The World Confined
A bee buzzes past you, merrily making its way to a patch of nearby flowers. You like bees, and it is a beautiful day; the previous rains have been dried by the sun, and the heat is bearable. You want to stand and gaze at the sun, and at the clouds, and hear the breeze and the bees but alas! you cannot. The parchment folded in your hands is an inquiry from the Duke–you know that much, but you cannot open it. This is for the eyes of the famous musician Johann Sebastian Bach.
The dwelling which he shares with his family is far from court, so a carriage has brought you to the street where the lonely place resides. Reflecting on the solitude he, his wife, and his children must share here, you realize that you don’t know much about him. He’s a man in his prime, perhaps just below forty years old, with a stern face but a generally happy gaze. As a mere servant, you know nothing of music, but you know that Bach is an important musician and by extension you are important; the task of giving a necessary document is a hefty burden!
“What is music?” you ask yourself, longing for company of some kind. You cannot sing, and cannot really remember a melody, but having seen and heard Mr. Bach in the Court, either at the harpsichord alone or surrounded by other musicians, you can appreciate the hard work. “Bah!” you say, suddenly heated. “Is music hard work? Or is it just…” you mime your hands, waving them about like a director, whistling softly, or imagining yourself seated at a keyboard. Silly wigs! Silly shoes and silly bowing and kissing of the hands. Keeping up a face of politeness must be difficult all the time, you think to yourself.
You have reached the home of Bach, but it seems odd somehow. Isn’t there normally singing? Or the shouting of children or the noise of cooking? At least, this is what you assume life outside the court to be like. Do musicians even cook for themselves? you wonder. All your meals for the past half-decade have been provided in the kitchen while you attend your duties (either carrying the luggage of guests or escorting the Duke to his meals, or appearing necessary during a concert). You knock on the door once, twice.
“Herr Bach!” you call, and rap once more on the door. “I am sent forth by the Duke, and I have an important document which you must read. Are you here?” You wait patiently, for you are a patient person. Then you reflect on last night when the cook neglected to heat up your milk before bed and amend yourself, tapping your foot against the stone porch. You are about to raise your fist to knock once more when the door opens with an eerie creaking sound.
Eerie, you think. The eyes of a child greet you, then; frightened and hungry eyes. A small gasp issues from an unseen mouth before the small figure retreats, its feet rapping madly on the floor. “Hello?” you inquire, bewildered. You push the door open and emit a gasp of your own.
The place is disgusting. Plates of food, either half-cooked and half-eaten or hastily unprepared lay about, rotting and covered in flies. Sheet music is scattered all around, upon a nearby table or keyboard or chair, or sitting startlingly close to the fireplace. Faintly the smell of wine clogs your nose. In the corner of the kitchen are four small children; two girls and two boys, and none of them have entered young adulthood.
“What happened?” you ask, shocked. The smell is starting to get to you; the smell of barely consumed meat, spoiled milk, dirty children, and sour wine. You long for the freshness of flowers just outside where the bees happily go about their work. You crouch, low to the ground, motioning to the children. “Come, and tell me what has happened. Where is your mother and father?”
Hesitantly, one of the young boys rushes to you, wary. “Will you help papa get better? Will you feed us?” He looks back at his siblings. Of course, you realize. They’re all terrified and half-starved! You take a quick breath, doing your best to make a plan. Who will help? The Duke? Surely he must!
“I will do what I can, and soon,” you promise the boy, but in his eyes there is no happiness or comfort; only despair, grief, and hunger. You glance at the other children, all huddled together like a pack of frightened rabbits. “Where is your mother?”
“She…she…” one of the girls begins before being overtaken by sobs. Such sorrow you have never heard from a child; such sorrow should never be allowed to be expressed from a child. Slowly you piece things together. Bach had returned from a trip perhaps two weeks? a month? ago. But two months before he had been pleasantly interacting at the court, and performing his duties–
Two months? you think. These children have been abandoned for days, or weeks, you think as you shudder. You’re perspiring uncomfortably. “Where…where is your father?” All the children look motion with their eyes past the kitchen and down a dark hallway.
You rise, your heart beating slightly. “Stay here,” you say firmly but softly. Trepidation fills you as you make your way out of the kitchen and down the hallway. Shattered glass crunches beneath your buckled-shoes, and what appears to be wine stains the wooden floor. The doors along the hallway are open slightly, but the rooms within are dark. You reach the door at the end, which is closed. Rustling is heard on the other side, like an impatient predator waiting to pounce. A gruff voice is speaking or cursing. “I…I’m here to help. I’m coming in!” you say weakly, trying to put on a braveness which you definitely do not feel. You push your way into the room.
It is dimly lit by a few candles. The window is open but the curtains drawn; sunlight barely makes itself known. The scents of sweat, grime, wine, and ink invade your nose. Like the previous area of the house, sheet music is scattered everywhere, as if a furious storm of wind disrupted a concert. Taking all of this in, you have not noticed the hunched figure in the corner. And you would not recognize it as the same fellow who you had seen merely weeks prior.
“Barbara?” His voice sounds unused, like a bassoon with dust gathered inside. You are startled and speechless as you behold him. His eyes are not the sharp, focused, dagger-like orbs you have heard tell. They are crazed, frenzied, empty of attention but full of emotions you cannot describe. “Is that you, Barbara?” His wig is gone and his feet are clad in socks. His trousers are torn about the knees and his sleeves are in tatters. “Ah, no,” he says, his voice directed at himself. “It is not you; not you at all.” He stands by the window taking in the breeze. How soft is the wind, and how soft is the sunlight.
“The music is finished, my dear,” he exclaims suddenly, a fire in his voice. “It is finished, as I promised it would be! I wrote it; I wrote it for you, as I promised I would upon my return!” He rushes then to a table. Upon it rests a small violin with a bow nearby. He cradles it in his arms like a newborn child but his eyes are open yet unseeing. *Without a word, he raises his instrument, plucks a few strings while inhaling and then a torrent of sound hits your ears.*
You don’t know much about music. You appreciate the sound of trumpets, of oboes, and of strings or flutes. You tend to like faster music over slower music. It all sounds pretty to your ears, and that’s what counts. But this…what this crazed man full of sorrow calls forth from the strings is more than music; it is more than grief, it is more than fury or loss. The world confined to one instrument is present before you. One man, one violin, but thousands of notes depicting a story whose plot you grasp, but only just.
He stands still as he plays, barely moving; his breathing is soft at points, then frantic at others. His eyes are closed and his face is barely animated. This unmoved mover is giving notes to your ears but you feel your entire self moved by the music. A pattern–a theme– is perceived as his fingers fly on the strings, as he shifts his stance; you notice that certain notes are played in succession throughout. At times the music is calm, but it is calm before the storm as the notes reach a higher pitch, as his fingers transition from mere caresses to sprinting. At other moments, the hand with his bow saws back and forth at such a speed not humanly impossible, but stunning nonetheless. A flurry of notes like a storm of snow and once again, the familiar theme you discern is heard.
At one moment when it seems the torrent of sound has ceased, his face changes from grim concentration to almost a calm, stoic joy. Is joy the right word? After all of this grief and exhaustion heard in the music, could joy be possible? Or is it a mere content, perhaps, a contemplation of all that has occurred? How can someone make music like this? you ask, stunned that this is the first time you’re posing such a question.
The lightness to the music is akin to the sun peering through the clouds on a rainy day, or the sprinkling of drops before a rainbow. With tenderness his bow-arm continues its endless motion, his breathing becoming more heartfelt; still, his eyes are closed as the music continues. The music reaches what sounds like a victorious, ecstatic moment; his bow releases from the strings as a single note fills the room.
