By Paul Elie
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux; 415 pages
A review by R.C. Speck
How did the music of Johann Sebastian Bach help shape history? Such a wide-ranging question deserves a wide-ranging answer, and author Paul Elie gives us just that in his sprawling new work Reinventing Bach. Elie can be described as almost carefree as he scoots from storyline to storyline without losing the thread of his thesis that all roads lead back to Bach.
Along with a rollicking biography of the great man himself, Elie takes us on a tour of the twentieth century musicians most associated with him. Albert Schweitzer, organist and humanitarian, was infatuated with Bach’s organ music his entire life. Pablo Casals, the great Catalonian cellist, discovered Bach’s Cello Suites in a dusty Spanish music shop and changed history. The eccentric Canadian genius Glenn Gould displayed frightening control of Bach’s music at a young age when he first recorded the Goldberg Variations in the 1950s. Leopold Stokowski, brilliant oddball that he was, once sat with Walt Disney over dinner. Together they envisioned Fantasia.
Elie branches off further and describes how Bach’s living agents met and collaborated throughout the 20th century. Especially memorable is how Glenn Gould was producing a radio documentary on Pablo Casals in 1972. Casals was 96; he could still play, but his voice was too soft for the microphone. Ironically, Gould opposed Casals’s “romantic sensibility” and preferred to play Bach as the undiluted Baroque master that he was.
The further Elie takes us from Bach, the more he switches from engrossing biography to notable anecdote. For example, in a few paragraphs, he describes how Yo-Yo Ma went from a wild, irresponsible youth to a man recording the Cello Suites flawlessly on a 1712 Stradivarius. Elie also includes Ma’s collaboration with Steve Jobs, the co-founder of Apple, on a clever advertisement for Mac computers.
Elie is not afraid to mix in other forms of music, such as blues, jazz, and rock. You wouldn’t expect to find Robert Johnson, Ornette Coleman, and Eric Clapton in a book about Johann Sebastian Bach, but there they are. According to Elie, Coleman once played Bach’s first Cello Suite “harmolodically,” whatever that means. Elie makes us want to find out.
Reinventing Bach is not so much about Bach but what this robust and prolific man generated. It’s not just music, but a worldwide music movement which first took hold in 1829 when the great Felix Mendelssohn conducted Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. Reinventing Bach shows us that this movement has been going strong ever since.