Searching for Bach
Bach married twice and had twenty children, only half of whom survived into adulthood. Throughout most of his adult life, he wrote music for hire. Really, he ground it out. From pedaling church organs to composing for royalty, Bach wrote and performed at a frenetic rate. There were a lot of bills to pay. But Bach also ground it out because he loved God. On the top of many of his compositions you can see the plea he wrote. Jesu Juva. Jesus, help.
Bach’s last major work, never performed in his lifetime, was a full setting of the Latin Mass, the Missa tota. Lutherans had thrown out the Latin Mass; only Catholics practiced the long, elaborate ceremony. Bach presented a couple of chunks of the Mass to the Catholic King of Poland in an attempt to land a gig as the Polish court composer. King Augustus didn’t bite, but Bach later raided his own cantatas to finish the Mass. The shiver-inducing melody of the Agnus Dei is an exact replica of the melody of one of Bach’s earlier church cantatas from the Ascension Oratorio, and snatches of others can be heard throughout the Mass. The Mass in B Minor, like the Saint Matthew Passion, was mostly forgotten until the 18th century. Rediscovered, it became known as one of the towering works of classical music.
I hadn’t touched a cello in 15 years when I discovered the Mass in B Minor, by which time I was deeply into my thirties, married to a musician, my hands permanently bent and hurting from arthritis, and struggling to reconcile with the Catholic church, a protracted battle that continues to consume a rather large chunk of my days. One night when I was killing time before heading off to a catechism class, I found a copy of it at Amoeba Records and stuck it into my car CD slot. The Mass in B Minor begins with a burst from the chorus and orchestra together, the Kyrie: Lord, Have Mercy. Even sitting in the driver’s seat, it was like being knocked to the ground.
The thing about rock music, in all of the forms that I’ve worshipped, is that it’s not about thinking. You have your cerebral performers, but rock music is about the body: the corporeal sensations of fucking, moving, imbibing, ejecting. It is not about the caverns of the mind. And those caverns are where Bach spent his lifetime chasing the intricacies of forms, twisting the ideas of what music can do, wedding it to mathematical possibilities, but never forgetting that, as Keats wheezed, Beauty is Truth. Beauty is the best thing we can point at in order to say “God.”
In junior high, the music teacher thought I was good enough. She also kept a bottle of vodka in her desk drawer, the desk surrounded by the aged and peeling violins and cellos typical of an Oakland public school. Already at 12 I was shooting up toward 6 feet in height, with canoe feet and massive hands to match.
Peering up from under her hair, which looked like an askew wig even if it was somehow real, she sized me up.
“Too big for a violin,” was her assessment.
She gave me a cello. It had a crack running up its back, which I eventually discovered muffled its resonance and gave it a slightly wheezy tone. But when I lugged it home and took my first tentative steps up the C major scale, it sounded fine to me. In fact, it sounded like heaven. Or whatever heaven sounds like when you’re twelve.
I didn’t love anything at that point in my life. Maybe I loved books a little too much, but that sounds so precious and trite I can barely bring myself to admit it. Boys were either miniature and childlike, horking back globs of errant spit, or towering and scary, smoking weed around the corners of the school’s taupe buildings. Girls were angry and pretty or ugly and shy. Mostly I was trying not to be seen.
The cello didn’t help. Strap one onto the side of a big girl and you get something almost comical, the girl hugging the cello like a body, the cello a distorted mimicry of the shape the girl’s body would one day take on. It was the first thing I loved best.
The teacher thought I was good enough because nobody in the school was very good, so my middling efforts were comparatively outstanding. And because I didn’t have friends, there was plenty of time for practicing, which I did, until I was good enough to solo in front of the school, which seemed to surprise a lot of people, and I was good enough to audition for the local youth symphony and get in, where I sat among kids from private schools, who actually owned their cellos, which were gleaming and sing-songy and had filigreed brass tuning pegs. And the section leader handed us sheet music and lead us through the first movement, after which he came over to me with a concerned face.
“You know,” he said, “your bow’s going the wrong way.”
My bow kept going the wrong way throughout that first rehearsal, which was the last one as well, because I was not really good enough, but was rather a skillful faker.
In high school I got friends and eventually a boyfriend and I got punk rock from going to shows at 924 Gilman with said boyfriend, but after school I’d climb the stairs to my room and play the Bach cello suites over and over. For a while there was a private teacher who coaxed me into making my bow go the right way, but my surly teen attitude frustrated her one too many times and she finally told me it wasn’t worth trying any more. I was okay, maybe I might some day be good. But I’d never really be a musician, because being a musician meant you played the same things over and over, really boring things like scales, until your fingers were padded with callouses, and then you got in your car like she did and drove two hours to play 5th cello in a mediocre symphony and taught sullen teenage girls all day and then played wedding quartets on the weekend.
Classical music felt like a gilded trap. Obsession with perfection was required; go a week without practicing and your fingers would open and blister all over again. You were supposed to sleep with your hand taped around a bottle and sit up straight and wear long skirts because you have to straddle a cello even if you’re a still a virgin and straddling anything shaped like a body is kind of a mystery. But classical music was beautiful. It was so beautiful that even my dad’s scratched-up set of Pablo Casals recordings remained on my turntable under Hüsker Dü’s New Day Rising. Even the sheet music was beautiful: those mysterious glyphs and clefs and risings and fallings.
The problem was that trying to live as a classical musician was like deciding you wanted to be an actor and assuming you could play King Lear even though you were a 15-year-old girl. I didn’t have the discipline. I was sloppy and lazy and no matter how much I tried to practice, there was usually something far more interesting to do, like staring out the window. I became an audience.
There was another story, intertwined but separate, one about God and Catholicism, something else I loved and left behind. And classical music was always about God.
Bach was mostly blind by the time he composed the B Minor Mass. One report says his death just a few years later was brought on by the “unhappy consequences” of an “unfortunate eye operation,” but contemporary scholars mostly believe he had a stroke. His much younger wife Anna Magdalena, who had copied down many of his compositions and had sung professionally throughout their marriage, was left destitute with two of her daughters and a stepdaughter when Bach’s sons quarreled over the estate. She was buried in a pauper’s grave, and the graveyard was destroyed during World War II. Jesu Juva.
I’ve listened to a lot of rock music, a lot of hip hop, country and folk and jazz, a lot of blues and roots and music from around the world. And as a person whose mind loves research and learning, I’ve read up on the lives of musicians and composers, read shelves of books and piles of scholarly and popular articles, and no story has ever made me sadder than the story of Bach and his dead children and destitute, gifted widow. Bach is a father figure to any classical musician, but he’s also a father figure to music itself; without him, we wouldn’t be able to do the things we do on instruments.
I lost my own father when I was still a teenager. I lost father figures who cared about the music I played and the things I wrote. And I lost God. But God came back, even when the fathers could not, and Bach came back, even when my prematurely wrecked hands couldn’t play his music any more. The gift of Bach is the gift of becoming an audience: we are witnesses to the motion of Grace, and finally we are all good enough.
Kaya Oakes is the author of The Nones Are Alright: A New Generation of Seekers, Believers, and Those In-Between (Orbis, 2015), the memoir Radical Reinvention: An Unlikely Return to the Catholic Church (Counterpoint Press, 2012), and a social-science based exploration of independent art and culture, Slanted and Enchanted (Henry Holt, 2009). She teaches creative nonfiction, narrative journalism, expository and research writing at the University of California, Berkeley.