, capriccio. Sheet music enabled these works to leap the bounds of family, church, nation, and guild. Movable-type printing—a relatively new technology—was accelerating the process, making music available to more people than ever before.
No one knows whether Bach was allowed to handle the music in the Lüneberg library. But even if he just listened while a teacher or master organist played, he gained the advantage of the format; through it he encountered the music of the wider world.
Meanwhile, he sought out other organists and other organs: his eagerness to hear and play the organs of the region, Wolff proposes, is a reason he went north. In Lüneburg there was George Böhm, who let Bach write out copies of pieces from his music library. At a church in Hamburg there was Johann Adam Reinken, and an “exceptional” organ; Bach and Böhm probably went to Hamburg together to hear Reinken play and to play this organ themselves. In Lübeck, far north, there was the Danish master Dietrich Buxtehude.
He spent two years in school in Lüneberg, mastering the organ. He accompanied singers, played preludes and postludes and the music for worship itself, and set a mood at weddings and funerals, as well as practicing, tinkering with the organ, and making music for his own pleasure only.
The development of the pipe organ allowed him to do so. The organ was engineered for solitude. With several keyboards, it enabled the musician to undertake complex counterpoint, setting one musical line, with a specific tone color, against another, different one. It let him use his feet to provide further accompaniment. It allowed him to change the character of the instrument while he played by pulling out some stops and putting others in. It required an apprentice to work the bellows—but more than most instruments, it freed the musician to play music all by himself.
10>> As an organist, Bach spent half his life in church. As a Lutheran, he came of age in a society permeated with Christian belief and the Protestant blend of reform and revival. Yet the record of his musical education—instruments played, texts mastered, and virtuosi sought out—has no corresponding account of his religious education. The strong evidence of his faith came later, in his music. What can be said with confidence about his religious upbringing is the same as can be said of his brothers and cousins: that he was baptized, studied scripture and doctrine in school, and observed the seasons of the Christian year: Advent, Christmas, Epiphany; Lent, Palm Sunday, Holy Week, Easter; Ascension, Pentecost, Holy Trinity, All Saints, and the Feast of Christ the King.
11>> The churches went quiet for Lent, so as to purify the senses of the congregation; then, in Holy Week, they exploded with music. From Christ’s arrival in Jerusalem to the discovery of the empty tomb on Easter Sunday, the climactic episodes of the Christian faith were enacted in sound, in the forms, taking shape one after another, that made up church music in Bach’s time: through chant, in Luther’s chorales, in motets, and in the emerging form of the oratorio Passion, in which all the forces of musical ardor—instrumental, scriptural, choral—were drawn on to dramatize Christ’s death on the cross.
Shortly after Easter Sunday, 1702, Bach finished school at Lüneberg. With the clamor of death and resurrection still sharp in the spring air, he set out on his own.
He was seventeen years old. Ever since his baptism his presence had been entered into the records of family, school, and church. Now, with his schooling finished, he disappeared, going outside the lines of the Bach family chronicle.
A couple of entries in local registries suggest what he did with himself. He got a job as a church organist in the town of Sangerhausen, a town in northeastern Thuringia, and then was pushed aside when the local duke installed his own candidate instead. He served as a “lackey”—apprentice musician—in Weimar, about forty miles from Eisenach.
That is all. This gap in the record points up the ever-present gap between the plain facts of Bach’s life and the profundity of his music. Even when the facts are abundant, they don’t open up the music as fully as they might be expected to do. The life and the work are not of a piece; they are in intermittent counterpoint.
Connecting the dots, his biographers conclude that he spent the year looking for work and eventually returned closer to home in order to make the most of the Bach family’s influence there. That is probably true, but it passes matter-of-factly over the mystery of his coming of age. Just when he was becoming a man, we don’t know what he aspired to do with his life. Possibly neither did he; possibly his time away on his own was a Wanderjahr, a search for the self like the one Goethe would dramatize in the next century. What kind of musician would he be? What kind of music would he make? He set out to find out.
12>> When he emerged a year later, it was to play a new organ.
Arnstadt was a medieval town at the eastern edge of the Thuringian Forest. A fire had gutted the Bonifatiuskirche there: walls, roof, windows, organ. That was in 1581. Over the next century, as the Bachs became a local dynasty, the church was left unrestored. Bach’s grand-uncle spent his life as the organist at the town’s two other churches. His father was an organist in town for a dozen years. His uncle was a court musician for even longer. All the while, the church of St. Boniface and its bare ruined choirs were silent.
In 1676 a new church was erected on the site. Twenty-five years later, a new organ was commissioned. When, in the summer of 1703, the organ was completed, the church fathers sought out an expert to put it to the test. They chose Johann Sebastian Bach. A room was rented for him. A horse and carriage was sent to pick him up, wherever he was, and bring him to Arnstadt and the Neukirche.
Why was Bach, short on professional experience, invited to try out the Neuekirche organ, the best new organ in that part of Germany? The usual explanation is that his relatives got the job for him, but if that was the case, one of them might as well have kept the job for himself. It is more likely that he was chosen because he was already the best organist around.
So the man who had been playing the organ during its construction stood aside and the church fathers assembled to hear Bach play the new organ for the first time.
As new technology, it was state of the art. It had “twenty-three stops, pedal and two manuals,” a recent biography reports, “and was displayed against the back wall of a light, galleried church.” It was also a work of religious art, a cosmos in lead and wood. The pipes were arrayed in symmetric cabinetry so that they loomed overhead like a vast cloud formation. Gilt foliage stemmed from the lead pipes; chiseled wooden angels peered around the scrollwork. Bach came of age in the country of the Reformation but in the age of the Baroque; purity and ornament would be joined in his music, like the forces of tradition and progress, or reform and revival.
Compared with the organ, the organist’s console was a humble thing: a wooden cupboard with a plank seat, facing two keyboards and a rack for sheet music flanked by a row of knobbed wooden stops on each side. Seen today, it suggests a loom or a printing press, not a musical instrument.
Bach took his seat and began the examination, which would last all day.
Nobody knows what music he played on that occasion, but an early biographer gave a precise description of the way he would test a pipe organ. “First of all he drew out all the stops, to hear the Full Organ. He used to say jokingly, that he wanted to find out whether the instrument had good lungs! Then he gave every part of it a searching test.” He played tremendous low notes on the pedals—discovering “a bigger bass sound” than on the organs up north. He played high notes with his right hand. He sounded the great pipes and the small ones, playing chords and single lines. Then, “when the examination was over,” he went on to “exhibit his splendid talent, both for his own pleasure and the gratification of those who were present.” The church, so long silent, was filled with the music of Bach.
That was Wednesday, June 24, 1703. The following Sunday he played for the whole congregation. Whatever he played, the church fathers liked what they heard. They hired him as their organist.
A contract—it still exists, signed by Bach—spelled out the requirements of “the office, vocation and practice of the art and science that are assigned to you.” He was to be a servant of God and a guardian of the instrument. He was urged to get to church services on time, “to keep a watchful eye” over the organ, and in his daily life “to cultivate the fear of God, sobriety, and the love of peace; altogether to avoid bad company and any distraction from your calling and in general to conduct yourself in all things toward God, High Authority, and your superiors, as befits an honor-loving servant and organist.”
13>> Bach spent four years at the Neuekirche, and in a sense it was his university. The circumstances (Wolff suggests) “bordered on the ideal.” The pay was good. The work was light, Sundays plus a service here and there. He played the organ and composed his first organ pieces, some improvised, others written out. He ate and drank freely. He met the woman he would marry. He grew up.
There was one drawback. The fixity of the pipe organ made the organist less free than a violinist or singer. His instrument, engineered for solitude, was also a piece of ecclesial architecture. It wasn’t portable. It kept him in place when he wanted to roam.
This fixity is apparent in the chorale preludes he composed at Arnstadt. Based on Lutheran chorales—clear, strong melodies that carry the congregation’s part of the liturgy—the preludes don’t develop the chorale tunes so much as frame them, setting them off against a background of harmony and pedaled bass. The music, while often gorgeous, is symmetric, foursquare, self-enclosed. It seems to spread outward to the edges of an existing space—the church, say; it is music meant to settle people in their places, call them to attention, and hold them there.
The fixity of the organ meant that the music, too, was something other than portable. It was a solid melting into air, played on a particular organ on a particular day in a particular room. It moved in place but didn’t travel. If you wanted to hear a certain organist, you generally had to go to him, making a pilgrimage to his church and his instrument.
In the fall of 1705 word went out about an unusual musical event. To mark the death of one Holy Roman Emperor and the coronation of another, Dietrich Buxtehude would lead two performances with a chorus and an elaborate orchestra: violins, trumpets, trombones, French horns, oboes, and drums, all accompanying the great organ, which had three keyboards and fifty-odd pipes.
