Reinventing Bach (Part 1)

Now for something hopefully less controversial.

Part 1 of a lengthy review – Part 2 is here.

I’ve been making my way through Paul Elie’s Reinventing Bach for the better part of the summer.  It’s 500+ pages long, which initially felt a bit much for a work of popular musical history, but it’s the sort of nonfiction that’s easy to pick up and put down without feeling like you’ve lost the thread.  I’m only halfway through it.  Here is a brief summary of some of those people, links to and brief discussions of their recordings.

Elie’s basic project is to examine the lives and works of several different 20th century Bach performers.  The book is written a style that’s trying to emulate Bach’s counterpoint.  Each story begins as a ripple within a larger story, that then is amplified in later chapters, and reprises later.  Woven throughout the book is an intermittent biography of Bach himself. I was skeptical about the style at first – it seemed forced, a bit pretentious – but it actually works in surprising ways.  In other words, this is both a book about interesting people and a book that’s written interestingly.

One other thing this book does well – it avoids a problem Nates has noted about popular intellectual history: the risk of oversimplifying and even caricaturing individuals in the service of making things “accessible” or imprinting a narrative onto the underlying phenomena that ends up feeling forced.  Here are good bits of biography, and good bits of musical writing, and reasonably convincing observations about the sweep of world history in the 20th century.

So I’ll just give a few snapshots of the figures and recordings covered in the first part of the book.  I’ve dotted my summaries with relevant Youtube videos, some better than others.  All of this is available less confusingly on Spotify.


First, Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965).  According to Elie, he was intermittently a theologian, musician and humanitarian activist.  Elie begins his book examining his organ works, most specifically his recording of Bach’s infamous Toccata and Fugue in D Minor (this is a link that includes a few different clips of his organ recordings -the Toccata and Fugue starts right at 10:00).  It’s really a blast from the past in an almost literal sense: we have recording, from the 78 era, but the London organ on which it was recorded was destroyed during one of the world wars.

(Interesting tidbit I learned about this piece and why we associate it with horror movies.  Elie says it’s because the first talkie pictures often made on-screen allusions to the in-theater organs that had accompanied films in the silent era, and so in an early Dracula, we find him seated at his organ playing the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor).

Next, Pablo Casals (1876-1973), who, in addition to his career as a cellist, was an outspoken critic and anti-Spanish-fascism advocate throughout his life (take that Ezra Pound!).  Elie focuses on his recording of Bach’s Cello Suites (this link includes all 6 suites in their entirety), in which he finds both a parallel to fellow Catalonian Antoni Gaudi, and a deeply personal intimacy.  Since it’s Bach, I haven’t quite gotten to that point with this recording yet but I’m willing to take his word for it.

Lastly (for this installment) Leopold Stowkowski (1882-1977), best known for his orchestral arrangements of Bach fan favorites, including the aforementioned Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, and (Elie discusses at more length) the Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor.  as well as the soundtrack for Fantasia (that’s a video of one scene).  Elie also points out that Stowkowski and Glenn Gould worked together on a recording of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto #5.  On Elie’s telling, the “Stowkowski sound” was very, very popular around midcentury.  It’s a little too over-romanticized and movie-soundtrack-ish for my tastes.  But again, this is Bach and I’ve only listened a few times, which means I haven’t really listened at all.

Still to come – Glenn Gould’s Goldberg Variations, Otto Klemperer’s St. Matthew’s Passion, Wendy Carlos’s Switched-on Bach, Yo-Yo Ma, and others.

(Now it’ll be just my luck that Nates will reveal Schweitzer as a Nazi and hear disturbing overtones of that Nazism in the Toccata and Fugue….)

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One Response to Reinventing Bach (Part 1)

  1. Nates says:

    My only outrage is that you ended the post by stealing my joke!

    The book sounds interesting. It’s probably just a reflection of my ignorance about classical music, but I especially liked the tidbit about organ scenes in early talking movies.

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