Something of His Art:
Walking to Lübeck with J S Bach
by Horatio Clare,
Little Toller Books 2019 (2018).
October 1705. Bach, at just 20 years a church organist in Arnstadt, applies to his superiors for a month’s leave to hear the music of Dietrich Buxtehude in Lübeck, 250 miles (400 km) to the north. His purpose, he told them, was “to comprehend one thing and another about his [Buxtehude’s] art”.
One autumn three centuries later the writer Horatio Clare followed some of Bach’s footsteps for a BBC Radio 3 series called Bach Walks (first broadcast as five programmes in 2017), this time to “learn something” of Bach, the man and his art. In company with a producer director and a sound recordist he attempted to catch a flavour of what it must have like for the energetic and ambitious young composer travelling on foot up the Old Salt Road, moving from south of the Harz Mountains northwards to near the Baltic Sea.
Two artists, then, one taking as close as was possible to the other’s path from one rather conservative culture to a more cosmopolitan environment: would it be possible for Clare to learn something more than the bald facts of Bach’s going and for the listener (and, now, reader) to learn from the writer’s experience?
Something of His Art is based on five days Clare spent walking sections of what is surmised to be Sebastian Bach’s route, the audio from each day of providing the basis for five separate 30-minute programmes wedded to the concept of ‘slow radio’. The six chapters largely parallel those walks as the trio travel through fields and woods, cross the Harz highlands via the Brocken summit, and pass through settlements and towns.
By degrees a nature walk, retailings of historical snippets, speculations on Bach’s experiences, hopes and musical lessons, and reflections of Clare’s responses to Bach’s compositions, this nonfiction novella — just a hundred pages in the paperback edition — is the literary equivalent of that slow-radio series. By recording all that he sees, hears, feels, smells and, at times, tastes, Clare invites the reader to be his surrogate and, by extention, to get a feel of what the composer may have experienced.
Reading this, as I did, during the same month Bach and Clare journeyed through the same countryside, being alert myself to similar birdsong and some of the same scents, listening to recordings Bach’s music as I often do, and rehearsing, playing and singing Baroque music in the run-up to seasonal concerts, gave Something of His Art even more relevance, especially knowing that Bach was intending to enjoy the Advent services and concerts Buxtehude was wont to put on in Lübeck.
I personally found this a delight on so many levels. Clare is a prose poet, and his descriptions of his surroundings vividly conveyed the physicality of the walks in sensitive and evocative language. He also anchored us to the present, drawing comparisons with life three centuries ago and throwing in anecdotes about the companionship the writer, the director and the sound engineer enjoyed. The notion of their having a foot in both the past and the present was echoed in many ways, not least in the physical representations of the composer they encounter at journey’s start and end: the jaunty statue of a relaxed young Bach in Arnstadt and the modern plaque in Lübeck’s rebuilt Marienkirche depicting Dietrich Buxtehude and his acolyte in symbolic form.
And, because this slim volume has the composer as focus, there is discussion of Bach’s actual music — his organ pieces, cantatas, chorales, instrumental works and more — presented by an author who, though coming relatively late to the classical repertoire, had found the cello suites in particular of profound comfort whenever depression visited him:
The music seems by turn wise and melancholy, ruefully amused sometimes, and philosophical, both accepting and longing. […] Something like a breeze moves the listener, a breeze both invisible and tangible, like the white space between the black printed words of a poem, where all the truth and certainty lie, in convictions which we hold and know but can never fully express.‘The Road to Lüneburg’
It seems very appropriate that the man who wrote such wonderful music should be celebrated by another individual who not only appreciated the music but found it echoed in the sights, sounds, textures, scents and food of the landscape the musician travelled through — the music of the senses, as it were.
The last of nine short fictions read for Novellas in November, #NovNov, though the review is only published now. However I also have one or three other novellas in hand to post about in the next couple or so weeks, so I’m not done with them yet!