The Stars Shine for Bach. A short story by John Jenkins

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Written by: John Jenkins

“With much to gain, Johann Sebastian sends off his Brandenburg scores – with all fingers crossed…!”

Herr Kapellmeister Bach hummed joyfully as he left Kothen Castle, following his most agreeable audience with Prince Leopold that morning. Although his employer was of the renowned dynasty of Ascania, all formalities had been put aside as the Prince enthusiastically invited his esteemed friend to sample the exotic refreshment of Turkish coffee, a delectation which had lately been finding its way, and with some celebration, into the royal courts of Europe. “Bring me coffee, before I turn into a goat!” he had even risked saying to the Prince, reviving one of their favourite jokes.

The good Leopold was a Calvinist, but surely not without humour, yet he did not approve of the splendours of the Lutheran liturgy, as he believed spiritual devotion to be a deeply private bond and not cause for elaborate public show. But the Prince was not austere and happily encouraged a cultivated style of living, while encouraging his Kapellmeister to freely explore secular music of great variety.

Leopold Prince of Anhalt-Kothen

Leopold often enjoyed playing with his own court musicians, being most adept at harpsichord and viola da gamba. The latter instrument, one of ancient pedigree, might be considered archaic in some circles, but Johann Sebastian greatly valued its sonorities, which even now sounded most distinctly in his mind as he indulged in a little gigue-like hop and skip back down the castle’s elegant stone steps.

-o0o-

He recalled how the Prince had lowered his cup, discreetly touching upon a subject of some sensitivity. “You see, Herr Kapellmeister,” he began “I am obliged to increasingly contribute to the upkeep of the Prussian military, particularly curtailing the hiring of more musicians. In short, reductions to our court orchestra must continue.”

He paused. “Of course, I know that my diminishing musical resources are not adequate to your talents. In addition,” he very quietly confided, “members of my own court, as I suspect, do not entirely approve of me so openly, and in their eyes somewhat indecorously, displaying my own musicianship, at least not in public.”

The Prince winked shrewdly, indicating that this was for his Kapellmeister’s ears alone.

“Although I remain delighted by your services to Anhalt-Kothen,” he continued, “one must always plan ahead, and I would not stand in your way if you, my dear Herr Kapellmeister, chose to approach Christian Ludwig, Margrave of Brandenburg-Schwedt, of the imperial House of Hohenzollern, by dedicating six exemplary concerti to that esteemed ally and ruler, in the hope of eventually obtaining a new appointment.”

Leopold concluded: “As to particular works, it would be exceedingly to your advantage if the Margrave thought them composed exclusively for him.” A gentle pause; and after mutual goodbyes and lowered cups, so took his Princely leave.

Inside Kothen Castle now.

-o0o-

Johann Sebastian sauntered into a verdurous expanse of castle parkland as wading birds skimmed under a small bridge, its elegant arches reflected in waters below.

He looked back at the stones of Leopold’s imposing schloss, and at once recalled how the Prince had kindly stood as godfather to his seventh child, poor little Leopold Augustus, who sadly died before reaching his first birthday. With a deep stab of sorrow, one wounding his present joy, he then thought of tiny Johann who lived barely a day, and of Johann’s twin sister Maria, who died two weeks later; then of his dearest wife, Maria Barbara, who had also suddenly passed away, barely two years before this very moment, while he was away playing for the Prince at Carlsbad spa.

Yet fate had transported him suddenly out of mourning, with the timely arrival at court of Anna Magdalena Wilcke, the 20-year-old daughter of an acclaimed trumpet player, and also an excellent soprano. And he hoped to marry her before Christmas!

New joy began to flood his being as Johann Sebastian recalled that happy day, the almost instant merging of their temperaments. Even Friedelena Margaretha – his first wife’s unwed sister and now family housekeeper – had quickly befriended Anna Magdalena, so it promised to be a very happy household indeed. And particularly if he were to secure a new position at the Margrave’s court.

