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Homages  //  JEAN-SEBASTIEN BACH

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I learned the piano. It was my mother's dream. A young lady had to learn the piano. She would play for distinguished guests in an elegant evening. The scene would take place in a large house with antique furniture, marble floors, paintings, large French windows overlooking a flower garden. The young lady would play Brahms on a grand piano. That was the dream. There was no passion for Brahms or Schubert in this dream, in fact, no passion at all. The music was purely decorative, an assemblage of sounds pleasing to the ear. The dream has partly come true. I learned the piano. Having learned it, I liked it. The big house? Yes, it existed. It was even very large. The distinguished guests, yes, they came. They were even numerous. But the house has disappeared. The guests too, as the mist dissipates. And everything around has also disappeared, the antique furniture, the paintings, the marble floors. The dream has vanished, and nothing was left of it. Nothing but debts, seizures, ruin. Nothing but death.

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I was five years old the first time I sat in front of a piano. A nun had taken me to Sister Mary who taught music in our catholic school. We stepped in a room. A swarm of young ladies were chirping like little birds. One of them played the piano. Others were doing embroidery. It was a sunny day. The windows were wide-open over the playground brightened by the poplars canopy. A hand would have stirred me towards the mother. I have very little recollection of that day, I haven’t forgotten however the long black habit barely masking the bulk of the sister’s large stomach. Nor have I forgotten her oily skinned face framed by the white wimple encircling her jowls, the coarse hair on her chin and especially her age-yellowed teeth jutting out from under her upper lip like a fan. Her eyes stared me out for a while. She wasn't looking at me; she was gauging me. I looked at her with utmost attention. It was a habit of mine to stare at people, a failing I was often chided for. The nun asked me to sit at the piano. I did. She said nothing. I was summoned to come back a second time. The experience wasn’t luckier. The school informed my mother who informed my grandmother that Sister Mary wouldn't take me. She deemed me too young. But there was another music teacher available in the school.

 

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A few days later, I was escorted to the back wing of the building. We went up to the first floor, walked past doors, trotted down corridors and reached a series of small rooms. In each of them was a student. It looked like a beehive where each worker bee was tapping on a keyboard in a cacophony which didn’t seem to bother anyone. A young woman bustled from room to room, tracking down the lazy bees. A hand guided me towards her. A voice said I was the new student. The woman stopped for a minute to look at me. Her name was Marie-Françoise R. She would be my teacher.

 

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Marie-Françoise R was a " mademoiselle ". Mademoiselle, she remained her whole life. She was petite, dark, thin, short-sighted. Mademoiselle is an understatement. People used to say an old maid. If the status of a woman who lives on her own can be seen nowadays as a sign of proud independence, at that time, in the provinces, things were fairly different. No offense to the fine gentlemen who would like to rewrite history and seem to have forgotten what the condition of a woman was before 1968, a spring leading to an unprecedented social revolution, but French society in the 60s was not only ruled by patriarchy but also cruelly hierarchized. Most women were still handed down from their father’s guardianship to their husband’s one. Few women worked. Some did by choice; they were usually educated. Others who had neither the support of a husband nor of a father had no other choice than to make a living to survive. Employees and factory workers were the poorest. A primary school teacher in a small country town or a lay teacher of music in a catholic school stood slightly above the latter. Consequently, a spinster who had to make a living to subsist was some sort of second-rate creature lacking prospect and social standing. When a spinster didn’t inspire mockery, she inspired contempt. Marie-Françoise R was a paragon of discretion. She took any blow, however humiliating, and never spoke her mind. To speak up would have been improper. Having no family nearby, she was accommodated by the school. Her small room overlooked the courtyard of the preschoolers, a sinister gravelled corridor stuck between the wall of the chapel and the kindergarten. Living amidst the nuns was an ordeal. They gave her a hard time. Marie-Françoise R never complained about what she endured, yet I happened to hear her whispering one day: "How mean they are!" She had spoken in such a low, unusually distressed voice. Even though I was very young, I could feel her despair. Of her, I remember an austere face, without understanding that her impenetrable mask had been hardened by sorrow and all manner of humiliations she was subjected to. The social hierarchy and its protocols prevailing in the post-war society were replicated in the school. The nuns stood at the top, namely they held in the school the rank occupied by the bourgeois in the city. No one would have disputed such an appalling ranking.  

