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Reinventing Bach

While you may have spent the holidays listening to, or even playing or singing, the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, I spent a rather enjoyable chunk of time reading about it. And, eventually, surfing YouTube to watch and listen to a few unique performances. But more on that later.

A chance encounter with a summary of Paul Elie’s new book, Reinventing Bach, pulled me in the way a snippet of familiar music can grab one’s attention. Full disclosure might be in order here: I’m not a musician, nor was I raised in a musical family. Most of the music criticism I’ve read has been about jazz. My exposure to classical music has been scattershot and self-directed, spurred on by fleeing an atrocious rock station during my college years. What followed was the low-budget analog equivalent to today’s disc ripping: borrowing LPs from the library and taping them on cassettes. (Indeed, in this era of digital downloading, ripping discs is already old-fashioned.)

This bit of personal history is germane to Reinventing Bach, which weaves the evolution of musical trends and technology through a long meditation on Bach’s life and the power and timelessness of his works. In doing so the author also acquaints the reader with people important to the stories of Bach’s music: Albert Schweitzer, who hauled a zinc-lined piano-organ hybrid to the Congo so he could practice music while practicing medicine; Pablo Casals, who found Bach’s cello suites and made them his own; Walt Disney and Leopold Stokowski, who together brought us Fantasia; quirky Glenn Gould, the technophile who re-popularized Bach even as rock-n-roll took center stage; and the charismatic Yo-Yo Ma, who may seem faultless but isn’t beyond leaving his $2.5 million 1733 Stradivarius cello in the trunk of a cab.

Elie orchestrates all this in a thoroughly engaging way. His descriptions of music, which can be as difficult as describing color, are fresh and free of cliché. His biographies, and there are many more than noted above, are fascinating, if sometimes brief (though I think he spends too much time with Glenn Gould). As he makes clear, Bach is, still, everywhere. Movie and TV soundtracks. Holiday ceremonies. Technology launches. The Berlin Wall as it fell. The Muppet Show. Disaster memorials. Richard Powers novels. The Simpsons. Papal elections and presidential swearings-in.

And award-winning commercials. I always study a book’s notes, acknowledgments, and bibliography for interesting tidbits and further avenues of exploration, and Reinventing Bach didn’t disappoint. Included are those YouTube videos I mentioned. For starters, check this out:

-Jake Vail, Reference



  1. Kathleen Shea says:

    I enjoyed the review, and the link to the video was fantastic–not to be missed. I do have a music background, am partial to Bach, and appreciate learning about this biography, which I might just check out of the library to read when you reopen. I also enjoyed your explanation of the situation with e-books. I don’t read e-books, and for me they will never replace paper books. I already own too many books, so being able to check them out of the library saves me money and shelf space. Your point about people needing to do research with archived materials is well-taken. I’m glad we have a public library in our town!

    • Nancy Hawkins says:

      I might add also that the Thomas Gorton Music and Dance Library in KU’s Murphy Hall is an excellent research site, and it is open to all Kansas residents with proper registration/ID. Check out their website for more info:
      Lynn Koenig at LPL can tell you all about the KU Libraries, too!

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