Anna Magdalena Bach

-o0o-

Taking up a stout quill, how might he phrase it for the Margrave? Johann Sebastian wrote adroitly: “As I had the good fortune a few years ago to be heard by Your Royal Highness, I have taken the liberty of rendering my most humble duty with the present concerti, which I have adapted to several instruments.”

‘Several’ was an under-statement! For his Brandenburg concerti would be breath-taking in their ambition, demanding many soloists of great virtuosity. Still, the Margrave would acquire the necessary resources. In any case, should he obtain firm employment, Herr Bach could play the most demanding parts himself.

Ah, but what was the correct phrasing, in French, the language now de rigueur for all royal correspondence? Que j’ai accomodes a plusiers…?

He smoothed the ruff of lace about his throat, pulling decisively at his black velvet jacket, with its large cuff buttons, then departed his desk, still deep in thought. Later, as evening fell, he walked briskly through the city, composing everything in its appropriate order, until he eventually stood beneath the elongated windows of the Church of Saint Jakob, admiring its high slate roof and recalled the magnificent organ resounding within Saint Jakob’s interior. How his entire body had responded to that king of instruments, momentarily transported by an inner richness of sounds, woven into an elaborate tapestry, all arising from its pipes and stops.

Johan Sebastian then turned back to his home at Wallstrasse, again mentally expanding his letter to the Margrave: “And begging Your Highness most humbly not to judge the imperfection of these works with the rigor of that discrimination and sensitive taste, which everyone knows Him to have for musical works…”

-o0o-

Ah, yes… with quill again suspended, he hesitated slightly, recalling a regrettable incident that had occurred in Weimar some years before. While employed as Konzertmeister in that city, he was jailed for a month by Duke William Ernest of Saxe-Weimar, for supposedly – now how was it put to him? – for “too stubbornly forcing the issue of his own dismissal…”

As a precaution, he must therefore conclude his dedication to this Margrave with extreme politeness: “I very humbly beg Your Royal Highness to be persuaded that I have nothing more at heart than to be employed in some opportunity more worthy of Him and His Service.”

Then blinked, stood up and looked around. With letter completed, he had only to finish the concerti, his musical offering to the Margrave of Brandenburg. Tomorrow, a Saturday free from formal court duties, he would spend the entire day walking in the countryside to do exactly that.

-o0o-

Fields were already nodding with red and purple flowers, as he balanced his stout leather satchel and strode onwards. Last Christmas this same pasture-land had been stilled under winter snow, all against a low and misty light; before new life returned in early spring, with vibrant hope bursting forth. Such colourful contrasts would enliven his six concerti, resonating between their respective movements, all with apt changes in tempo; perhaps also paying tribute to a certain Italian master. Ah, that superb Vivaldi; one whose vivacious and dynamic excursions, he knew, could only be truly matched by his own.

Walking was a wonderful tonic, in any case. And at the first low hill, he planted his boots firmly, striding resolutely upwards.

-o0o-

Five years after his parents had died, when aged just 15, he had walked to his new school in Luneburg; and five years after that, when aged 20, had journeyed 250 miles on foot, to Lubek – in order to hear the great organist Herr Dietrich Buxtehude.

Dietrich Buxtehude

More recently, Johann Sebastian had walked 22 miles from Kothen to Halle, there to meet the great maestro George Frideric Handel, with whom he shared a birth year and much besides; yet unfortunately the good Handel had already left that city just a little before he reached its busy streets.

These thoughts broke off now, as he surveyed a sweeping hilltop view. Yes, his concerti must overbrim with winter and spring, with sorrow then boundless joy of Nature’s contrasting delights.

-o0o-

He followed to banks of the Ziethe, which he found overgrown with lush willows. Pausing to watch their branches dip and weep, he recalled his first meeting with the Margrave, just some two years previously, in Berlin. It was while visiting that city to obtain a new harpsichord for Kothen. After hearing Kapellmeister Bach play that very fine instrument, the Margrave had talked most enthusiastically of a new commission and possible future employment.

