Historical Fiction: Bach at Work

Your footsteps are loud and hurried as you make your way to the bottom floor of the church. It is just past nine o’clock in the morning but you are still half-asleep; regardless, you force your feet forward, step by step. Why the preacher cannot speak with the composer in person you have no clue—but this task has been given to you, and it gives you something to do. The cloud of your breath is visible by the light of torches on the walls. The long hallway is covered in shadow.

Approaching the locked door, you knock a few times while trying to catch your breath. If only there was something warm to drink, you think woefully to yourself. You raise your hand to knock on the door again–perhaps the kapellmeister hasn’t heard you–but a gruff voice riddled with impatience intones, “Come in.” Catching another quick breath or two, you enter the room.

A fire roars in the fireplace. Through the windows, early morning light pierces the room, illuminating the cobwebs which hang from the ceiling. Nestled into the far corner of the room near the fire, aided by mere candle-light, sits the composer. With stacks of paper on one side, a small clavichord on the other, his gaze lifts to you. His brows are set in concentration, and the ghost of a frown is on his face. “What is it?” he inquires, his voice stern but soft like far-away thunder.

You panic for a moment because you have forgotten the message you were to deliver. This man was like a violin strung too tightly–it seemed at the smallest tension he would snap and you would be injured. Your friend Tobias had recalled one time that the bewigged cantor had cuffed him across the ear in an impatient fury. “All because I got a couple notes wrong copying them out,” you remember him saying with a shrug. Your heart hammers and your voice stammers but the words finally come to your mouth.

“The preacher wishes to inquire on the progress of your music,” you say in a halting fashion.

Lifting his eyebrows slightly in a manner of weary exasperation, he leans back and sighs. “I have had the text for not even a day,” he explains. “The music will be ready when it is ready. Try as I may, I cannot work around the clock during all minutes of the day.”

Taking a moment to gather your courage, you lick your lips nervously. “He says that if it not ready in a satisfactory amount of time, you will be punished,” you inform him, internally preparing to be struck upside the head or yelled at. But he does neither. Taking a sip from a nearby mug—you presume it to be wine—he appears to gather his thoughts. “Today is Wednesday,” he says. “This gives me two days to write music before a hasty rehearsal. Should the preacher require the music sooner, tell him I require the text sooner.” An air of authority, but not arrogance, is present as he speaks these words.

“But sir–in speaking that way, you may be punished—” you begin but he interrupts.

“Punished? Punished–in what way?” he asks in the manner of a challenge. Amusement enters the gleam of his dark eyes. “What will the preacher do? Humiliate me in front of the officials? Place tacks upon the keyboard so I cannot practice? Flog me in public?” He shakes his head. “I should not face repercussions due to the delay of someone else,” he concludes. Picking up his quill, he scratches for a minute or two on the parchment before him.

The fire crackles as he writes while you contemplate his response. The preacher will not like his defiance. “If God can make the world from nothing in an instant, then our cantor can write the cantata at a moment’s notice,” you imagine him saying. You behold this weary man–strained like the strings on a violin but as sharp as the point of a quill—and you reason that the preacher sometimes asks the impossible.

He looks up after a few moments, as if remembering you are still present. “Will that be all?” he asks. Impatience has left his voice; he is formal and cordial, like the servant one would expect him to be. You incline your head slightly. “No, Herr Bach,” you say, and he continues to write more, his eyes focused on the page before him. His other hand gracefully touches the clavichord, from which a few notes are heard. “On your way, then,” he commands, and you dutifully exit the room, closing the door behind you.

You footsteps are frantic as you ascend the staircase. You gulp as you prepare to make your way to the preacher and inform him of Bach’s response. I wish I had something warm to drink, you think wearily as you knock on the door to the preacher’s office.

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