Sunday, December 8, 2019

Bach's Children

The past 10 years or so, I play some Bach pieces when I sit down at the piano—usually French or English Suites, Partitas, Goldberg Variation. Every day I am astounded anew by his genius. He probably composed more notes than any composer before or after (Guinness Book of World Records, have you looked into this?) but besides his incredible quantity of compositions, written without Sibelius programs, copy machines, electricity to work easily at night, etc. , every single one of those notes is in its proper place in a harmonious and intellectually and emotionally satisfying relation with every other note in the composition. It simply boggles the mind. 

It’s well known that Bach had 20 children and the next question is: “How could he have done all that work with kids around?!!! Not just one or two, but twenty!!!” And the answer is… 

Well, you probably figured it out. I imagine in his patriarchal time, he wasn’t preparing meals or changing diapers or playing catch or card games (though he was giving some music instruction). I’m pretty sure all that fell to the two different mothers. Still though, imagine a household of 20 children!

But it turns out there weren’t 20 children in the house. 10 of them died between childbirth and three-years old. This was fairly common in those days (between 1685-1750), but I suspect that this didn’t make it any easier to lose a child. In my book, it’s one of the most heart-breaking things that can happen to a human being. Losing one child would echo throughout a lifetime in an inconsolable grief that would soften with time, but never go away. Imagine losing two children. Or three. It really is beyond my comprehension. 

But 10! How does one hold all that sorrow? Bach lived in a time where the universe was seen as meaningful and comprehensible, the work of a just and merciful God. He himself was quite devout and perhaps he consoled himself with some sense of some divine plan. Who knows? I have a book called The Bach Reader which tells of his life through Letters and Documents. But this particular book, at least, is all about the details of building organs, applying for jobs, composing this piece of that and I can’t find a single reference of his grief of losing his children. In some future leisure time, that’s a research project I’d like to undertake. 

But if you believe, as I do, that music can hold the extremes of our joy and sorrow, I can only imagine that his non-stop composing was a record of feelings too hard to face directly, but possible to feel in the sounds and silences of music artfully shaped. Which gives me yet a greater respect for this towering figure. 

Has anyone else talked about this? If so, let me know. Meanwhile, belated condolences to the Bach family. 

PS It did occur to me that I may have been taking my usual naive, rosy view of human nature and that perhaps Bach was an indifferent, callous or cruel father who didn't care anything about his children. Looking through a book about his cello suites, I found a letter he wrote to a town official asking him to excuse one of his son's conduct in regard to an unpaid debt. He wrote:

"Since I have now opened my heart to Your Honor, I have every confidence that you will not impute to me that bad conduct of my son, but will recognize that a devoted father, whose children are dear to him, will do everything he can to help promote their well-being."

So back to compassion for his many losses. 

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