Reinventing Bach by Paul Elie is a fascinating, if sometimes frustrating, read. Part biographical, part an exploration into how music has been reinvented through the invention, and technological improvements, of recorded sound. It ranges through the lives of Bach and his interpreters (Stokowski, Casals, Gould, Yo-Yo Ma etc.). Bach as Muzak, and Bach as consolation; and even the post-Bach life of Bach's church.

Elie's prose is often of the deepest purple. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. Generally when he's writing about his experience of music, it can be entrancing. But part of the problem that I had with this book is that Elie is quite evidently not a musician. To be fair he is clear that he is not; and often writing about music by a non-musician can be refreshingly enchanting (as it often is with Elie), but sometimes it's just plain irritating. There are odd mistakes and misunderstandings, there are assertions that to me are just plain wrong. An example : Elie lies great stress that an organist is an individual, who happens to have an orchestra at his fingertips that he is able to operate solely by him/herself. This, I think is a common conception today, and is certainly something that I've been told when I've been caught practicing BUT this is only something that's largely come into being through technological changes since Bach's death.

Well into the twentieth century many country churches were still dependent on manpower (or more frequently choirboy power) to blow the organ. If you needed to practice, you had to make sure that there was someone available who was able to help. In Bach's day you would have needed even more help. As well as the small boy round the side or back of the organ handling the blowing mechanism; you would have also needed another helper for any mid-piece stop changes.

A beautiful photograph of the organ at St. Jacobi Kirche, Hamburg. An organ that Bach knew well. Here you can see the problem of flat stop boards, making it virtually impossible to change sound quickly. For more on the organ, and some fascinating pages on other instruments of the period see
Most organs still had flat stop boards, and no pistons. This meant that although you could set up stops at the beginning, any sudden changes (perhaps a quiet verse in a hymn, or the change in timbre that you might need to differentiate a prelude from a fugue) would need to be done either wholly or partly by another person. Organs may indeed be their own orchestra, but in practical terms they weren't a solo effort until the introduction of electricity, and changes in design allowed this to happen.

The book is often unwieldy jumping from the weird life of Glenn Gould shutting himself away from the concert hall to a nude Stokowski sunbathing, from musings on the life of Bach to a thinly veiled rant about the popularity of period instrument performances. Bach is seen as the catalyst for any changes / advances in music, and although some of this is undoubtedly true, it seemed to be mainly the over-enthusiasm of a loving fan.

However....despite the oddities, and occasionally infuriating moments, I thoroughly enjoyed Reinventing Bach. Whether or not you agree with Elie's conclusions, it was a thoughtful book, that forced you the reader, and Bach lover, to think about your own relationship with his music, and the changes that advances in recording technology have made to music.

Resurrecting Bach might have been an equally appropriate title, as Elie examines loss and resurrection. One of the central stories in the book is Bach's attempts to meet up with Handel. Both were admirers of the other, but despite several attempts to meet life got in the way. As a result though each knew of the other, and had presumably either played or heard the other's music, they never heard the other play - how different this would have been post-recorded sound. What would they have made of each other's interpretations? What would we have thought of Bach's phrasing? - those little nuances that don't quite come across on the printed page.

Glenn Gould, who hated playing for a live audence forged his reputation from the recordings he made. Recordings that have achieved another life, and "reinvented" Gould to new audiences posthumously. In an age pre-recorded sound, Gould would almost certainly have been lost to us. His "live" career would probably have been short, and his name forgotten. Now, in an age of easy access to sound he is more widely known than during his lifetime. Pre-recorded sound other things were lost too. Elie muses on the last months of Bach's life, blinded by cataracts and an inept, and what sounds like an horrific, surgery, Bach persuaded his children to fill in the blanks left in some of his works under his supervision; but Elie muses on the Bach that was lost forever. What did he improvise, what was changed, what was created in that last year of darkness? Now all irretrievably lost.

As a guide to the wider world of Bach's legacy, it's a fantastic read. Not least because it introduced me to the wonderful voice of Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. It made me think about my own relationship with Bach too - who is both my favourite composer to listen to and (most of all) to play. Ironically, although I know Bach very well, I don't think I have been to a single concert where Bach was played; all my knowledge has come from playing, from recordings, or from Bach as Muzak on TV, but that's another story. So, Elie's book was very relevant to my own life with Bach.Indeed after reading Reinventing Bach, I decided that it was time to finally listen to Bach properly. So, I've set myself a new non-bookish challenge - to listen and / or play my way through the whole of Bach. This will take a while but should be a great deal of fun. The story will be continued on Bookhound.

If you want to learn more about the history of Bach, or are looking for a musicological approach Reinventing Bach will be light and frothy and not really for you. But as a fascinating dip into the history of the genius that was Bach, and for the changing face of music and its uses in the modern age, this is a great read. Thoroughly recommended.


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