And so this young man went to prison—well, what of it?
He smoked a drug that makes some people feel good, and makes others act irrationally. Which was certainly the case with him, since the theft of a rare blue macaw requires either a profound if quirky criminality, or a very heady stew of chemicals swirling through the cerebellum. And so this young man, Montalvo, has ended up at last in prison, to be confined there for several weeks.
Again I ask—what of it?
His misfortune was to be young, imprudent, poor, and slightly darker in skin tone than the ruling class. And all of that condemned him. But was it any different for him than for me? Because I too was thrust into jail, in the year 1717, and for reasons every bit as inane as the reasons that catapulted Montalvo into prison.
I had grown weary of the bickering that lead to a feud between two powerful dukes: William Ernest and his nephew Ernest August. And however bitter it might have been, was there any question of who would win? Even before Ernest August became one of the two dukes ruling Weimar, William Ernest had seized all the power, as well as the purse strings.
And so there were two competing households, and the musicians of one were forbidden to make music, or indeed even to befriend, the musicians of the other. That might have been endured, but soon the politicking grew even more heated. For the enfeebled Kapellmeister, whose work I had mostly done for some years, at last succumbed and died.
Had I been happy in Weimar?
Yes, reasonably so. Because while the rulers of the small nations and duchies all warred to gain ascendency over each other, I was left to my own devices. Yes, I had many duties, but it was in those years that I composed most of my organ works, and a great deal of my secular works. The Brandenburg Concerti, the cello suites, the violin sonatas and partitas—all stemmed from those years.
Nor was Weimar in any way a backwater: it attracted some of the best minds and thinkers of the era. Here, I could meet the great scholar Johann Matthias Gesner; here also I was exposed to the Italian style of composition, in particular the works of Vivaldi. And so I was able, by in large, to ignore the rift between the two reigning dukes; all that, however, was to change with the death of the Kapellmeister.
The letter that I wrote was polite, almost fawning, since my beloved María Barbara had flatly insisted: the original letter, she felt, was far too demanding.
“How can you say, Sebastian, that you have no doubt that the appointment is to be yours? And to ask what pay you will receive? That will infuriate the duke!”
“But it is the truth. I have undertaken the work of the doddering old fool for years now, without a single pfennig being given to me! Isn’t it just that I now be given the appointment, and that at last I be compensated for the work I have done, and am to do?”
“Yes, Sebastian, but will the duke see that? Won’t he feel that you are demanding—presumptuous, even? Do you expect the duke to take orders from one of his servants?”
I protested, of course, since who but I was more qualified for the position? Had I not proved myself? Throughout Europe, my fame as an organist, and especially as an improviser, had grown; once, visiting Dresden, I had been invited to compete against the greatest French organist of the day, Louis Marchand. And what had he done? He had crept into the church as I was playing, and then promptly left town! My position was solidified: was it not right that I should be given this title of Kapellmeister?
We argued and argued, and at last compromised, but what did the Duke do? He chose to appoint the son of the old Kapellmeister to his father’s old post, and I was left with the humiliation of being cast aside.
Would any man of spirit accept such a stinging insult? Was I to go like a kicked dog through the streets, through the halls of the castle, only to hear the whispers and the jeers behind my back? For I well knew my worth, and never did I fail to let the world know it. The “musicians” who sawed and tooted and warbled away—did I fail to note their deficiencies? Of course not, why should I? I had struggled, I had done the work, I had made myself the greatest musician of my time. Must I bow down or curtsey to those lesser than I?
Yes, I had done what this young man, Montalvo, had not. For I don’t understand these children, who think that fame and fortune are as easy to obtain as plucking an apple from the tree! Not a day went by when I hadn’t striven to improve myself, no nightfall arrived without my repairing to bed exhausted! I worked until I could work no more, and even then on most days I pushed myself further. But this boy, now in a savage prison, ruled by brutes and peopled with brutes? Has he done the work?
We had, perhaps, the drugs that were good for us: a hearty beer and a pipeful of tobacco. Yes, we knew of the opium takers of the Turks and their neighbors, but it would only be a century later that the drug would be given to our own women to calm their nerves. But all we had was beer, and we may have been better off for it.
And it was over a beer that I approached my other employer, Duke Ernest August, and it was through him that I learned that the position of Kapellmeister was available at the court of Anhalt-Cöthen. And it was then that the Duke William Ernest revealed how petty and despicable he could be. Yes, for nearly a month, I was jailed in the ducal prison for having “too insistently pressed for his release from service!”
My friends—the few men of worth who could appreciate who I was—rallied in my defense. But for long weeks I stared at the bars, and wondered at my fate. But very soon I realized: I could compose anywhere. I began to compose what would be the greatest treatise on tuning, and some of the greatest music ever composed: The Well-Tempered Clavier.
Like everywhere else, I put my time to work, as had so many others before me. For prison can be a sort of freedom, if there are pen and paper at hand, and the time to use them. The great Cervantes, after all, wrote the first modern novel, Don Quixote, from a prison cell.
But how different things are now! Will Montalvo do as I did? Will he be given the chance? And when he comes out, in nearly as many days as I spent, will he be changed?