When Music is Your First Language

Philip Kennicott on Finding Bach Amidst the Family Chaos

Myfanwy lived only a few doors away from the house where I spent my first six years, in a suburb of Schenectady, New York. Doubtless her house had been built when all the other split-level houses in the suburban subdivision were built, and its rooms were laid out almost exactly as they were in ours, but it was a very different sort of home. Inside, it was quiet, there were thick curtains on the windows, and the light passing through the sheers was gentle and tinged with color.

Her house was full of things, Old World things, ceramic figurines on the shelves, dried flowers in cut-glass vases, and on the walls, reproductions of Old Master paintings, which she borrowed from the local library. She was a Welshwoman, in her seventies at least, and a beloved local figure who taught piano to children in the neighborhood.

Down the street, our house was bedlam. When the windows were open in the warm months, you could hear my sisters practicing their violins, scraping out perfunctory scales haltingly on their cheaply made student instruments, with my mother sometimes offering a descant of Vivaldi from some other room in the house. But there was also yelling and fights and doors slamming, and though one might not hear it from the street, there was sometimes crying from my parents’ room, which was in a partially converted attic above the main floor.

It was a small house, full of wayward people, run by a strong but capricious woman who often said she didn’t want to be a mother at all. I was too young at the time to know what the problem was, that a girl of 19 who had dreamed of a big life had ended up with one of ordinary dimensions, but I sensed something amiss every time I made the short walk home from my piano teacher’s house.

I studied with Myfanwy for three years, playing little pieces from colored lesson books on her ornately carved upright piano while she sang along in her lilting Welsh burr. She was plump, kind, and laughed easily. She loved children without ever making them feel like children. When I came into her house she would ask me questions about the little things a boy of four or five might care about. Then she would send me to the bathroom to wash my hands before she picked me off the floor with an exaggerated groan and a low, rolling laugh, like she was lifting a sack of flour, and set me on the round top of her piano stool.

Unlike our piano, a Japanese-made box of polished wood with plastic keys and a bright metallic twang, hers had ivory keys and made a dark, mellow sound. It towered over both of us, me with my legs not able to reach the pedals, and Myfanwy in her plush armchair beside me, expanding in every direction but up.

I know I was four or five years old because I could play music on the piano before I could read. Music came into my life like language, unconsciously and painlessly. My sisters must have taught me a few things at home, but I learned the fundamentals from Myfanwy. And yet I don’t remember having learned or having been taught anything, only that I would go to Myfanwy’s house once a week and we would spend a delightful half an hour singing and pecking at the keys and laughing.

I learned to read a few years later, a laborious process that was fraught with anxiety, and I can still recall the moment when my teacher pronounced to the class that “Philip is reading” as I struggled to sound out the syllables of my first-grade primer. But I can’t remember a similar moment at the piano when my fingers suddenly did as they were told and someone said, “Philip is playing the piano.”

We were allowed to take piano lessons, from a kindly woman for whom music was a form of conviviality and pleasure, and a discipline disguised as play.

During those years of early childhood, my mother fulfilled all the obligations of motherhood as she understood them, and that included teaching her children music. Her eldest daughters were given violins and she taught them herself, which was a mistake. She would play along with them, growing frustrated and angry, berating them for inattention and sloppiness. After my mother died, I asked my aunt whether she had been a diligent student of the violin. “Oh yes, she was the best of all of us,” she said of the three sisters who grew up together during the 1940s.

Despite my grandfather’s struggling candy store business, he managed to buy his daughters instruments, including a decent used quarter-sized violin from a neighbor. The good violin went to my mother. “I was always getting cast-offs,” said my aunt. My mother and my aunt would put on Gypsy dresses and play duets together for parties, not for money, but as a service or offering to friends and family. My mother never told me anything about this, but my aunt remembers it as serious business, with some bitterness: “We got a call once to play a gig and I said we couldn’t make it,” she says. But my grandmother snatched the phone from her and snarled into the receiver, “They’ll be there.”

Perhaps my mother imagined fashioning her eldest daughters into something like the duo she had with her sister. Perhaps she felt her daughters didn’t properly appreciate their good fortune, to each play their own little violin, newly bought, not purchased secondhand from a more prosperous neighbor. Perhaps she simply had no patience, and with four children in the house, her nerves were frayed, and making music with her daughters reminded her that music had never been her avenue to independence and freedom.

In any case, my older sisters struggled with the violin, and came into violent conflict with my mother, who would threaten and belittle and rage at them, until the whole house was shaken by slamming doors and everyone had fled as far as they could from the wrath and tears of the others. For some reason, she didn’t inflict the same torture on me or my next-eldest sister. We were allowed to take piano lessons, from a kindly woman for whom music was a form of conviviality and pleasure, and a discipline disguised as play.

