George B. Stauffer at the New York Review of Books:
Just how Bach managed to express the inexpressible, especially with regard to death, and what life experiences stood behind his compositional decisions are at the center of a lively new book by the distinguished British conductor John Eliot Gardiner. Stepping in as president of the Leipzig Bach Archive at the beginning of this year, Gardiner has devoted his life to the performance of Bach’s vocal works (he has conducted them all), and the biographical gaps he seeks to close in his lengthy study have perplexed Bach scholars for more than two hundred years.
Unlike Mozart, Beethoven, and other classical composers for whom personal letters abound, Bach left behind little correspondence. He never wrote an autobiographical sketch, even though he was invited to do so several times, and in only three instances—a job inquiry to an old school chum, a concerned exchange with town officials over the misdemeanors of his son Johann Gottfried Bernhard, and underlinings and marginalia in his Calov Bible—does he offer a glimpse of his inner self. All the rest must be pieced together from council records, pay receipts, anecdotes, brief printed notices, a carefully worded obituary, and other scraps of information. Bach’s character has remained largely hidden from view.