On a Long Walk in the Snow in Winter
The Peaches are better on down the road...
A friend offered to update my IPOD with new recordings that he had collected. This man, a professor retired from the English Department at the University of Minnesota, has exquisite musical taste and an encyclopedic knowledge of the classical repertoire. Indeed, he once wrote program notes for an ensemble prominent in Minneapolis, the Bakken Trio. So I drove to Minneapolis one summer morning to meet him for lunch at his home in South Minneapolis.
The day was sunny and the dew-point manageably low. The fields were green and humid-looking, almost tropical in their June verdure, but the air was reasonably cool and the skies blue. I reached Minneapolis in ninety minutes, no real road construction impeding my progress, something that is unusual in Minnesota in the summer.
From the freeway, I turned into the city and drove among the fine houses south of downtown. The streets were tree-lined and, at several intersections, I had a moment of deja vu. A certain tilt of sidewalk uphill, the cast of a tiled roof on a garage, a fence, and, then, a large Lutheran Church among gardens and parking lots – I had the feeling that I had traversed this area before, perhaps, at night and in the snow. I was in college during that walk and, at first, I couldn’t recall why I had been out alone, late at night, and on foot with snow crunching under my boots. I turned again and came upon streets that were, also, vaguely familiar to me, and the summer morning re-asserted itself, trees and blossoms and the scent of a lake a couple blocks away, screening the winter landscape that I had briefly recalled a moment before.
Previously, I always met my friend for lunch at a restaurant Uptown. This was the first time I had come to his home. It was located in the neighborhood where Upton and Sheridan diverge, a part of the city that always seems anomalous to me. It is like a fragment from an older, perhaps, better city, something vaguely European about the little commercial district to the south of my friend’s home. It’s a place that I sometimes imagine, but can’t quite locate, the landscape of a dream. When I come upon the intersection with its businesses, I always expect streetcars to swerve into view, trams crowded with people in Victorian plumage on their way to the rose-gardens at Lake Harriet or the bandshell. (At that intersection, I had a memory that a girlfriend jilted me and that I decided to walk across the city to alleviate my grief. Somehow, I ended up a few blocks from this neighborhood in a snowstorm. My feet were freezing and I wanted to lie down in the snow, but, instead, went to a bus stop, sat there for awhile, and, then, took a bus somewhere else – but this doesn’t make any topographic sense and, so, I think I might have simply dreamed this experience, a dream so vivid as to implant the idea of this Winterreise in my brain as something remembered, not imagined.)
After an excellent lunch, my friend played two pieces of music for me on his stereo, the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue in D Minor by Bach, performed by an artist called Gyorgy Sandor, and, then, a cantata by Buxtehude, Jesu meine Freude. The Bach Fugue bursts with a sense of elemental power liberated, a dam pierced and collapsing or an immense aircraft made of steel and iron rising imperturbably into the air. My friend turned up the volume on the cantata by Buxtehude and the basso ostinato had an obsessive quality, an element of this sort of music that I had never previously appreciated, something tenacious and stately, the figure of a man walking across an immense distance, something like the striding pattern in Schubert’s first song in the Winterreise, "Gute Nacht" – "A stranger I arrived, a stranger I depart." I imagined great and noble processions, a parade leading through snow drifts, the members of the party gradually vanishing until only one man is left, marching alone through the night – "a cold coming we had of it/Just the worst time of a year/ For a journey..." My friend mentioned that Johann Sebastian Bach had walked many miles once to see Buxtehude perform and, the basso ostinato in the cantata, seemed to me to be a representation of that long and solitary walk.
I drove back home. The highway from Minneapolis to Austin on Thursday afternoon flowed as smoothly as the River Jordan. I was back to the heat and the stench of the packing plant in no time at all. At home, I connected the Ipod to my speakers and played the Buxtehude’s Jesu meine Freude again.
The Buxtehude cantata reminded me that I had read a poem somewhere about Bach’s visit to the older organist and composer. But I couldn’t quite recall the name of the poem or its author. This plagued me. I worried about this lapse of memory for several days. My involuntary memory, as it were, of the long hike at midnight in the snow, heartbroken, was incomplete as well. Where I had ended the night? What had dawn been like? Had I fallen in a snowbank somewhere and frozen to death? (I think I might have had some Snowshoe Grog in a pint bottle in my coat). Or had I found a late bus and ridden it to the end of the line, the sanitarium in the swamps about two miles from parent’s home and, then, walked between the frozen marshes to my bed. I didn’t recall.