You want to applaud, to interject, to say something—How can music like this exist? you wonder, awed and bewildered. But no; with a small intake of breath, he continues to play. How long has this lasted? The music takes a darker turn, reminding you of the beginning. Have the clouds returned? you inquire inwardly. Your heart hammers and you find yourself full of anticipation, of trepidation and anxiety.
Several notes collide around one single pitch as his bowing-hand flows, the volume increasing before his fingers fly again, phrase after phrase…and then the opening group of notes are once again introduced to your ears. A return home, you think, but not a happy one. His breathing is less frantic now, and with a final flourish of his bow and fingers a long-held note is played, empty, alone and vulnerable, resounding until fading away as he lifts his arm, exhaling and tilting his face at the floor.
Wordlessly he places the instrument and its bow back into the table. He appears to have aged a century having played for so long; his movement is stiff and pained. He sighs then, long and without abandon. Raising a hand to his forehead, he stands by the open window as if taking in the breeze for the first time. A small smile graces his face, and his eyes open briefly, with tears welling slightly. Taking no notice of you whatsoever, he settles back into his chair in the corner, his hands over his face, and falls into a deep slumber.
“I’m going on an Adventure!”
“Sebastian, do you have all you need? The carriage will be here shortly. Make haste!”
Barbara is flustered and impatient, but it is an impatience enveloped by adoration. Bach sits at the table, his steaming cup of coffee resting next to his Bible. “Patience is a virtue, my love,” he intones with a smile. He is a little unshaven, and tiredness is written on his face but his eyes are brimming with happiness. He turns to regard the run rising through the window, its golden rays descending from the purple and red sky. Birds chirp in trees nearby, and the flower-garden hums with the buzz of bees. It is a lovely morning to be to be in love, Bach thinks to himself, sipping the steaming brew.
“Patience may be a virtue but sloth is a slight,” Barbara responds, standing in his field of view and placing a kiss on his brow. “How I will miss you,” she says softly. Bach places his hand over hers. “And I you,” he responds, brushing a lock of hair from her face. The voices of their children outside are heard. What better thing is there than the playful joy of children?
Sebastian sips some more coffee. “The carriage will be here within an hour,” he says. “If there is sloth, it may be with he who has yet to arrive. An hour is plenty of time! Perhaps I may find inspiration for completing a new partita,” he continues. Walking to a different room, he grips his elbows. “My joints!” he complains. “I feel like an old man,” he laments but Barbara laughs. “Neither of us are as young as when we were married,” she says with a laugh. “But you make me feel as young as the day in the organ loft,” she reminisces wistfully.
“A rascal then and a rascal now!” He kisses her forehead, and picks up his violin which is resting on a nearby desk. “My sadness and displeasure when I received summons from the Prince to accompany him on his journey,” he says softly. After tuning the instrument for a moment and adjusting his strings, he begins to play. The music is tender, soft, but full of grief; his skilled hands grace the strings. After the music is complete, he stands and contemplates the morning sun, the voices of their children, and upcoming journey.
“Lovely, yet sad,” Barbara says after a minute or two. She watches her husband who had once transfixed her with his skill at the organ. While he is a virtuoso of the keyed instrument, it is with the strings that his inner self seems more revealed. “Indeed,” Sebastian agrees. “A faster movement has been completed but I have yet to fully have it in my fingers.”
He contemplates for a few more minutes, and where he has gone in his mind no one can reach him. What does he think of? she wonders. Music? Or an anxiety about the trip? As much as Bach loved traveling, sometimes he could withdraw before departure. She leaves him by the window and busies herself with clearing the table, lighting a candle or two, and tidying the flowers within the kitchen.
Soon enough the neighing of a horse is heard, and the sound of laughing children is turned to curiosity. She looks out the window to the front yard and beholds her children cautiously approaching the giant, brown, maned creature, its tail flicking back and forth. “It likes carrots!” the driver of the carriage says to the children, who pat the face of the horse lightly.
“Sebastian, he is here!” she calls into the other room. Previously where the sound of violin music has been heard, his steps resound. “Ah, so soon?” he complains with a smile on his face. “I have thought of another movement to my partita!” he exclaims. “Well, it is not complete…but to conclude with a simple gigue…there must be more I can think of!”
“Sebastian, you put too much pressure on yourself,” she chides him, cupping his face in her hands. “Inspiration for completing your new partita will be found in one way or another,” she continues. “Have a leisurely time at the spa in Carslbad, not a troubling one.” He contemplates these words for a minute or two before kissing her cheek. His rucksack is over his shoulder and his wig is falling off his head. “My only trouble is to be away from you and the children,” he replies, glancing at the floor. She murmurs something beneath her breath. “I must be off,” he says, and tenderly kisses her on the lips.
“I await your return,” she says while looking into his eyes. “As do I,” he responds. “My least favorite thing about travel is the wait to get to your destination! Why must walking or riding take so long?” he shakes his head, a glint in his eyes.
“Patience is a virtue,” she reminds with a smile, and kisses his cheek once more. He embraces her in a tight hug. “I must be off,” he repeats. “I love you.”
“And I you,” she replies softly, and then he is gone. Out the door, into the sunlight, where the morning fog kisses the grass. Their children gather around him, and he says goodbye to them all. “Goodbye, papa!” they all say gleefully. “Cause little trouble while I’m gone, eh?” he says with a smile. He waves goodbye to them, and goodbye to her through the window. “We must be off! Leopold will be anxious to leave,” he commands the driver, who ascends the carriage.
As Bach closes the door behind him, the driver lets out an exclamation and snaps the reigns. The horse coughs loudly but moves its hoofed feet, and then Bach is off and away. Return home safely, Barbara prays to herself. Return home and I will be here.
My Goals for 2022
It has shocked me that two months have gone by since the beginning of this new year. I’m sure most of us have resolutions or goals, and while some may be easier to achieve than others, I find it may help to keep a constant list for reference. ‘Once written, twice remembered’ is perhaps a good anecdote, but I also feel that the more you write your goal or dream and keep it in mind, the more likelihood it has of coming true. Almost like a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Therefore, what are my goals, you may ask?
- Keep learning more music! I have the ability to practice each day, usually for a few hours. Each morning I think of what to practice, and I always begin with my scales. Reading music is easier for me nowadays; sight-reading used to be such a huge challenge. Lately I have taken a liking to the music of Handel and Pachelbel.
- Keep writing more music! Sadly I have been suffering from writer’s block, and not only in terms of composition but also here with my website. My apologies. One cannot force an idea…to overcome writer’s block, maybe all it takes is time. Baroque composers did not have the luxury of ‘waiting for inspiration to strike’ like Mozart or Beethoven may have, but then again they also didn’t have to worry about bills or buying groceries or preparing dinner. (Are these excuses or explanations?) Granted, they could spend all day composing and practicing music (or is this speculation on my part?) because is was their full-time day job.
- Earn more money through my craft! Either by selling my sheet music or through your generous donations, it is my goal to be a working musician. This can be achieved online, either through the explained methods above or even earning money via my Youtube channel. After all, I have surpassed 1,000 subscribers, and all I need is watch hours in order to be monetized! But online methods are one way; getting more work in-person is a goal of mine as well. And while we are in the middle of this situation with the virus, this may be difficult to achieve but I will remain steadfast. Also I should refer my page on Fiverr.com as well!
- Gain recognition for my work, both online and offline! Offline this may be difficult; who wants to hear a quiet, long-haired fellow like myself announce that he is a composer and keyboardist? In places like a bank or grocery store? Word-of-mouth may be complicated, and yes, online promotion is easier. Sometimes though social media is draining, and keeping up with it is a chore. Regardless I would like to collaborate with musicians, online and offline, in whatever way possible. Already I play music from living composers; from Frank Frontera to Tamsin Jones. In turn, my music has been played as well!
