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Alan Elsner: Half an Hour With Bach Puts Politics in Perspective

January 7th, 2010, 04:01 am admin Leave a comment Go to comments

Whenever I have a spare half hour, I head for the piano. Recently, I’ve faced a tough choice: the English Suites or French Suites? Classical music mavens of course know I’m referring to keyboard music written almost 400 years ago by J.S. Bach.

There’s nothing particularly English about the six English Suites. They got their name because of an unsubstantiated 19th century claim that they might have been composed for an English nobleman. The six French Suites got their name to distinguish them from the English ones.

Each suite is comprised of several movements based on dances from the Renaissance and Baroque eras. But their main attraction for me, apart from the lovely music, is that I can actually play them – mostly.

I’m not much of a pianist. On my best days, I’d class myself as “fair-to-middling amateur.” I can manage some of the Beethoven and Mozart sonatas and bits of Schubert, Schubert and Mendelssohn, even the odd Brahms Intermezzo. Most of Chopin and all of Liszt are beyond me. But if I really practice, I can play the English and French Suites and sound half reasonable.

When I was a kid, I had a childish fantasy of being able to play fiendishly difficult pieces in front of an admiring audience. Nowadays, I know I’m not going to get any better — but if I play regularly, I don’t seem to be getting any worse and that’s reward enough at this stage of the game.

The English Suites are the fancier of the two sets. They begin with flashy fast movements that allow me to show off to myself a bit. The French Suites are more intimate. I turn to them when I want to shut away the world.

Playing the piano isn’t like any other pursuit I know. You have to concentrate fully on the fingering, the passage you’re playing and one coming up next. Lose concentration and you mess up. Time passes quickly. A piece never sounds quite the same twice (at least not when I’m playing).

When I was a teenager, I could lose myself in a book or listen to music with total focus — but I lost the ability to concentrate with that kind of intensity years ago. Perhaps it’s the Internet, or the way we communicate nowadays or multi-tasking or just aging – but it’s just become harder to pay proper attention. Whatever I’m doing, there are always distractions and I’m always distracted.

Playing Bach comforts me in other ways as well. Reading the composer’s biography, I learned that he was employed for a while as court musician in the chapel of Duke Johann Ernst in Weimar. The Duke must have been an important man in his day – but who cares about him now? Later, Bach worked for Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cothen, another bigwig in his day who is basically only remembered because he gave the great composer a job.

That helps put things into perspective. Today’s headlines involve politicians, financiers, CEOs, sports heroes, pop stars and all manner of minor league celebs – or wannabe celebs. When I tried to write a tag for the bottom of this piece and typed in the word “Bach,” the auto-prompt suggested Michelle Bachman, the Bachelorette and Samuel J. Wurzelbacher (aka Joe the Plumber). These are people we won’t remember very long — but Bach has lasted for centuries and he’ll certainly endure for centuries more.

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