Yet, for the sake of timely efficiency, he would now re-shape an earlier work, one written during his Weimar years, as his new Concerto 1, hoping to impress the Margrave with its firm assurance, all sweeping onwards with quivering strings and irresistible certainty: a concerto grosso in F major, with steady continuo and sense of rhythmic delight similar to the sheer muscular pleasure that now enlivened his footsteps, then concluding with a sprightly minuet.

Settling on a pleasant grassy patch, Johann Sebastian unstrapped his satchel to anchor several manuscript pages with pebbles; then took a bleistift writing instrument of solid black tint, to make any impromptu marks and new additions. Soon, he was fully absorbed in his music, hearing every note inwardly, yet very distinctly, as morning deepened to noon.

-o0o-

That afternoon Johann Sebastian wandered to a small apple orchard on the city’s outskirts. Its freshly ripened fruit was sweet and sharp, like similarly delectable passages for the high-pitched violino piccolo in Concerto 1. He would bring an equal boldness to the remaining concerti he was yet to complete, imbuing them with Nature’s sumptuous pleasure; pieces adorned with rich ornamentation and replete with his personal gusto for modulation.

He would explore his chosen instruments to the very limits of their capacity, yet ensure the music remained independent, conveniently able to be adapted to alternative instruments, depending on the forces available.

His apple snapped with a crunch as he took a second bite, his shrewd eyes half-closed now, recalling memorable feasts in various dining rooms down the years… His musical delights, presented at the larger table of art would provoke a complementary appetite.

Entirely absorbed in the moment, Johann Sebastian made additional changes to his manuscript, while birds chirped in the willows nearby.

-o0o-

Later, crossing an open meadow, he found sheep peacefully grazing beside a reed-fringed pool. He sat here, watching dragonflies hum across the water surface: ripples recombining as if in triple canon, augmenting and diminishing, advancing again across its sun-struck glaze.

As sunlight dipped further, its beams broke up and splintered through low-scudding clouds, while the wind riffled and meandered into further patterns, as his mind swam with inspiration, buoyed by the sublime magic of summer.

-o0o-

That night, and with his little ones now sleeping, he looked deep into his candle’s quiet flame, savouring a sense of contentment. Indeed, was it not human nature to seek such homely comforts, particularly after venturing forth? This sense of triumphant home-coming might also be mirrored in the ritornello of a concerto grosso after the soloists had performed their parts and the orchestra returned to home key.

-o0o-

Everything in Kothen now seemed to inspire Herr Kapellmeister Bach, as if life’s daily spectacle was itself fully orchestrated – even market calls and clattering hoof-beats as traders haggled and townsfolk loaded turnips into wooden baskets.

On this market day an especially bright atmosphere prevailed, as Johann Sebastian walked to a brisk andante rhythm, noting the dyed leather and shoe horns on a boot-maker’s table, haggling townsfolk in the city’s town square, all the while conceiving a brisk dialogue between violin and oboe.

For was not all music a conversation between instruments just as it was between people, and equally between composer and listener? He stopped to note, even here in the street, how each human voice had a distinct tone and utterance: its own clear character and measure.

He thought then of the second movement of his Concerto 4. The mood required for its poignant and consoling andante, like a dignified outpouring of healing balm, to help alleviate human sadness; then to be taken up, repeated, extended; just as all instruments in his remaining concertos must display an individual character and so contribute to life’s larger chorus.

“Dah-dah-da-da-daah!” he hummed aloud, as a local tradesman gave a friendly bow. Herr Kapellmeister Bach smiled back, his mind now alive with bubbly wind instruments, each waking in their turn, breathing vibrantly back into life.

-o0o-

That night, more glistening wax slowly accumulated below his candle after Friedelena Margaretha had long since played a rowdy game downstairs with the children, then put them all to bed.

His second movement of Concerto 1, the adagio, would risk a complete ravishment of the senses. Its formally contrasting slow movement, one of great emotional tenderness, could then pay deep respect to the piercing sorrows of our earthbound fate; yet all doubly consoled and placated with lavish offerings of sensuality.

Before he slumped asleep at his desk, his first concerto’s little violino piccolo shimmered on the pages before him, rising to a major solo into the third movement, skipping with its elegant dance forms of both minuet and polonaise.