- My final goal, and perhaps it may be a pipe-dream, but one of my oldest goals has been to record and release a CD of solo keyboard music. Any way I could achieve this has yet to be discovered; I lack equipment and an available instrument. Ideally I’d record my own suites or other pieces for keyboard, but perhaps I could release an album consisting of new and old Baroque music! How this could be brought about, I do not know; all I can do for the time being is practice and hone my skills each day for as much as possible. Either grants or crowd-funding may be an option…
Thank you for reading! Well wishes to you all.
Your hands lift from the keys and the final chord resounds in the sanctuary of the church. You shift your feet nervously, attempting to not touch the pedals; faintly you hear the men at the bellows of the organ cease their work, panting heavily. Your palms are covered in sweat and your heart hammers within your chest. I played as best I could, you tell yourself, but the mistakes and missed notes echo in your head. But I could have done better, too, you think unhappily. I should have played better! Then you remember not to berate yourself too much; playing from memory is never easy.
You are about to turn on the bench and take a bow, thanking the judges for their time when something heavy but soft and reeking of sweat strikes your cheek. The impact surprises you and a surprised shout leaves your mouth. Glancing around, you seek whoever projected such a missile, which has fallen to the side of the bench. It is a wig. You are about to pick it up when heavy footsteps grace your ears. The ground seems to tremble beneath your feet and suddenly you feel very small.
Suddenly he is upon you, grasping your shoulders and hair and he hauls you off the bench, his firm hands gripping you with such force it is a wonder that bones are not broken. You don’t have to see his face to know that pure rage is radiating off him, as if he is the sun and you are a mere sunflower or insect. “You fool! You useless waste of space—you are an embarrassment to musicians everywhere! Ashamed am I to call you my student—why? Why can you never perform as you are expected?” His voice is like thunder and his words are like stinging thorns.
He turns you around to face him and suddenly he strikes you across the cheek. Surprise mixed with pain is the sensation you feel, at least upon your face; inside your head you are stunned. You are too shocked to contemplate this sudden assault and abuse but you can do nothing to prevent his hand or words. He is a giant and you are but a crumb of an atom.
Again he strikes you, this time on your ear. You are ashamed as tears form in your eyes before descending your reddening cheeks. Why would he do this? Your teacher, whose wit has split your sides; your teacher, who has advised you during times of distress or uncertainty; your teacher, whose hands have graced the mightiest keyboard requiring strength and precision, or the smallest of keys with a soft and delicate touch.
Where then is such delicacy and tenderness? Again he strikes you and shouts, his voice echoing in a hall where notes had previously. “You are a waste of time and talent! Why can you not perform in a satisfactory way as I desire of you? How can you humiliate me like this? You are a useless student! You are unfit to be a musician! This must be your desire, but I can see no gift you will bring to the world. You should aspire to be a cobbler instead! Go! Be on your way and make shoes instead of music; a boot without a sole is less of a concern than your incompetence.”
All the while he shakes you by the shoulders, his black eyes filled with utter fury. At the end of his speech riddled with insults he once again strikes you, and you fall to the floor in an ungraceful heap. Your head rings with pain and more tears fall from your eyes but you try not to weep loudly. Faintly the smell of wine lingers in your nose as Bach walks away, snarling and exhaling like a taunted bull. He exits the room, not even bidding his fellow judges a good day.
On the floor you remain, looking up at the table of judges before you. Some seem perplexed by the outburst of Bach–either perplexed or uncomfortable, their eyes avoiding yours; other seem nonplussed unmoved and you wonder if this is normal behavior from the cantor. A couple of the judges give you sympathetic glances. Apart from their expressions, they all seem to the be same person; pale old men with graying wigs. They have a vague semblance to vultures who are about to devour a lonely, unprotected baby animal.
Under their eyes you remain fixed to the floor. Shame fills you then; shame at having given a poor performance (but by the standards of whom? you ask yourself) but also the shame at having been beaten and berated in public. In public, yes, and in front of men who had most likely never played an instrument nor had the privilege of studying under Bach himself. Your shame is replaced, then, by a greater misery. My teacher…how could he do this? Why would he treat me thus?
Your heartbeat has calmed down but your nerves are on edge and your face still hurts. Your hair is askew, in your face, wet with tears. Slowly you rise from the floor and regard the wig which lay by the organ bench. What teacher strikes his students? Are all beneath him treated so? His children? Anna Magdalena? you wonder, incredulous. Trying to muster some dignity, you take a deep breath before looking at the judges.
“I thank you for your time,” you begin and hate yourself for the wavering quality of your voice. Instantly you begin shaking with nervousness and shame, cursing yourself for your weakness. If I had played better, then maybe Bach wouldn’t have treated me like this, you think and wish you could say. “May God bless you this day,” you intone as a farewell. Making your way outside, the clouds roll overhead and rain falls. You lift your face to the heavens, and the bite of water which falls is cold and harsh, but you are grateful that no onlookers can discern rain from tears.
Practice makes Perfect
You look at the keyboard, a small sigh escaping your mouth. This will be the third time that you have played your scales this lesson. And more importantly, it is not a private lesson, but one with other pupils present.
Is the purpose of honing musical skills meant to be practice, or humiliation? you wonder hopelessly. I do not wish to make a fool of myself in front of these other students.
“Again,” he urges but not unkindly. Yes, I do not want to make a fool of myself again, you think with impatience. Your nails dig into your palms slightly; he cannot see the crescent scars but he can see the tenseness within your muscles. A stern instructor is Bach; stern but patient and seemingly ever-knowing. The small basement feels smaller, with ten pairs of eyes seated behind you. A fire crackles in the fireplace, startling you for a moment.
You try not to pout but you are tired and overwhelmed. “But why?” you ask, whining like a small child. “These are scales. Finger-exercises which are simple. A master like you must be bored out of your mind, hearing the same notes over and over!”
The ghost of a smile crosses Bach’s face. His black eyes twinkle as he regards you. “If they are simple, my student, then why have you made mistakes three times over?” he inquires. The question, as much as you have been expecting it, still irks you. “Mistakes have been made because I am bored and tired,” you say with heat in your voice. It’s three o’clock in the afternoon, and you have been in this class since after the noonday meal.
“Ah,” he says with sympathy, shifting in his chair slightly. “When the brain is heavy and the eyelids cannot stay open, it is indeed difficult for concentration to remain sharp,” he intones. Rising, he stands behind you to your left. He situates himself so that his pinky rests above the low c on the small, out-of-tune keyboard. “We will begin, but slowly–and more importantly, one hand at a time.”
You try not to let your frustration show. You have been studying your skills diligently for two weeks now. A small part of you does know that these are necessary to know, but you don’t want to learn them! You want to learn the fast music, the thrilling music which you have heard Bach play in taverns, in lessons, and even in church. But you sense that he knows your impatience and unrest.
“Again,” he says. “First I will play; watch my hands, and then you imitate. Then we will play this scale together; once ascending, then descending.” He demonstrates with a slow tempo, and you marvel at the accuracy his short, compact fingers have over this simple instrument. Can this man make any keyboard sing, no matter its temperance and appearance?
You watch carefully, then take in a deep breath. This lesson is, so far, like all the others. Bach would coach you, demonstrate, coach some more, and then demonstrate again. But not just with you, oh no; this was the same process with all the other students. You met here, twice a week, for two or three hours–whatever Bach’s schedule could afford. How you often have longed for it to be winter so he could be more occupied with writing funeral music!
You exhale slowly and begin to play, your left pinky first, then your ring finger, then your middle finger, then your pointer finger–but crossing over from the thumb to middle finger is clunky and awkward. You pause here and there, and your rhythm is unsteady, like a drunk man who is wearing two left shoes.
