Friday, December 30, 2016

Bach, ex-con

“Why Bach?” asked Lady, the owner of the coffee shop, the owner of the adjoining gift shop, and a dear friend.

“In such dissolute days do we live,” I told her. And then I thought of a book I had just read about the Vatican. Since Pope Frances was still unelected, a lot of the book concerned Pope Benedict, who had yet to retire, and was riding his slide into unpopularity or—depending on your ideology—ignominy.”

Well, one of the things that Benedict had done was to get rid of the annual concert that brought together people like Bob Dylan and Beyoncé and whoever was trending hot that year to play or sing for the pope, the cardinals, and the faithful (presumably young enough to know who all these people were, and want to hear them….)

“Well, that’s an idea,” said Lady. “And how did it work?”

“Well, it worked well enough for John Paul II,” I told her. “But Benedict must have felt it was the anteroom to Hell, or at least purgatory. Anyway, it was a place he didn’t want to be, and so he got rid of the whole affair. One of the things, by the way, that I liked about him….”

“You liked Benedict XVI, or whatever number he was?” said Lady. “Marc, how could you?”

“Strange, isn’t it?” I told her. “Because not much of anybody did, especially gentleman of my sort, who were ‘objectively disordered,’ or whatever his phrase was….”

“What’s ‘objectively disordered?’” asked Lady.

“Gay,” I told her, “and you remember that at the end of Benedict’s term, or reign, or I suppose just active papacy, there were all those rumors swirling about the ‘gay mafia’ that had infiltrated the Vatican. Little wonder, of course, since for fashion sense of a certain sort, the Vatican is really the way to go….”

“Ah yes, the pope and his little red satin slippers…” said Lady.

“Anyway, that’s all beside the point. The author of the book described how Benedict seemed stiff, rigid, incapable of joy. Remember the first years of his papacy, when he was trying to smile? He had given up, sensibly, on kissing the foreign soil of every country he journeyed to. Oh, and he wasn’t about to preside over masses that incorporated Hottentot scalp hunters, the way John Paul loved to do.But he did try to look human, for a bit, before he gave that up too. So there Benedict was, this nearly medieval pope stuck at the tag end of the 20th century. And he was making all kinds of gaffes, like non-excommunicating a traditionalist bishop who also denied the reality of the Holocaust. Oh, and pissing off the Muslims by quoting Medieval texts about the savagery of Islam. So as the years went by, Benedict got gloomier and gloomier, poor soul….”

“Would there be, by any chance, a point to this digression?” asked Lady, “Because in two or three months, I’ve really got to plan Naïa’s birthday party….”

Naïa is Lady’s daughter.

“So the book asked the question: what was it, if anything, that made Benedict tick? Or turn his crank, as we might say today? I mean, he spent his papacy looking like he needed to get his wisdom teeth extracted. And then, the author got it!”

“OK, and that was?”

“Well, Benedict went off to a little Austrian church, where they had just restored the organ. Not, you would suppose, high on the list of papal duties to attend to, but Benedict got totally into it. He spoke of the organ as the king of instruments—with which I disagree—and said that the organ could express every human emotion, from the subtlest to the grandest. And having finished, Benedict sat down and listened raptly to that hoariest of Bach compositions, the Toccata and Fugue. And Benedict’s face had that look that every lover of music has: concentration, comprehension, and joy. And so the author concluded that Benedict responded to Bach in a way that he could respond to nothing else in our messy, disordered world. It was the only thing that made sense to him….”

“And that’s true for you, too, Marc?”

“Partially,” I told her. “There are, God knows, composers from Monteverdi to Samuel Barber who give my huge pleasure. But in the end, I come back to Bach. He isn’t, perhaps, the man for all moods. Late at night, for example, I might turn to Chopin. In sorrow, I’ll listen to Strauss’ Four Last Songs. But Bach is the basis for all. As a friend once said, Bach is the composer when clarity is needed, and who else needs clarity more than I, just now? Curious, when you think of what we know of the man…..”

“And what’s that?”

“Well, not much, or at least not as much as we’d like. But nothing suggests that he was a particularly easy man to get along with. Early in his career, he seems to have written a devilish part for the bassoon, and then got into a squabble when the bassoonist couldn’t play it. So that lead to insults and denigrations, which lead to a fight, or maybe it was a duel, but anyway, the civil authorities had to do something. So as far as emotional intelligence, Bach might have scored a bit below average. I mean, he must have known the bassoonist was a dog, so why write the part?”

