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