Myfanwy was the first of three teachers I had as a child, and I parted from all three unhappily. Shortly after I entered kindergarten, my family left our first home and bought a larger and newly built one a few miles away with modern conveniences like an electric garage door opener and an intercom system for communicating between the rooms, which we never used because we didn’t particularly want to communicate with each other, and when it was absolutely necessary it was easier just to yell.

It sat in a barren expanse of newly planted grass, with no trees or bushes or flowers of any sort. But it seemed gigantic to me, with a bedroom for each of the four children, and finally a proper bedroom for my parents, who were tired of sleeping in the attic. My mother was enormously pleased with the new house and took to the making of curtains, cutting and sewing, and crafting matching pillows and covers for everything, including the piano, which was draped in a geometric black-and-white diamond pattern that seemed very modern to us at the time. But the new house came with a cost: the younger children, including me, were uprooted from our schools, and we were no longer within walking distance of Myfanwy’s house.

Charlotte used to say, “Give us, O Lord, our daily Bach,” and she intended these minuets as my introduction to Bach.

So my sister Lisa and I needed to find a new teacher, and because Lisa was older and I was making progress on the instrument, we looked for a teacher who was more than a musical babysitter, someone who taught professionally and would help us advance to the next level. Charlotte was a German woman who lived in one of the better suburbs and ran a bustling piano studio in a room off her kitchen. Unlike Myfanwy, who would appear for lessons as if she had just finished kneading a loaf of bread or stirring a pot of soup, Charlotte ran her studio with brisk efficiency.

We would wait at the kitchen table nervously as the sound of the piano filtered through the door, with Charlotte’s voice above, counting, counting, counting. Then the door would open and Charlotte would execute a seamless motion with a broad smile, sliding one child out with the right hand and beckoning the next one in with the left, as if reloading some time-saving domestic appliance. After our first lesson, Charlotte sent us home with a mail-order catalog from a music publishing company, with at least two dozen volumes checked off as immediate necessities for our further education. “Jesus Christ,” said my mother, when she added up the cost of it all.

Among our new acquisitions was the Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach, a compendium of music compiled by the Bach family in the 1720s. Anna Magdalena was Bach’s second wife, and she had been a competent professional singer before they were married. The notebook that bears her name is a potpourri of music including various suites of dances that are among Bach’s most accessible works for keyboard, and short pieces by other composers.

In an age before the easy availability of printed music, notebooks like this one became rather like family scrapbooks or recipe albums, a motley collection of music made for a variety of different purposes. There was music that might be used to teach dance in the home, arias that were favorites at family gatherings, chorales that served to teach children the basics of harmony, and even works composed by the children themselves, their first essays (along with their father’s corrections) saved and cherished like a lock of baby hair or old Polaroids.

The aria that became the basis for the Goldberg Variations first appears in the 1725 Notebook for Anna Magdalena (though it was likely entered later), along with two minuets that were popular instructional pieces when I was learning the instrument. Charlotte used to say, “Give us, O Lord, our daily Bach,” and she intended these minuets as my introduction to Bach. They are simple, gracious, tuneful works, in two parts, but it doesn’t take a sophisticated ear to determine that they don’t sound much like Bach. In fact, in the 1970s it was determined that they were written by Christian Petzold, a composer and organist who, unlike Bach, traveled throughout Europe.

The Bach family notebook gives us an intriguing but uncertain window into the domestic life of his family—some sense, perhaps, of their taste and curiosity. Petzold’s minuets occur along with a sophisticated little rondeau by François Couperin, the greatest of the French harpsichord masters, and a composer whom Bach admired, and a minuet ambiguously attributed to “Mons. Böhm,” perhaps the famous organist Georg Böhm, with whom Bach may have studied when he was an adolescent.

From these and other works, among them arias from various sources, including opera (a musical form Bach never pursued), one gets the sense of a pragmatic, unpretentious household, curious about the larger world, and not embarrassed to cherish music that was easy on the ears and rather trifling when compared to that composed by the patriarch in his professional capacity.

