It is my pleasure again this year to curate another concert with Stephen Young of The Poetry Foundation around the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. As Bach followed his Two-Part Inventions with fifteen Three-Part Inventions, or Sinfonias, as they are often called, it seemed logical to follow our Rush Hour ‘06 collaboration in the same way. Thus, today, we have three poets and three pianists and the great genius of Bach. In 1723, Bach named this endeavor an “Honest Method” and he wrote it for students and amateurs of the clavichord (the current day piano’s grandfather).
Ah, indeed, Bach writes the perfect course book, and we pianists are his lucky, lifelong students. Bach remains the great musical architect, the wellspring of ideas, the master puzzler (I think he would have loved Sudoku!). He sets out a theme for you and then turns it upside-down, inside-out, forward and backward – all the while setting it against exquisite and complex counterpoint. With all the mathematical and computational skills counterpoint requires, were he alive today, I think Bach might be an artful software programmer or be best friends with Bill Gates.
Lastly, Bach is the teacher of good citizenship between the hands, fingers and the heart. Each has roles to play in order to articulate the intrinsic beauty and expression embedded within his complex Apollonian structures, with which Bach teaches control, patience, and politeness, and, most of all, invites the ear to simply listen. Bach challenges and pushes the physical envelope, but he never disappoints and is always nourishing, always making sense through his intricacies and imagination. He is most musicians’ daily companion.
And how does he rouse the muse in a poet’s soul? Below are Stephen Young’s thoughts:
Poetry piano e forte
The teacher J. S. Bach would have sympathized with these lines from “Piano Lesson” by former Poet Laureate Billy Collins:
I am learning to play
“It Might As Well Be Spring”
but my left hand would rather be jingling
the change in the darkness of my pocket
or taking a nap on an armrest.
I have to drag him into the music
like a difficult and neglected child.
This is the revenge of the one who never gets
to hold the pen or wave good-bye,
and now, who never gets to play the melody ….
The Two- and Three-Part Inventions were composed to help students like Collins learn that the right and left hands can play two or more distinct themes simultaneously, thus yielding a more nuanced, more complete whole.
Although a “poetry lesson” may not require nimble fingers and hours of repetition, writers do practice, and the best ones have been composing for two hands or multiple voices for several millennia. The great lyric poet Sappho rails against the goddess of love while yet petitioning her in “Hymn to Aphrodite.” Keats explores his attraction to and fear of death in “Ode to a Nightingale.” “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant, / Success in Circuit lies,” advises Emily Dickinson. More recently, Wallace Stevens offers “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” and Adrienne Rich affirms the blunt truth “There Is No One Story and One Story Only.”
If one can find different, often contrasting voices within a single poem, the ever-enlarging territory known as poetry might seem like a noisy bazaar of different styles and moods and methods. There are formalists and neo-formalists, lyrical versifiers and narrative poets, dramatic monologists and interior monologists. Oulipists make poems by mathematical formulas, and L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets write pieces that undermine the relationship between the word and the thing it signifies, while hip hoppers draw energy from the raw rhythms of language. And, of course, countless poets continue to record Wordsworth’s “still, sad music of humanity.”
Billy Collins used to keep his piano in the same room as his computer. He once told an interviewer that he spends “lots of time going back and forth from one keyboard to the other. If one isn’t working, the other might.”
These “Inventions on Inventions” will showcase some of the variety in the universe of poetry. No matter how different, poems speak to one another and this evening’s poems will all speak to Bach’s Three-Part Inventions—each in their own way.