Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The Cantatas, Somewhat Explained

“It’s beautiful, but kind of strange,” said Lady, after we had finished listening to the cantata. “I mean, a lot of it doesn’t have any melody to it, it just sort of stumbles along….”

“Well, those would be the recitatives, which are texts meant to carry on the story. And the story here is poverty and uncertainty.”

“Know that one,” she said.

In fact we both did. We met just after I had lost my job in a corporate reshuffling; seeking relief from the heat of the San Juan summer, I had fled to her café, The Poet’s Passage. The coffee—and the air conditioning—was great, but that was the least of it. Even now, as I look around me, a man is playing a guitar on the stage where the poetry slam is held every Tuesday night. That takes place in the Sala Poética, which occupies half the space of the adjoining gift shop. The mother of the twins of an itinerant poet is on a couch nearby; the poet is off being poetic, the twins, strangely, never cry. So either the poetry is remarkably lulling, or the mother is drugging her children. At any rate, she never buys anything, but who would think of asking her to? Leave that to Starbucks!

This is not, as I have variously pointed to her, a particularly sustainable business model, but Lady is a poet, as well as the painter of brightly-colored casitas—decorative plaster houses—and also, but not incidentally, a business woman. So all of that means that she can tell me—after I had told her that she was wasting half of her selling space by having the Sala Poética—“but then it wouldn’t be the Poet’s Passage.”

She was right; I was wrong.

So yes, she has known poverty. She never went to the university because she had to work to help her brothers, one of whom went to Harvard. Then she married a Frenchman, carrying on the family tradition of marrying a foreigner and converting him into a Puerto Rican. Then they struggled to open the casita business, and at one point were eating Chef Boyardee from a can for dinner.

“That’s hitting pretty low for a Frenchman,” she reported.

No, there was never a lot of money, but there were plenty of dreams, one of which was to buy a building to house the café and the gift shop, and eventually a museum of poetry (that one is still a dream). So the building came, and then their child, Naïa turned up, and so if there wasn’t a lot of money, well…was that all that important?

The important thing was to have the café, and to stroll through it, wearing—as she almost always does—her long dress, and with her curly hair falling over her right eye. She greets everybody, since strangers are just friends you haven’t met yet. So she’s met a lot people, like Pablo Neruda (after whom she named the annoying Dominican parrot that lives in the ornate Victorian cage—did I mention lost retail space?—next door). OK—so she met him and Borges and Derek Walcott, but it was hardly the famous people that mattered the most. Lady knows, it’s not the money; it’s the people in your life that enrich you.

“Bach struggled all of his life, too,” I told her. “And this cantata was written after a particularly bad time, in 1723. Bach’s first wife had died three years earlier, leaving him with at least four children. Then his employer—engaged in fighting a war somewhere—cut his salary. So Bach had settled in Leipzig, where he would die. He remarried, and had thirteen more children, seven of whom died before adulthood.”

“Wow,” said Lady, “if anything happened to Naïa…”

“Death was all around, in those days. It was a constant presence. If you weren’t grieving for somebody, your neighbor or friend was. In fact, death had entered Bach’s life at age nine, when his mother died. Less than a year later, his father died. Then, almost half of his children died. Has anyone written a history of grief? I wonder what Bach would think of us, as we go through our prolonged mourning. Would he think we were indulgent? Spoiled? Did he face death so much and so often that he became inured to it? Did he just shrug and go on?”

“Don’t think you can just shrug and go on after the loss of a child or mother,” said Lady.

“Well, probably not. But maybe it was better to have death so much in your life. Nowadays, when we experience a death of someone close to us, it completely knocks us off our base. But for Bach, it was part of his life. And you know, there’s a special richness in mourning. It’s a bitch, but you feel somehow—and quite paradoxically—more connected with life.”

“I still miss my mother,” said Lady; her mother died on Christmas day over a decade ago, but some pain never fully goes away.

“I miss mine, too,” I said. “Anyway, the cantata is not about death, but about poverty, and trusting in God for him to provide.”

“Tell me again what these cantata things are about,” said Lady.

“They’re curious,” I tell her. “Look, I’ve spent a lot of time going to concerts, and I’ve heard numerous performances of Bach, but I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a performance of any of the  cantatas. I definitely, as a cellist, have played one. But they contain some of Bach’s greatest writing, and if he had written nothing else in his life, he’d still be considered a great composer….”

“Right, but what are they?”

“Well, they’re works for chorus and orchestra meant to be performed during a church service. And they’re based on texts, which are based on the time of the liturgical year.”


“I know, I had to look it up. But basically, the liturgical year is about certain seasons, with their correspondent Feast days or holy days. It starts with Advent, which is the period of waiting for the birth Christ. So that goes until Christmastide, which lasts until his baptism, and don’t—please—ask me when that is. Then there’s Lent, which is the forty days before Holy Thursday. Then there’s the Easter Triduum, a fancy way of saying the three days from Good Friday to Easter. Easter, by the way, extends all the way for seven more weeks until Pentecost. That’s when—I see that look on your face—the Holy Spirit descends on us, after Jesus ascends into Heaven is his resurrected body.”

