The Famous Unknown Man

The Famous Unknown Man

I recently read the most fascinating pair of books, both about Bach but very nearly opposites. 

The authors share a goal: to illuminate the life and personality of Johann Sebastian Bach, surely one of the least-known famous people in history. But that’s where the similarity ends. 

Conductor John Eliot Gardiner, a devoted interpreter of Bach’s music, sketches the composer’s life starting with the few known facts, then enhancing them with lively descriptions of his surroundings, his contemporaries, and his music. 

It’s a bit like creating a painting by starting with the frame and working inward. The resulting picture is not so much Bach himself as the space within which Bach lived and worked—biography by inference. This 700-page experiment is called Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven.

In contrast, James Runcie, author of the popular Grantchester mysteries, tries to get at Bach by telling a story. In his novel The Great Passion, we meet thirteen-year-old Stefan Silbermann, who is sent to school in Leipzig and there becomes a soprano soloist in the choir of J. S. Bach, during the time when Bach wrote and conducted his monumental St. Matthew Passion

In Runcie’s book we meet Bach himself, or rather the Bach imagined by a gifted writer—a loving curmudgeon who is devoted, heart and mind, to music, and through music to his family and friends, including Stefan. 

I highly recommend both books. Between the two, they paint as complete a portrait as you’re likely to get of this famous, nearly unknown man.