“Wouldn’t his high artistic integrity,” started Lady.

“High artistic integrity was a lot lower then than it is even now,” I told her. “Composers ‘borrowed’ other composers’ work freely, and no one seemed to care if they transcribed a violin concerto into a harpsichord concerto. Or just used something they had written before in another composition, if it fit the bill. So Bach might have been fascinated hearing the Brandenburg concerts played by thirty kazzos.  Or a trio of marimbas….”

“OK, so what else about Bach?”

“Well, he didn’t seem ‘accept supervision well, working closely in teams to create synergies that would benefit the goals of the company,’ as it used to be said on my evaluation form at Wal-Mart….”

I spent seven years pretended to be middle management for the company….


“Yup, Bach once took a powder, as I remember it, and told his boss that he was going off to study with Buxtehude, certainly one of the greatest composers of the time. But that was the problem: he got a month off, but Buxtehude was 200 miles away, and Bach was hoofing it.”

“Bach walked 200 miles to study with what’s-his-name?”

“Buxtehude,” I told her. “And then walked back. But instead of taking just a month, he took several, and might have stayed longer, except—according to rumor—Buxtehude kept dangling the possibility of resigning his post, turning it over to Bach, with, however, one little catch….”

“And that was?”

“That Bach marry Buxtehude’s daughter. So Bach put on his walking shoes, and made it back to wherever he had been. Naturally, his boss—the elector or the squire or the prince or however it was—wasn’t greatly thrilled.”

“So what happened?”

“I once knew,” I told her, “but I’ve forgotten, and this table is in the Wi-Fi dead spot. But that may have been the time Bach got thrown into the hoosegow for a month or so….”

“Bach got thrown in jail?”

“Yup, which would have made him an ex-con, once he was sent free. But anyway, he moved from post to post, always being unsatisfied with something—usually the quality of the musicians. And never afraid to bitch about it….”

“Why don’t they tell us this stuff in school?” said Lady.

“Well, it’s true that Bach never trashed hotel rooms, or got hauled in for possession of cocaine,” I said. “But yes, he was human, and also, in some ways, a tragic figure….”

“How so?”

“Well, he lost nine of his 20 children before he died. His first wife died while he was away on a journey, and he came home a widower. And for some reason, the children of his first marriage didn’t seem to like his second wife all that much.”

“Right—not easy.”

“No, not easy,” I told her. “But the sheer volume of what Bach wrote staggers the imagination. Masterpiece after masterpiece, and the sad thing is that we’ve probably lost half of what he even wrote. But you know what Carl Sagan—or somebody or other—said when asked what he would send on a spaceship to introduce our civilization to whatever alien civilization came across it?”

“No clue,” said Lady.

“’I would send the complete work of Johann Sebastian Bach,’” I told her, “’but that would be boasting….’”  


Cantata for the second Sunday of Advent

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Into, as always, the dark

Maybe we all live by narrative. Maybe narratives are the tissues and the sinews that bind all the organs of our life together. We sit--or at least I sat—at the computer and studied the screen. The news of the last year—2016—hardly seemed altogether explicable: there were terrorist attacks all over Europe, and that made, in a way, perfect sense because….

But wait, did it make sense? There were days I wondered about that, and so I decided to embark on a challenge, to see if there was one corner of Western civilization that was going along as it ought. And so I settled on Johann Sebastian Bach. He had, after all, written one or two or even sometimes three cantatas for chamber orchestra, soloists and chorus for each week of the calendar year. Surely, surely, if the greatest composer of this or any time had gone to the trouble of doing it—well OK, he was being paid—I could listen to all of them. It would take a year, of course, but I had the time. I would sit in a café in Old San Juan; I would listen to BWV-whatever (a good blogger could explain what BWV actually means—all I can say is that it’s the cataloguing system of Bach’s work. Oh, and by the way, the cantatas occupy the first 225 or so BWV numbers.)

The idea, as I remember it, was to put a bit of order into a world that seemed less and less ordered. The whole enterprise was founded, in fact, by the Lutheran Liturgical year. Not, of course, that I knew anything much about the church year—Lutheran or otherwise. But it seemed like a thing to do.

Right, so I looked it up, and was unsurprised to find that the who thing began with Advent, which is roughly the four Sundays before Christmas. OK—that was vaguely familiar, since I remember Advent calendars, with their little windows that you would open each day (or was it each Sunday?) as a sort of incredibly low-tech advertisement for Christmas. The idea, I realized, was to get everybody ready—Christ is coming, the savior is soon to be born, and we’re all about to rollercoaster through his life until we get to the Resurrection.

