Reinventing Bach by Paul Elie - review by Gulliver Ralston

Gulliver Ralston

I’ll Be Bach

Reinventing Bach


Union Books 498pp £25

Written by a passionate admirer of Bach and full of insights into the ways in which the recording industry shapes our listening experience, Reinventing Bach offers reflections on how we respond to the past, the music of Bach and the iconic performers who have curated his legacy in the 20th century. ‘So this is a story of the revival of a traditional art form through the technology that was supposed to be its undoing … Past is prologue here.’

With sentences like that, I thought, there’s bound to be some T S Eliot on the way, along with juggling of the words ‘past, present and future’. Paul Elie is after more than a history of recording. The quotations from Four Quartets arrive a few pages later, together with language evoking early-20th-century decay and the modernist dilemma of how to relate to cultural artefacts which live on in an environment that can barely sustain them. After some initial hesitation about whether the book could work without a firmer methodological framework, I came to believe that Elie’s reverence for Bach and his explorations of the ways in which technology has enhanced performances of Bach’s work provide an honest account of how many people approach historical recordings. Elie gives recordings of the composer a special place in the midst of the collapsing scenery of the first half of the 20th century: ‘The music of Bach would emerge not just as the music of the past but as the music of the shattered, anguished present.’ 

Reinventing Bach reflects on the relationship between the artist and technology. It explores the links between Albert Schweitzer’s world view and his 1935 recordings of Bach in All-Hallows-by-the-Tower in London; Pablo Casals’s ‘on-going engagement’ with Bach’s Cello Suites during the rise of fascism in Europe; Leopold Stokowski’s love–hate relationship with

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