Historical Fiction: The Bothersome Critic

The cello vibrates between your knees as you run the bow across its strings. It would resonate forever if you weren’t cramped between two other bass players as well as the harpsichord. Three violins commence their own tuning while the trumpeter loudly blasts three notes. The singers gather about, talking among themselves. The sun barely lights the room and the candles are few and far between. Where is he? you think anxiously.

Tobias seats himself at the harpsichord, plucking a few notes. A passage of music is hummed by one soprano, and this reminds you to quickly practice your scales but also the final chorale. For perhaps five minutes you warm your fingers as you slowly practice the notes on the page.

Footsteps are heard, and you glance up. The cantor is here–finally! Out of breath and looking tense, he stands in front of you. Not just you, specifically, but the small choir and ensemble gathered around you. “Good morning,” he intones after quickly surveying the room with his dark, brooding eyes.

You all repeat the greeting, eager to begin rehearsal. It is Thursday morning, and this is the earliest each of you has had the parts for the weekly cantata in a long time. What has spurred Bach’s creativity this week you cannot say, but it is known to never voice your complaints to the cantor himself.

“Time is of the essence, but also in great quantity,” Bach says after adjusting his music-stand. “We will begin with the first movement,” he instructs, and the rustling of paper is heard. One singer poorly stifles a cough while someone else sneezes. Bach looks about the ensemble gathered before him and pauses. “Where is Gottfried Emmanuel?” he asks.

The bass player beside you sighs and says, “He was in poor health yesterday. He said that he’d be late this morning.” Bach’s eyebrows raise in surprise, then back down. “Well, better late than never; he is not needed for four movements,” he says as he shrugs. “Are we all tuned and ready?” You all nod.

He raises his hands. The violinists hold their instruments at elbow-level, with bows at the ready. You prepare yourself, too, and you are watching not only Bach but the other musicians. His raised hands are poised to give the opening beat when a sneeze cuts through the air.

He drops his hands slightly and looks about the room. He is not impatient, nor angry; this too is a rarity. “Again–at the ready,” he instructs with a lightness in his voice. Bow at the ready, you begin to strike your final note at the instruction of the cantor. His raised hands fall, and at once soft music fills the church.

Your notes are single and you phrase them accordingly, pairing with the violins in a good fashion. You are aware of the harpsichord, its notes alerting the ear as a rooster among hens. The singers all inhale at the indication of Bach; his right hand falls, providing the beat, and suddenly voices fill the air where previously strings had permeated. “Ich elender mensch, wer wird mich erlösen…”

A sneeze cuts through the air like a needle through thread. His hands do not fall, and his face remains in the direction of his score, but his eyes flicker upwards, gazing at all gathered before him. “If it is cold in here, then I will inform my superiors to provide a well-light fire here in the sanctuary,” he states, his gaze not wavering. After a breath, he continues: “We will begin again from the start of the chorus.”

The sound of shuffling feet is heard and you release a breath that you didn’t know you were holding. Everyone seems tense today, you think, and fail to come up with a reason why. There is no sign of Gottfried yet–but you could not fathom the oboist bursting into rehearsal now of all times, where Bach’s concentration is at its highest.

Without fail or interruption the music commences, with voices and strings resounding together. The text does not capture your mind; your only focus is the notes before you, small and black upon tan parchment. “Wonderful,” Bach says. “It is a road riddled with many holes but we will return to this chorus in two day’s time,” he says, pressing his hands together. “The recitative, please,” he instructs.

You all move your scores to the appropriate page, and the singers talk among themselves while a lone counter-tenor makes his way next to you. Bach’s hands are just about to rise and fall, providing the opportunity for you to play your first note when, once again, a sneeze is heard. It echoes off the walls as if in mockery.

The irritation of Bach is neither hidden nor masked any more. “Please, please,” he says in frustration, “refrain! If you cannot sing without being a bother, then do not attend rehearsal!” A fist falls upon his leg in exasperation, with a frown curling on his face. “Worry not, my dear Cantor,” a voice says, but it is not from someone around you. Looking about, you seek to identify the owner of this voice–a haughty, nasal sound, like an out-of-tune oboe.