 

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But Marie-Françoise R had another life. Yes, she had been granted a second life. She was the appointed organist of Saint Pierre Cathedral in Saintes. An organ is more than an instrument. That of Saint Pierre was a universe of its own, a fortified citadel half-way between earth and heaven towards which one climbed by a spiral staircase as narrow as a gut excavated through the stone. It led to a whole new world because what is seen of an organ from the nave is nothing compared to what cannot be seen: it’s hard to imagine how many passageways, small and large rooms it contains including nooks and crannies doomed to eternal darkness. The bellows, sitting at the back, taller than a man, filled a space as large as a ballroom. The organ is the only instrument where the instrumentalist, swallowed up by his machine, is downgraded to being invisible. The organ of Saint Pierre was of great beauty, high and wide, majestic and divine. From up there, the view over the nave and the choir was uplifting, exhilarating, dizzying. Built in 1626, it had three keyboards, thirty-six stops, a two-body case. The turrets were adorned with sculptures. In addition to the charge of such an empire, the position of organist includes to accompany the church service so that Marie-Françoise R was not only the custodian of this holy citadel but also the most laudable organist the church could have found because she lived for music and for God. 

 

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Marie-Françoise R bequeathed me her passion for Bach. She often said that the greatest works of art were those that had been written for God. I know she was right when I play Bach. I know he mends all wounds. I also know, as Marie-Françoise R knew, that he nourishes and restores the soul. I remember the years when, newly arrived in Australia, my life hung by a thread, but there was Bach. There was Schubert and especially Bach. Music is a grace. Between you, my old friend and I, music is the link. Even though years have gone by since we sat side by side, you, my old friend, writing in pencil your notes on my score and I, looking at you intensely as I have always looked at the world, looking at the thick lenses of your glasses, your strange face, your saddened look -you knew how to read my silences, while I couldn’t read yours- you never left my side. Your soul is still around. You were demanding. You gave me scales, exercises, deciphering and always a piece to work on. You got angry if I had failed in my duties. Every year you prepared me for the audition of the Kingdom of Music chaired by its founder, a lady in a hat. When I had won the whole range of gold medals of the Kingdom of Music, you prepared me for the conservatorium of La Rochelle where I learned all that I know. It was tough. I didn't know music is a discipline, and above all a torture. You were there to help, assist my practice, explain the nightmarish mysteries of the demisemiquavers and ornaments. Today, I am grateful to you for your tireless efforts. You taught me to tune my ear. And one day I heard. The sense of music doesn’t come as quickly as one would like. To geniuses, it comes quickly. For me, it took time. But the day came when music was no longer a pleasing assemblage of sounds. There was a composer who had written a score, and centuries later, someone else slipped into his work. Above all, he slipped into the joys, the worries, the insomnia and the fatigues of another man. He was not playing a well-tempered clavier prelude. He was playing a moment of Bach’s life.

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The Well-Tempered Clavier, I always come back to it, after Schubert and Chopin, I come back to the Well-Tempered Clavier. You think you know the whole of it, when it always holds some hidden treasures. Bach is the reward, the repose, the harmony. I always begin with the Prelude n°2 of the first volume. This book is old, stained, annotated. I made sure to keep its friendly presence sitting on the piano when I had one, except when I was too poor to hire one. As soon as I had a few bob, I would rent a piano. I read my old teacher's remarks, discreetly written in pencil in the margins while the teachers at the conservatorium itched large angry strokes, annoyed by our wrong notes, exasperated when we didn't respect the composer’s instructions to the letter, piano, pianissimo, forte, the teachers at the conservatorium who couldn’t suffer the slightest mistake, the eccentric and haughty teachers who swore only by Samson François. He was the great virtuoso of the time, the one whose playing brought you to tears when he played Chopin. I had his records. I was trying hard to ape his style. On my piano was a photo of his hands, long and beautiful, quick and agile, a photo taken at the musical festival in Nohant. I would have liked to be in George Sand's house, in Nohant. I would have listened to Samson François around a fine assembly.
 

