When death comes, life comes as well, like a gale blowing through the house. The tears are closers to the eyes, then, but the laughter as well; the stories of good times, of joys shared, of triumphs too are as much a part of grief as the sobs, the wails, the wrenching loss. I know that now, I knew that then—but after my first wife María Barbara died, I felt a grief I had not suffered in all my life.
She was as much a part of my life as—well, as I was. Which meant that with her death I had died, too; who, then, was this shadow that was left behind? Who was playing the music, directing the choir, fighting the bureaucrats, testing the organs, conducting rehearsals? Couldn’t they see that I was dead?
A death that can be shared is a death that can be tolerated, but who was it who could share this death? María Barbara’s sister, of course, was in the house, and was grieving as well, but she had had a month or two to adjust, as well as the chores of raising her nephews and nieces and running the household. And she had a sharp temper, accompanied by a biting tongue that never was fully kept in check.
There were friends, of course, and there were those greatest of remedies: work and routine. And so I resumed my daily tasks, and to the outside world, I was little changed. Ah, but inside! I had lost not just the woman who had borne my children and raised them, but who listened to me as I protested the many indignities I had endured.
“Think,” she would say, “think, Sebastian, before you send that letter.”
And then she would explain that the prince or the elector or the town council—whoever it was that had enraged—may have had very good reason for doing whatever they did. At last, I would agree not to send the letter until I had reread it the next day. And how many of those letters did I send? Few, very few.
She calmed me. At night, there was no greater pleasure than falling asleep next to her; I would feel her gentle breath against my chest, as we embraced, and I would marvel—what great fortune had sent her to me? For she understood me both as a man and as a musician: as my second cousin, she knew the family tradition of music-making well indeed.
I was twenty-one when we married, but how much had I done already? I had secured an appointment at Weimar as court musician, later become organist at St. Boniface’s in Arnstadt, and then given that up to study, for four months, with the great Buxtehude. And so I fancied myself a man of the world; I had no doubts about my abilities, whether recognized or not.
But who was I, as a man?
Every wise man knows it: a man is nothing until he marries. And the truly wise know something else, as well: a woman mothers a child, but the wife mothers the man.
Yes, she taught me as much in my manhood as my mother taught me in my childhood. Did I know death? I thought I did: it had first entered my life when I was six. A few years later, it carried away first my mother and then my father. There was, I felt, nothing it could teach me. But how little prepared I was for the years 1712 and 1713!
The first two children had come earlier: first a girl, and then Wilhelm Friedemann. And can there be any greater pleasure for a man than holding his first child in his arms? But almost from the start of her third pregnancy, it was obvious that something was wrong. She gained little weight, and seemed more fatigued than she had with the other pregnancies. She would stop in her chores, gasp, and look far off, as if willing herself to be somewhere else.
“You must tell her to rest,” said Friedelena Margarita, and I did so. But did I persevere? Did I insist that she take to her bed, when she laughed and said that she would later, or the next day? No, I was busy, with a man’s affairs of providing for the family, coupled with my own daemon of composing. And so I assumed that all would be well, and no man need bother himself with what were, after all, women’s affairs.
I did notice, however, that Friedelena Margarita was watching her closely, and often I came upon them when they were arguing quietly about some chore or other. But was I surprised? No, they were as different as could be: María Barbara gentle and uncomplaining, her sister harsh and demanding.
Soon there was tension in the house, as the sisters seemed to grow both closer and yet more angry with each other. I began to hear Friedelena’s voice get sharper; as well, I imagined that I could hear muffled sobs? Could it be that María Barbara was crying? But why?
“She must see a doctor, and if you won’t see to it, then I shall,” said Friedelena.
It was late in the evening, I was yearning for bed, and I was impatient, too, with the tension. Was I not master in my own house? Was I to be treated so by a woman—admittedly a second cousin—whom I had taken in when nobody else had done so? And was there to be no peace in my own home?
I spoke sharply: “My wife will see a doctor when and if she pleases. Who better than she knows what is happening in her body? She must be the judge of whether to go to the doctor or not!”
To this argument Friedelena was deaf.
“Indeed, she is the last person to know that she needs help. She doesn’t want to trouble you, or to put you through the expense of a doctor’s visit, or the expense of hiring a woman to care for her and look after the house when the doctor tells her—as he surely will—that she must take to her bed.”
Her voice was rasping at all times; now, it was particularly unpleasant. And is it any wonder that I—already the greatest of Bach’s, the preeminent musical dynasty of Germany—would be especially sensitive to the qualities (good or otherwise) of the human voice?
And so we argued bitterly, and as always in an argument, neither side became less adamant. At last I rose to go to bed. She, of course, would have the last word.
“Be it on your head, Sebastian, when those babies are born still, if born they ever be at all!”
I very nearly ordered her out of the house. I went to bed trembling with rage, and it was there that María Barbara found me, perhaps an hour later. She sought to appease me, and pleaded for me to forgive her sister. But had not my authority in the house been challenged? Had I not been virtually ordered as to how to act in my very home? Was it not she who should apologize. Still raging, I turned my back on my wife’s pleas, and tried my best to sleep.
The days that followed were awful. The two sisters were barely speaking; Friedelena and I ignored each other. Worse, I grew impatient with my wife: could she not see that she should side with me, her husband? How could she plead her sister’s cause, when it was I who had been insulted? Shouldn’t she cleave unto her man, as the Bible bade her to do?
Any man knows—a pregnant woman can be moody, changeable. And a man also knows that all things blow over: was I to stay at home amid the intolerable tensions of two sisters, one of them great with child? Wasn’t it easier to stay a bit later in the church, inspecting the progress of the organ restoration, which was being done at great expense? Wasn’t it in fact my obligation, since it had been I who had convinced the church and town to pay handsomely for the work?
Did I absent myself deliberately? I wish I could say no, but it pains me to admit that yes: I had grown tired of the tensions and the squabbling and the suppressed anger. Friedelena at last chose to speak.
“You have abandoned your duties as husband, Sebastian. Never before has your wife needed you more, and where are you to be found. Smoking your pipe and drinking beer with friends in a public house, while your wife languishes at home, too tired to drag herself to bed. What manner of man are you? How can you treat your wife thus?”
It was now very late in the pregnancy; we were all very much on edge. But did I pay more attention to my wife? No, even though I came more and more often upon her as she stood, breathing shallowly and rapidly and looking far away. And I noticed that more and more often, there would be a dampened rag in the bathroom.
She told me later—while I had been at the public house with my friends, she had repaired to her bed, the rag clenched between her legs to try to stanch the flow of blood. She knew something was wrong: there were pains she had never had with the other two pregnancies. There was the blood—minor on some days, worse on others. And there were the contractions that would come and go—contractions that shouldn’t have been there.
And so it was no surprise to her when she gave birth to twins; the boy, Johann Cristoph died within moment of the birth. The girl, María Sophía, lasted barely three weeks.
It was then that I discovered whom I had married.