'Reinventing Bach': multiple variations on a virtuoso composer
Paul Elie's "Reinventing Bach" is a unique book — a biography of Johann Sebastian Bach, a history of recorded sound and a case for Bach as the greatest composer of all time. Elie discusses his book Monday at Town Hall Seattle.
Special to The Seattle Times
Paul ElieThe author of "Reinventing Bach" will discuss his book at 7:30 p.m. Monday at Town Hall Seattle, 1119 Eighth Ave., Seattle. Tickets are $5 at www.townhallseattle.orgor 888-377-4510, and at the door beginning at 6:30 p.m. Town Hall members receive priority seating. For more information, call the Elliott Bay Book Co. (206-624-6600 or www.elliottbaybook.com).
Paul Elie's new book on Johann Sebastian Bach is a wonderful piece of writing that's hard to categorize: a biography of Johann Sebastian Bach, a history of recorded sound, an analysis of Bach's interpreters over the years, and a virtuoso attempt to explain why Bach is simply the greatest composer of all time.
None of these descriptions does justice to Elie's "Reinventing Bach," (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 496 pp., $30) which is written like a great piece of music — with its own rhythm, counterpoint, moments of deep reflection, and spectacular flourishes of verbal dexterity.
Elie, author of "The Life You Save May Be Your Own," a group biography of four writers influenced by Catholicism, accomplishes all this by following the classic advice to writers: show, don't tell.
Thus we are conveyed into Bach's family home, where another child of Bach's has just died after a festive baptism under auspices of a royal godfather, and Johann Sebastian has thrown himself into the composition of a masterly "musical instruction" book for his oldest surviving son, 9-year-old Wilhelm Friedemann.
We see Bach the devoted family man, and the mourning widower (when his first wife, Maria Barbara, died suddenly at 35, he wrote music that encoded her name via a Baroque system that gave numerical values to notes and words). We see Elie himself walking the quarter-mile between two historic Leipzig churches, a path that was "Bach's main journey for a quarter of a century."
And Elie shows us a spectacular array of vignettes: Mstislav Rostropovich playing Bach solo cello suites at the newly fallen Berlin Wall. Dr. Albert Schweitzer playing the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor on his zinc-lined portable organ in Africa. Savion Glover merrily tap-dancing to the Brandenburg Concerto No. 3. Isaac Stern soaring through a solo Bach Sarabande in Jerusalem to an audience wearing gas masks in preparation for Scud missile attacks in 1991. And a Yo-Yo Ma Bach performance at Tanglewood, which Elie describes as "a work of German music played by a Chinese-Franco-American cellist in a New England concert hall named for a Japanese conductor and modeled after a Shaker barn."
Elie's felicitous word choices make this compendium consistently entertaining. Arriving late for a concert, he sits "at the back, in latecomer's steerage." Reflecting on the huge legacy of existing recordings, he writes: "Ours is a city of sonic ruins, a Rome of aural superabundance." But through all these recordings, as he notes, "the dead continue to speak," and Elie's book has brought the composer and his interpreters brilliantly alive.
Melinda Bargreen is the former classical music critic for The Seattle Times. She's a freelance contributor to the Times and reviews concerts for 98.1 Classical KING 5 (www.king.org).