THE CELLO SUITES
By ERIC SIBLIN
Atlantic Monthly Press Copyright © 2009 Eric Siblin
All right reserved. ISBN: 978-0-8021-1929-2
Chapter One ALLEMANDE
The elegant allemandes in the Cello Suites, each preceded by a dramatic opening movement, have been described as slow and pensive pieces of great beauty. OXFORD COMPOSER COMPANIONS: J. S. BACH
To piece together the story of the Cello Suites means getting to know the music's composer. And for anyone born in the past half-century, to become acquainted with Johann Sebastian Bach - really acquainted - means to infiltrate another art form, another era, another frame of mind. To get myself up to baroque speed, I went about listening to massive amounts of Bach's music, perusing second-hand music shops to build a respectable collection, reading everything Bachian I could get my hands on, from eighteenth-century accounts to glossy classical music magazines, and going to concerts bravo'd by mature audiences that were a far cry from the rock circuit.
I also became a card-carrying member of the American Bach Society. The main perk of membership was occasional mailings of the ABS newsletter, which was emblazoned with Bach's personal seal, his initials stylishly entwined and topped with a crown. I scoured the handful of pages trumpeting the latest scholarly research for clues about the Cello Suites. It felt as if I'd joined a secret society. In high school during the 1970s, when musical choice seemed to be between the enemy forces of disco and spaced-out synthesizer rock, being a Rolling Stones fan felt vaguely esoteric. At some point since then they became the band of choice for people practically in my mother's demographic, but back then true Stones fans were not numerous. Two decades later, finding fellow Bach enthusiasts in my social circles was more or less impossible.
So when I learned that the American Bach Society held conferences every two years, and the next one was to take place not far away, at Rutgers University in New Jersey, I eagerly registered. Having done my homework on the Cello Suites I could qualify, sort of, as a bona fide Bachian and rub shoulders with my own people.
Thus in April 2004 I found myself walking across the emerald lawns of Princeton University with a gaggle of Bach devotees, nearly all of whom were scholars and an alarming number of whom were bearded and wearing dark blazers. We had just heard a very high-forehead lecture on Bach and were emerging from a university building, blinking in the sunlight, as a student event called "Spring Fling" was noisily underway. There was face-painting and Hacky Sack, football, a barbecue, and a garage band cranking out REM's rock anthem It's the End of the World As We Know It (and I Feel Fine).
This was so much white noise for the Bach scholars, who were at Princeton on a musicological mission, a colourful field expedition in the otherwise staid world of Bach research. The world's finest portrait of Bach, almost never accessible to the public, was being made available for delegates to the 2004 American Bach Society conference. Only two authentic portraits of Bach are known to exist, both by the same artist, the Saxon court painter Elias Gottlob Hausmann. They are nearly identical, both in oil, and show the composer in the same serious pose. Despite their similarity, they are thought to have been painted on separate occasions. One of the portraits today hangs in the municipal museum of Leipzig, the city where it was painted in 1746. It is in poor shape because of repeated over-painting, as well as having been used once upon a time for target practice by bored students armed with crumpled paper.
The other portrait, painted two years later, is in pristine condition. It is this one that half a century ago made its way into the hands of William H. Scheide, an independently wealthy Bach enthusiast with a long history of studying, performing, and collecting the works of his favourite composer. Normally the portrait hangs in Scheide's Princeton home, but he agreed to display the portrait for those attending the fourteenth biennial meeting of the American Bach Society.
The Hausmann portrait has, more than anything else, fleshed out the popular image of Bach - that of a severe-looking, bewigged, and somewhat corpulent German burgher. It is an image that graces countless CD covers, concert programs, and festival posters, and has gone a long way towards helping listeners imagine a composer for whom scant biographical detail exists.
So, as the Bach scholars made their way across the Princeton campus, their excitement was palpable. The Bach portrait and William H. Scheide were waiting in the special collections room of the John Foster Dulles Library of Diplomatic History. The Bach crowd, eighty-five strong, filed into the wood-panelled room and clustered around the portrait.
"Like the Mona Lisa."
"It sort of hits me in the stomach, right inside there, like,
"It has a kind of energy."
"Should we bow three times or something?"
The portrait did have a convincing intensity. The buttons on the composer's coat glistened, his white shirt sleeves radiated crispness, the wig was springily soft and his complexion flushed, as if the composer had drained a few glasses of the Rhineland wine he favoured. From inside the thick gold frame Bach seemed to be casting an all-knowing, wary eye over the proceedings.
William H. Scheide, ninety years old, wearing a powder-blue jacket and a red tie patterned with music notation (which may or may not have been from a Bach cantata), gave a brief talk on the other Bachiana in his collection - original manuscripts in the composer's hand and a rare letter. Then he was asked the question on everyone's mind: how he came into possession of the portrait. "A long time ago," he replied, leaning on a cane with a ski-pole grip as a handle. "I can barely remember it anymore."
