Back to Bach: My Stuff & Stories May 14

My altar to Bach includes recordings, books, and a bust.

“How did you know?” I asked the choir at Sand Point Methodist Church in Seattle when they presented me with a bust of Johann Sebastian Bach as a going-away gift. They laughed. They’d been hearing me play Bach at every opportunity throughout my tenure as organist for their church. It was a wonderful pipe organ, the best I’d ever played. Yet I was giving up my career as a professional (aka paid) church musician for a less esoteric (and better paying) career in journalism.

I no longer have the “chops” to play Bach as I did in my college years. Nor do I have words to explain why the music of Bach sears my heart, comforts my soul, defies my musical abilities, and excites my brain. Calvin R. Staper, a music professor, claims in the preface to his book on Bach’s music: “In the history of western music, J.S. Bach is unsurpassed in mastery of technique and profundity of thought.” Unsurpassed.

Though my CD collection is far from extensive—given the massive amount of Bach’s music that has been recorded—I do more listening than playing these days. The bust itself is not great art, possibly not even a credible likeness. Yet it represents a time, a place, an experience in my life—a reminder that I’ve been given many wonderful opportunities, and for that I’m grateful.

One of those opportunities came earlier this month when I played with the pit band for the Okanogan Valley Orchestra and Chorus annual stage musical. The camaraderie among the musicians in the pit was joyous; the boundless energy of conductor Matt Brown inspiring. But after months of rehearsals and hours of individual daily practice, I’m left with nagging “earworms,” snatches of melodies from the show playing in endless loops inside my head.

I’m trying Bach as a cure. Just now, I’m listening to the opening notes of the Andante in his First Violin Concerto. In a moment the deep, hypnotizing rhythm in the orchestra will underscore a soaring melody of intense longing and ardor, and I will have to stop writing. Bach cures earworms but also, as usual, leaves me wordless.

(To celebrate my 75th birthday this month, I’m posting daily stories about the stuff I’ve acquired over a lifetime and can’t let go of. I invite you to consider and possibly share the stories that make you treasure your own stuff.)

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