“Worry not, my dear Cantor,” the voice repeats. A lone figure approaches from the end of the sanctuary, offering a small applause. “Your voices are spectacular! Who else could perform such lovely music of our own Herr Johann Sebastian Bach?” Into the candle-light he steps; a small man with a fiendish look upon his face. Above his hawk-like nose rests a black patch over his right eye.

He claps Bach on the shoulder, even though Bach is taller than him. “My good teacher–what music will you grace us with this Sunday?” he asks. A tense feeling is in the room; not one of danger, but like a violin-string about to snap, or awaiting the final grain of sand to fall from the hourglass. “My, my! Such harmonies—such harmonies fall on the ear. Expressive, some would say. Emotional, some would say. But not I. I would say…” his voice trails off as he steps in front of Bach, ripping the score off of the music-stand.

He looks over the score carefully, his one eye glancing over the black dots. “I would say,” he begins again, making his way over to the harpsichord. “Up, fellow, up,” he instructs, impatiently waving a hand. Tobias obliges but hesitantly. The eye-patched, nasal-voice man plays a few notes at the keyboard–you recognize them as your continuo part from the aria for counter-tenor. He sings a small portion of the aria, obnoxiously, in a high falsetto voice.

You look around to the other musicians; none of you know what to make of the spectacle. Bach’s face is red as fire; you see a vein pulsing in his forehead as his eyes watch the man like a hawk. Whoever this fellow is, his skill in music is obvious. But his attitude towards the cantor? If anyone needed a boxing of the ears…

He pauses his pitiful playing. “And where is the oboist?” he questions. All eyes are on him but footsteps–hurried footsteps–clamor into the room. A small boy of perhaps ten years old catches his breath. “Herr Bach, Herr Bach!” he says, holding himself on a pew. “What is it, boy?” Bach asks, his voice surprisingly calm.

“Herr Emmanuel cannot attend rehearsal this morning,” the boy says nervously. “He passed away not two hours ago. The fever took him.” You all lower your eyes to the ground. He had been a good oboist–always smelling of onions and cabbage–but a good oboist. “It is sorry news,” Bach says after a moment. “Do please give my condolences to his family.”

The boy rushes off out of the sanctuary and into the street. A small laugh is heard from the man with the eye-patch. “It is sorry news indeed,” he intones with mockery in his voice. “But the only good tidings of his passing is that he did not have to suffer through playing this–” he points to his score– “horrid music!”

“Where is the melody? Why do the notes wander, inferring odd harmonies here and there? Even an extremely hard-working and talented oboist would be hard-pressed to play all the notes correctly…” his voice wanders off as he places his hand on the keys of the harpsichord. “This passage here,” he says, playing a flurry of notes (accurately and well-phrased, you think). “What purpose is this exercise? Music is art and expression, not toil and gymnastics!” Disgusted, he tosses the score into the hands of Tobias, who is flustered and doesn’t know what to do.

The man walks, slowly, up to where Bach still stands motionless. He appears not so angry now; his eyes regard the small man not with fury but understanding. “My good cantor,” he says, reaching out to pat him on the shoulder lightly. “Such music may have been lauded and enjoyed perhaps twenty years ago, surely no more than ten! You must amend your works; you must adapt to the modern needs and tastes. Otherwise,” he says, brushing nonexistent dust from the cantor’s coat, “your notes will be lost to the sands of time and you will be forgotten.”

He turns to the ensemble with a smug grin on his face. His one eye peers at you, at Tobias, at the gathered singers and string players. “Singers and musicians,” he says with a slight bow, “I bid you all a good day. Do not tire yourselves further with such archaic music! I suggest you all migrate to Vienna or Dresden; things are more…” he pauses for effect. “civilized there–of this, I can assure you all.”

He turns away, keeping Bach on his left side and looking at him like he just won some long-fought battle. Hands in his waist-coat, haughtily he walks down through the sanctuary and opens the doors to exit the church…but not before doubling over with a loud, exaggerated sneeze.

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