The upshot is that Scheide, whose family made its fortune in the oil business, heard about the portrait sometime after the Second World War and arranged for an art dealer in London to purchase it from its owner, a German musician by the name of Walter Jenke. The owner had left Germany in the late 1920s, settling in Dorset, England; he returned to Nazi Germany a decade later to retrieve the portrait, which had apparently been in his family since the nineteenth century.
The Hausmann portrait has helped cultivate an image of Bach that is far more severe and serious than he probably was. "Part of the reason that people think of Bach as an old fuddy-duddy," music commentator Miles Hoffman once observed on National Public Radio, "is because there's only one fully authenticated portrait of him, and it shows him as an old guy with a powdered wig looking very stuffy and stolid." Hoffman made a point of saying that Bach was in fact a man of passion, the sort of man who got into a sword fight with a bassoonist, was thrown into a duke's prison at one point, and fathered no less than twenty children.
The viewing of the portrait fit nicely with the theme of the biennial conference, which was titled "Images of Bach." Along with concerts and cocktails, scholarly papers were delivered with titles ranging from "When an Aria Is Not an Aria" to "'I Must Live Amid Almost Continual Vexation, Envy, and Persecution': A Psychological Reading of J. S. Bach's Relation ship to Authority." The keynote speech was delivered by Christoph Wolff, a German-American musicologist and Harvard professor who is the world's foremost Bach expert. In his lecture, Wolff suggested that the iconic Bach portrait should not be seen as some sort of casual snapshot. "It is an official pose," he said. "The sitter likely wanted to be painted in this way. We can assume that Bach wanted to shape the image."
In the portrait, Bach is holding a sheet of music: a highly complex piece, his own composition, known as the "triplex canon." By doing so, Wolff argued, "Bach tried to avoid his fame as a virtuoso, playing down his (professional) office ... and taking a backseat as a human being ... all deferring to his oeuvre."
By saying that Bach had his portrait painted with an eye towards posterity, controlling his posthumous image as he wanted it to appear, Wolff was challenging a common impression of Bach. The conventional image of the baroque master is that of someone who worked day to day without any thoughts of posterity, cranking out masterworks as a matter of course and not being overly concerned about his popular reputation or the shelf life of his music. In Wolff's view, Bach in fact took an active role in "promoting his afterlife." He did what he could to safeguard examples of his art and to secure his place in history. Even in the Hausmann portrait, by holding a highly complicated piece of music (a "puzzle canon" that is like a mathematical riddle), "the man with the restrained smile wanted the viewer to feel challenged. It worked in 1748 - and it works today."
Wolff then took questions from the audience. One questioner, a heavy-set man with his hair in a ponytail, sporting a bow tie and peering through oversized tortoiseshell glasses, took Wolff's comments a step further. He accused Bach of being behind "a concerted campaign to control everything he could about what posterity thought of him."
This was the amateur Bach expert Teri Noel Towe, well known in Bach circles and, despite being a self-described "passionate and obsessed eccentric," well respected by the nine-to-five scholars. A New York City lawyer specializing in intellectual property law, Towe said he was outraged that Bach's first biographer, Johann Nikolaus Forkel, did not manage to get more in the way of personal details about the composer. Although Forkel was writing decades after Bach's death in 1750, he was in touch with Bach's sons, especially Carl Philipp Emanuel (C. P. E.). "I would love to put C. P. E. Bach on the witness stand," Towe said. He complained that there is no mention in Forkel's biography, published in 1802, of what Bach looked like, his height, his weight, or what his favourite dessert might have been.
"At the same time," Wolff replied, "eighteenth-century biographers were not interested in desserts."
"We don't know what he ate," piped up a musicologist in the audience, "but we know what he drank!"
"And smoked!" added another scholar.
The debonair silver-haired Wolff agreed, noting that when Bach travelled he was put up in the best hotels and consumed the highest-quality beer and pipe tobacco. "It is quite clear that he indulged. He liked the good things in life."
But all Bach scholars bemoan the lack of hard historical information available on their subject. Aside from Shakespeare, there is probably no other towering figure in modern art about whom we know so little. There is nothing like the heartfelt letters Mozart wrote to his wife, or the stream-of-consciousness notebooks that Beethoven left behind. When documentary signs of life occasionally pop up for Bach - and they do pop up - it makes the search for an elusive personality all the more enticing. But Bach's biographers have their work cut out for them.
"It is difficult," Wolff said, "to see the man behind the portrait."
Excerpted from THE CELLO SUITES by ERIC SIBLIN Copyright © 2009 by Eric Siblin. Excerpted by permission.
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