Buxtehude had spent thirty-seven years in Lübeck, which the Baltic Sea separated from Denmark, his native country. He was renowned both as a performer and as a composer—as “the real creator of the German organ toccata” and as “a kind of father figure who anticipated the ideal of the autonomous composer, a category unheard of at the time.”
Five years had passed since Bach copied out the works of living composers by moonlight. He had begun putting together a manuscript library of his own, copying the works of others onto fresh sheets in precise, lovely pen and ink. He started with Reinken and Buxtehude, and the surviving sheets are things of beauty: big grids of organ notation, lines linking blocks. And yet they are incomplete, and in this they suggest the limits of written music, then as now. Notation was approximation. The true life of music was in performance, and the music was only as good as the musician who was playing it.
Bach knew Buxtehude’s music well but had never heard him play.
He got a month’s leave of absence from his organ post, arranging for a cousin to fill in at the Neuekirche. In late November he set out for Lübeck. In ten days, alone and on foot, he traveled nearly three hundred miles to hear the greatest living organist.
This is the other great story of Bach’s early life. It, too, brings him close to us: he is at once a believer on a pilgrimage to organ music’s sacred site and a young man going on a road trip to hear a concert.
How did he get there, and what did he do there? Possibly he took a carriage part of the way, instead of walking. Possibly he traveled with a friend, not solo. Possibly he met the master right off; maybe he played for him, executing preludes or unfurling improvisations from behind the hallowed organ. Possibly, with Buxtehude nearing seventy, Bach put himself forward as a successor; possibly he stood aside, deterred by the suggestion that he would be expected to marry Buxtehude’s daughter.
Possibly: but it is known for sure that on Wednesday and Thursday, December 2 and 3, 1705, Bach listened from a pew below as Buxtehude played preludes, toccatas, fugues, and the like in the organ loft of the Marienkirche. It is enough to know that Bach was present. There, he met the musical past firsthand; there, the links between him, his family, and the long story of Protestant church music were established once and for all.
He stayed three months, then set out for Arnstadt. There was going to be trouble with the elders at the Neuekirche. It hardly mattered. His music was inside him now, the figures running free in his head like ink from a pen; the way was out ahead of him, a garden of forking paths that he strode through, first one foot and then the other.
Through his music we can follow the trail he took, and the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor is especially thick with the patterns of a musical coming-of-age.
The facts about it are as scanty and unyielding as the facts of his Wanderjahr. Even now nobody can say for sure when it was written or why, or how it came so completely to represent Bach the organist. But the fewer the facts, the greater the aura—the greater the power of the music to point to experience outside itself. This, you say, is what a story sounds like—and the sense of story is so strong, even when the story is undisclosed, that you want to know the story of how the music itself came about.
Possibly this is the piece Bach used to put the new organ to the test. With the opening blast, played three times, he made sure that the instrument worked and heard the sound of its voice. Next he examined it through some broken chords, which (Klaus Eidam explains) “draw from the organ as much air as a player can demand from it with hands and feet.” Then he repeated a figure in octaves, hopscotching up the keyboard, lighting clusters of pipes with sound; as the musical line ran down the keyboard, the sound increased and multiplied.
The test of the organ was also a test of the organist. Bach declared himself with those opening blasts, then turned them upside down, inside out, so as to show—show off—what he could do. In its ambition and daring, the dips and swoops of sound across registers, the twists and turns of melody, the zeal with which it explores the organ’s pipes and stops—in all these ways this toccata feels like a breakout piece, in which Bach threw off the role of organ music as accompaniment to the liturgy. With it, Bach ventured forth from the old world of other people’s music into the new world of his own.
Its confidence obscures the fact that it was far from clear that Bach would be a composer at all. In this sense, it may be the sound track of his Wanderjahr—his search for the pattern of his life so far. With the dramatic opening riff he takes a giant step into his future, then two more. From a promontory he surveys the different routes, which loom up before him, spreading from low pipes to high. He follows one path, a jagged line upcountry. He follows another, like it but narrower, threading toward the mountaintop. Now he can see clearly, the landscape laid out; now he is over the peak and gamboling down the far side. Catching his breath, he stops to consider. What form should his life take: What is his vocation or calling? House musician, court musician, church organist; a Bach, a Lutheran, a Thuringian, a European? What should he do with his life? He cogitates, the music quickening and tightening its weave, as if the two hands are the two sides of the brain and the pedal point a gut feeling. The musical figures work toward a comprehensive insight, then settle on it; through them, he is figuring something out.
That is the toccata, which is the music of exploration and discovery. The fugue, by contrast, is resolute, a vow kept. It firms up, grows strong with supporting arguments, the hands echoing each other in their support for the resolution. Then the two lines become one, and, the quandary resolved, the organ begins to sing. He will be all of those things and none of them. He will be an organist but not just an organist. He will serve God and the music inside him. He will be a composer and an artist.
14>> Albert Schweitzer heard the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor as an annunciation, a triumphant organ blast with which Bach cleared the air for the music to follow. “In the D minor toccata and fugue, the strong and ardent spirit [of Bach] has finally realized the laws of form,” he declared. “A single dramatic ground-thought unites the daring passage work of the toccata, which seems to pile up like wave on wave; and in the fugue the intercalated passages in broken chords only serve to make the climax all the more powerful.”
For Schweitzer the Toccata and Fugue was one of a group of early works in which Bach rose to “independent mastery,” transcending the influence of other composers for the first time. It was in these breakthrough works that Schweitzer felt closest to Bach: to hear them, he found, was always to be struck by their “spontaneous freshness of invention,” and to play them “was always to experience something of what the master himself must have felt” when “he exploited the full possibilities of the organ” for the first time.
Yet for Schweitzer this beginning was the beginning of the end—the end of European sacred music and of Western civilization. Bach is “a terminal point. Nothing comes from him. Everything leads up to him.” For a century before Bach, in Schweitzer’s account, “the sacred concert struggles for a free and independent place in the church.” In Bach it finds a place, and sacred music and concert music are gloriously united. But they are united in the music of Bach only. Bach is neglected, then forgotten. Reason and religion split, and then music and drama, with drastic consequences. Music turns Romantic. Europe falls prey to mass movements and mechanization. But all is not lost. The music of Bach is the evidence of a more perfect past. Through Bach, Europe can find its way again, recovering “the spiritual unity and fervour of which it so sorely stands in need.”
That is how young man Schweitzer saw the situation. He was half right. In Europe, the events of the first half of the twentieth century would exceed his darkest imaginings. But the music of Bach would emerge not just as the music of the past but as the music of the shattered, anguished present.
15>> Schweitzer was born in 1875 in Gunsbach, Alsace, where both French and German were spoken, where Catholic churches and Lutheran ones stood out against the same sky. His father was a Lutheran pastor, as was one of his grandfathers. The other grandfather (like three of his uncles) was a church organist, “much interested in organs and organ building” and much admired for his improvisations.
Alsace was “annexed” territory—it had been cut off from the rest of France by the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, which placed it in German hands. But even before the war (as Graham Robb makes clear in The Discovery of France) the rural departments were cut off from Paris and from any notion of French unity. The Alsatian capital, Strasbourg, featured the world’s tallest building—the hyper-Gothic Strasbourg Cathedral, with a spire that Victor Hugo called “a veritable tiara of stone with its crown and its cross”—yet the life expectancy in Alsace was several years shorter than in Paris. Many Alsatians spoke neither German nor French, only the local dialect. There was a railroad, but it was faster to go on foot—a fact made obvious by the many people who could be seen walking from place to place in the trackbed, the clearest road through the forest.
Looking back, Schweitzer characterized himself as a “donkey” from the provinces: a boy too big for his clothes, too “slack and dreamy” for his studies, too simple for bourgeois society. In truth, as his recitation of mentors and influences makes clear, he was a prodigy always. He first played the organ when he was eight (“my legs were hardly long enough to reach the pedals”), and filled in for the organist at the village church a year later. As a schoolboy he took organ lessons in addition to his coursework. He had a musical awakening during a concert by Marie-Joseph Erb, who was one of the best-known pianists in France. His first visit to the theater was for Wagner’s Tannhäuser; by the age of twenty-three he had seen all of Wagner’s operas performed and had made a pilgrimage to Bayreuth to see Parsifal, keeping to one meal a day to save money.
What set him apart from the other precocious French aesthetes of his generation was his complex religious faith. As a boy, he asked why Jesus and his family were not rich—they’d gotten gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh from the Magi, hadn’t they? At the same time, he felt the sufferings of others so keenly, he recalled, and so keenly felt the duty to ease them in the name of Christ, that he never felt simply happy. He felt “captive” to Jesus, and as he grew older he sought to reconcile his disbelief in the literal truth of the New Testament with his conviction that the “ethic” of Jesus was the right way to live.
