Reviewed by Tony Cummings
I wonder if author Andrew Gant, who is a lecturer at St Peter's College in Oxford and is probably best known to Cross Rhythms readers for his O Sing Unto The Lord: A History Of English Church Music, flinched when SPCK asked him to write this book. The publisher has already offered readers books in their A Very Brief History series on Julian Of Norwich, Thomas More and William Tyndale but writing a slim volume of a hundred or so pages on the giant of a composer musician who wrote an incredible 1128 pieces of music (with a further 23 works lost or unfinished) would have daunted all but the most courageous of academics. The fact that Andrew has produced such an informative and thoroughly readable book about the writer of "Jesu, Joy Of Man's Desiring", "The Brandenburg Concerto" and reams more classics, says a lot for the lecturer's skills. Occasionally this volume gets a little technical - I had to look up words like contrapunctal, ritornello and capellmeisters and I'd never heard of instruments like a lute-harpsichord. But when one considers the structural complexity of Bach's work and the period of time being covered, their use was probably necessary. And throughout, Gant's word pictures of the life of the German genius are well written and skilfully place him in the social history of an 18th century jobbing musician/composer at the beck and call of patrons and, sadly, petty-minded bureaucrats. To end with a brief quote from a brief book: "Reading about the day-to-day shape and sound of his working life causes his muse to emerge and appear out of living stones, vibrant and alive, dynamic and changing, creative and full of fire and life. . . He thought and cared deeply about his faith. But he did not, in the last years, dive ever deeper into the liturgy and contemplation of the divine, like William Byrd. Instead, he disappeared ever more completely into his own art. He was, above all else, the learned musician." If you've never read a book about this learned musician, this is definitely the one to start you off.
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