His voice is slightly sterner this time. “Again,” he emphasizes. “But this time you will choose your tempo and stay with it throughout. And this tempo will be strict until your fingers play with ease,” he instructs. You settle your hand to its proper position. “One…two…three…four,” you count out loud, pausing before playing the final notes. Your hand travels up the octave; on striking the final c, you descend without a hitch. Upon the final resonance of the note, you exhale a breath you didn’t know you held. You had done it!
Bach nods a little in approval. But he is not fully pleased yet. “Now, with you right hand,” he suggests, and the entire process is repeated. You struggle once or twice; all eyes behind you are fixed to your back–you can tell—and the fading sunlight casts streams of illumination on the wall.
Bach shifts from where he is standing. “Good,” he admonishes, the soft tone of his voice making the hairs on your neck stand at attention. “Now, you will repeat the process—“
“Again?” you guess, then mentally chastise yourself for interrupting. Bach hated to be interrupted but you are excited at having done so well. He pauses, and takes a breath. “Again, yes,” he begins. “But you will begin with c major, at the bottom of the keyboard, and ascend in this manner: major, then minor, and a half-step above, and so repeat until you have climbed an octave.” The students behind you seem surprised and startled; not all of you have mastered all twelve scales (not to mention the fact that some are unbearable to even listen to!).
“All right,” you say, settling your left hand to its position—
—“but this will be accomplished with both hands.”
Oh, you think. Recollecting on the previous hour you have spent at this keyboard, your face grows pale. Bach senses your unease; with a comforting tone, he says, “Tempo may be of your choosing, but be strict and diligent,” he commands. “Begin when you are ready,” he says, and settles back into the chair beside you. From his body language, you glean that there is nowhere else Bach would rather be. The man seems so at ease here, attending to his students (as bothersome as the task may be!) that he could not fathom being at home, eating a warm meal provided by his wife, or practicing his own music, or even puffing a pipe on the porch of a nearby tavern while watching the stars at night.
You think of all these things that he could be doing, that he might well rather be doing. But then you realize that he, a master of the keyboard, merely has the wish that all his students may one day reach his level of virtuosity. And in order for students to learn, they must be taught; and who to teach them other than him?
You collect your thoughts and settle your breathing. In, out, in, out, you think slowly; one, two, three, four. Both hands are in position; your left pinky is over the low c while your right thumb settles on the c an octave higher. The tempo is set in your head; all you need to do is connect your mind to your fingers. Ready, and…play! you think.
And sure enough, slowly (but not in a too painstaking nor labored fashion) your fingers connect with the wooden keys, the strings are plucked, and soon the scales of all twenty-four keys have been played. Not once does your mind falter or your fingers slip; while the process has taken five or ten minutes, your concentration has not wavered.
Upon striking the final dual c‘s with your left pinky and right thumb, you lean back and almost fall off the small bench. You sigh, your shoulders going limp as they had been quite tense, and your arms fall dramatically to your legs. “I…I did it!” you say excitedly, childlike joy in your voice. Yes, you have done it; not only for the first time but in front of all the other students too. They nod in approval, and someone claps softly.
“Yes,” Bach says after a few moments, sitting in the chair while regarding you. “You have done well,” he intones, shifting his gaze to the window. The shadows on the wall have become longer and larger; it must be later in the day, you figure. “We are dismissed for today,” he tells the class in a louder voice, and then to you, “Next class we meet, you will begin with that exercise.” You nod, determined to impress your teacher again in a couple days. On your walk home, it feels like your feet hardly touch the ground; you are elated! “So this is how he is such a wonderful player of the keyboard!” you shout out loud, skipping in the streets, startling some geese and pigeons which launch into the sky.
Repetition and diligence, you think to yourself—that’s the proper way! You’ll hardly be able to sleep tonight, or even stomach dinner; you cannot wait to hone your newly-instructed way of practicing. But in your elation, your foot catches on the side of a merchant’s booth. Then you are falling to the ground suddenly, an arm outstretched to ward off the grasp of gravity when a lightening-pain hits your wrist and you hear a dull snap. On the ground you roll, clutching your wounded appendage in agony, with tears of pain replacing tears of joy.
The Long-Awaited Judge
“He is coming?”
“He is coming–soon, you say?” The eyes of the organ builder grow wide in fright.
The other man nods. His air is one of importance and pomposity. “If I seem impatient, Hildebrandt,” he intones with warning in his voice, “then my father is infinitely less patient,” he says, folding the parchment in front of him. Even though Hildebrandt is taller than Wilhelm Friedemann, he seems to shrink in stature at the mere mention of the famed organist making the journey to inspect–and hopefully approve of–his instrument.
“I assure you, Herr,” the organ builder says nervously, inclining his head slightly, “the final touches are being completed as we speak. I predict that within the week, the instrument—“
He is cut off. “You do not have that much time,” Friedemann interjects.
“What?” Hildebrandt asks, his face growing ever more pale.
Friedemann sighs with impatience. “Two days, at the latest. Less than a day, at the earliest.” It seems that it takes all his willpower for Hildebrandt to not faint. “You may rest assured that should your creation please him, then the reputation you have will be untouchable, and your name and craft will be heralded in all the land,” Friedemann says in a comforting tone. Hildebrandt noticeably brightens, but he pauses for a moment.
“And…and if not? If the instrument that I and my crew have prepared over the past few years is not satisfactory?” he inquires, his brow furrowing in a disquieted way. Friedemann looks solemnly at the organ builder. Without another word, he turns and walks out of the church.
The news seems to be digesting in Hildebrandt’s mind for a moment. Slowly he turns to his crew, who watch him. His eyes glance over workers near him o the floor, as well as above on the balcony, where the facade of the great organ looms. “My good crew,” he says hesitantly, “we have a mere day ahead of us before…he…arrives,” he finished nervously. A pause. “You have all worked your hardest and I applaud you. By this time tomorrow evening, perhaps a day later, our labours will be judged and graded. For now, let us leave for the evening. To our lodgings, lads!”
The general mumbles and grumbles ensue as the crew places their tools and equipment in sturdy sacks. Candles are blown out before the light of the sun fades from the windows, glancing off the pipes of the organ which lay dormant like a great sleeping beast. “Until tomorrow, then,” Hildebrandt says quietly as he closes to the doors to the great church.
The next morning, Hildebrandt rises from his sleep in the room at the inn where he is staying. A cup of wine and a plate of eggs with a hearty sausage is his breakfast. Sighing, he rinses his face, looking into the mirror as the wrinkled visage greets him back. “On with it, you old mule,” he orders himself. Donning his wig and coat, he leaves the inn shortly thereafter.
Bad weather today; I can feel it, he thinks as he makes his way to the massive church. Indeed not before he sets foot in the door the thunder rumbles and rain begins to pelt the ground. He is pleased to see that the crew is all here; candles are lit but they’ll need more. “Good morning,” he says and they respond in kind. “The weather outside…” he gestures vaguely as thunder booms. “There’s little chance our inspection will be today. So! Today we will polish this instrument, literally and figuratively,” he adds as someone coughs lightly nearby. “Let us begin,” he says, and up the stairs he walks.
While he has been responsible for the construction of many organs throughout the region, Hildebrandt feels he stands on the precipice of his career. To have your work deemed worthy or unworthy by such a lauded organist–it was any builder’s dream! But also, any builder’s nightmare should your instrument fail to be up to ‘certain standards.’ The three manuals greet him, as do the various stops which are housed amid a blue background. The pipes are poised above his head. “I need two men at the bellows please!” he shouts at the men gathered below him, failing to realize he’d been accompanied up the steps by two young lads. Ah my hearing, he thinks wearily.