As for the Goldberg aria, some scholars have doubted whether it, too, was written by Bach. Curiously, the piece appears in the notebook on two pages that divide another aria in half. It was, apparently, inserted after the copyist of a song called “Bist du bei mir,” originally from Gottfried Heinrich Stölzel’s opera Diomedes, accidently left two pages in the middle blank. Perhaps they stuck together and whoever penned in the Goldberg aria didn’t want to waste blank paper. But the sentiments of “Bist du bei mir” are curiously evocative of the ingratiating melodic appeal of the Goldberg aria, as if the Goldberg tune were a sweet filling piped into the aria’s darker core:

Abide by me, and I will go with joy
to my death and to my rest.
Ah, how pleasing would be my death,
if your beloved hands
pressed close my faithful eyes.

Philipp Spitta, who wrote what is often considered the first, serious, and comprehensive biography of Bach (and who remains one of the most engaging writers on the subject), went so far as to imply that the Goldberg aria was written as a love song. “It must certainly have been originally written for Anna Magdalena,” he says, and in using it as the inspiration for his variations, Bach “was probably influenced by special motives of a personal kind.”

But a robust debate about its authorship broke out in the 1980s, just in time for Bach’s tercentennial, with one scholar claiming that the piece “is quite certainly not by Bach but by a so far unknown Frenchman.” Others rigorously challenged this, but there is now a slightly unsettled consensus that the aria, though not always typical of Bach and inflected with galant delicacies, is indeed by Bach.

“Do you know how much weight it takes to press a piano key?” she once asked me, when I played too loudly. I confessed I didn’t know.

I passed by the Goldberg aria and “Bist du bei mir” a hundred times as a child, in search of others that were more accessible to me, the simpler dances, including Petzold’s minuets. No matter who wrote them, they are lovely trifles, and I learned them under Charlotte’s tutelage sufficiently well to proceed on to Bach’s easier preludes, and then over the course of the next several years to the first of the preludes and fugues from his grand compendium The Well-Tempered Clavier.

Charlotte had firm and decided ideas on piano technique, and insisted on a precise hand position, the wrists and palms flat, the fingers rounded, with each digit raising and striking the key with the slight percussive snap of an old typewriter. “Do you know how much weight it takes to press a piano key?” she once asked me, when I played too loudly. I confessed I didn’t know. “Two Hershey Bars.” Which is to say about three ounces.

Once, when I was lucky enough to have two candy bars at my disposal, I tried placing them on a key to see if it would sink down and quietly intone the string, but I couldn’t quite manage to balance them properly. I’ve never figured out if Charlotte was right, but I can still hear her voice in my ear admonishing, “Two Hershey bars,” when I played more assertively than was wanted.

Myfanwy had said I had talent, and Charlotte doted on me. It was not the same for my sister Lisa, who had talent but who was treated by Charlotte as the stepchild. Although Lisa had at first enjoyed her lessons with Charlotte, she soon came to dread them, and there were conferences with my mother behind closed doors and conversations in low voices. One January, the tension became critical.

My sister remembers it this way: Shortly before Christmas, she told her teacher that she wanted to learn a complicated Beethoven sonata; Charlotte said it was too hard for her. Lisa persisted and learned the first movement over the holiday break, but when she played it at her first lesson after the new year, Charlotte said only, “You played it in the wrong key.”

It’s hard to know what to make of this. I heard the story secondhand and wasn’t party to the confrontation on the other side of the kitchen door. It seems implausible that a child could learn a Beethoven sonata in “the wrong key,” which would be even more difficult than learning it in the right key. But perhaps she played it in the wrong tempo, or simply forgot a few sharps or flats here and there. Maybe she misheard or misunderstood Charlotte, or maybe Charlotte was simply being cruel. But whatever happened, my mother and my teacher quarreled and all three of us parted ways with her.

I was bereft, and Lisa was so scarred by the episode that she gave up piano altogether. If Myfanwy had made music fun, Charlotte made it seem important, and she introduced me to serious music, pieces that had weighty labels like “sonatina” and “invention” and “minuet.” She made me feel part of a grown-up tradition, something venerable and sacred, and it was while studying with her that, for the first time, I was able to enjoy the music as music, not as a trick a child performs for adults or a chore to be mastered.

Success was intrinsic and it meant something more than a star pasted in the page of my musical primer, which was Myfanwy’s reward for work well done. It was with Charlotte that I was first able to step outside myself and hear the music independently from my struggle to play the piano, that I was first able to say to myself, Philip is playing the piano. Though Charlotte may have been mean to my sister, that mattered little to me then. She had been kind to me.

__________________________________

From Counterpoint: A Memoir of Bach and Mourning. Used with the permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company. Copyright © 2020 by Philip Kennicott.

Philip Kennicott
Philip Kennicott
Philip Kennicott, the senior art and architecture critic of the Washington Post and a former contributing editor for the New Republic, won the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism in 2013. He lives in Washington, D.C.





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