Bach - Music in the Castle of Heaven, by John Eliot Gardiner
I'm deeply thankful that I read this book, because it taught me how to appreciate Bach's cantatas and great Passions. Gardiner is not only a sensitive historian but also a talented and innovative conductor. Though I'm not sure what his personal beliefs are, he doesn't sneer at Bach's Lutheran beliefs, and he takes the time to sympathetically explain Biblical allusions and events.
Bach believed that God should be praised through music, but for the first half of his life he worked as a court musician and composer. At age 38 he became the Leipzig church cantor, and Bach finally had the chance to realize this dream. To the likely astonishment and bewilderment of the Leipzig church musicians, Bach wrote an original cantata almost every week for two or three years. It's not as if he recycled the same tunes or ideas either. Each cantata is a brilliantly original composition, expressing the week's liturgical theme. Gardiner makes a convincing argument that Bach's cantatas were the high point of his creative output, and that's saying something.
I can only pity the poor pastor who had to follow that with a sermon, Sunday after Sunday!
I especially enjoyed the chapter about Bach's process of composition and rehearsal. Gardiner quotes the one eyewitness account of Bach as conductor:
If you could see Bach... singing with one voice and playing his own parts, but watching over everything and bringing back to the rhythm and the beat, out of thirty or even forty musicians, the one with a nod, another by tapping with his foot, the third with a warning finger, giving the right note to one from the top of his voice, to another from the bottom, and to a third from the middle of it -- all alone, in the midst of the greatest din made by all the participants, and although he is executing the most difficult parts himself, noticing at once whenever and wherever a mistake occurs, holding everyone together, taking precautions everywhere, and repairing any unsteadiness, full of rhythm in every part of his body -- this one man taking in all these harmonies with his keen ear and emitting with his voice alone the tone of all the voices...
He was certainly prickly and irascible with his employers, the town council. He even threatened to fine musicians who "made a slip or a noticeable mistake in the music" the equivalent of four pints of beer.
So far my favorite cantata is St. John's Passion. The text is John's account of Christ's betrayal and crucifixion, with some reflective hymns added at key points. I like to follow along with an English translation, though there's at least one recording of it in English.