Viewing Bach through lens of history, culture

EntertainmentMusicArts and CultureCultureMusic IndustryLeopold StokowskiPablo Casals

Halfway through reading Paul Elie's "Reinventing Bach," I suddenly got dizzy. An earthquake? All-purpose angst? Or could it be that composer Johann Sebastian Bach was working as an agent of transcendence on me, as he did on this sincere author?

The basic pillars of this study are sturdy. Elie looks at how a composer influenced the outer and inner lives of four key 20th-century Bachians — Albert Schweitzer, Pablo Casals, Leopold Stokowski and Glenn Gould — and how they then contributed to making Bach central to the modern musical experience and radicalized it.

Elie doesn't stop there. He weaves Bach's biography into theirs. And into that he further weaves his own fervent reactions. And he sets this all against a century of vertiginous world events and pop culture and the advent of recording. Who wouldn't get a little woozy?

Elie begins by taking us into the church in London where in 1935 Schweitzer — the French organist, theologian and famed medical missionary in Africa — recorded the Toccata and Fugue in D minor. He shows Schweitzer to be a complicated and compromised revivalist. To listen to Schweitzer is to step back in history.

Around the same time, Casals made his classic recording of Bach's six solo cello suites. The Spanish cellist had discovered a copy of these forgotten masterpieces as a teenager in Barcelona and gave their first public performance 12 years later.

These old 78s are for Elie something new in music. The up-close studio sound means that listening has become a solitary, not social, pursuit, and that a lay listener can "enter into the experience of the musician."

In fact, any musician knows a virtual experience is just that. But it is true that Bach's keyboard works have an extreme intimacy.

It was only a few years after Schweitzer's and Casals' recordings that Stokowski relocated Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor into popular culture through Walt Disney's "Fantasia." But by calling the film the "one work of his that is unquestionably a classic," Elie underestimates Stokowski's brilliance as an arranger and his broad influence on musical culture.

Elie finds a breath of fresh Bachian air with a new generation of North American performers who were not dependent on European examples. And Gould gets the most credit for changing the course of Bach discussions with his electrifying yet structurally illuminating pianism and eccentric personality.

But Elie also represents a revolutionary Bach renaissance as part of the '50s cultural, scientific and technological explosion. By the end of the book, it's a big Bach party, with room for all.

With digital downloads, we have shareable Bach, allowing the composer to enter into our cultural bloodstream like never before.

But Elie misses an even bigger picture. Bach had been in our bloodstream all along. The more significant Bach reinventions have been more musical than cultural or technological.

Besides such musicians as Schweitzer and Casals, making their case for Bach in the 1930s were the composers who were really reinventing Bach at the time. In his quest for Bach, Elie casts his net widely, seeking from this one composer both spiritual transcendence and a connection with secular society and culture. He accuses Leonard Bernstein, for instance, of being out of touch for complaining in the 1950s that Bach's music was still too much relegated to the church.

But no net catches it all, and a lot of music, especially in North America, was no longer going Bach's way. Morton Feldman, a robust New York Jew and America's most ethereally transcendent avant-garde composer, added his voice (and pronounced accent) to Bernstein's when he quipped: "So if I wanna hear a Brandenboig Concerto, I've gotta convoit?"

Transcendence is entirely a personal matter, and "Reinventing Bach" is one musical layman's approach to an enormous subject.

mswed2@tribune.com

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