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I gaze at the portrait of Johann Sebastian Bach, a man born in 1685 in Eisenach in Thuringia. He looks like a good family man. There were indeed many children of all ages at the Bach’s. It must have been a noisy happy house. Johann Sebastian gained a few appointments with German sovereigns who sometimes admired his work, but he didn’t seek glory or fame and never rose to affluence. One must understand. He was a Lutheran. He loved God, not wealth. He remained above all an organist, a position he held with devotion. Johann Sebastian Bach, kindhearted, sensitive, was deeply affected by the death of his first wife, Maria Barbara, whom he had loved deeply. His second wife, Maria Magdalena Wilcke, was a singer and a musician. She took care of the household and actively collaborated in the work of her husband. Their union was blissful. It can be easily read on the face of this serene man. The music of Johann Sebastian Bach has often the simplicity of a conversation by the fireside where each hand addresses the other one its reply and complaint to endure long winter evenings. The music of Johann Sebastian Bach has also the power to uplift the soul. I feel it as soon as I hear the first notes of the Passion according to Saint Matthew. One year, I wanted to live this Passion in my flesh. Indeed, the whole concert goes for more than three hours, but this masterpiece of music must be experienced once in a lifetime. During this exceptional performance of the baroque music festival of Saintes, in the great nave of the Abbaye aux Dames, I ended up forgetting the discomfort of my narrow wooden chair to listen to the music, nothing but the music. And after a while, everything around faded away when the depths of the tragedy played out in this Passion seeped down into my soul, pervading me with grief and compassion for a man betrayed by one of his companions, arrested, tortured, poor lamb being slaughtered, a lamb who didn’t do any wrong except to have been born a lamb. Because Jesus of Nazareth was an innocent but also an underdog. He didn’t seek fame or wealth. He lived on struggle street from the moment of his birth to the hour of his death. Bourgeois, watch out! Consider wisely the paupers, the broken ass, the small fry, the sort of people you despise, the sort you often humiliate, because they are the ones who do great deeds. To you has been given the miserable pleasure to pile up your gold. To them has been granted the grace to dispense beauty, music, poetry. To them has been given light and eternity. Bach’s masterpiece was so brilliantly performed that evening that I couldn't help but let streams of tears flowing shamelessly down my cheeks thinking it was good and right to cry to Bach’s work. He would have been overjoyed to see an audience weeping three centuries after he’d written his masterpiece. The same weeping as his. Maria Magdalena Bach recounted that one day, when she was about to enter the room where her husband was working, she halted. Bach was then working on his Passion according to Saint Matthew. He who usually had a rosy face, she reported, had turned pale, the colour of ashes. His face was unrecognizable. Large tears were streaming from his eyes. Not daring to enter, Maria Magdalena withdrew noiselessly before sitting down further on a step. Have mercy on me, my God, because of my tears.

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Today I don’t listen to Samson François playing Chopin, I listen to David Fray who plays Bach. He knows how to play Bach like no one else, he so young who has already understood everything about a music when a whole life isn’t long enough to achieve. David Fray's hands are smooth and agile, quick and precise. He leans over the keyboard as Glenn Gould used to do as though he’d tried to control with utmost precision his playing.
 

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Marie-Francoise R's hands were pale, robust, strong. Those of Bach were thus made. Organist’s hands. And the tips of her fingers, hard as steel, struck the keys with force and precision, like a hammer on an anvil.

© Catherine Rey 2022 - All rights reserved  

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