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.