Inevitably, he went to Paris. But his experience there—in the last years of the nineteenth century—turned the sentimental education on its head. Schweitzer sought the past, not the future; it wasn’t carnal experience he was after—it was religious insight.
Paris was being transformed by technology, as electricity and la lumière brought together the medieval Latin Quarter and the enlightened boulevards and arcades as the modern City of Light. The modernists rendered that transformation in art—through Symbolist poetry, Picasso’s collages, Satie’s Parade, and the like. But there are no moderns in Schweitzer’s coming-of-age story. The Paris that drew his attention was one still gripped by the revival that Victor Hugo had dramatized: the Gothic capital of the world, a place of mystery and shadow, one still animated by the Christian faith, a faith for which its groined and spired and buttressed churches were especially grand stages.
Through his uncle Charles and aunt Louise, who lived in Paris, Schweitzer gained an introduction to Charles-Marie Widor, a prominent Bach interpreter and the organist at the church of St-Sulpice, which had a hundred-stop organ, one as fancy as any in France. Widor recalled: “A young Alsatian presented himself to me and asked if he could play something on the organ to me. ‘Play what?’ I asked. ‘Bach, of course,’ was his reply.”
Schweitzer played some Bach on the big organ. Widor liked the way he played. He let Schweitzer enroll at the conservatory where he taught. (Charles Schweitzer paid the fee.) For five years, while studying theology at university in Strasbourg and completing a year of military service in Alsace, Schweitzer studied Bach with Widor in Paris, three hundred miles away. “He returned regularly for longer or shorter periods, in order to ‘habilitate’ himself—as they used to say in Bach’s day—in organ playing under my guidance.” He schooled himself in the workings of the organ as a piece of machinery, and grew convinced that Bach’s music sounded right only on small Baroque organs, not the pipe-heavy behemoths that had replaced them in many of the churches of Europe: “We have lost the old organ sound that Bach requires.” He gained admirers, who took to calling him “Bach born in Alsace.” In his free time he took walks in the city with his uncle’s young grandson, Jean-Paul Sartre, whom Uncle Charles had taken in after the death of the boy’s father.
Schweitzer had been raised to think of Bach’s music as inextricably bound up with Lutheran worship and liberal Protestant theology. Through Widor, he encountered a broader, Enlightenment-style religiosity. At a time when Germany and France were fierce rivals, Widor saw Bach as “the most universal of artists,” not as a German artist. “What speaks through his work is pure religious emotion; and this is one and the same in all men, in spite of the national and religious partitions in which we are born and bred. It is the emotion of the infinite and exalted, for which words are always an inadequate expression, and that can find proper utterance only in art.” A Bach revivalist, Widor characterized Bach as a revivalist too: for him, Bach was “the greatest of preachers” and the organ works were “sermons in sound”—the “manifestation of a will filled with a vision of eternity.”
At university in Strasbourg, Schweitzer studied counterpoint and served as an organist at his college church, St. Wilhelm’s. This church, he recalled (with his usual superlatives), was “one of the most important nurseries of the Bach cult which was coming into existence at the end of the last century,” and its director, Ernest Münch, was one of the first interpreters to base his approach to the performance of Bach on the tempo and phrase markings found in Bach’s manuscripts, rather than on “modernized” conventions and habits. He and Münch scrutinized the texts together in Münch’s house, keeping Münch’s family awake at night, and over a period of years Schweitzer accompanied the orchestra and choir in rehearsals, then in performance. “Thus while I was still a young student I became familiar with Bach’s creations,” he recalled, “and had an opportunity of dealing practically with the problems of the production today of the Master’s Cantatas and Passion music.”
When he was twenty-one he had had a religious experience, rooted in the gospel adage that anyone who wishes to save his life must lose it for Christ’s sake. “One brilliant summer morning at Gunsbach, during the Whitsuntide holidays—it was in 1896—there came to me, as I awoke, the thought that I must not accept this happiness as a matter of course, but must give something in return for it. Proceeding to think the matter out at once with calm deliberation, while the birds were singing outside, I settled with myself before I got up, that I would consider myself justified in living till I was thirty for science and art, in order to devote myself from that time forward to the direct service of humanity.”
Through his twenties Schweitzer asked himself what the best way to lose his life might be. He could act as a foster father to orphans; minister to “tramps and discharged prisoners”; act as a missionary. But all these seemed obvious and programmatic. “What I wanted was an absolutely personal and independent activity,” he recalled. “Although I was resolved to put my services at the disposal of some organization, if it should be really necessary, I nevertheless never gave up the hope of finding a sphere of activity to which I could devote myself as an individual and as wholly free.”
Meanwhile, he advanced as a biblical scholar. Fifty years after proponents of the German “higher criticism” began to appraise the Bible as a literary text, Schweitzer grew obsessed with “the problems of the life of Jesus.” It was a paradoxical obsession, for the methods of the higher criticism—the breaking of the Gospels into parts and setting of the parts against one another so as to reveal the text as a historical hodgepodge—undermined the conviction about Jesus’s importance that made the work worth undertaking. The paradox suited Schweitzer, who had trained as a curate in spite of his doubts about Jesus. In the early 1900s, during one summer spent struggling to learn Hebrew, a second reading Kant in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, and a third studying philosophy at Goethe’s old house in Strasbourg, he developed the set of ideas eventually published as The Quest of the Historical Jesus. There he argued that Jesus was not an ethical teacher so much as an eschatological prophet, urging people to repent and believe so as to prepare the way for the reign of God.
He saw Jesus as a revivalist, that is, and in this he went straight against the grain of liberal Protestantism. But the book was most striking for an insight into how Jesus is studied and written about. “There is no historical task which so reveals a person’s true self as the writing of a life of Jesus,” Schweitzer insisted. No one had ever managed to write about Jesus objectively. Rather, “each successive epoch found its own thoughts in Jesus, which was the only way they could make him live.” For Schweitzer, this insight revealed the limits of scholarship, and so the necessity for action. The way to transcend one’s age was through character and individual action, the way Jesus had done.
He sought a worthy cause, and he found one in a pamphlet for the French Missionary Society left for him by a neighbor. “We need humans! Are there none?”
Africa needed doctors. Schweitzer needed an ideal in which to lose himself, a chance to develop his idea of Christianity more freely than he could in Strasbourg. The juxtaposition of Europe and Africa, of scholarship and toil, was extreme and thus apt. He would turn thirty years old on January 14, 1905. He decided to enroll in medical school that fall. He would become a “jungle doctor,” and would “make of my life my argument.”
16>> His life would become his argument, but not yet. With his thirtieth birthday in view, he added another scholarly project: a book about Johann Sebastian Bach.
The way he later told it, he was prompted to write the book by Charles-Marie Widor, his organ teacher, and he undertook it against his better judgment. The Frenchman Widor had admitted that he could not understand the “musical logic” of Bach’s chorale preludes, which seemed more convoluted than the preludes and fugues. “Why these sometimes almost excessively abrupt antitheses of feeling?” he asked Schweitzer, who, as a German-speaking Lutheran, knew the actual chorales better than he did. “Why does he add contrapuntal motives to a chorale melody that often have no relation to the mood of the melody?” Schweitzer told him why: the music was tracking the words of the individual chorales, as Bach created pictorial effects to match German expressions. Widor: “I showed him the movements that had puzzled me the most; he translated the poems into French for me from memory. The mysteries were all solved.”
Schweitzer told him he would write an essay to explain the point. As he did so, one summer during his work on The Quest of the Historical Jesus, it became clear that “this would expand into a book on Bach. With good courage I resigned myself to my fate.”
For the next two years, while teaching, pursuing his biblical research, and serving as a curate, Schweitzer “devoted all my spare time to Bach,” he recalled. This was made possible by his habit of working to exhaustion (“My good health allowed me to be prodigal with night work. It happened sometimes that I played with Widor in the morning without having been to bed at all”). And it was driven by his conviction that soon his life would not be his own. In preparing to go to Africa he prepared himself “to make three sacrifices: to abandon the organ, to renounce the academic teaching activities to which I had given my heart, and to lose my financial independence…” The sense of an ending that he heard in Bach’s music, then, corresponded to his sense that his encounter with Bach was ending. When he observes of Bach that “to give his true biography is to exhibit the nature and the unfolding of German art, that comes to completion in him and is exhausted in him,—to comprehend it in all its striving and its failures,” the passage tracks his own mood precisely.