Another friend told me that Delfeayo Marsalis, the trombonist brother of Wynton and Branford, was performing in Winona. (When I mentioned this to my friend, the retired professor, he recalled a cartoon in The New Yorker, some guys wearing jubilant grins and crying-out: "we just discovered another Marsalis brother.") I quit work on Friday early, got on the freeway, and drove to Winona – about 90 miles, but at 70 mph the whole way. I came into Winona on 43 under the Sugarloaf at about 4:30 pm. Winona is stretched out along the river, an elongated corridor of old neighborhoods, grain mills, and ancient churches, between a big stagnant lagoon and the main channel of the Mississippi. It’s a railroad town, historically more closely connected to Chicago and Milwaukee than Minneapolis – tracks crisscross the town and the poorer, grittier neighborhoods have little streetcorner taverns of the kind you see in LaCrosse and Milwaukee. Marsalis was playing at the lawn concert, free to the public, as an amenity for the opening night of the Great River Shakespeare festival. The stage was under an elegant-looking tent on the Winona University quadrangle. The sun was bright but it wasn’t too hot and the lawns were all exquisitely green, green also the distant river bluffs with their old ribs of brittle limestone cliff sometimes showing through the lavish, almost tropical cascades of vines and brush on the hills.
I found my friend and we watched the show. A brazen-voiced civic booster promoted the Shakespeare festival. (I generally attend and it is, in fact, very good.) Delfeayo, carrying his trombone case, came from the performing arts building. Of course, he walked with a certain swagger. The man with the loud voice said that it was his pleasure to introduce "Del-Fay-oh" Marsalis. "I hope I am pronouncing that right," the announcer said. "No, you’re not," Marsalis responded. "You pronounce the name like the last part of ‘Philadelphia" – so ‘Delfeea’." "Okay," the man said. He introduced the musician again, once more mispronouncing his name. "Is that better?" he asked. "No," Marsalis said.
Marsalis told this story. "Once, I played with a guy named Lionel Hampton. He was about 85 years old. He kept mispronouncing my name. So I told him – just pronounce it "Del-fee-ah" like in ‘Philadelphia’. The old guy said that he understood. So when it was time to introduce me, he said: ‘I want you to give a round of applause for my trombonist, Philadelphia Marsalis."
Marsalis played a version of Louis Armstrong’s "Tin Roof Blues." He was accompanied by upright bass, a keyboard player, tenor sax, and drums. My friend likes jazz and there is a lively jazz scene in Winona and LaCrosse, mostly associated with the universities in those two places. Accordingly, he know the other band members in the group. The other tunes during the first half of the show were: "Autumn Leaves," "Speak Low when you Speak of Love," and a very beautiful Billy Holiday ballad, "She’s funny that way."
At the intermission, we got up and found my friend’s buddy, Don Scott with his girlfriend. Scott is a blues singer and he, also, knew the members of the pick-up band playing around Marsalis – in fact, he had played with some of them himself. He and his girlfriend came to sit next to us in the front of the crowd – there were probably two-hundred people gathered on the lawn to hear the concert. Don Scott and his girlfriend had with them a preternaturally alert little dog, very well-mannered and, indeed, chastened – Don Scott had played at the Chicago Blues festival a weekend before and the little dog had encountered a skunk in the backyard of the house on the near North Side where they were staying. Everyone has their own remedy for getting skunk out of dog – my friend said that you should wash the hound in tomato juice. Scott’s girlfriend had washed the pooch in vinegar. She apologized for the smell of the dog, but I couldn’t detect any odor.
In the second half of the show, Marsalis played a song by Johnny Hodges, "In a Mellow Tone" by Duke Ellington, improvised a song that he named "Make America Great Again," dedicated, Marsalis said, not to Donald Trump but to "ironies and paradoxes," and, then, did a series of variations and improvisations on the tune from the TV show Sesame Street. I thought it was a wonderful show, although my ear isn’t good enough to follow some of the improvisations, and, often, I lost the thread of the music. The huge white wings of the tent opened up over the musicians and caught the shadows of the trees next to the stage – the shadows were either elegantly exact on some portions of white screen or impressionistic blurs, the leaves moving rhythmically in the breeze and, so, the shadows seeming to keep time with the music on-stage. I had the sense of being in Plato’s cave, with reality nearby, but, somehow, inaccessible – a flicker in my peripheral vision, like music itself, something that I could not quite grasp.
The music ended. The man with the loud voice called for a big hand for "Dolphyo" Marsalis. After the show, much of the audience went inside to see As You Like It. We decided to go to a Thai restaurant. I couldn’t find the place. The streets were all eerily deserted and the intersections empty and, even, the big steel bridge over the Mississippi channel stood as a scaffolding bereft of any traffic to support. It turned out that the Thai place was in a former neighborhood grocery, not downtown but in the Polish neighborhood beyond the huge Victorian fortress of the old Watkins plant, several blocks further downstream and across the street from a vast and sepulchral Catholic Church, figures of saints bleached bone-white peering down on the silent intersection from their shell-shaped alcoves high overhead.
