Johann Sebastian Bach is intimidating. He's intimidating because we want to understand him. We want to know how he wrote what he wrote. Yet we can't, so we elevate him to levels that intimidate us. Bach Psychology 101.
We joke about Bach being an alien. We appropriately call him a genius. It's distancing.
Conductor John Eliot Gardiner shows the humanity of Bach in his book, Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven. He approaches Bach's life from multiple angles, looking closely at how Bach used words in his music.
As a result, you'll learn a lot about the many and wonderful cantatas Bach wrote, you'll learn about the B Minor Mass and the Passions.
I found the deep background on Bach's ancestors and relatives intriguing, and now I can't stop listening to the music of his cousin once removed, Johann Christoph Bach.
Also, Gardiner keeps tabs on Bach's contemporaries, many of whom were born in or around the same year as Bach, 1685: Rameau, Telemann, D. Scarlatti and Handel. That side-by-side comparison helps elucidate the stark differences between the compositional norms of the day and what Bach did in his life.
At times, it is helpful to be able to read music, but not it's not imperative to enjoying the book.
I interviewed Gardiner, and you can hear excerpts of our conversation on Learning to Listen.