Tuesday, September 22, 2015


He was a sensitive child, more than most; I would come across him gazing into space; when I scolded him for wasting the time God had given him, he would burst into tears.

Was it my fault? Even now, these centuries later and well into my afterlife, I feel that pain, and the shame I felt at the time.

Make no mistake, I know very well who I am, or at least who I was. False modesty? You won’t find it here, nor did you find it when I lived. I had been given a great gift, yes, but equally I had toiled, and struggled to develop it. Never a day went by when I wasn’t composing, and more—recomposing. However much Lady might wish to believe that some of my music arrived on the wings of angels, I can assure you that it did not. And truly, if it had, it wouldn’t have been very good.

I was and am and will be the greatest composer of all time. I know that now, and I knew that then, and yet did anyone around me know? Most musicians thought of me as a great organist, not as a great composer, but was even that appreciated?  How many times was I scolded by some cleric with less Latin and Greek than I—scolded  for adding a bit of improvisation between verses of the Sunday hymns? The improvisations confused the congregation, I was told. The plodding oaf who had preceded me had never done such a thing!

It was a battle, then, but a battle I did not hesitate to fight. Always, always I struggled with the buffoons who thought they could play or tweet or sing—never was I given the musicians I deserved! A handful came up to some minimal level of not-too-shudderingly-bad, but even they were too often drowned by the idiot next to them, for I tell you, the worse a musician is, the louder he plays or sings.

How often I had to protest! Never did I have an employer who understood, who knew the quality of the music I composed! You know the Goldberg Variations, of course, but does anyone know of Johann Gottlieb Goldberg? No, his only claim to any shred of musical history is that he played my variations for the Count Keyserlink, who—according to one preposterous story—actually paid me a goblet fulled with 100 louis-d’or.  

They said I had a temper; they said I was difficult. Wrong! I knew perfectly well that if I didn’t stand up for myself, no one else would, and was it right that I, the greatest composer of the time, be treated as a lackey, a servant? I had seen what had happened to several of my relatives—all fine musicians—who had struggled into and out of poverty for years. And if I was fortunate enough to do just a bit better, it wasn’t due to luck, nor entirely to my ability. It was because I demanded the high respect and treatment that I deserved.

Experience has taught me; sometimes the worst employers are the ones you like the most. Certainly that was true of Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen. What musician could not have been charmed by the man, a talented man who could play the violin and viola da gamba, and often did so with his court band? Yes, he knew perfectly well what he had in me, and he paid me well. But such was his love of music that it was necessary—according to him—to take his musicians along with him on his travels.

How often are the whims of the rich paid for with the tears of the poor! Search, writer, for the reason that we had to be dragged off that summer of 1720, since something was important for the Prince, and so we all went off with him. Ah, you do not know, but I can tell you: the prince was taking the waters at Carlsbad.

What do I remember of the day my life was wrenched from its orbit? The looks of the villagers, my neighbors, as I finally returned to my home, as I walked though the streets. Or rather, the interrupted looks, since everyone glanced at me, greeted me, and just as quickly looked away and hurried off. They knew: I did not.

And what of the silence that greeted me—shouldn’t that have told me that something was wrong? For the house was never noisy, but neither was it dead silent, either—what house with small children ever is? But in fact the children were with the neighbor, so that the pastor could tell me that my wife María Barbara had died.

Death, that great bastard death! I met it first when I was six; it visited and vanquished my cousin. When I was ten it took first my mother, and then, nine months later, my father. I buried nine of my children, but this death was the worst.

Yes, we had been playing soothing music for the prince and as the warm waters had lapped gently on the prince’s sensitive skin, my María Barbara had felt first the flush, then the raging fever, then the nausea. She was, they told me, dead within twenty-four hours.

Everything was upside down. Before, I had had things to do, now there was nothing to be done. The body was buried, the funeral had been held. Her clothes had been taken away, though some of her things that might have some meaning or utility had been left. The house was both empty and filled with her absence, but could I sit and weep? No, because there were the children to think of, and however much I wanted to see them, I dreaded seeing them as well. How could a crushed man be any comfort to his grieving children?

But saw them I did, and we embraced, and we went on, as before.

Well, not as before. Because the second child, Carl Phillip Emanuel, had changed. The abstractions, the looking into the distance, the unnatural quietness of the child became more pronounced. My heart was torn; gazing on my son, my heart broke. I buried my grief with work, but he? When there were lessons to be learned and music to be copied out and any number of tasks to be done—this six-year old boy was looking out the window, as if trying to see the place where his mother might be.

And so I spoke roughly, harshly to the child. Only so much time was given to us by the good Lord: hadn’t we had proof of that? It was a sin to waste it.

He returned to whatever it was he was supposed to be doing. And then it was I, looking out the window, trying to find that land I used to live in, that house.

God, merciful God, when will this pain end?