Our group was alone in the restaurant. The owner is a Vietnam veteran with a Thai wife. We didn’t see the wife. I always order Thai food "mild" – otherwise the spice is too intense. Others made the mistake of asking for "medium" heat in their food – I guess their dishes were inedibly hot.
It stays light until after 9:30. I drove through the huge wind-farm on the Dexter ridge, rotors spinning in the dusk as far as the eye could see and the little red lights on the tall towers blinking on and off, everyone speeding at 80 mph and I thought to myself it was certainly a wonderful thing to see, but a marvel also, somewhat, ameliorated by familiarity. I knew that I was (or had been) familiar with a poem that described Bach’s famous encounter with Buxtehude, but I couldn’t remember the author, or where I had read the verse.
In the morning, it came to me: the poem was by Johannes Bobrowski. I searched in my books and found a volume of poems by the East German writer. I flipped through the pages of the book and found a verse called "J. S. Bach" – I had annotated the poem; there were pencil marks around the stanzas and, so, knew that I had read the verse before, indeed, even studied it for some reason.
Bobrowski was born in1917 in Tilsit. He volunteered for the infantry in 1939 and fought on the Russian Front. Somehow, he survived the war, but was captured in 1945. He was sent to a prison camp in Sibiria where he mined coal until 1949 when the Russians released him. Since his homeland, East Prussia, no longer existed, he went to Berlin. Unfortunately, he was trapped in East Berlin when the wall was built. He died of a perforated appendix in 1965. When I studied German poetry at the University, the professor praised Bobrowski and said that he was the greatest lyric poet in German after Gottfried Benn. On the basis of that recommendation, I acquired and read several of his books.
Here is what the first stanza of "J. S. Bach" looks like in German:
Stadtpfeifergemuet, mit Degen
wit mit Neigung zum Sentiment
(praktikabel, versteht sich)
an plaetschernden Wasser, stetig
wirkendem Gang der Fluesse;
so sind der kahle Jordan
und der von Himmlen traechtige
Here is my translation. I have tried to keep the syllable count per line, more or less, the same as in the original, although I haven’t always succeeded in that effort.
J. S. Bach
city-piper mentality, switchblade
tending to sentimentality
(practical, sure enough)
A kid’s childish pleasure
in splashing waters, the steady
efficacy of river current;
thus, the barren Jordan
and the heaven-pregnant
were his friends.
And he saw the sea’s bay –
someone there, who went forth
veiled in invisible flames,
who summoned the planets
with ancient tormented lament –
in the flashy Koeten playing,
in the civic splendor
of the Leipzig period
that surfaced. In the end
he heard Pentecost’s whirlwind
neither with trumpets nor the blast
(for 16 bars) of trombones.
Flutes preceded him
as, exhausted from writing,
he paced before his old-fashioned house,
felt the flying wind
that the earth
knew no more.
In Wetterzeichen, the slender volume in which this poem was posthumously published in 1965, Bobrowski footnotes the verse:
The second stanza alludes to Bach’s visit to Buxtehude in Luebeck.
The verse moves from water through fire to the element of air. Air is associated with the Holy Spirit’s apparition in the beginning of Acts 2 – the "rushing of a mighty wind" that announces the afflatus of the Spirit. Bobrowski concludes with the fourth canonical element "earth" – although that aspect of the elements is not so much an efficient force as merely a substance to be named (and, then, transcended).
Bobrowski imagines Bach as a kind of tough-guy, I think, a view consistent with some historical accounts. The young Bach was a punk, a barroom brawler, got girls in trouble, and, of course, was immensely impressed with his own talent. This historical background is argued by John Eliot Gardner in his 2013 biography of Bach, Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven. I think it worthwhile to outline some of Gardiner’s contentions because they contribute to our understanding of the first stanza of Bobrowski’s poem. Gardiner notes that Bach was often truant from school in Luneberg where he performed as a choir boy. Choirs around the turn of the 18th century were often collections of hooligans, more like youth gangs than a modern church choir. Furthermore, the bosses of these choirs were also like gang-leaders – the cantor of the choir for which Bach sang in Luneberg, Johann Heinrich Arnold, was dismissed by the church from his position for "bullying, sadism, and sodomy." When they weren’t performing in church, choir members played secular music on street corners and, often, got into violent turf wars – a couple of times, the military had to be called out to quell street brawls between rival buskers in Luneberg. From these facts, Gardiner concludes that Bach, who seems to have had a lifelong detestation of authority figures, was a sort of juvenile delinquent, probably, a street brawler.
