Saturday, July 15, 2017

Old Bach

‘Oh well,’ said Jack: and then, ‘Did you ever meet Bach?’

‘Which Bach?’

‘London Bach.’

‘Not I.’

‘I did. He wrote some pieces for my uncle Fisher, and his young man copied them out fair. But they were lost years and years ago, so last time I was in town I went to see whether I could find the originals: the young man has set up on his own, having inherited his master’s music-library. We searched through the papers – such a disorder you would hardly credit, and I had always supposed publishers were as neat as bees – we searched for hours, and no uncle’s pieces did we find. But the whole point is this: Bach had a father.’

‘Heavens, Jack, what things you tell me. Yet upon recollection I seem to have known other men in much the same case.’

‘And this father, this old Bach, you understand me, had written piles and piles of musical scores in the pantry.’

‘A whimsical place to compose in, perhaps; but then birds sing in trees, do they not? Why not antediluvian Germans in a pantry?’

‘I mean the piles were kept in the pantry. Mice and blackbeetles and cook-maids had played Old Harry with some cantatas and a vast great Passion according to St Mark, in High Dutch; but lower down all was well, and I brought away several pieces, ’cello for you, fiddle for me, and some for both together. It is strange stuff, fugues and suites of the last age, crabbed and knotted sometimes and not at all in the modern taste, but I do assure you, Stephen, there is meat in it. I have tried this partita in C a good many times, and the argument goes so deep, so close and deep, that I scarcely follow it yet, let alone make it sing. How I should love to hear it played really well – to hear Viotti dashing away.’

Stephen studied the ’cello suite in his hand, booming and humming sotto voce. ‘Tweedly-tweedly, tweedly tweedly, deedly deedly pom pom pom. Oh, this would call for the delicate hand of the world,’ he said. ‘Otherwise it would sound like boors dancing. Oh, the double-stopping . . . and how to bow it?’

‘Shall we make an attempt upon the D minor double sonata?’ said Jack, ‘and knit up the ravelled sleeve of care with sore labour’s bath?’

‘By all means,’ said Stephen. ‘A better way of dealing with a sleeve cannot be imagined.’

Neither had at any time been more than a fairly accomplished amateur: of recent years neither had had much leisure for practice, and various wounds (an American musket-ball in Jack’s case, a French interrogation in Stephen’s) had so slowed down their fingers that in places they were obliged to indicate the notes by hooting; and as they felt their way through the difficult sonata time after time they made the night so hideous that Killick’s indignation broke out at last and he said to the Captain’s cook, ‘There they go again, tweedly-deedly, tweedly-deedly, belly-aching the whole bleeding night, and the toasted cheese seizing on to their plates like goddam glue, which I dursen’t go in to fetch them; and never an honest tune from beginning to end.’

Perhaps there was not: but after a particularly difficult, severe and abstract passage the last movement ended with a triumphant summing-up and resolution that they could both play at first sight and that they repeated again and again; and the grave happiness of the music was still with Captain Aubrey when he walked on to his quarterdeck in the bright morning to see his stump topgallantmasts and their attendant royals come aboard, followed almost immediately by the Tamar’s barge bringing a score of glum but resigned and obviously competent Skates to the larboard side and by a Plymouth wherry with two pink-faced pink-faced young men, very carefully shaved, wearing identical uniforms, their best, and solemn expressions.

(Patrick O'Brian, The Ionian Mission)

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