Soon enough, air is pumped into the lungs of the instrument. He tests one stop, and then another. The action of the keys is firm but not ridiculously so; the coupling-action may prove difficult–or perhaps it’s the dryness of his joints. He lacks the coordination to play the pedals; according to his ears, the action was good and the sound was better. “Cease!” he calls, and the fellows pumping air to the bellows cease their labor.
He crawls into the belly of the great organ, inspecting what he can in the dim daylight. There are no issues; none that he can see or hear. He wipes his brow with his handkerchief, dabbing at the sweat. A short bout of coughing overtakes him. Must be my nerves, he reasons silently.
“Herr Hildebrandt? Herr Hildebrandt?” a voice calls from below. Glancing out from the balcony, he beholds a young boy. “Yes, what is it?” he asks the youth. “No, wait–I cannot hear you from up here. Wait a moment,” he says and begins to descend the rickety white steps. The cool breeze of fall enters through the door.
The lad is uncertain but bows oddly. “He will not arrive until this evening, but at that point he will be too weary to inspect your creation,” the boy says. “I have word which orders you to be here no later than nine o’clock tomorrow morning,” he states curtly. “Ah,” Hildebrandt answers. “Ah.” He claps his hands together, grasping them. “Well, then. What time is it?” he inquires.
The boy pauses. “It is just two hours past noon,” he informs the organ builder. “Oh! Time has slipped away,” he says wearily. “It feels as though I’ve been here all morning,” he says with a slight smile. “But sir,” one of the workers says, “you’ve only been here for an hour or so.” A gasp from Hildebrandt as he turns—do they take him for a fool? “I–I slept in?” he asks, bewildered. The young boy chuckles and Hildebrandt waves a hand at him. “Off with you,” he commands, and the boy runs out into the rain.
Turning around once again, he looks at his crew. “Well, tomorrow morning it is, then,” he says. “I alone will be here; you all have the day off,” he continues, feeling the relief that passes through the men. “Has…has anyone met him before?” he asks nervously.
The men glance from one to the other. “No,” one says. “He hardly ever leaves his home in Leipzig,” he finished. “It’s true!” says another. “He has not left in perhaps two decades.” More voices intone their agreements; more voices add snippets of his temper, his reputation for flawless playing, and his harsh standards when it came to organs. Hildebrandt blanches at these stories, but half-believes others.
“Well, enough–enough!” he barks when the voices become too much. “The day is over. The organ is excellent! My crew, my crew,” he says, shaking his head solemnly, “I’m sure that the craft we have built will be lauded. Again–only I will be here tomorrow, bright and early at nine o’clock!” The crew brighten at the news of having a day off. “Lets us be off; enjoy a fine meal and some wine. Offer a prayer, perhaps, that he will be merciful,” he finishes and bids them good evening. They all walk out. Candles are extinguished, and once again he regards the great organ with its silver pipes and gold-and-white facade glaring back at him. Even with no one at the keyboard, the instrument feels alive; awake and foreboding. If looks could kill, he would be dead.
On arriving back to the inn, he bids the innkeeper well. “Have someone wake me after dawn,” he says. “I must be up bright and early,” he adds. Settling into his room, he washes his face quickly and gulps down a cup or two of wine. Soon enough his dinner is brought up, and he sits at a small table, eating by both the light of candle and light of the moon. Below, a horse whinnies in protest as its carriage is drawn to a halt.
Is that him? Hildebrandt thinks. His heart races as he settles into bed. But sleep escapes him; his thoughts flit about like flies around a corpse. Eventually he falls into slumber because the sun pierces through the window. A chill is in that air. His door opens and a servant enters with some wine and breakfast. “Pleasant morning, Herr,” the servant greets but Hildebrandt is too drowsy to respond. “A gorgeous day outside; not a cloud in the sky! Birds everywhere, and that red sunrise is lovely!”
The organ builder gives not a single care for the cloudless, red sky, nor the birds or various other pleasures which the servant bleats on about. “Thank you for my meal,” he says, sitting at the table and beginning to eat. “Let me know when it is quarter past eight in the morning,” he orders lightly, and the servant bows and leaves his room.
His belly roars with hunger but soon it is full of eggs, sausage, and wine. He is grateful too for the hunk of bread, which he uses to mop up the runny yolk. Birds call back and forth outside; the chill bites at his skin less. I have perhaps an hour or so to myself, he thinks, and studies the wall in front of him. A beetle scurries across the floor near his bed.
The sound of footsteps is heard, and his door opens wide in a rush. “My apologies, Herr,” the young servant gasps, clutching at the apron on their waste. “It is well past eight, and you must be on your way!”
Jumping from his chair, he brushes the crumbs on his shirt. “Indeed I must!” With a quick splash of water on his face, he buckles his shoes, adjusts his wig, and pulls his coat over his thing frame. My joints…aren’t what they used to be, he thinks slowly. Shuffling down the stairs, he enters the busy street, making his way to the church as fast as possible.
From a ways away, he sees, curiously, that the doors are open and a lone figure stands. It is a man, his eyes wide and full of anticipation. Momentarily Hildebrandt shields his eyes from the sun; on a second glance, the figure is gone. The door remains open, swinging in the wind. Who could that be? he thinks with a pang of fear in his heart. He enters the church, which is only illuminated by the sunlight.
The great organ looks down at him; despite creating it, he cannot help but feel small and insignificant. His breath seems too loud, and his heart beats too quickly. How icily the white facade looks, paired with gold around the casing; how bright the silver pipes—
Footsteps are heard, creaking on the staircase. Upon a glance, Hildebrandt sees the lone figure, clad in a dull yellow coat, who beckons with a hurried motion of his hand. Hildebrant is just about to inquire if the man is him when a sudden noise is heard; but it is not noise, it is music, and it is music unlike that which Hildebrandt has ever heard in his life.
A flurry of notes in the high octaves of the organ–of his organ–is heard; the motion is repeated, descending the keyboard in a flash–and suddenly a blast from the pedals erupts all around his ears. What music is this? he asks himself, too stunned to voice the question out loud. More notes in the upper registers are heard for a few moments; what hands could be capable of this fast, virtuoso playing? With a crashing chord and a rumbles of pedals, followed by more chords, the music ends, and it echoes off the white halls for what feels like forever.
And then, silence.
It seems the only sound in his ears now is his own heartbeat. But then an old, loud, impatient voice booms across the walls. It sounds ancient and worn but powerful nonetheless. “Hildebrandt!” it commands. “Hildebrandt, come forth so that I may judge you and your creation.” With a nervous swallow, he adjusts his wig and coat and begins to ascend the staircase to hear the words of Johann Sebastian Bach.
Thoughts on my *Three Keyboard Suites
*three? keyboard suites…three mature and decent-quality keyboard suites…
In this post, I discuss three of my suites for keyboard, which were written between the years of 2014 – 2018. Currently a new suite was recently composed but I don’t think I’ll be talking about it here. If you like, in a later post I can discuss the process of writing this suite…
In the spring of 2014, over spring break, I was experiencing my first week of ease in college. This was my first semester of college, actually. I remember spending one day in the practice room (and yes, a full day; I arrived after breakfast and left at dinner-time) and I tried my hand at writing a suite. It really wasn’t all that good, I think it’s safe to say…I had no knowing of pure form (perhaps I should specify: varying form, like allemande, courante, sarabande, etc), but perhaps it was a start. At the time of writing this little conception in G major, I had no experience with great forms of suite-music. Clearly most of my thought went into the gigue, which was great fun to compose.
Immediately after this suite, another one was composed in f minor; most movements were newly-written, and not at the keyboard, admittedly. Perhaps the only achievements of this suite was the fugue (my second fugue, I remember; written for a counterpoint class (my only counterpoint class) in college in 2015) as well as the sarabande, which was written one day (an unhappy day, if I recall?) in 2014. I knew nothing of writing a sarabande; only that they were in 3/4-time as well as slow and expressive. Keeping that in mind, the piece in F minor was conceived.
