Very often, if my wife is out doing errands in the middle of the day, I will make up my lunch on a tray and carry it into my study. There I can put a CD on my portable player — it is the only system I have, and it sits in a shelf behind wooden doors at the bottom of the built-in bookcases. Almost inevitably I will pick something from either Mozart or Bach. Within the last year or so I have been given both of those boxed collections, which offer us, they say, every note that either of these gentlemen ever wrote. One approaches such a collection with misgivings: Who knows what performers have been rounded up for such a compendious piece of work? As it happens, in both cases here, the performances do, in fact, compare splendidly with the best single CDs I have.
In any event, the other day I decided to see what this version of Bach’s Italian Concerto for harpsichord sounded like. I was pleased: Here were all the vigor and authority that this concerto calls for, but without the corybantic fury with which it is sometimes hammered out — viz. Glen Gould’s piano rendering, which must surely leave poor J.S.B. aghast, if strains from our planet get as far as the Elysian Fields where, we must believe, he is at peace.
But since music rightly ordered is a case in point of all things beautifully ordered — the movements of the stars, for example, or the grace of dolphins streaking through the water, or the way of a good man with a maid, or of the bees with their honeycombs, or the sun in its polychrome sinking each night — one’s thoughts find themselves responding to the old bidding, "Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you, will you join the Dance?" as though all things have in themselves an eagerness to participate in some overarching, solemn, joyous choreography that calls out the perfections in each.
While I listened to the concerto, I thought of the straitened limitations of the materials Bach had at his disposal when he set about composing it. Just an unwieldy crate for an instrument, to begin with, strung with wires (and gut? how do they make harpsichords?), and fixed with little claws to pluck the strings with. A lesser man who supposed that to do justice to his freewheeling genius he would need endless resources might complain: Are they asking me to crowd my creativity into this? Come.
But Bach sets to work with what is at his disposal. And of course he has another obstacle: They have told him that, whatever it is he wishes to create, he may not reach outside of the same old twelve tones that every penny-whistler has at his disposal as well. No privileged resources will be trotted out for your mountainous genius, sir. It’s just the routine stuff you’ve got to coax into some form here.
Very well. Let us see what can be done. Chum! I’ll start with that very unsurprising chord, and build the whole thing on that. Why not? It is a chord so hackneyed, and so worn thin by every tinker in the trade, that nothing but ennui can be expected to arise from it. Never mind — let’s see what can be done here.
And we are off and running with one of the most glorious works for keyboard ever achieved. At no given point does Bach seek to shock us with anything that does violence to what are clearly the demands of his plan here — what I myself have often thought of as tact. No frivolous skidding about, no cheap showmanship, nothing ill-gotten. But what we have — in its pure integrity and obedience to the given choreography, so to speak, which he is sketching out for the notes — regales us with its energy, its decorum, and its harmonious inventiveness. He doesn’t need to reach for jolting effects that might call forth mere gasps from his hearers. We gasp here as we gasp at the sight of the dolphins and the sunset — at perfection, actually, and not shock.
But aside from its effect on us listeners, we may observe that, within very narrow limitations, old J.S.B. has created an artifact that may take its place among the greatest achievements of mankind. He has not asked for bizarre resources, nor special privileges. He has worked with what any little plucker of strings has to work with.
My mind made the small shift, as I listened, to the saints. Very few of them had anything particular to "work with." Drab circumstances, unlikely settings, poor resources, humdrum endowments — these seem to be the materials that are offered to our humanity. The artist and the saint may rouse us, if despondency or accidie threaten to convince us that we have nothing to work with. We have no more, and no less, than anyone else.
The Last Day will scrutinize what we have been doing with it.
Tom Howard is retired from 40 years of teaching English in private schools, college, and seminary in England and America.