“Wow, it’s complicated.”

“For us, yes. But maybe for people in Bach’s time, no. They were steeped in this stuff, it was part of the fabric of their lives, a constant presence. We go to the beach, most of us, during Holy Week, but they would have been fasting—to some degree—all throughout Lent, and Easter would have been a time of real jubilation. Anyway, you had all these periods of time, centered on Jesus’ life and death, and then you had the space in between, which was called ordinary time.”

“Because it was ordinary, not special?”

“Not really. It was because you used ordinals to count the Sundays. That’s why I told you it was the fifteenth Sunday after Advent, yesterday. Anyway, the point is that the texts used in the service, as well as in Bach’s music, change depending on the time of year. Part of yesterday’s text was from Mathew, that old chestnut ‘no man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one and love the other; of else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.’ And we all know how awful mammon is.”

“Dreadful,” said Lady, “that’s always the first question I ask, when I meet someone, and I totally encourage you to do the same. Get right up to their face and ask, ‘are you serving mammon?’ Surprising the number of people who are, and even admit to it…”

Of course she has no idea of what mammon is—it’s covetousness, by the way—but she has tremendous bluff, and isn’t that more important?

“Well, my first question is usually, ‘do you despise the devil and all his works,’ but yours works just as well. Anyway, someone chose that text, and stuck Bach with having to do something about it for twenty minutes or so. So the first thing Bach did every Monday morning was sit down and choose his related texts. That done, he could start writing his music. And the writing was both composing and writing, since he had to take a piece of paper, put the music staves on it, and copy out, note by note, the entire 20-minute piece. Think of it, at the end of the week he—and probably his wife and kids—would have filled hundreds of sheets of paper, since it was part by part. One part for the first violin, one for the second violin, one for the viola, one for the cello, one for the bass. Just the orchestra would mean probably fifteen parts. Then you had all of the chorus, then you had the harpsichord and the basso continuo, and lastly, you had the complete score. By the time he or rather they had done all this, it was Friday night, and time to give the music to the soloists and rehearse with them. Saturday was spent rehearsing with the complete orchestra. Sunday was the service, of course, and the next day? Back at it!”

“What a grind,” said Lady. “Didn’t he get tired of it?”

“Who knows? There are over 200 cantatas, though some of them are secular, but he must have done three or more cycles. Sadly, we’ve probably lost about half of what Bach wrote.”

“How can you lose a Bach manuscript? I wouldn’t!”

“Now you wouldn’t. But remember, Bach was respected mostly as an organist in his time. True, among composers he was always revered, but it wasn’t until a hundred years after his death that the general public knew of him as a composer. So you have a hundred years of fires and termites and misplaced boxes and, at times, somebody reaching for the first piece of paper to wrap up their garbage. Terrible, but there it is.”

“Still don’t get it. What about his kids? Didn’t they know what they had?”

So I tell her about the box next to my chair in the library, in which we had put most of my mother’s poetry. Is it any good, that poetry? Well, I think so, but what do I know? All I can say is that it’s there, awaiting the time that I can look at it, with it’s numerous corrections scrawled by hand in the margin. As time went on, the scrawls turned to chicken scratchings, but even (or perhaps especially) indecipherable, they still wrench my heart when I see them. So I’ve done what Bach’s children most likely did, which is to say nothing. And since several of Bach’s children became composers themselves—Carl Philippe Emmanuel was at one time ranked as high or higher than Mozart—well, they were busy composing, instead of preserving their father’s legacy. So of course they weren’t particularly focused on the old man’s work; they were doing their own work. Anyway, as much as it hurts to think of what is lost, consider what we have! The complete work of Bach, by the way, is available for 220 bucks and comes as a flash drive. Oh, and it takes up 32 gigabytes.

“In a way, we’re lucky that—however many works we lost—at least Bach lived until age 65, which meant that he was fairly long in the tooth for the times. Look, Mozart, Schubert, and Mendelssohn all died in their thirties. What music would they have written? How would they have evolved? And for the other composers of the time—Beethoven, Brahms and Schumann—how would having more time with these giants have affected them? Anyway, getting back to Bach, we still have a lot of music, even if you only consider the choral music. Look at the Bach Stiftung.” 

“What’s that?”

“Well, in English it’s called the J. S. Bach Foundation, but I like ‘Stiftung’ better. Cool word to say.”

“So what do they do?”

“Well, they’re located in this little town in Switzerland, and they’re going to play and record the entire vocal music of Bach—cantatas, motets, the passions and the B minor mass. One concert a month, and guess how long it will take them to work their way through all of the vocal music?”

“No idea”

“Twenty five years, or a quarter of a century. That’s 300 concerts, by the way….”


“Yeah, an amazing project, and really crack musicians.”

She kisses me and disappears into the kitchen.

Time to make the quiches!