Friday, February 29, 2008

A Truly Wonderful Man

Early this morning I was sitting by the computer, reading a Finnish website. I didn't have my glasses on (I'm nearsighted with astigmatism) and I had to squint my eyes to see the large LCD screen more clearly. On the front page was this picture with no name, just a link. I looked at it and instantly felt warm and comfortable, as if this was a man who had done something great for humanity. The big head spoke of intelligence but there was also peace written on his face. After reading the morning's news, which was depressing as usual, I clicked on the link and almost fell of the chair. A reconstructed face of Johann Sebastian Bach! A German Bach museum had asked a Scottish forensic anthropologist, Caroline Wilkinson, to recreate the great composer's face, with the help of the best three-dimensional x-rays and every other available detail. There he was, staring at me as if he were alive and well. The picture bears uncanny resemblance to the only available painting of the master, although there are some other questionable ones and black-and-white drawings.

I made a print on 4x6 photo paper and my wife and I asked various students, young and old, who this gentleman might be. We did provide a hint: they all knew of him. Only the youngest of the crowd, a ten-year-old that had never studied any Bach, knew the answer instantly. I am going to find a high-resolution copy of the picture, use my 7-ink Epson to print it and frame it to hang on the wall of one of our two studios. If it made me feel good, certainly it would have the same effect on others as well. His music has been ringing in my ears since morning and I was especially enthusiastic teaching the first Partita to a gifted young lady.

Although he was forced to recycle some of his music due to shortage of time and insane composition requirements, in my book Johann Sebastian is a musical genius par excellence. Every time I listen to his music and especially when I play or teach it, I make new discoveries. His music is food for the brain, soothing yet challenging, and above all without a fault. It is hard to imagine that people long ago didn't recognize the genius in him as a composer and preferred the works of Buxtehude and the likes. True, listeners respected him as an organist, but clearly his greatest talent was in writing music. Although he was said to have admired Händel, at least to these ears music of the latter sounds often pompous and hollow. Yes, the German Anglophile wrote some great works and catchy tunes, and his sonatas for violin and keyboard are more accessible to the listener than Bach's similar works. But the Chaconne, most of the Cantatas, the Passions and other vocal/instrumental masterpieces! He truly was far ahead of his time. He is also the only composer I can think of whose music can be performed with an accordion or by a rock band and it still sounds majestic. What would cellists play if they didn't have the Suites?

Now we at least have a picture of him, true to detail and without the wig. Someone asked me why he wore one. I tried to explain that bathing in a cold climate was not an easy thing to do and thus not often done. Even Louis XIV built the magnificent palace of Versailles with only one room for bathing and that was soon sealed off as unnecessary. The short hair on Bach's head is likely a guess but probably very common at the time when everyone had lice and other parasites. After a month or two longer hair would have been a paradise for those bugs. I can only imagine how the fancy-looking clothing of the time smelled as it couldn't be washed during the winter months; drying would have taken forever. I remember my brother telling me of his trip to China for the Finnish Broadcasting Company, soon after the Cultural Revolution. It happened during the cold season and people simply never took off their clothes until the warmer season arrived. The stench in a packed hall was intolerable. At least the French tried to cover their odor with perfume.

Another wonderful man, my spiritual guide, sent me email which prompted me to read all the different interpretations of the Book of Job I could find: Christian, Jewish, and even Muslim. I also got reacquainted with the Testament of Job which is not in the "official" Bible but nevertheless considered a sacred text. Although not necessarily upbeat reading, the Book itself is beautifully written and offers many lessons for all of us. It is interesting how differently it can be interpreted. There are not many other instances in the Hebrew Bible where Satan works for God, although in his nasty ways, and the word is not a synonym for evil. Bulgakov must have been greatly influenced by the story, as in his famed "Master and Margarita" Satan is described in similar manner and Behemoth appears as one of the characters.

Yes, we learn that bad people can enjoy success and the good ones are not necessarily rewarded for their deeds. However, at the end Job gets everything back tenfold, after he stands firm in his faith and doesn't accept his friends' arguments that his terrible misery was caused by something awful he had done. None of the successful evil people will ever know true happiness and love; a Buddhist would perhaps argue that they will return to earth as cockroaches and worms, if they are even worthy of that.

Image Bachhaus Eisenech, Corbis