Sunday, January 1, 2017

Beginning with Bach


And so it begins with Bach. In a year that seems to promise nothing but fear, chaos, mean-spiritedness, the triumph of ignorance, why not look back to the certainty, grandeur and glory of Bach’s extraordinary intellect and imagination? Every time I play something by this man—and it has been often in my life and even more so recently—I am in awe of the multitude of notes that pour forth, each in its proper place and flowing inexorably from one to the other, a veritable river emptying into the ocean of Spirit. The sheer volume of his work—over 1000 works that were preserved—and the range of his composition: chorales, cantatas, Masses, Passions, orchestral works, chamber music, organ music, clavier music and more— is simply staggering.

I began studying the organ at 6-years old and once I got through the “Lightly Row” phase of reading notes, Bach was the first composer I got to know. My swan song of formal lessons in 8th grade was a vinyl recording (I still have it) of me performing in a school concert his Prelude and Fugue in D minor. (I’m proud to say I made it through without knocking any of the notes off their pedestals.) Entering a high school with a newly built pipe organ, my travels with Bach continued even when the formal lessons stopped. And even into college getting permission to play in a local church. There was many a sublime moment alone in the church with the Toccata and Fugue in D minor or the Passacaglia, swept along in that river of sound toward the final cadence, the echo of the last chord with the pedal at full throttle and then the silence that followed. Just me, the dying notes and the stained glass of Jesus walking peacefully amongst the lambs. I almost could have become a Christian.

Bach died at 65 years old—my age— and on my birthday—July 28th.  I’m not trying to claim any karmic connection here—after all, he was a genius and I’m a mere admirer of genius. Bach accomplished more musically on a bad morning than I have my whole life. But nonetheless, his music speaks to me—or rather, sings to me—and I like the message. There will be dark passages at the bottom of the cello in minor keys and triumphant high notes from sopranos and everything in-between, but tying it all together is an exalted human spirit in touch with the Divine.

I just finished Eric Siblin’s The Cello Suites, a three-part meditation on Bach, Pablo Casals and the 6 Cello Suites. Bach’s full humanity comes through—his impatience with stupidity (he called someone a nanny-goat bassoonist), his frustration with authorities upon who he depended for his livelihood (getting jailed for trying to leave one post for another), his unending work ethic, composing not for fame or fortune, but often for function (the singers need a new cantata—tomorrow!), his devotion to his children (many of whom became fine composers themselves).

The sections on Pablo Casals were equally inspiring, this humanitarian musician exiled from his country because of the rise of the Fascist Franco. I read with even more interest on how to survive the immense gap between the sublime music of Bach’s Cello Suites and the havoc wreaked by a Fascist dictator. In 1958, Casals wrote:

“Confusion and fear have invaded the whole world. Misunderstood nationalism, fanaticism, political dogmas and lack of liberty and justice are feeding mistrust and hostility that make the collective danger greater every day. Yet the desire for peace is felt by every human being.”

Well, I guess things have not changed so much. The years cycle around and around and we imagine they are moving up some mountain summit where human promise is fulfilled. And perhaps they are, in some strange circuitous path. Or maybe they just keep bouncing back and forth between those who serve life and those who bring death. Who knows? The best I can do is step forward into the unknown, with Bach and Casals and other creators and lovers of life by my side, to keep the music rolling and the parts in harmony the best I can. To, in the words of W.H. Auden, “stagger forth rejoicing.”

And I wish the same to you.

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