Did You Know Bach Had a Father?

I post this section from Patrick O’Brian’s The Ionian Mission because I love it for what is says about Bach (Johann Sebastian) as well as about Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin.

O’Brian was an incredible writer, and I think this passage shows it.


‘[London Bach] 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 pompom. 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.’

Now when the fiddle sang at all it sang alone: but since Stephen’s departure he had rarely been in a mood for music and in any case the partita that he was now engaged upon, one of the manuscript works that he had bought in London, grew more and more strange the deeper he went into it. The opening movements were full of technical difficulties and he doubted he would ever be able to do them anything like justice, but it was the great chaconne which followed that really disturbed him. On the face of it the statements made in the beginning were clear enough: their closely-argued variations, though complex, could certainly be followed with full acceptation, and they were not particularly hard to play; yet at one point, after a curiously insistent repetition of the second theme, the rhythm changed and with it the whole logic of the discourse. There was something dangerous about what followed, something not unlike the edge of madness or at least of a nightmare; and although Jack recognized that the whole sonata and particularly the chaconne was a most impressive composition he felt that if he were to go on playing it with all his heart it might lead him to very strange regions indeed.

During a pause in his evening letter Jack thought of telling Sophie of a notion that had come to him, a figure that might make the nature of the chaconne more understandable: it was as though he were fox-hunting, mounted on a powerful, spirited horse, and as though on leaping a bank, perfectly in hand, the animal changed foot. And with the change of foot came a change in its being so that it was no longer a horse he was sitting on but a great rough beast, far more powerful, that was swarming along at great speed over an unknown countryside in pursuit of a quarry – what quarry he could not tell, but it was no longer the simple fox. But it would be a difficult notion to express, he decided; and in any case Sophie did not really care much for music, while she positively disliked horses. On the other hand she dearly loved a play, so he told her about….

[from pp.47-48, 154-155 of The Ionian Mission, Patrick O’Brian].

About Victoria Janssen

Victoria Janssen [she, her] currently writes cozy space opera for Kalikoi. The novella series A Place of Refuge begins with Finding Refuge: Telepathic warrior Talia Avi, genius engineer Miki Boudreaux, and augmented soldier Faigin Balfour fought the fascist Federated Colonies for ten years, following the charismatic dissenter Jon Churchill. Then Jon disappeared, Talia was thought dead, and Miki and Faigin struggled to take Jon’s place and stay alive. When the FC is unexpectedly upended, Talia is reunited with her friends and they are given sanctuary on the enigmatic planet Refuge. The trio of former guerillas strive to recover from lifetimes of trauma, build new lives on a planet with endless horizons, and forge tender new connections with each other.
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