Beginning in 1850, the Paris Bach Society had published the scores of all Bach’s works in an edition of 350, restoring the passages cut by Romantic-era interpreters. To meet printing costs the society sold subscriptions to the entire set, as if to an encyclopedia. There were dozens of volumes, so the cost was high, but the set sold out. Libraries subscribed. Productions of Bach’s works spread from the big cities to smaller ones. “I happened to learn at a music shop in Strasbourg,” Schweitzer recalled, “that a lady in Paris who had been a subscriber to the complete edition in order to support the enterprise of the Bach Society, now wanted to get rid of the long row of big gray volumes which took up so much space on her bookshelf. Pleased at being able to give somebody pleasure with them, she let me have them for the ridiculously small sum of £10.” He arranged for the books to be brought to his rooms in college at Strasbourg.
“This piece of good fortune I took as an omen for the success of my work,” he remarked.
It was more than a stroke of good fortune. It was an opportunity created by technology—the printing press—which transposed Bach’s music into the new form of sheet music. For half a century the Bach revival had striven to publish Bach’s works. Suddenly—unbelievably—the whole of Bach was in Schweitzer’s study. Now, instead of working on Bach in the library, he could do so in his rooms through the night. Now he could meet Bach in the circumstances of his own life. Bach’s music, so long confined to churches and town halls, palaces and libraries, was now personal and portable.
17>> Bach: Le Musicièn-Poète was published in Paris in 1905, not long after Schweitzer in Strasbourg “set out in a thick fog to attend the first of a course of lectures in anatomy.” The next year, after trying to translate the book into German, his stronger written language, Schweitzer resolved to rewrite the book in German from beginning to end. He started one night in Bayreuth, Wagner’s sacred site, after attending a performance of Tristan und Isolde: “while the babel of voices surged up from the Bierhalle below into my stuffy room, I began to write, and it was long after sunrise that I laid down my pen.”
Through the summer and then the fall, and into the next year he wrote, and the book, like a Bach fantasia, doubled in size, to two volumes and nine hundred pages thicketed with insight. “At the end of the eighteenth century it seemed, on the whole, as if Bach were for ever dead,” Schweitzer declared. From an account of how Bach’s music should be played, it became an account of the music of Bach as the music of revival—and as music that itself had been revived.
About Bach’s “death and resurrection” Schweitzer had two stories to tell—two stories, contrapuntally joined, that suited his own life story, and that proposed distinctly different ways for the music of the past to be recovered.
One story, told by Schweitzer the philosopher of civilization, is of a treasure lost and found. During Bach’s lifetime “it was the organist who was famous; the theoretician of the fugue was admired; but the composer of the Passions and cantatas was only incidentally mentioned.” After his death, these Bachs were all forgotten. Bach’s descendants didn’t understand his work. The critics favored Handel, whose oratorios were popular in the concert halls of London. Conductors rejected his vocal music because it was grounded in chorales. Enlightenment thinkers dismissed it as too pious. “There has never been a movement so lacking in the historical sense as the rationalism of the eighteenth century,” Schweitzer declared. “The art of the past, in every department, it regarded as mere affectation. Everything old was necessarily antiquated, at least in its form.” The age’s few, simple versions of Bach were “among the most barbarous things of their kind in the whole world.”
Although “his greatness [was] not recognized,” Bach’s music found a few hearers anyhow. One critic placed Bach above Handel—“for his parts always move so independently, and yet work together with such marvellous unity as is hardly ever attained by other composers.” Mozart heard a Bach motet and said, “That is indeed something from which we can learn!” Beethoven studied the Well-Tempered Clavier and came to think of the work as his “musical Bible.” In time a German critic, who considered the music of Bach “a sign from God, clear, yet inexplicable,” sought to convert Goethe to Bach. It worked: when Goethe heard some Bach preludes and fugues played on a pipe organ, he felt “as if the eternal harmony were communing with itself, as might have happened in God’s bosom shortly before the creation of the world.”
Goethe asked Felix Mendelssohn, a keyboard prodigy who was a guest in his house, to play “a good deal of Bach” for him. Mendelssohn did so, and his own feeling for Bach was deepened. Already his teacher, Carl Friedrich Zelter, the director of the Singakademie in Berlin, had sought to mount a St. Matthew Passion; and now Mendelssohn, who was eighteen, planned a performance to take place a hundred years after the first performance—taking hold of the irony that he, who was Jewish, should revive Bach’s setting of the Passion of Christ.
The performance—March 11, 1829—was Mendelssohn’s first time leading a full orchestra. There was a chorus of four hundred singers. He “conducted from the piano, his face turned sideways to the audience so that he had the first choir at his back.” Schweitzer, seventy years later, described it as a sacred concert: “‘The crowded hall looked like a church,’” Mendelssohn’s sister, Fanny, recalled. “‘Every one was filled with the most solemn devotion; one heard only the occasional involuntary ejaculation that sprang from deep emotion.’” Hegel was there—Mendelssohn had attended his lectures on aesthetics between rehearsals—and he went on to describe Bach as a composer “whose grand, truly Protestant, pithy yet learned genius we have only lately learned to value again properly.”
With Mendelssohn’s St. Matthew Passion the spirit of the age came to rest on Bach. The passions and the B-minor Mass went into production across Germany and became Romantic emblems of German identity. Bach was back.
It is a stirring story of the revival of Bach’s music by an outsider much like Schweitzer himself. Even as Schweitzer the philosopher told it, though, Schweitzer the musician told a different story. This was the story of how Bach’s music was passed on through the act of music-making, so that it was brought back every time it was played, rather than once and for all. In this story the music’s survival was never in doubt. Its recovery was a simple matter of getting it played right. And getting it played right had nothing to do with the spirit of the age. It had to do with the reform of the processes whereby the music was reproduced, distributed, mastered, and presented to the public.
Because printed texts of Bach’s music were scarce, most musicians had little firsthand knowledge of Bach. Schweitzer related another author’s story about Mozart, who “knew Bach more by hearsay” than through the music itself. Mozart “was told that this school, at which Sebastian Bach had been cantor, possessed a complete collection of his motets, and treasured them as sacred relics. ‘That’s right! that’s fine!’ he said. ‘Let me see them.’ As there were no scores of these works, he got them to bring him the separate parts; and now it was a joy to the silent observers to see how eagerly Mozart distributed the parts around him, in both hands, on his knees, on the nearest chairs, and, forgetting everything else, did not rise until he had carefully read through everything that there was of Bach’s. He begged and obtained a copy for himself, which he valued very highly.”
By 1829 sheet music was widely available, but sheet-music editions of Bach lagged behind those of other composers, and as a result, Schweitzer proposed, an aura of mystery and obscurity still clung to Bach. The music critic who converted Goethe to Bach did so by sending him the sheet music of the Well-Tempered Clavier. Mendelssohn (Schweitzer said nothing of this) was able to undertake the St. Matthew Passion in Berlin because he received the giant conducting score as a gift; three choristers copied out all the parts for the orchestra and huge chorus.
In this story, Mendelssohn’s St. Matthew Passion was decisive not because it was sensational but because it got Bach’s work into print. The score was issued the next year, but the publisher did a bad job; as Schweitzer remarked, “If it were left to the publishers alone the complete Bach would never appear, but … the work would have to be taken in hand by the community of Bach-lovers.” And so it was. In 1850 the Paris Bach Society began to print its complete edition, and the Bach-Gesellschaft was begun in Germany. Brahms (Schweitzer reported) “used to say that the two greatest events during his lifetime were the founding of the German Empire and the completion of the Bach edition.”
18>> He was the complete composer: one distinctly German yet bold enough to make all the world his own; a master of vocal music, and of instrumental music and orchestration too; a genius committed to his vision of a total work of art—a sacred drama that enacted the life of his people and its roots in ritual, story, and song.
That is the image of Bach that emerged in the middle of the nineteenth century, as his music was played and studied across Europe. But it was also the image of Richard Wagner, the ruling musician of the age and the measure for composers living and dead.
This is the third story Schweitzer told in his Bach book: the story of the emergence of Bach as a counter-Wagner.
As men, Bach and Wagner could not have been less alike—one a husband and father of notable fidelity, the other a serial philanderer—and it was inevitable that they would be set against each other: present against past, innovation against tradition, pagan against Christian. But Schweitzer heard in them a crucial likeness, and for him the Bach revival was of a piece with the Wagnerian program, joining together poetic and pictorial elements that controversialists had put asunder.
Wagner in 1849 had set out his vision for “The Art-Work of the Future.” With Die Meistersinger he enacted it in music, making his slabs of sound and never-ending lines of vocal declamation a maximal musical ideal. Die Meistersinger revived the German musical past in national terms, styling the competition among the mastersingers in sixteenth-century Nürnberg as a pagan affair. The libretto de-emphasized the Christianity of the era when the Bachs became the master musicians of Thuringia; and yet in the music (Schweitzer declared) “the spirit of Bach is most evident.”
Soon afterward Wagner in an essay put forward Bach as the ideal figure of German inner life, an expression of its spirit in one “incomparably eloquent image.”