Did it matter that I have no religious faith whatsoever? A person—I could hardly call him a friend—had suggested that I develop a spiritual life, and suggested his own exit ramp from isolation and despair: the Jehovah's Witnesses.

I had checked into this group, in fact, and discovered quite a story about them. And hadn’t they had one of the most bizarre history of all the bizarre 19th Century religions? Because I seemed to remember: whoever their founder was had predicted no less that three “ends-of-the-world.” The first two had gone more or less swimmingly: true, the world didn’t end, but a very satisfying number of followers had thought it might, and had gone so far as to refuse to plant their spring crops, and even to sell their land. (Though one wonders--why? Had they found a way, after all, to take it with them? Was it truly useful to have some pocket change in the after life? Or did it just satisfy a need to wrap things up, leave their affairs in order?) Anyway, as I remember, the founder of the religion, being none too bright, decided to announce a THIRD end of the world. And guess what? That one came and went as well, and that left the founder with a conundrum. Either announcing the end of the world was going to have to turn into an annual event, or we had to do some really good theological hocus-pocus here. And so we got a great explanation: the third end-of-the-world had indeed occurred! It was just that we couldn’t see it! Oh, and the second coming of Christ was very much upon, but also very much invisible.

The Internet has had perhaps too much Christmas cheer and is sleeping off in cyberspace—and so I can neither confirm nor deny all of this. But does it matter? If I wanted to, I could do low-tech, and run out to the plaza just outside the café, where to Jehovah's Witnesses are ready to tell men what the Bible really says, and trust me, they would have the full story. But I didn’t want that.

I wanted something comfortably obscured, if not eroded and smoothed, by the long passage of time. True, Martin Luther had his share of nuttiness, too: he took shelter in a castle / monastery, if memory serves, for a year while he was translating the Bible into German. So there he was, locked up in one room, and the walnut tree outside began to shed its nuts, and dropping them loudly on the roof. You or I, perhaps, might venture to the window, see the tree, notice the autumn foliage, and curse under our breath. Luther, apparently, thought that the devil was throwing rocks at the roof.

Anyway, no one remembers any of this, perhaps because it isn’t true. But the point is that the Lutherans got together a nice little scheme. The year would start with Advent, progress to Christmas, then venture on to Lent, then stumble on to Pentecost (think that’s how it works, since I have looked up Pentecost every year of my atheist life, and if I’m right, it’s when the spirit and teaching of Christ comes down and smacks the believers in the head). Then we sort of go along—for some reason—to Trinity, which I can’t understand, and which no one else can understand either. But not to worry, because a very good friend of mine says that the Trinity is a basic mess, so much so that senior ministers leave town on Trinity Sunday and leave the adjunct ministers to minister on it.

After all this strenuous activity, one sits back and goes golfing, presumably, because the year has ended, and now all we have to do is wait for Advent again. True, there may not be too many surprises when the Liturgical year begins again, but isn’t that the point? Isn’t there something reassuring about knowing the end of this story? True, there have been years when for me Christmas did not come, when Christ died stillborn in the manger, when the shepherds took a wrong turn, or followed the wrong star, or simply got a changeling—it isn’t always easy to see the heavenly host. And Easter? Yes, for me, there had been years when the boulder had refused to budge, when Christ languished in that tomb, and never ascended.

And as I said to that man, “neither God nor Christ speaks to me.”

This, as Handel would said in Messiah, was laughed unto derision.

“Oh yes they do!” said the group. “You’re just not listening!”

Well, I thought I had. I had spent hours meditating, I had prayed in Christian churches, I had gone on a retreat in a Catholic monastery, and I….well, had done as much as most. And no, Christ nor God nor the Holy Spirit had much to say to me. Spiritually speaking, I had neither road map nor GPS. I did, though, often admire the scenery.

So it was time, I thought, to hitch a ride with someone altogether greater than I, both musically and spiritually. Bach was my man: I would listen to all of the Bach cantatas of the entire year. Yup—all 225 of them, and who knew? If God still chose not to speak to me, at least Bach would have, and that would be no lessor thing. And perhaps, at the end, I could find the narrative again.

The narrative—remember the narrative? The thing that we all—especially writers—live by? I started out Advent of 2015 confused: by Advent 2016, I would be shining with clarity!

How wrong I was….



The Cantata for the first week of Advent--and a stunner!