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and all Music and all Poetry
The Small Books of Bach
Paperback: Wipf and Stock, 2014
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Reviewed by Gina Dalfonzo
If the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, perhaps the fear of Bach is the beginning of a true love and appreciation of music. The word “fear” may be even more appropriate here than in the original biblical context. I can’t speak for the professional musician, but the amateur musician like myself approaches Johann Sebastian Bach with a sense of awe bordering on—or rather, crossing the border into—profound intimidation.
Not for nothing has Bach frequently been called the greatest master of harmony of all time; he wrote music of unmatched complexity and intricacy, music that the mind could spend several lifetimes deciphering. For me, to play even a short and relatively (emphasis on relatively) simple Bach work—such as the prelude I’m currently learning—is to find myself up against the workings of a brain infinitely greater than my own. It’s a little like exploring a very small tip of the world’s largest iceberg.
Poet David Wright knows something about this awe that Bach inspires. He wrote at The Center for Mennonite Writing that “poetry has provided my most intense, satisfying and unsettling way of coming to terms with song” and particularly with his “obsession with the work of J. S. Bach.” That obsession ultimately led to “The Small Books of Bach,” a collection of poems that, like the composer’s music, simultaneously offer variety—a wide range of forms, moods, and subjects—and unity, as all of them relate somehow to Bach.
In particular, Wright tells us, “each one comes from a distinct encounter with the sarabande from Bach’s Cello Suite #1 In G, BWV 1007.” Yet both their titles and their styles are drawn from all kinds of Bach works: There’s “Four Sarabandes,” “Prayer and Fugue for Two Hands,” “Sestina for Bach’s Mama,” and “Invention for First Grader, Wax Paper, and Comb.” (There are also slightly livelier and more original titles, like “The Naked Cellist Believes He Can Hide among Trees.”)
Wright is clearly fascinated and compelled by the varying forms and rhythms Bach used—the very first poem in the book begins “You’ve hitched a ride to the form, to the form/you know will take you, take you where you know/the next hard hitch in the dance . . .”—and takes pleasure in imitating those musical forms and rhythms with rhyme and meter. At times the lines between musical and poetic forms blurs—for instance, in a group of “shadow quartets” in which parts are written for soprano, alto, tenor, and bass (and sometimes indications are even given for cello or oboe). These experiments in imitation bring us back to the idea, now so often overlooked or forgotten, of the delight that can be found in formal structure at its most well-designed and well-crafted.
However, Wright also shows us just how much fun can be had with free-form tributes to the master composer, of the kind that might have puzzled him deeply. For instance, there’s the highly playful “Several Titles for Historical Bach Poems That Will Not Be Written,” including such flights of fancy as “At Night, Young Sebastian Sneaks out of the Bedroom at His Brother’s Home and Nearly Breaks His Fingers Tipping Cows.” It sounds too simple, and too clichéd, to say that poems like these humanize Bach for us—that awe that I spoke of runs too deep in the poet to allow him to truly bring Bach down to a mundane level—but they bring an element of laughter into the work that harmonizes well with Bach’s own light and joyous side.
There are also poems that explore the musician’s and listener’s connection to Bach with great sensitivity and discernment, such as “Violin at Sea: “A quarter mile down the beach he waits for her to finish her scales/only moves near when she begins the slow improvisations:/half a partita, melody of a chorale. . . .” And there are those that tie together modern events and Bach’s own perspective; for instance, “Bach Wedding Cantata Discovered in Japan” places the composer himself in Japan, imagining what this man who never left Germany might have written home about a place so foreign to his experience (“My chords, sweet Anna, barely absorbed/by thin wood and silk, they never last”).
And along with all these, there are plentiful tributes to the great faith in God that undergirded everything Bach wrote. Wright again takes note of modern perspectives—“They believe in the Bach everlasting” he writes of a chorus of “Bach fundamentalists—and yet he keeps pushing beyond them to the reality of Bach’s own belief in someone greater than any human being, however brilliant or inspired. In “Acrostic for the Resurrection of the Dead” (the acrostic, of course, spells out “Johann Sebastian Bach”), he sees Bach much as Bach would have seen himself, a vessel for something beyond himself:
So much a loss, but a beginning,
Taken from the harmonics of a hand,
Infinite and holy, a pair of hands
A figure for the unimagined flesh
Numinous skin of the Divine at work.
But faith has a lighter side as well, leading to double meanings and other games with words, as in the ending of “Bach Inspects the Organ at the Church of Our Lady in Halle,” which faintly echoes an idea from the acrostic quoted above:
Bach notes all of the above and says that Christoff
has applied what knowledge God has lent him,
And he offers this, as well: with what still falters,
Bach would be pleased to lend the maker a hand.
One truth is clearly never far from the poet’s mind: If Bach was great—and the poet and his characters hymn his greatness in multitudes of ways—it was because his great Creator, the source of all genius and all music and all poetry, made him so. Subtly but unmistakably, these songs of praise to the master of harmony are woven into a higher song of praise to an even higher being, inspiring awe that goes even beyond the awesome Bach.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com