Wagner’s Bach, as Schweitzer understood him, was not a pure ideal. No, Wagner found the greatness of Bach “almost inexplicably mysterious.” This Bach had been a servile guildsman in a French wig, “a miserable cantor and organist in little Thuringian towns whose names we hardly know now, wearing himself out” in an effort to energize the “dry, stiff, pedantic” forms of the Baroque. And yet—Wagner exclaimed—“see now the world the incomprehensibly great Sebastian built up out of these elements!” In “their wealth, their grandeur, and their all-embracing significance,” Bach found “the history of the inner life of the German mind during the awful century when the German people was utterly extinguished.” There Wagner claimed Bach as a musical precursor.
Schweitzer saw the influence running in the other direction. Wagner had “prepared the way for Bach.” Wagner, he explained, brought about “a revolution of the whole musical consciousness” in Europe. He rebelled against mere beauty in music, and fought hard for the “characteristic” and “dramatic” qualities of music instead. It worked, and led to a revaluation of the repertory that had developed between Bach and Wagner. “A whole mass of music sank slowly into the abyss of oblivion; and by the side of the music drama of Wagner the dramatic religious music of Bach came out in a clear light.”
Furthermore, Wagner changed the audience’s expectations for music. After Wagner, the hearer sought more than beauty—sought something more from music than listeners of the previous age had. Schweitzer (here his translator used a Latinate word for demanding) stated the case laconically: “The hearer became exigent.”
The hearer was Schweitzer himself, who had come of age when Wagner was sovereign. What was it that this hearer demanded—this hearer whose passion for music was matched only by his distaste for the spirit of the age? He sought a sovereign greater than Wagner. He sought music with Wagnerian total effect but without Wagner’s obtrusive personality. He sought music characteristic of Europe the way Wagner’s music claimed to be characteristic of Germany—but music rooted in Christianity and right reason as he understood it. This music cleared a supernatural space where the hearer could leave the self behind without exchanging it for a Wagnerian superman. This music offered an account of life in its fullness, the past and the present contrapuntally present, each undiminished.
This was the music of Bach, and in this way Schweitzer interpreted Bach as a figure in counterpoint to the spirit embodied by Wagner. Schweitzer’s portrait of Bach is a portrait of his own aspirations. Like him, his Bach is an outrider from the provinces, at once deeply spiritual and mulishly self-confident. Like him, his Bach is a man at the tail end of a tradition, fluent in the old ways and so out of step with his peers, who are bent on forgetting or defying them. Like him, his Bach is a person who succeeds through ceaseless effort and the conviction that his cause is larger than himself. Like him, his Bach is a musician and more than a musician—a witness against the age he lived in.
There are limits to the comparison, however, and they point up the limits of Schweitzer’s enterprise, which were there from the beginning. What for Bach was hard work was heroic effort for Schweitzer. Where Bach’s universality comes unbidden from within his music, Schweitzer’s was overtly striven for. Where Bach sought to serve God and the church with his music, Schweitzer sought to serve humanity and a self-formulated ideal. “His immense strength functioned without self-consciousness,” Schweitzer wrote of Bach. Himself, he was unshakably self-aware, the hero of his own drama. He would lose himself in service to others and tell the whole world about it.
19>> Schweitzer began work as a jungle doctor in 1913. He had survived “the terrible strain of the medical course.” After years of courtship by correspondence he had married Hélène Bresslau, a woman born into a Jewish family, baptized a Christian, diagnosed with tuberculosis, who ran a home for unmarried women in Strasbourg and who had taken her own vow of service. He had written an essay on organ building and joined with Charles-Marie Widor to produce an edition of Bach’s preludes and fugues for organ. He had begged for funding, had given benefit recitals, had defended himself against the charge that he was theologically too heterodox for medical missionary work. Finally, he steamed upriver in the French Congo and established a clinic in a corrugated-iron shed surrounded by straw huts.
For a parting gift the Paris Bach Society had presented him with an instrument that combined the features of a piano and an organ: keyboard, strings and hammers, pedals. The inside of it was lined with zinc to ward off moisture in the tropics. “I had accustomed myself to think that this activity in Africa meant the end of my life as an artist, and that the renunciation would be easier if I allowed fingers and feet to get rusty with disuse,” he explained. “One evening, however, as, in melancholy mood, I was playing one of Bach’s organ fugues, the idea came suddenly upon me that I might after all use my free hours in Africa for the very purpose of perfecting and deepening my technique.” He resolved to learn all of Bach’s organ works “by heart, even if I had to spend weeks or months on any particular piece.”
As night fell, the music of Bach spilled out of the tin house. “How I enjoyed being able to practice at leisure and in quiet, without any slavery to time through being due to play at concerts,” he recalled. For the first time since his childhood, he was playing Bach for himself, not for a church service, a recital, or a meeting of a learned society.
He played the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. “It is not through knowledge, but through experience of the world that we are brought into relation with it,” he wrote. Missionary medicine broadened his worldly experience, and experience deepened his encounter with Bach. The music in turn gave a pattern to the experience. Thus understood, his recording of the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor is a report from experience. Schweitzer saw Bach as akin to Wagner in his emphasis on “graphic characterization and realism” rather than personal emotion. So it is with the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. The inked-in outlines of the playing and the heavy crosshatching of its counterpoint are the work of a maker of pictures in sound.
The pattern of the Toccata and Fugue suits the pattern of Schweitzer’s search. He described the Brandenburg concertos as music of “the fundamental mystery of things—that self-unfolding of the idea in which it creates its own opposite in order to overcome it, creates another, which again it overcomes, and so on and on until it finally returns to itself, having meanwhile traversed the whole of existence.” So is the Toccata and Fugue. The work is patterned on the interaction of two hands, the two keyboards and their sets of pipes—the lower and the higher, the majestic and the delicate. In Schweitzer’s hands the pattern accords with the pattern of his inner life, in which he is called in two directions—between the past and the present, the aesthetic and the ethical, self and service, the study of philosophy and the call to action. The music suggests two voices in a strenuous argument, a debate or colloquy. The one declares, the other rebuts. The one insists, the other rejects. They echo and parry, qualify and deny. Schweitzer makes the Toccata and Fugue music of self-argument, turning counterpoint into autobiography.
20>> Schweitzer was right: he stood at the end of an era. But it was not the era of European civilization, which would survive the Great War. It was the pre-recorded era.
From the beginning of time till the beginning of the twentieth century, the making of music and the hearing of it were two aspects of a single experience. People sang or played musical instruments for themselves or for other people who were within earshot—in a cave or in a church, on a stage or a street corner, in a parlor in Vienna or an opera house in Milan—and the music, as they were making it, was already subsiding to silence. The sounds of music traveled as far in space as the air could carry them and lasted as long in time as the air could sustain them. Then they vanished. Between these instances of music-making the music itself did not exist except as a memory or an ideal. Musicians passed musical patterns one to one another in the act of music-making, and found other ways to indicate the sounds they had in mind, say, with black marks on white paper, so that the music could be made again, the ideal approximated. The surest way to have music in the home was to install an instrument there—and so the piano, at once a mechanical device and a piece of furniture, came into the middle-class parlor.
Audio recordings changed the situation profoundly. Through them, sound was unmoored from space and time. Music made at one time in one place could be “played”—played back—later somewhere else. It was possible to listen to music without the intervening presence of musicians. The encounter with recorded sound became a distinct experience. You weren’t listening to musicians play, or even listening to music. You were listening to records.
In a sense, this change was just part of the greater change brought about by electricity, which was transforming everyday life. The streetcar now sluiced through the old city. The office building (equipped with an elevator) scraped the sky. But the change in music brought on by recorded sound was more elemental, for the workings of sound and those of electricity are, in some ways, two aspects of a single process: the contrapuntal movement of waves and particles through the air.
The pioneers of electricity recognized its kinship with sound, and they captured the public imagination with inventions that converted sound waves into electrical impulses and back to sound again. Alexander Graham Bell transformed the vibrations set off by the human voice into an electrical charge and sent the charge through a wire. This was the telephone. Thomas Edison devised “a cylinder wrapped in tinfoil” to take dictation in offices, and showed how it worked by singing “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and playing back the sound of his voice. This was the phonograph. Then Edison and his associates introduced an electrical charge to a wire and connected the wire to others. This was the power grid. Guglielmo Marconi sent a charge through the air, relying on the atmosphere’s electromagnetic field to carry it in waves radiating outward. This was radio, or wireless.
As Albert Schweitzer turned thirty in 1905 the Victor Talking Machine Company perfected the gramophone, or Victrola. Like the piano, it was at once a mechanical device and a piece of furniture. It spun a flat, grooved disc set on a turntable atop a wooden cabinet, while a needle passing through the groove converted the movements to electrical impulses, which were processed inside the cabinet and transmitted, as sounds, through a brass horn. While the turntable was a mechanical device, and the cabinet a piece of furniture, the horn suggested that the gramophone was, in its way, a musical instrument.
