Bach is back … actually, he never left

“I wanted my book to have an intimacy as well as a historical sweep”: Paul Elie, on his “Reinventing Bach.”

  That’s the point of Paul Elie’s new book, “Reinventing Bach” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux).  I thought the bookish highlight of my week was hearing Robert K. Massie talk about Catherine the Great — wrong.  Elie gave a vivid, intimate lecture to an audience Thursday night at Claremont McKenna College – another of the Gould Center’s offerings this fall, shepherded by Director Robert Faggen – that reminded us that Johann Sebastian is still among us.

You just have to listen closely to find him. And sometimes you don’t.

“My faith in Bach’s continuing relevance gets restored every year on Halloween,” he said with a smile. “When someone needs some spooky gothic music, they usually turn to the Toccata.”

Everyone laughed.

That’s the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor – the deep rich organ blast that’s been borrowed by everyone, from the Phantom of the Opera to Walt Disney.

Disney, in fact, is a player in “Reinventing Bach,” and Elie spent part of his lecture  upon Bach’s influence on Disney as well as Albert Schweitzer, Pablo Casals, Glenn Gould and Leopold Stokowski (who teamed with Disney to create “Fantasia”). Elie played snippets of recordings by Casals, Gould and Stokowski — he also showed us the “Bach-like” musical progressions found in the music of the Beatles,  Procol Harem …. and, yes, even Spinal Tap.

(This one goes to eleven.)

“I wonder what Bach would think, if he were alive today, and found that all of his work was being illegally sampled!” he said with a grin.

Elie’s lecture – like his book – shows what a thoughtful writer can accomplish when he is willing to take narrative risks. It’s one thing to paint discrete portraits of great figures (Schweitzer, Casals, Stokowski, Gould), but it’s something else when that writer can take these portraits and weave them into a single, unified context. That’s what Elie has accomplished.

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