In the new book Reinventing Bach, Paul Elie explores how performers and recording artists of the last century — including organist Albert Schweitzer, pianist Glenn Gould and cellist Pablo Casals — kept teasing out the new in Bach's 300-year-old music.
Bach left room for interpretation in his compositions, Elie said.
He worked "up the music just elaborately enough that it was distinctly itself but could be carried forward by others into places that maybe the composer hadn’t expected,” he said.
He points to Glenn Gould's 1955 recording of Bach's Goldberg Variations as the embodiment of the post-World War II moment.
"He's not playing in the way of a Romantic artist with lots of bravado," Elie said. "There's a detachment, an objectivity, almost a mechanical quality to it that I associate with skyscrapers and jet planes and elevators."
Elie calls Bach’s music shareware, a riff on the type of software that is widely available for free, equally at home on a variety of instruments.
“It seems to work its way into different contexts and remain Bach,” Elie said. “It doesn’t get dumbed down. People don’t have to popularize it. It is what it is, and yet there it is on the soundtrack to Master and Commander or some other movie and it fits perfectly.”
Much of Bach’s music had a sacred, religious purpose. All the same, Elie says there's no reason to feel bad for appreciating Bach’s Mass in B Minor for reasons entirely detached from the composer’s religious intentions.
“You can’t really say in a few words what religion is,” Elie said. “But one of the things it does is that it connects people to the past or a sense of the past. Most classical music is old music. When you compound that by hearing a 200-year-old work in a 50-year-old recording, you’re having an experience in a kind of triple time that I think it’s fair to call transcendent.”
Elie doesn’t have a single favorite Bach piece, but lately he keeps coming back to different interpretations of The Well-Tempered Clavier.
“I hope this doesn’t sound heretical: you could either give it almost mystical attention or put it on as background or driving music and it seems to work either way,” he said.