The gramophone was not a new invention; it consolidated the breakthroughs of several inventors. The most important was Emile Berliner, a German-born engineer who worked for Bell Laboratories in America before setting up his own laboratory. In 1887 Berliner perfected what he called the disc gramophone, and in the years that followed he and his coworkers set the parameters for the recording industry. They invented the shellac disc, introduced what would become the standard format—ten-inch-diameter discs spinning seventy-eight times per minute—and opened the first record shop.
Those advances changed the way people listened to music. Berliner also began to change the way music was made. In the first decades of audio recording, the musicians would crowd around a cabinet in a room to make a recording—just the way at the other end of the process people would crowd together to listen to it. The musicians would convene before a giant brass horn, like a tuba’s, which took in the sounds they made and conveyed them to a stylus, which etched a pattern of the sound into a revolving disc or cylinder.
Berliner had formed Victor with two other inventors, one of whom held the rights to the slogan “His Master’s Voice.” The painting of a terrier listening to an Edison phonograph was already a well-known piece of advertising. Victor had the phonograph removed from the painting and had a gramophone painted in.
The recorded sound of the human voice would be the key to Victor’s enterprise. The company began recording Enrico Caruso, the Italian tenor. He sang arias from beloved European operas, each three or four minutes long—just as much music as a shellac disc could hold. His voice, at once wooing and commanding, was recorded with striking clarity and intimacy. His records sold in the hundreds of thousands for Victor and its English counterpart, HMV. The phonograph—called the gramophone abroad—became standard equipment.
The process changed again twenty years later with two new inventions: the microphone and the vacuum tube. The microphone—developed by Bell Labs, the phone company—used a magnet to pull in sounds and transfer them to electrical impulses. Unlike the brass horn, the microphone could be positioned close to a particular instrument, such as a trumpet or banjo, and, especially, close to a singer’s mouth; or it could be mounted above a large orchestra or chorus in a concert hall. This “electrical” recording process, introduced in 1925, was a striking advance on the so-called “acoustic” one.
The vacuum tube amplified the electrical impulses produced by the microphone. Developed during the Great War, tubes were first used in radio, which was introduced in the early twenties as a means of distributing sound, by transmitting electrical impulses radially through the air to magnetic receivers—radios. The tube was soon incorporated into the record player. Then the radio itself was incorporated. After Victor in 1926 introduced an all-electric unit that combined a Victrola and a Radiola, the home console—turntable, radio, magnetic speaker, wooden cabinet—took form.
HMV still used that famous painting as the company logo. The terrier attending to his master’s voice became a figure for recorded music and a way of life associated with it: technically sophisticated yet tender and humane, faithful not only to the sound of music but to all the rituals and folkways associated with the past, which it promised not to displace but to carry forward into the present.
21>> In 1926 a recording studio rolled out onto the streets of London. The “mobile unit” looked like a delivery truck, with a roomy cab, whitewall tires, high fenders, and brassy headlamps fronting a boxy main compartment with the attentive white dog painted on the side.
A photograph of the truck parked beside the Gothic arch of an old church suggests a comparison between medieval and modern, classical and commercial. In retrospect the mobile unit seems a piece of progressive audio equipment, a forerunner of all things compact and portable. But it was devised so that HMV could make use of the electrical recording process (the microphone especially) to record music made the old-fashioned way, in a church or a concert hall with a crowd of people listening. The new technology wasn’t meant to displace live performance but to enshrine it—to overcome the constraints and artifices of the studio and record music made in the midst of life.
For a while, that is how it worked. After recording a revival meeting at the Temple Church in London, HMV’s mobile technicians found that they had a few wax cylinders left over and invited a choirboy to sing something; the piece he sang—“O for Wings of a Dove,” the solo section of Mendelssohn’s anthem “Hear My Prayer”—sold a million 78s. Recording a Handel festival at the Crystal Palace, the mobile unit captured the sound of a five-hundred-piece orchestra and a three-thousand-voice chorus. The unit went to the opera festival at Glyndebourne, to La Scala in Milan, to the Wagner festival in Bayreuth. One poster for HMV’s subsidiary Columbia advertised “Astounding Electric Recordings taken in the Bayreuth Wagner Theatre.” Another showed Wagner’s Siegfried approving “Authorized COLUMBIA RECORDS.” Bayreuth was “the One Centre of the World Where Wagner is played … in Absolute Perfection and Regardless of Cost! If only such Performances Could Be Recorded for the Gramophone—What Perfection in Records could be assured!” The ad went on: “The Possibility has come true—Columbia has recorded the Bayreuth Festival!” Perfection in recording had been attained.
It is easy to mock the bright-eyed futurism of the old-time recording industry: the pretensions to perfection, the claims to be making the sound of things to come. But it is just as easy to overlook how profoundly the recordings of those years have shaped our sense of the recent past and have set that past off from prior ages. Through those recordings we can hear the music of 1929 in a way that we will never hear the music of 1829, when Mendelssohn led the St. Matthew Passion in Berlin. Those recordings really were the sound of things to come: the sound of an age in which the past would be present through technology. That truck with its brassy headlamps was a time machine, making a record of the past and delivering it to the future.
22>> In Africa, Albert Schweitzer liked to say, “there happened to me, what happened to Abraham when he prepared to sacrifice his son. I, like him, was spared the sacrifice.”
He had prepared to sacrifice the pipe organ. Then the instrument had been spared and given back to him in the evenings on the riverbank with the zinc-lined portable. Then, unexpectedly, circumstances led him to play the organ in public more than ever. At the end of the Great War, Schweitzer and Hélène Bresslau were detained in France as prisoners of war; and there, in a POW camp, both of them past forty, they conceived a child. After the child was born—a daughter, Rhena—mother and child all but settled in Strasbourg, while Schweitzer returned to Lambaréné, making arrangements to see them in Europe from time to time. The clinic needed funds, so he turned to his two former sources of income: lectures and organ recitals. An archbishop he knew advised him to play and speak in Sweden, “to which country the war had brought considerable financial gains.” Over two decades at the clinic the pattern of a double life took shape: periods in Africa spent working as a doctor alternating with periods giving lectures and recitals in Europe, where he burnished his reputation as a holy man, a philosopher, and a performer all in one.
Schweitzer was a revivalist, whether he recognized it or not. The revivalist is the Protestant performer par excellence. He looks to the past not to restore it whole but to call forth new life in the present. He begins with a sense that the golden age is past and the present is out of joint. But he stands back from the reform of society. That work the revivalist leaves to others—to the reformers. For himself, the revivalist strives to set things right through exhortation and example. The old home truths are sound. They need only to be kept alive. In revival they are made vivid so as to move a new audience. The aim is conversion, a collective change of heart.
Schweitzer’s work as a revivalist was made possible by an organ revival. From Edison’s invention of the phonograph it was feared that recorded or “canned” music would bring about the demise of live performance. But the emergence of recordings coincided with fresh interest in the pipe organ, and even brought it about. Expensive, fixed in place, wedded to an antique repertory, the organ came to symbolize the values of the age prior to recordings, when music was made with great effort on a certain instrument at a particular place and time.
As it happened, the organ revival was electric-powered. In Europe, the harnessing of electricity had stimulated a fresh round of renovations of existing pipe organs: some builders used electric power to move air through the pipes or make the keys easier to press. In the United States, where the oldest pipe organs had been around for only a century, organ builders had fresh territory for experiment. America was still a vast building site, and its churches needed pipe organs—ideally, instruments that would evoke the great organs of Europe and improve on them, usually by making them larger. Andrew Carnegie sponsored the installation of several thousand pipe organs in churches, schools, and town halls. He commissioned a pipe organ for his mansion on Fifth Avenue in New York and hired a full-time organist, who would play the instrument (a $15,800 alarm clock, in effect) as Carnegie awoke each morning. John D. Rockefeller had pipe organs installed in his Manhattan town house and his estate at Sleepy Hollow up the Hudson River from the city. Henry Clay Frick had a pipe organ situated at the top of the stairs of his Fifth Avenue mansion for after-dinner recitals. “Such an instrument has become an almost necessary equipment of the great American mansion,” an article in The New York Times Magazine declared.
The exploits of the very wealthy caught the attention of merchants and city fathers, who found that a pipe organ was an easy way to attract the public, which paid the costs with its nickels and dimes. Wanamaker’s department store acquired an organ built for a world’s fair in St. Louis, had it brought to Philadelphia by rail, installed it in the store, and added several thousand pipes to buttress its claim to be “the world’s largest.” When the organ was dedicated, twelve thousand people went to the store in the rain for a recital that began (after “The Star-Spangled Banner”) with Bach’s Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor.
