The most important day of the year

I loaf and invite my soul

I loaf and invite my soul

On March 21 nearly every year I give my students a quiz of one question. “Why is today the most important day of the year?”

Almost never does a student pass the quiz.

And I’ll bet I’m safe in assuming that almost no one who might be reading this today can guess why this is the most important day of the year.

It’s obvious.

Today is the 328th anniversary of the birth of Johann Sebastian Bach.

But for the birth of J. S. Bach, music would not exist as we know it.

Music purists and historians and better-musicologists-than-I can (and may) dispute that assertion. Of course it’s not true. Or is it? The harmonies, the contrapuntal designs, the musical forms both great and small perfected by J. S. Bach are the touchstone for all of music since 1685. The Beatles, Beyonce, John Cage, Madonna, Arthur Sullivan, and Arnold Schönberg notwithstanding.

I’m not going to get into an argument here. Arguments require evidence. I have none.

When I was a sophomore at the University of Redlands, my organ professor Leslie Pratt Spelman (1903-2001) invited three organ majors to hear him play a small recital in the university chapel. It was a private Sunday evening recital for his Quaker Meeting. It was delicious playing, slow, simple, accurate, and idiosyncratic. He played Frescobaldi, Brahms, pieces by a couple of 20th-century Dutch composers (friends of his), and Bach.

None of the great Bach show pieces, but three or four of the rarest musical gems from the Bach Orgelbüchlein (Little Organ Book). One of those was Das alte Jahr vergangen ist (The Old Year now Has Passed Away). When I asked him later to study it with him, he told me I could not play it until I was an old man.

He was sixty-two at the time.

Leslie Pratt Spelman, 1994

Leslie Pratt Spelman, 1994

I am now sixty-eight and have been playing Das alte Jahr since I was about fifty. It is a setting of the tune for a New Year’s Day hymn,

The old year now has passed away;
We thank Thee, O Our God, today
That Thou hast kept us through the year
When danger and distress were near.

(Anonymous, Erfurt, 1568)

Johann Sebastian Bach was, in his own time, a relatively obscure composer and a not-too-famous church and court musician stuck off in the hinterlands of Protestant Germany. To wit, his six Brandenburg Concerti, which are now considered the towering examples of the Baroque form, were never performed in his lifetime. He wrote them for Chistian Ludwig, Margrave of Brandenburg, most likely hoping to be noticed as worthy perhaps of a higher position than Kappelmeister at Köthen, a fairly insignificant music center in 18th-century Germany. He wrote an introduction to the Margrave saying he was

. . .  begging Your Highness most humbly not to judge their imperfection with the rigor of that discriminating and sensitive taste, which everyone knows Him to have for musical works, but rather to take into benign Consideration the profound respect and the most humble obedience which I thus attempt to show Him.

Right. “. . . judge their imperfection with the rigor of that discriminating and sensitive taste. . .”

judge their imperfection

judge their imperfection

When I heard Dr. Spelman play, he was presenting music (not himself) for the contemplation of his Meeting of Friends. My friends and I had to rush from the chapel stifling laughter because we did not understand the silence that followed or the speaking  about the affect of the music by one after another of the members of the Meeting.

Finally at age 68, I’m beginning to understand. Bach died when he was sixty-five. Dr. Spelman lived forty or so years after that evening in the chapel.

The repertory I studied with Dr. Spelman is limited and, perhaps, odd. What he taught me was a most important life lesson, and I did not understand until decades later. It’s very simple. He told me I must learn to “invite my soul.”

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
I loaf and invite my soul,
I lean and loaf at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.

(“I celebrate myself” from Song of Myself—Walt Whitman)

I am now that old man Dr. Spelman said could play Das alte Jahr vergangen ist. One might think that on this most important day of the year, I would record something that sounds important. Only those who have reached a certain age can understand, I think, the joy, the beauty, the importance of this small work. Sadness is, I am beginning to understand, necessary in order to experience joy. I am in a time of intense sadness the likes of which I trust I will never need to feel again because it will always be eclipsed by joy.

3 Responses to The most important day of the year

  1. bobritzema says:

    Reblogged this on Beyond Halfway and commented:
    Here is a beautiful piece by Harold Knight on J.S. Bach, inviting our souls, and why some music can best be played by the old.

  2. Pingback: “The bait is the hope for a hand on your brow” ** | Me, senescent

  3. Pingback: “. . . extensively careful to give no offence. . .” | Me, senescent

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