At his first job as organist and choir director for St. Boniface’s church in Arnstedt, we know that Bach called a bassoonist a Zippel-fagottist - "billy-goat bassoon-player". This led to a fight in the street in which Bach supposedly deployed a dagger, (Degen) and may have drawn blood – at minimum, he slashed-up the hapless bassoon-player’s clothes. In this context, Bobrowski doesn’t see Bach as an artist, initially, but more as a kind of civic booster, a paid minstrel and hooligan with a Degen – I translate "dagger" as "switchblade". His childish pleasure is in things that move perpetually – that is, rivers – and, of course, a sort of perpetual, indefatigable movement, the spinning of wheels within wheels is a characteristic of much of Bach’s music. These rivers, the Jordan and Euphrates, impart to the poem that motion that leads Bach, with the verse, to Buxtehude in Luebeck.
The river comes to the sea as Bach went to the old Hanseatic port in Luebeck in his pilgrimage to Buxtehude. This pilgrimage was also controversial. Bach wanted to hear Buxtehude’s Abendmusik – that is, the evening concerts associated with Advent, the Christmas season. Bach applied to the church council for a leave of absence extending from October to December, but was told that his presence was necessary during Advent – he was supposed to return in November. Instead, Bach, who was habitually insurgent, overstayed his trip to Lubeck and didn’t return to Arnstedt until January 1706 – having remained with Buxtehude throughout the Christmas season. Bach’s return to Arnstedt was, indeed, a Winterreise – the distance between the Hanoverian city of Arnstedt to Lubeck is about 235 miles one way. (Gardiner suggests that Bach may have been negotiating with the church in Lubeck for an appointment as Buxtehude’s successor. That role, however, might have required Bach to marry Buxtehude’s daughter, an unattractive woman, thus, accounting for Bach not remaining in Lubeck. We know that Bach had an impressive libido – he had innumerable children and, before he was married, had to defend himself to the Arnstedt church council for "making music", a peculiar euphemism, with a fremde ("strange") girl in the sanctuary’s choir loft.)
In Bobrowski’s poem, Buxtehude is associated, I think, with fire and the music of the spheres, the Copernican/Keplerian idea that each spinning shell produced tones associated with the speed of the planet moving in that shell and the eccentricity of its orbit. I translate "Qual" a word that simply means "torture" or "agony as "lament" – I don’t know if this is right or not. My sense is that Bach viewed Buxtehude as a kind of sorcerer (in Bobrowski’s vision) as a kind of fire-magician or alchemist, someone who could make music suffer so powerfully that it could summon the planetary spheres and make them resound for us.
The profundity of Buxthude’s influence on Bach, Bobrowski imagines to be concealed by the splendor of Bach’s virtuosity – the music produced in Koeten included the Brandenburg Concertos and The Well-tempered Clavier. Bobrowski suggests the famous Hall of Mirrors at the royal palace, a sort of mini-Versailles in Koethen, with the adjective "blitzenden" (flashing like lightning) – apparently, this was where Bach often performed for his aristocratic patron.
The poem ends with the Pentecostal wind, a wind that comes from the divine. Bobrowski argues that this wind is portrayed in very literal terms in the breath (the wind) necessary to play flutes. The flute into which one breathes is a wind-instrument – that is, a Pentecostal instrument. For this reason, Bach rejects the more dramatic trumpets and trombones signifying Pentecost in his earlier cantatas (he apparently wrote no fewer than ten of these for Pentecost) and, instead, uses woodwinds, specifically flutes, to signify the appearance of the Holy Spirit. I assume that Bobrowski is referring to BWV 184 – that is the pastoral flutes in Erwuenschte Freudenlicht. Bobrowski’s poem ends with a kind of apotheosis, subtle, but, nonetheless, clear – the exhausted Bach, "written-out" as it were, paces in front of his house and seems to be lifted from the earth, transported, I think, toward the heavens.
It is characteristic of Bobrowski’s best poems that they are "epic", thrusting between earth and sky and encompassing vast territories of space and time.
At last, there are three men trudging through the wilderness of an ancient December: I am walking to exorcize my misery at being jilted by a girl; I will walk across the city. My boots are full of snow. Schubert’s wanderer flees the village where he has been jilted; all of the dogs bark at him and, in the end, he freezes to death. Bach walks alone from Lubeck to Arnstedt in December 1705. He is in trouble when he reaches Arnstedt. And, things get worse for him, when he is accused of making love to a "strange" woman in the choir loft. The snow keeps falling through the winter darkness and, at dawn, the sky is the color of a lovelorn man’s heart, faded slate grey, the color of a mummy, and snow lies all around, deep and white.