Jim Lange Published

Bach: Behind the Portrait


Sir John Eliot Gardiner has had a life-long relationship with Bach. In  fact, the Haussmann portrait hung in the his home and the young Gardiner passed it every day. Imagine that.

Growing up in rural Dorset, Gardiner’s parents were avid amateur musicians whose music-making was a family routine and not at all rarified. Besides the common household singing and playing, his parents regularly sang with others in performances of William Byrd’s Mass for Four Voices (For those who do not know- this requires some skill beyond congregational hymn singing).


Credit Elias Gottlob Haußmann 1695-1794
Is his gaze severe or merely the result of myopia? Is the rest of the face suggesting a “bon vivant”? Why does he judge us so?

Like most of us bitten by the Bach bug, we often ponder the glaring dichotomy of a mortal man who seemed to have a divine gift. Stories of Bach railing against the local authorities seem to directly contradict a humble, devout man who wrote “Soli Deo gloria” (To God alone the glory) at the beginning and at the end of every one of his liturgical compositions. For Gardiner, the journey may have started with this imposing portrait (right), but his search for the man was most fruitful in his learning, analyzing and performing Bach’s cantatas (209 have survived).

The full interview with John Eliot Gardiner

I spoke with the maestro about his new book, Music in the Castle of Heaven, his life in rural Dorset, his passion for the music of Bach and his search for the man behind the myths, the distortion and omission of biographical information and ultimately, that perfect, transcendent music.


  The Book:

Gardiner’s writing is a balanced combination of intellect, flowing syntax and most importantly, a warm humanity. Most Bach books that I have tried to read are as dry as dust. It’s as if the authors must make their writing as complicated as Bach’s counterpoint in order to be worthy of his genius. Sir John’s love of his subject keeps the dust away.

Buy it here.