-o0o-

Again, on following nights, Johann Sebastian rose briskly from his desk, moving excitedly about the room, suddenly stopping by his harpsichord, where he pressed several keys, elaborating Concerto 2’s bright and scintillating allegro.

“Daar-daaah, dar-daaah,” he intoned, capturing a sense of everything swaying, bodily and physically swaying, swaying joyfully, and with great pleasure.

Then came movement two’s andante, full of ‘sighing’ phrases, perhaps as performers and listeners caught their breath, and just before the final allegro assai, in which the soloist painted sonorities against what he now pictured as a verdurous floral background.

Bach and his family at their morning devotions. by Toby Edward Rosenthal, 1870. Formerly Leipzig, Museum.

All too soon it was morning, again – with a pleasant muted clink and clatter of breakfast preparations downstairs, as he revised his Concerto 3 in G major; and then Concerto 4, a concerto grosso, also in G major, but much more lofty in tone.

Finally satisfied with tonight’s work, though broken by many a brief sleep, Johann Sebastian hurried down to a pleasantly laden table, where Friedelena Margaretha was spooning porridge for little Carl Philip Emmanuel, who suddenly looked up and regaled his father with all manner of questions. “Papa,” the boy politely asked, “when will we see my dear godfather, Herr Telemann?” Then implored, “Can we have a plum pudding for dinner?” Finally, “Please Papa, please, listen to my playing!?” The young musician took a small recorder from his jacket, extemporising a jaunty piece. All were delighted, and applauded heartily. Then Friedelena began to organise daughter Catharina Dorothea and the three little ones, just as the hall clock struck eight.

-o0o-

Herr Kapellmeister Bach spent the next day with several court musicians, before returning home by coach, just as dusk fell. Although exhausted, he still felt oddly elated, observing a great flock of birds wheel above the city, when suddenly one shifted, conducting their graceful interweaving of bodies in flight as they reassembled into entirely new patterns. For was not the word fugue derived from the Latin, fuga, meaning flight? Yes, the third movement of Concerto 4, the presto, could include three equally soaring soloists, interweaving with similar precision and each new subject taken up by the others, before being developed in unity.

Johann Sebastian Bach entered his Wallstrasse study that evening, there to make additions to his fourth concerto.

-o0o-

Two days later, he opened twin shutters to an approaching dawn. He had already made great progress on the present concertos, sustained by much more frequent sleep; copying out Concerto 3, the first movement’s allegro for soloists and basso continuo, which was not only rousing, and very pleasant, but where the opening theme spoke of being ‘statesmanlike’ and reliable.

He noted how the second movement of Concerto 3 could effortlessly revert to concerto grosso style, where he had interposed passages of utmost elegance and sophistication; all flowing joyously onwards.

Then turned back to the window, standing completely still. There was something almost otherworldly in the fullness of Concerto 3, its relentless accumulation of vitality. The initial instruments would remain in the second movement, there with a poignant delicacy, elaborating sighing echoes.

The compelling exhilaration of Concerto 4, its presto, which began as a fugue before a virtuosic solo violin part, again came flooding back to him, even at this absurdly early hour.

As if to reflect his mood, there began a dawn chorus of various pigeons, doves, hoopoes, the extravagant call of larks, and perhaps wagtails and pipits. Or, he wondered, were they waxwings? Then all manner of thrushes and redwings, catbirds and thrashers joined in. Johann Sebastian laughed aloud as another rooster raucously echoed its delight across Kothen, waking the sun at last.

-o0o-

It was certainly a busy morning, as Herr Kapellmeister Bach fast gained on the other court officials, all enjoying their regular monthly ride out with the Prince, cantering down widening bridle paths towards Halle, then across many grassy fields. His bay filly, with its lightning shaped blaze, was obedient to his aids, galloping with the same relentless rhythmic exhilaration of Concerto 3’s final movement.

When Herr Bach led his mount back to the stables to be unsaddled, he spied the Prince in the distance, and decorously saluted him.