As it made recorded music intimate and domestic, then, electricity made organ music extramusical in its stress on spectacle and gigantism. Lacking sound, motion pictures—and the newsreels that preceded them—were shown to the accompaniment of an organ, and hundreds of music halls and movie palaces were equipped with pipe organs. Radio City Music Hall in New York, which opened in 1932, featured a “Mighty Wurlitzer” with pipes in eleven different rooms: the music hall of the future had no windows, no columns, no Latin maxims on the walls, but it had a giant pipe organ.
The mighty Wurlitzer was the last of its kind. The organ revival had subsided with the Great Depression. When the economy revived, the organ revival did not. Powered by technology, it was undone by technology. With the spread of the motion-picture “talkie” there was no need for organists to play under the movies. As if in acknowledgment of this, a number of early talkies included scenes featuring pipe organs—and so Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor played by Bela Lugosi or Boris Karloff became a horror-movie trademark, the very sound of the city at nighttime as a lurid, ill-lit haunted house.
The newsreels had sound, too. Once sound-playback equipment was installed, the movie palace changed from an imaginative space to a realistic one, in which the events onscreen corresponded to those in the world outside.
“The only place the organ remained indispensable was the church,” Craig R. Whitney observes in All the Stops, concluding a chapter about the organ revival. Yet if the organ was indispensable to the church, the church was not indispensable to the organ. Ever since the age of the Bach dynasty people had yearned to take organ music out of the church with them to have the sound of the church without the Sunday obligation. Now the gramophone made it possible.
23>> In 1934 the Columbia Gramophone Company, a subsidiary of EMI, invited Albert Schweitzer to make an “album” of Bach organ recordings: several discs packaged in a binder with thick cardboard sleeves, like a photo album.
It was an obvious request, even an inevitable one. The clinic and the organ together had brought Schweitzer renown as the saintly doctor who played Bach on the side. His book about Bach had given him authority among musicians; his book about Jesus had made him a sage among church people. His philosophy of civilization, set out in a series of volumes beginning in the twenties, had associated him with all things classic and timeless—the very qualities EMI sought to embody with the sets of 78s in its Society Series, a venture set up along the same lines that the Paris Bach Society had followed in publishing the scores of Bach, with members underwriting production costs by subscribing up front.
In other respects, the pairing of Schweitzer and the record business was paradoxical. In going to Africa, Schweitzer had set himself against modern technology and the ease and convenience that it promised. His time abroad had acted as a preservative, sealing off his approach to the organ from recent developments such as the electric-powered pipe organ. EMI’s state-of-the-art recording process would register a way of playing Bach that he had developed three decades earlier—in the pre-recorded era, that is.
He was eager to make the recordings. He had spent much of 1934 in Europe, and that fall had settled in Edinburgh to give the first of two sets of Gifford lectures. He was due to return to Europe in the fall of 1935 and go to Scotland to give the second set of lectures. His schedule was thick with other talks and concerts. So he arranged with EMI to record in London in December 1935, after the Gifford lectures were done. He had taken part in a radio broadcast from a church in London and had made a recording in the city once before, at Queen’s Small Hall, but the organ there was harsher than he liked. So he proposed that EMI record him playing at the church of All Hallows by the Tower, where the organ, though built only in 1909, had a warm, compact sound.
First came acknowledgments of his sixtieth birthday in January 1935. Universities competed for the privilege of awarding him honorary degrees. The city of Strasbourg named a park in his honor. Schweitzer accepted; but for him Europe was now an alien place, a place of death, not life. The Great War had hardly ended and Europe was impelled toward war again; in Germany, great numbers of people were surrendering their individual wills to the mass “in deeds of violence and murders a thousandfold.” Such “brutalized humanity” was sponsored by new technology. “Because he has power of the forces of nature, man built machines which took away work from man, and this makes social problems of such magnitude that no one would have dreamed of them forty years ago,” he observed. “In some cities now air raid practices are held, with sirens shrieking and all lights out. People shove something over their heads which makes them look like beasts, and rush into cellars, while flying through the air appears the superman, possessing endless powers for destruction.”
In Lambaréné he received a letter from Berlin inviting him to go to the country of Bach as the guest of the Nazis: it was signed, “with German greetings, Joseph Goebbels.” He wrote a letter rejecting the invitation, and signed it “with Central African greetings, Albert Schweitzer.”
He set out in August 1935, boarding a Europe-bound steamer on Africa’s west coast. Mussolini’s army was menacing Abyssinia, to the east, and the crisis of Europe was in the front of Schweitzer’s mind. With the Gifford lectures he would address “the problem of natural theology and natural ethics,” aiming to find a basis for a common ethics and spirituality in the experience of peoples outside the Christian tradition. With the Bach recordings he would attempt something similar.
The music of Bach represented the tradition that Europe seemed determined to do away with. “Bach, like every lofty religious mind, belongs not to the church but to religious humanity,” he remarked, and “any room becomes a church in which his sacred works are performed and listened to with devotion.” He would turn sitting rooms into churches. He would present Bach to a society in which the spirit of Bach was being violated. He would be a missionary to the Europeans, converting them to the civilization that had been their own once upon a time.
24>> The age of mechanical reproduction was at hand: as Schweitzer steamed northward, Walter Benjamin—German self-exile, freelance critic, book collector, author of radio scripts—sat writing, in pen and ink, an essay about the prospects of the work of art in the new era he called “the Age of Its Mechanical Reproducibility.”
Benjamin was in a cabin in Denmark, far from Paris, the site of his encounters with movies, radio, phonograph records, and illustrated museum catalogs; but the cabin was that of Bertolt Brecht, playwright and evangelist of live art, and Benjamin felt the forces of new technology pressing in on him. “Just as water, gas, and electricity are brought into our houses from far off to satisfy our needs in response to a minimal effort, so we shall be supplied with visual and auditory images, which will appear and disappear at a simple movement of the hand, hardly more than a sign,” Paul Valéry had predicted. As the Depression lifted, the cost of home appliances fell, and the phonograph, the camera, and the wireless were suddenly everywhere. This change made Benjamin anxious. Through mechanical reproduction, people of all classes were put on intimate terms with the great art of the past: “The cathedral leaves its locale to be received in the studio of a lover of art; the choral production, performed in an auditorium or in the open air, resounds in the drawing room.” And yet mechanical reproduction uprooted the work of art from its place in time and space and in “the fabric of tradition.” Reproduced, it was less distinctive and less awe-inspiring. There was a loss of its “presence” or “aura.” Over time, the power of art was diminished, and the loss was akin to a loss of religious faith.
A young man upholding the old ways, entering into exile from European civilization so as to bear witness to its character through critique and example: Benjamin was Albert Schweitzer’s secret sharer, a fellow diagnostician of decline.
Outwardly they were not akin, and not just in that one was Christian and the other Jewish. Whereas Schweitzer rose from rural provincial life, Benjamin, born in Berlin in 1892—as Schweitzer entered his final year as a scholarship boy at the Gymnasium in Alsace—belonged to the bourgeoisie of the capital. Where Schweitzer seized every opportunity, advancing in music, religion, and medicine all at once, Benjamin, slow and indecisive, struggled to find his way; where Schweitzer’s book on Bach began at the prompting of an elder, Benjamin’s early masterwork, a thesis on Goethe, challenged the top Goethe scholar in Berlin, and the conflict drew him into what Hannah Arendt called “the inextricable net woven of merit, great gifts, clumsiness, and misfortune into which his life was caught.” Living simply but comfortably in Paris and Strasbourg, Schweitzer took as an ideal the hero striving to save humanity; Benjamin, living “without possessions, job, dwelling or resources,” fancied himself a flâneur out of Baudelaire, aimlessly strolling the boulevards of Paris. Where Schweitzer had an iron constitution, Benjamin suffered from a cardiac condition that (as Arendt put it) made “even the shortest walk a great exertion,” and came down with a bout of malaria that left him unable (he said) even to “climb the stairs of the cheap hotels among which I must select my place of residence.”
Schweitzer seems the last premodern man, Benjamin the first postmodern one. But by his own account Benjamin was a nineteenth-century man measuring the change represented by the Great War, in which “a generation that had gone to school on a horse-drawn streetcar now stood under the open sky in a countryside in which nothing remained unchanged but the clouds, and beneath those clouds, in a field of force of destructive torrents, and explosions, was the tiny, fragile, human body.” And in his account the change wrought by mechanical reproduction was just one aspect of a long process whereby the human person was alienated from his fellows, his environment, and his own experience.
He set out his position in “The Storyteller,” an essay he wrote right after the one on mechanical reproduction. Once upon a time, he proposed, communication had been “mouth to mouth”—from one person directly to another. This was the age of storytelling. With the invention of the printing press, the telling of stories gave way to the writing, printing, and reading of them, bringing on “the rise of the novel.” Whereas storytelling is social, the writing and reading of novels is solitary. Where a story points a moral, a novel has no instruction to give—other than “evidence of the profound perplexity of the living.”
