Books written in the 19th century, no matter the topic, have a fascinating aura about them which books today have lost to cynicism and practicality. When you opened one of those old books, you could not be completely sure what you were getting into and there was a sense of adventure and defiance around every corner. It was a time of revolutions of the mind, a brief interlude between open ecclesiastic oppression of thought and the more subtle yet equally destructive materialist hubris. Science was daring and cared not for what was deemed politically correct and, in that true scientific spirit, serious exploration of the occult was not considered out of the question even by the most respectable minds. Fiction and poetry were dangerous, but not in the modern vulgar sense prone to excesses of the senses alone, but as mental poison that acted through bewitching and enchanting of the minds, raising readers’ eyes to unseen horizons.
A possible reason for this fall from grace may be the rampant utilitarianism that has finally taken hold of the population as a whole. While the atheism that Nietzsche decried was a rising tide among educated people of his time, today the majority of the people are brought up under standardized education systems which at the moment care only for the most immediate of material satisfactions. Changes through time depend wholly on who is in control at the time and what their own ideological inclinations are. This has always been, and it will always be, no matter how free and open Western liberal societies imagine themselves to be. Human inventiveness needs some liberty, yes, but it must be attained through struggle – actual struggle at that, and not minor challenges within artificial safe spaces. A spark is needed to ignite the flame, and it must be understood that life and death are intertwined.
Philipp Spitta’s Johann Sebastian Bach, a biography, is much more than just that. It is an ode to the master’s spirit, a quaint and detailed recount continually interrupted by the most passionate of musical descriptions that wander between European classical music technical analysis and flights of poetic fancy. Extensive narrations mostly uninterrupted by headers or divisions of any kind, demarcations between specific topics are delightfully blurred and new ideas are delivered without any sort of warning, however without any perceived feeling of brusqueness. Spitta’s is the ideal biography from the point of view of someone who Is enamoured with his subject and consequently knows it in detail, making him aware of his exalted one’s gravest faults and mistakes without it stopping him from loving the hero.
Is the book hard to follow? It is, though mostly because we are not used to the way it builds and progresses. Is it inconvenient for study? Definitely, especially if what you are looking for is a textbook with facts to be memorized for a test. Nonetheless it is a most delightful way to start a long-term acquaintance with Johann Sebastian Bach’s story. This is a long biography written to swallow the reader, being complete devotion and knowledge in depth which teaches one more than just the ideas it presents directly, but achieves an aural effect that exerts a magical force over the mind through an esoteric construction which Spitta himself was perhaps unaware of.