Later, of course, he would be summoned to Kothen Castle, where the Prince requested a new concert be arranged as part of his regularly held nights of dancing and royal festivities. Time would be of the essence, as always, and he must direct the court musicians, as was his fundamental duty.

Much later that afternoon, Herr Kapellmeister Bach inspected the lavish ballroom of Kothen castle, with its royal coat of arms above a wooden doorway. Ornamentation, he considered, was essential for concerts performed here, where the brightness of golden chandeliers added their lustre to his music.

-o0o-

The grandest night of the year had finally arrived, with everyone dressed very carefully for the concert, as Prince Leopold had invited important visitors from the imperial House of Hohenzollern. Many city worthies would also attend, all to enjoy much lively dancing.

Adjusting his cuffs at home, Johann Sebastian took up a translucent paperweight from his desk, turning it in his hands, soon distracted by hoof-beats nearby, followed by a brisk knocking below.

His carriage had arrived, and he quickly entered, as its graceful Friesian pony trotted along in unhurried gait. Yes, the second movement adagio ma non-troppo of Concerto 6 was delivered at similar rhythm, where he also wanted a serene meditation, beautiful in a way that paid respect to human sorrow, and where music might bring new emotions into being, perhaps for the very first time.

Settling back in his seat, he imagined how two violins would imitate each other, then become enmeshed in bold counterpoint, as a series of emotions and images flowed mysteriously through his mind: soaring birds, rippling water, a blaze of stars, dancing leaves.

He released his belt slightly in the gently swaying cabin, then smoothed and adjusted his formal white wig, as the carriage abruptly stopped.

Alighting carefully, Herr Kapellmeister Bach stretched his fingers slightly, for tonight he would play the harpsichord with his assembled fellow musicians, all in the grand ballroom.

-o0o-

J S Bach 15 years later – by Elias Gottlieb, 1746

It went extremely well as, much later, a relieved and slightly exhausted Herr Bach directed the coachman away from Wallstrasse to drop him off half way from home, as he did not wish to wake his sleeping family.

A walk in the cool night air would help clear his mind.

Still humming with the evening’s festivities, he made his way to the familiar town square in the centre of Kothen, watching moonlight glide across the varnished carriage as it clipped back into the dark.

Both his Concerto 5 and 6 might contain similar dance forms, he thought, recalling them now; the men moving forward, as they bow then face each other, circling and re-joining their partners. They skip from side to side in two facing lines, moving forward and back, put one foot forward, hold for just a slight pause…

He stopped at a low stone wall, overlooking a decorative pool. Stars were reflected there, as a sleeping waterbird suddenly awoke, skidding and clipping across its surface.

He watched spreading ripples, almost in a sort of trance, then found a nearby fountain at the square’s edge, splashing cold water on his face, yet still thinking of his Concerto 5, one of galloping pace, and particularly of its masterful first movement’s concluding cadenza, which lifted the harpsichord to well-deserved heights as a dazzling solo instrument.

Fully awake, he imagined playing that truly bold cadenza for the Margrave, playing it himself, as it progressively threw off great bouquets of notes, elaborating into a virtuosic display, one of anticipation, mastery and control, before concluding with a grand and breathless flourish.

-o0o-

Nearing home, Johann Sebastian Bach looked up at the night sky, with its infinite wonders. He already had Concerto 6 completed. But here, finally, poised above him and in plain sight was the elusive affettuoso he sought for Concerto 5. For was not the meaning of affettuoso ‘to expand’, and surely nothing was as grandly expansive, or as truly humbling, as the night sky and its stars. All blazed above him now, yet even with such glory at his disposal, the tone must also be one of a gentle humility: a grand awakening of tenderness.

Finally, the entire score was complete in his mind, ready to send to the Margrave. Tomorrow he would begin copying it out in his own hand and when that considerable task was complete, it would be despatched. He must patiently await a response from the Margrave and meanwhile enjoy his present employment.

Then looked up again, and there it was – clearly swirling above him, written out against the night sky. All the stars beckoned there, in their magnificence, suspended in the vastness of space.

He considered more sparkling notes, still humming briskly, as if to out-pace himself, striding directly back home and to bed.

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