However in this f minor suite, the allemande is where I started to grow a little bit in terms of harmony and sequence. The courante is forgettable; I hadn’t studied any form until recently, with my learning of Bach’s second French suite (BWV 813). I still do not understand the form, honestly. The sarabande…more can be said about the sarabande later. The minuet is hardly a dance; more of cheeky counterpoint; what was I even thinking? I’ve written better minuets since then! The gigue too was…interesting to think of, although it’s obvious I didn’t write it at the keyboard. The sequences are interesting though, as is its overall subject. Perhaps one day I’ll revisit this atrocious work…
Ah yes, onto my three actual suites. I don’t know where to really begin; I suppose the later version of the f minor suite is the proper direction. In the version presented in my senior recital, there are five movements; in the later ‘final’ edition, the sarabande of 2014 was added as the beginning movement with a sequence. Of my three maturer suites, the f minor is clearly my favorite to record; it is suitable for grand piano or harpsichord. Or even a simple keyboard, for that matter.
Of its movements, I’m rather proud of the sarabande(s), the fugue, the allemande, and the gigue. To the fugue, additional measures containing a painful sequence were added at the suggestion of my instructor Daniel Sonenberg. The second sarabande was completed in early 2018, merely a manner of weeks before my senior recital. The gigue was composed in 2016, a summer if I recall, written entirely at my keyboard.
Further thoughts on the sarabande: if I knew nothing of form or expression or proper Baroque writing, then how did I write something like this? It’s nothing great, nothing special….but it was at the time. I don’t intend to get sappy or wishy-washy or talk about music in over-sentimental terms, but when you’re a fool trying to express themselves through music, sometimes all you have to do is write, regardless if it follows ‘rules.’ One influence was the c minor sarabande from Bach’s second partita in C minor, BWV 826. I really should learn the piece again.
Compare, if you will, the performances of these two suites (f minor and c major) from my senior recital in 2018 to my most recent recital in the fall of 2021. Three years of practice and progress certainly pays off! It is important to keep in mind that when you see a performance of music, you are seeing and hearing the finished product and not the days and hours and minutes spent practicing, perfecting, and honing the skills it takes to become good. That being said, when you pay for a performance or for a piece of music, you’re not just paying for the labor but also the time it takes to practice and write music. If someone plays poorly it shouldn’t be a reflection on their work ethic; musicians are allowed to have bad days too. Chances are, they beat themselves up about small mistakes more than a listener ever could.
In regards to the c major suite it is more mature than the f minor, with all movements save the fugue being written in early 2017. The suite is a gift, dedicated to my first harpsichord instructor in celebration of their retirement. In this suite are forms we had studied as well as a clear understanding of scales (which I, a stubborn student, failed to learn until college!). Well, not all scale, but just c major. I do at some point plan on writing other suites, all dedicated to my teachers–this will be completed before long. Suites in the following keys will be planned: d major, f major, a major, and either E flat major or B minor.
The prelude is short; composed at the organ of the current church I was serving in. The allemande I remember writing over spring break, and it caused me much hassle. The gavottes too were tricky to compose, but fun to play. The sarabande was modeled very much after that of Bach’s c minor (BWV 813), while the minuet was nothing too fancy. The gigue was composed at the keyboard as well; I wasn’t trying to best myself, but just come up with something I felt good enough.
My g minor suite is a collection of old music paired with newer music. If the previous version isn’t suitable for your ears, I do have a cleaner version available. Silly me, thinking I’m a grand harpsichordist in a ballroom with an elegant instrument; I was nothing more than a poor student using a school keyboard with Garageband reverberation….
In 2014, I began writing the overture; I did not know what I was doing at the time however. It is modeled loosely off the overture in B minor, BWV 831, of Sebastian Bach, but of course I developed my own voice and harmonies—expressing what I felt. It should be said also that, in therapy, I was tasked to write something about hardship, but over the hardship was victory…so, the overture was born.
The aria to the suite was begun in 2015 and yes, it is modeled after the aria in g major from the ‘Goldberg Variations’, BWV 988. Dark in mood, though; I remember holding my laptop on my lap, trying to capture my hands upon the keyboard. The aria was completed later on, making melancholy music, although this was before I delved too deeply into the Baroque style.
The allemande, for three voices, was written in 2018 at the computer, surprisingly. It fell under my finger-tips soon enough, and was much fun to play in concerts. Honestly I have not developed a strict ordering of the movements; ideally, overture, allemande, aria, minuet, air, and gigue should be proper. The air is nothing more than a simple duet; Bach wrote such short pieces with his suites. The gigue, however, was written when I had a little more flashy mastery at the keyboard (especially regarding the final measures) but it is still for two voices.
One of my goals as a composer and performer is to record a CD of my solo keyboard music at a grand harpsichord. But should I focus on presenting music of other, pure Baroque composers first? Ideally for my own CD, I’d present three suites as well as some other pieces for keyboard (an overture, a fugue, an air, perhaps…). In 2020 I attempted to try my hand at making a simple CD recording, armed with my music and iPhone, but of course due to the pandemic the college at which I attempted this was shut down. Hard to think that this was two years ago! Time flies.
Well wishes to you all! I hope you have enjoyed reading this post–and let me know if you would like more content such as this. I’m not sure if I’m really good at writing about music, or if I just think I’m good at writing about music…
*Your generous donation would be much appreciated! My goal is to write at least one post per week, and with your help I can meet that goal.*
Thoughts on Programmatic and Absolute Music
A PICTURE MAY BE WORTH A THOUSAND WORDS; PERHAPS MUSIC IS WORTH A THOUSAND PICTURES
In this post, I will be presenting my thoughts on programmatic and absolute music. What are these terms, and what do they mean? Do they apply to all music? Is the ‘meaning’ of music truly set in stone, or is it all up to the listener?
Imagine one day you are outside. The bright sun peers down at you, bathing you in warmth and light. But suddenly clouds appear, thunder rumbles, lightening strikes, and you hurry to avoid getting drenched in buckets of rain. Where had such violence come from? Imagine for a moment that this was the music which accompanied such a horrific, intruding storm. Can you hear the howling of the wind or rustle of leaves, and perhaps the distant rumble of thunder amid it all? Is there not an overall negativity to the music, making one think of of summer storms and energetic weather?
Two points: Firstly, my personal views on what music ‘is’ or ‘is not’ are my own, and should never be taken absolutely (as a solid fact). If you share these views, then wonderful! If you do not, it is completely fine. Music can be both absolute and subjective in meaning; to claim one or the other these days…
And secondly, those who are fanatic for the music of Antonio Vivaldi would probably have been expecting to hear this music, the ‘presto’ from his g minor concerto known as ‘Summer.’ For those who are unaware, this concerto is the third in a collection of four, scored for violin solo and string ensemble, entitled ‘The Four Seasons.’ These concerti depict and present the seasons, which are accompanied by verses that the composer himself devised.
All seasons have been recorded by Trevor Pinnock and his ensemble. Personally I never grow tired of hearing this music, whatever the season.
Now, regarding this concept of poems and music, a question to consider: can the music lend imagination regardless of text? Or does one need to rely on text in order for the music to become true? Almost like with film music: do we need context on screen to associate with music, or vice versa? More may be read about the Four Seasons here–I encourage it! Philosophy and psychology in music are things about which I think often.