Just as the novel challenged storytelling, so the novel, in time, was itself challenged by a new form. This was information. Information, as Benjamin explained, describes the present in such a way that it is “understandable in itself.” It is the story together with its explanation, and it has sufficient authority to do away with the need for an appeal to tradition, religious faith, magic, or any other source. The story is not so self-sufficient. Its compactness, its laconic lack of explanation, “commends the story to the memory.” There “it preserves and concentrates its strength and is capable of releasing it even after a long time.” But for its power to be released, the story must be told—again and again and again; and for the story to be told, it must be remembered, and the art of storytelling “is lost when stories are no longer retained.” The decline from storytelling to information involved a loss of memory—involved the replacement of cultural memory with mechanical memory.
Benjamin (Susan Sontag later proposed) was an exemplar of the thinker “under the sign of Saturn”—solitary, deliberate, drawn by an “undertow of inwardness,” prone to see the past as a ruin and the present as the shards of a lost unity. Instead of relating to other people, the saturnine person relates to objects, and finds in them that “the amount of meaning is exactly proportional to the presence of death and the power of decay.”
Benjamin’s feel for the “magic circle” of books and objects made him anxious about mechanical reproduction. And it set him apart from Schweitzer. Where Schweitzer the revivalist embraced recordings as a means to make himself heard, Benjamin the collector-writer (working in “freeze-frame baroque” style, Sontag called it) feared recordings as a threat to his sensibility.
Benjamin’s anxiety was typical of devotees of the traditional arts in the face of new technology, who at once decried the power of technology and relished the intimacy with the past that it afforded. For Benjamin and his like, the past was not simply the past. The past—partial, fugitive, at once more substantial and more intangible than the present—was a figure for his inner life. It would spoil things if the past could be retrieved too easily or fully. It would do away with the imaginative space where he managed to stay alive.
25>> As night fell, the recording truck threaded through London traffic, bound for the City. The technicians sat in the cab up front, smoking and talking. A reporter from Fleet Street sat between them: not without adroit public relations had Albert Schweitzer come to be considered “the greatest interpreter of Bach,” as the record company was billing him.
All Hallows by the Tower was a compound of period styles—a Roman floor, a Saxon doorway, medieval walls, collegiate Gothic windows with their flattened arches. The history of the place was recounted laconically in tags mounted near the door: built by monks in 675, claimed by the Church of England during the Reformation, topped in the next century with a spire of the Wren type. Like Christianity in Europe, it was an artful reconstruction, bearing within it the evidence of breakdowns and revivals.
Schweitzer was already there, his shadow thrown onto the back wall by the electric light in the organ loft. The rector would allow the making of recordings only in the evenings, outside the ordinary life of the church, and so for two nights they had worked from dusk to dawn. The schedule suited Schweitzer: he liked to spend half a day with an organ before a recital, trying out its pedals and stops. To those who said you couldn’t burn the candle at both ends, he replied: “Oh yes you can, if the candle is long enough.”
The organ loft looked out over the church, the size of a meeting hall, and to the broad stained-glass window behind the altar. The church had its back to the Tower. It had stood here six hundred years when the remains of Thomas More, beheaded in the Tower, were brought there for burial. It had stood through the Great Fire, which Samuel Pepys, the diarist, who lived nearby, witnessed from a perch in the spire.
Against such a history Bach was a recent figure, and his music was not a thing of the past so much as the culmination of the past—a final expression from the religious treasure-house of Europe. And yet the hour for Europe, Schweitzer felt sure, was truly late. “Is religion a force in the spiritual life of our age? I answer, in your name and mine, ‘No!’” he had written. “There is a longing for religion among many who no longer belong to the churches. And yet we must hold fast to the fact that religion is not a force.” Musicians, not religious folk, were the custodians of these sacred places, dusting the corners of the past now that the spirit had vanished. It was to avoid such a fate that he had become a doctor and gone to Africa, making the music of Bach the motive force of a religious adventure, a tailwind that pushed him against the spirit of the age.
In making his life his argument, what was he arguing for? What in the European past had been lost, and how should it be regained? What in Bach did he want to get back?
About this Schweitzer the Bach scholar had little to say. Bach for him was an end point, an artist in whose hands a civilization, rooted in Christianity but not limited to it, had reached its fullest expression. Bach was the exemplar of a stance toward life that Europe had nearly lost and needed desperately to recover. But how? What was to be done?
Schweitzer had sought to answer the question with his life. A holy man, he was also a showman, a performing artist in the role of the man living uprightly. Acting holy, he would awaken his hearers and dramatize the ills of the present for them until they, too, were stirred to act.
He had made his life a revivalist’s edifying discourse, a sermon on the text of cultural decline. In leaving music for medicine, he demonstrated his view that the thread of Bach’s legacy had been lost. In leaving Europe for Africa, he declared that European civilization had come to an end too. His sojourn “on the edge of the primeval forest,” as he put it, made the emotional truth a factual one, at least for him. Then the Great War lowered the curtain on the European past while he looked on from afar. From then on Europeans were remote peoples, two-legged killing machines, and Europe was a place he would visit the way a missionary or anthropologist would. Its people now spoke a foreign language. Its past could be encountered only imaginatively, in performance.
As a revivalist, he stood apart from the modernists who were making it new in old Europe. Yet as the century deepened, his approach, more than theirs, was becoming the pattern of change for the arts and high culture generally: music, painting, poetry. Sometimes the change took place in a single person—T. S. Eliot turning his Symbolist sword into the plowshare of churchly upbuilding. Sometimes it took place across a society. The alarm would go up. The old ways were vanishing. The present was barren and indifferent. A crisis was at hand. It was up to the artist to make it new by making it old again—to set the past in counterpoint to the present lest the present go to ruin.
Schweitzer now sought to do likewise through Bach. A reformer of Bach, he would use his stronger language, that of revival. Thirty years earlier his book on the “musician-poet” had crowned the long Bach revival that culminated with the publication of the complete works. Now, sitting at the organ at All Hallows, he faced forward into another Bach revival, this one taking shape through the new technology of audio recordings.
After two nights, he knew this organ well. So he studied the works themselves, which he would never tire of examining. The Prelude and Fugue in C. The “Little” Fugue in G Minor. The Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. He tried to concentrate.
There were usually guests at these sessions—a reporter, a critic, a music-loving curate—and a stirring below the organ loft signaled that a guest had arrived.
“I have surprised him in the midst of his work, in shirt sleeves,” the reporter wrote, invoking the characteristic image of Schweitzer, at once great man and craftsman, that Schweitzer himself had seen in Bach’s life and sought in his own. “He has even taken off his vest here in the late autumn in the cold church. I see again the imposing head that reminds one of Nietzsche, the powerful form with broad shoulders which seems to me today even heavier and more crammed with energy than ever.
“Before the organ over the church pews hangs the microphone; it carries the tone of the organ to the receiving apparatus in the sacristy. Here the wax disc turns, and here the needle scratches the organ tones in the surface of what looks like a thick, deep yellow honey cake.
“‘You are arriving just at one of the most difficult places,’ said Albert Schweitzer to me, as he took me up to the choir loft with him.”
The reporter watched carefully as Schweitzer returned to his position at the organ—and then turned his attention to the specifics of the recording process.
“He supports himself on the organ bench with both hands, and plays with assurance and energy the difficult foot pedals once or twice through. Then he telephones the sacristy that he is ready. The man in charge of the reception there puts on a new disc and lowers the needle. Now a muffled bell beside the console gives the signal …
“The organ begins.”
The pipes ring out once, twice, a third time. The organ swells with sound.
The recording suggests what Schweitzer had seen and heard since he renounced music for medicine. It is an account of experience that is larger than his philosophy. It is full of the conflict that is never really present in his story of his life, in which all the conflicts are already resolved and the great man is always right. The exploratory lines of the toccata converge in a tightly organized fugue. Its theme is made up of a fourfold figure repeated at different points in the structure and different places on the organ. In later recordings, the effect is of a thickening weave, a brick wall of sound rising from the ground up. In Schweitzer’s recording the low end is inaudible, and the lines subside to silence. The effect of that repeated figure is that of a long sermon—the revivalist in the pulpit making the same point over and over, voice going hoarse, finger stabbing the darkness.
What was to be done? Schweitzer sought to answer the question through the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, setting Bach in counterpoint with the age one more time.
Copyright © 2012 by Paul Elie
Meet the Author
Paul Elie, for many years a senior editor with FSG, is now a senior fellow at Georgetown University's 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.
Paul Elie, for many years a senior editor with FSG, is now a senior fellow with Georgetown University's 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.
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