Monday, October 19, 2015

The Past, The Present

And so, I have been called from my well-earned rest back to life, only to be insulted by a half-witted and unemployed “writer!”

He finds my humor lacking, it seems, and makes several condescending remarks about the coffee houses of my day. Might I be allowed a few observations of my own?

I have studied the denizens of the coffee house in which he writes—or rather, I have glanced at them, and gleaned all there is to know. For in my day, people gathered, drank, smoked, and made friends—and occasionally, enemies. There was laughter, there was music, there was above all camaraderie. But in this new coffee house? I find nothing by zombies connected to devices.

Two girls—sisters—are slouched on a sofa nearby, and though physically touching, they are worlds apart. Their “smart phones” are feeding them music or games or social media—whatever that is—and they are “connected.” Indeed?

I don’t understand. Where is their mother or father, to tell them to sit up straight? Surely flopping down on a couch and remaining there for hours is not good for them—what of their spines? And have they no chores to do, no rooms to straighten and arrange and clean? They can play no instrument, they cannot sing, they know but one language.

They have the advantages I never had. Yes, I grew up in a family of musicians, and yes, my part of Germany—and especially Leipzig—was at a crossroads in Europe. But how I strived to educate myself—I who, at the age of these girls, knew German, Latin and Greek. Later, I would acquire a bit of French and Italian. Yes, I strove to improve myself, even when my own health suffered, as a child, and I was often absent from school. And how much I had to depend on luck! Were it not for a relative travelling abroad, I would never have been introduced to Vivaldi, and how greatly my music would have suffered!

We had little; we made the most of it. They have everything; they do nothing.

I listen in complete astonishment at my music being played to his ears: what extraordinary achievement! The precision, the passion of these players of the Bach Stiftung! Not a note misplaced, not a nuance lost—I never had the chance to work with musicians anywhere nearing this level! And this “writer” knows no German, but is that a problem? No because the machine keeps playing the divine sounds, and somehow the screen appears with the German and the English translation! There is a church in Boston, apparently, that has been playing my cantatas for decades; they have “uploaded” their translations.

The amount of information is staggering—one could study the architectural plans of any one of Thailand’s 4,000 Buddhist temples, but what do they use the Internet to do? Examine the nether parts of Thai girls!

It was never so easy for me. I walked in 1705 from Arnstadt to Lübeck—nearly 300 miles, all to hear and study with the great organist and composer Buxtehude. Then I walked back again, to an employer who was considerably annoyed with my prolonged absence. Did I care? Of course not—I cared only to learn more, to develop my gifts. The organist I had left in my place did a perfect adequate job—how much skill was needed to plunk out the chorales and hymns each Sunday?

Yes, I walked those hundreds of miles to attain knowledge, but this man who has awakened me, what does he do? He rises in the morning, and his machine feeds him a steady stream of misfortune. I peered over his shoulder, yesterday, and what did I learn? A reporter from a paper in New York, which his machine delivers to him in Puerto Rico, is in a part of India, in which half of the children are stunted.

Are you confused? New York, Puerto Rico, India? Like everybody else, he is everywhere but where he is. Even the air he breathes has been chilled to his liking, so much so that he will take a sweater to the “opera.” Why the quotes? Well, it is opera if you are seeing it in New York, at the Metropolitan Opera. But it is “opera” if you are seeing it as he does, for the affair is being filmed and beamed up to a dish in the sky, which beams it down again to every part of the world!

They have found a way, these modern people, to do seemingly everything. How curious it is that, having done that, they can think of nothing better to do with the riches they possess!

I knew every foot of the ground between Arnstadt and Lübeck: I saw the flowers growing alongside the road, I heard the birds sing, I felt the cold and damp. But today? The trip would be made by a tube in the sky, and how convenient! Except, of course, that they have missed what I savored: the wind on my skin, the fatigue at the end of the day.

What did the trip teach me? That anything worth having can be achieved by patient, methodical, and seemingly endless routine. They marvel at me—these centuries later! How could I have produced such a huge amount of work? The keyboard music alone would have been an enormous legacy, but add in the cantatas, the passions, the B Minor Mass, and then the secular works! The concerti, the suites, the sonatas and partitas for violin! This great mass of music, which is only half of what I had written, the rest being lost! How did the great Bach do it!

I did it the same way I got to Lübeck. I took no short cuts, though if a farmer going to market offered me a ride with the turnips, I gratefully accepted. There was no machine that accepted my “clicks” and delivered the quivering face of Buxtehude. And when I arrived there, unknown and unwashed, and demanding that my talent and youth be heard? He saw my worn shoes, my sun burned skin, and he gave me his seat at the organ.

He taught me much, and when I walked again back to Arnstadt, I had the time to reflect on his words and consider his message. I had the time, you see, to learn and to grow.

Time these “modern” people don’t have!