Now, these definitions are long overdue but I humour you. The definition of programmatic music, according to Britanica, is as follows: ‘music which carries an extra meaning, a literary idea, a scenic description or personal drama. The definition of absolute music according to Wikipedia is as follows: ‘music which has no clear representation and is not ‘about’ anything. The above example by Vivaldi is ‘about’ something; the g minor concerto, RV 577, is not ‘about anything.’ It is absolute; simply a concerto for many instruments in the key of g minor in three movements. And yet I was able to half-convince the reader (hopefully) that the music was about a storm, or something terrible and dramatic. Do we need to be told what music is ‘about’ in order for everything to work?
Looking back on history, would we not say that most art or creativity is absolute? ‘Without greater meaning?” A painting of a battle or a starry night or a self-portrait is just itself. But I ask you to consider: in the Baroque era, where the nature of the music is to entice emotions and to express, can the music truly be absolute and ‘about nothing?’ Can we chalk everything down to ‘string music in the minor key’ or ‘slow and sombre music in d major for flute and continuo’? This takes away all the imagination and creativity, in my own opinion.
Suppose, on hearing a piece of music, your imagination runs wild and in your mind you picture a scene or scenario. Or perhaps you feel intense feelings. If music does these things to the listener, then why? Are these feelings or thoughts we have about music learned, or do we learn to associate certain music with certain feelings or trappings of our imagination?
Marin Marais was an imaginative and talented composer of French Baroque music. He was an expert player of the viola da gamba. This piece is one of my favorites…and perhaps you may hear why. My French is horrible but I’m going to guess it is entitled ‘The human voice’ or ‘the voice of the human.’ What does the music depict? Perhaps a weeping, a sigh; is this the purpose or intent of music? Or is it absolute, with the title chosen simply ‘just because’? Perhaps more research must be done on my part…or perhaps these are good questions for one to consider.
A visionary composer, Marais also wrote a sonata for viola da gamba about his…experience…regarding some kind of operation. Dramatic music not for the faint of heart!
In the modern composing world, unless I’m browsing the wrong forums (or remembering my college education ‘fondly’), attention to meaning in music is a rare topic. Either music is absolute or it is program music ( a comment on the modern music scene, for example) or accompanied and saturated in a sob story. Then again I have been guilty of doing the same thing…and my example isn’t even that good!
All of that being taken into account, who is to suggest that it wasn’t the same in the Baroque era? “I went on a trip only to come home and find that my wife had died. So I wrote this violin piece to express all that turmoil.”
So ensues the myth or legend that Bach wrote the above chaconne in memory of his wife. Bach’s music for me (and I imagine a few other listeners) will pack a lot of emotional punches; cathartic, perhaps. Sublimation too is the art of expressing the deepest emotions in the form of art. Perhaps my definition is poor and you may rely on the experts instead. But because we have no evidence of personal feelings from the Baroque era, we can assume either way; music was written for a deadline to receive a fee so you could afford rent and food and no real thought went into the notes, or all the music is expressive and beautiful and filled feelings which we can all identify and relate to.
But how does music do this, exactly? Is there such a thing as music being universal in the sense that is can affect the listener regardless of their background, beliefs about music, and anything else which is conscious? Perhaps I am rambling, as I was intent on discussing programmatic and absolute music…but if it is moving and entices the listener to feel or imagine, than can any music be without purpose or absolute? Perhaps I am getting my meanings and definitions confused.
Another great German Baroque composer Heinrich Biber was rich and imaginative in his music. One of his pieces which might shock the ear is the Battalia in D Major which depicts soldiers going about their business. We open with a hearty march, we hear them sing, drunk, in the bar with many voices (a confusing moment, to be sure!); we hear the raging battle with canons, and we hear a lament for the wounded. Surely without the description, one may be lost when listening!
But Biber wrote, too, a lovely set of sonatas representing animals. For long as human have been around, it seems like we’ve been trying to musically imitate the sounds of various creatures. This, of course, is another example of programmatic music (at least, I think so?) as they seem to imitate either the sound of various animals, or perhaps represent their mannerisms? I wonder how audiences reacted to this music.
Here we have an example of Telemann; a lovely and lively concerto in A major…depicting, of all animals, the frog. Never have these green, hopping, amphibious creatures been so harmonious! And we cannot forget the D major concerto of Vivaldi, ‘The Goldfinch. But a good question to consider (and I may be repeating myself here) is: with programmatic music, how does the music lend to the imagination? Do we ‘get what the music is about’ only after hearing the notes, or would we ‘know’ what’s going on regardless? Couldn’t someone just say, “Oh, what a lovely flute concerto!” and leave it at that?
Indeed another example of the Baroque era being completely insane and unlike the period: the giant suite for ensemble entitled ‘Les Elements’ which opens with chaos. If you have not had your coffee yet this morning, I suggest you listen to something soothing and tranquil before opening this link; I too was shocked when I heard this piece. It sounds more akin to 20th century writing, and I guess it stretches the question of “Is Baroque-period music still what we think of as ‘Baroque’ music?”
The creation of the universe opens with such harsh dissonances and twirling strings and flutes, like stars shooting by and planets being formed. And yes, this suite is a ballet, intended to be danced; perhaps Stravinsky was onto something…
Another question could be occurring to you: did Bach write programmatic music with the purpose of being programmatic? Oh yes, he did! The Capriccio in B flat major, BWV 992 is one of Bach’s instances of sublime emotion. Its six movements all contain stories and themes; speculatively, it is about a brother (either meaning blood relation, like one of his actual brothers…or possibly a friend/pal/comrade/ etc) who is drafted into an army.
The six movements are as described: I) Friends gather and attempt to dissuade him from departing; II) They picture dangers which may await him; III) They offer a lament; IV) Since he cannot be tempted to stay, they bid farewell; V) Aria of the Postilion; VI) Fugue on the subject of the Postilion. Given those descriptions in mind; listen to the playing of Robert Hill and try to see how the music conveys those ideas. Who would have thought that a mere harpsichord could be so expressive? Is it the instrument, or the notes played?
Bach’s piece may have been modeled on a piece by the composer Kuhnau, a composer contemporary to Bach, who wrote a work for keyboard entitled the ‘Biblical Sonatas’ which each narrate a story or passage of the Bible. While I have yet to give this set of sonatas a listen, I will link here a lovely performance of the music!
At this point, this post has been several days in the making, written at all odd hours of the early morning. My aim is to either attempt to answer questions but more importantly to give more questions; such is the nature of art. And while programmatic and absolute music is not limited to the Baroque era (programmatic music as an idea has indeed survived into the current day) I’ll refrain from discussing anything written past the 1700’s due to lack of familiarity.
How does music make us think of certain images or scenes? How does one do it ‘correctly’ or ‘incorrectly’? Are these concepts which are learned, and therefore associated with over time? What makes music happy or sad, and why are these things which are disagreed upon? Why is one of the most famous piece of organ music by Bach associated with Halloween and vampires? This, I feel, is an example of ‘learned’ association,’ where the piece is utilized in media for the sake of media and it simply stuck. A post regarding the pipe organ is being drafted as we speak, but there will be more to come on the subject at a later date.
Here in the corner of New England which I live, it is cold. It has been cold for the better part of two weeks. -3 with or without wind is harsh to live in; I’m sure folks in Alaska or Canada or Antarctica have it worse and I shouldn’t complain. And hopefully I do not freeze outside of my own house, like Purcell did!
But the harshness of winter and bitter cold may have some good, as it led Purcell to compose an aria for an opera. This chilling aria has not only text which one can relate to, but he music is what we’d call text painting’; the notes represent what the text is telling.
The opening strings give the impression of chattering teeth, of bitter cold; so too does the text. “What power art thou, which from below hath made me rise, unwillingly and slow?” I have no context for the aria or the opera in which it is presented. Does one have to experience the cold and chilling weather for this music to resonate? The opening motion of the strings in fashion of trills sound like chattering teeth; is the fact that Vivaldi used the same motion a coincidence?
Purcell’s aria reminds me of a similar piece by Spanish Baroque composer Sebastián Durón. Soft strings, varying harmonies, a lovely line for the voice; I know nothing of the Spanish language but I’ll venture that the aria has something do with waves, fish, and the seas. What is the music meaning to present, or represent? Or could it merely be ‘just because’–an absolute piece of music?
Now, looking at Sebasitan Bach once again…one of my favorite organ chorales by him. Of course there are many different performances, and I’m not going to make a contest of which one is the best. Such opinions are subjective.
So what does the music make you think of or feel? Bach’s works, in my opinion (well actually I believe this about all the Baroque era) have the capability to affect the listener, regardless of sacred or secular nature. After all, I’m a musician, not a linguist; when I hear religious music in Latin, I am moved by the notes and not the words. His use of varying harmony in the chorale prelude above (paired with excellent organs, registrations, and performances) make the music comforting, consoling, and some may say healing.
I would like for a moment to consider the St. John Passion. Bach was not a composer of opera, nor of operatic music; however his music still contains all the drama of an opera. My first experience of this passion was with John Eliot Gardiner and the English Baroque Soloists, and to this day this recording remains the pinnacle, in my opinion.
While opening of the St. Matthew may be seen as darkly elegant and full of gorgeous counterpoint, the opening chorus of the St. John is rather on-the-nose and exquisite in its rawness. The flurry of strings, winding and turning while the bass notes are stagnant, topped with piercing tones given by oboes—the dissonance struck me, at first, but perhaps that was the goal of Bach!
I did not know what a Passion was when I first heard this music. It tells the story of Christ’s betrayal, torment, crucifixion, death, and burial. Perhaps amid these opening notes of the oboes Bach tells the future–to be pierced with nails as a crowd calls you “Lord” perhaps in mockery. Is this text-painting at its finest? I could go on for pages about this music–and perhaps one day I will–but to highlight this particular movement is important, given the context of my entire writing here.
I do encourage discussion, as much as possible, among my readers. This concerto for strings in a minor by Heinichen has stuck with me for a few years now; perhaps as the first notes are struck you may understand why. I ask of you, the reader–what do you envision upon hearing such music? A storm? Perhaps a marching army? Or what about someone in a rush but stuck in traffic, and frustrated about their situation? Music can be effective without a story attached, and perhaps we, the listeners, music create our own story when the notes fill our minds and ears.
Until next time! Best wishes to you all, and I thank you for reading.
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Historical Fiction: Bach, Giver of Gifts
It is just past mid-day as you make your way to the marketplace. A bustle of noise, a gaggle of geese, the shout of merchants selling their goods–all of these things fill your eyes and ears. You hoist your basket onto your hip and remind yourself to not go over your budget like almost every week. Your needs are simple: meat, potatoes, other vegetables, and nothing else. Eggs…those can be obtained from a couple houses over after teaching violin lessons.
It has recently snowed, and a thin blanket covers the ground. Various farm animals bleat, bray, or otherwise vocalize to the content of their hearts. You select a few potatoes here, a few carrots there, some slabs of salted beef (dried and tough) and decide that might be all. You can afford more, certainly, but can you afford to carry much else, considering your half-hour walk home? Not to mention the ice on the ground, and the chill in the air?
Handing the coins to the merchants whom you have purchased items from, you decide to head back home. However arriving into the busy square in the opposite direction you see a hurried figure, looking as if he is watching his back. His buckled shoes are dirty and his black frock coat is in disarray; he looks grim but determined. “Ah, mein Herr!” you say with glee, raising a hand in greeting. Oddly he appears dismayed at your call but motions for you to come over.
You walk to where he stands–he is nestled between the corners of some tents. The din of merchants and animals is almost enough to cover his speech. “Quiet, please!” he says impatiently. “Do you…do you see him anywhere?” he asks nervously. “See who?” you ask, curious. “From whom are you hiding?”
“Oh, my fine student—it is no matter,” he says in a hurried manner. It is then you notice that he carries something covered in a white cloth. It appears long and tall, but not heavy. The organist is doing a poor job of attempting to hide this object in his coat, all the while looking like a rabbit hiding from a hungry wolf.
“No matter? No matter? Ah my teacher, this seems like a great matter to me,” you intone with wonder in your voice. “For half a decade I have known you. Rascal that you may have been in your youth–but were you ever a thief?”
He sighs and appears to calm down. “A bad deed done for a good cause, my pupil, perhaps is no bad deed at all,” he say while exhaling. “But my forgetfulness is to be cursed! It is the wedding anniversary to my beloved Anna.” He holds a hand over his and casts his glance to the sky. Grey clouds cover the sun, threatening more snow.
“Ten years we are loyally joined, and all anniversaries I have given her a gift. But this one! So pressed am I with money, so little time do I have—I resort to this gift, which will accompany her as she practices music at the keyboard. A lovely gift to accompany her while she sings as she repairs linens or copies my music or tends to our children or picks weeds from the garden in spring-time…” He glances over his shoulder as he speaks, both hands around this curious object covered in a white cloth.
“Do tell, what is this object?” you inquire, about to lift the cloth but Bach slaps your hand away. You sneeze suddenly. “Is that cat fur on your coat?” you ask, bewildered and intrigued beyond reason. “Oh, hush,” he commands but not harshly. You had met Anna on many occasions, and she did not seem like the kind of woman to be offended should a gift be forgotten.
“If I may, my teacher,” you begin. “I understand your duties and responsibilities. And I understand, too, that Anna has much to occupy her day. But perhaps, if I may be so bold, perhaps the only gift you may bestow on her would not be a trinket or monetary good, but perhaps a helping hand around the household? Your daily tasks are under one category, but it appears your wife has many.” You are about to apologize for your sudden boldness in speech—but Bach’s stance softens, and your words seem to have affected him.
He sighs once more, scuffing at the snow with his foot. “Perhaps you are right,” he says after a few moments. “Why, yes! In addition to this surprise,” he says, pointing at the object, “I will help each evening when I come home. Read to Christiana Sophia, perhaps look over the lessons for my sons—I fear I am no good at knitting, but,” he pauses to light his pipe, ” if I can walk hundreds of miles over many days, then perhaps I can endure to learn to thread a button,” he says in a gruff manner.
Grinning and collecting himself, he smiles at you around his pipe and makes his way through the market. What an odd fellow, you remark to yourself silently, and turn to leave the market. Once you have made it past the square, a sound cuts through the air, raising the hair on your neck. It is a cry of lamentation. Turning round, you see some townsfolk gathered in the middle of the market.
“Ah, it is dead! Oh, no,” a figure says. You realize it is a man on the ground, tearing his wig off and thrashing on the ground like a wounded fish. Tears stream down his face. He continues to cry and an onlooker attempts to console him. “My fellow, whatever is the matter? Stop your crying–cat got your tongue?”
“Oh, the cat got something!” the sad man yells. “I get home after a lovely morning by the river, and…” he waves an arm in an exasperated manner. “Gone! Gone, eaten, devoured, consumed…nothing left but feathers scattered on the floor, with two fat, mischievous cats in the corner! Filthy, flea-ridden murderers!” He stands on his two feet, laboring with each breath. Brushing the snow off his trousers and coat, he adjusts his wig but continues to weep. “Ah, my little song-bird, gone forevermore…” bowing his head, he makes his way further into the square, perhaps to douse his sorrows in wine.
You shrug, not knowing what to make of the spectacle you’ve witness. Finally you make your way home, place the kettle over the fire for tea, and settle into your chair by the window. Snow begins to fall and you sip the warm brew, and mentally prepare yourself for tomorrow’s instruction.