Last week my wife and I went up to Wintergreen to take in a small piece of the summer-long musical festival. Since I took up the cello last year, we decided to attend Wesley Baldwin’s performance of three of Bach’s Unaccompanied Cello Suites – numbers 1, 3 and 5. (There are six all together). He performed them in a barn – a beautiful, Amish-like barn in Nellysford, VA. Think rough hewn lumber, lots of folding chairs, no amplification, and a cool breeze bringing the smell of fresh cut grass and farm odors of the pleasant sort through the open windows and doors. Barn Bach they called it. Perfect.
Oh my. The first piece, of course, has been made famous by Yo Yo Ma and others. A YouTube search will turn up endless performances of this. The fifth, neglected, but wonderfully dark, is made melancholic with an alternate tuning of the “A” string. Each of the suites was 17 to 24 minutes in length. Baroque music for cello is definitely not top forty stuff. Like scotch or cheese, I suppose, it’s an acquired sensibility.
The first thing that astonished me, however, was the absence of paper. The artist had only a chair, in which he sat just ten feet from me. He had no music stand, no charts. He closed his eyes, took a breath, drew his bow and played entirely from memory for an almost an hour and half with two short breaks. His technical ability is beyond description. Baroque music is not song-like. Its musicality lies in the way that the flow of notes honors strict forms, ratios, repetitions, and variations. It’s audible math.
I suppose that Bach could “mess around” on the cello, but in writing the Unaccompanied Suites he was the first in the Western tradition to write for the solo instrument. I doubt that even he could have played his own music with facility. It really takes someone dedicated to the instrument for a lifetime to play these compositions. Bach could write music in his head, much the same as Milton dictated the last half of Paradise Lost after he went blind. Bach could “see” and write music so complex that it takes long practice, not to mention dedicated talent, to perform it.
The second thing that astonished me was the way the artist could touch the instrument, which responded to him with perfect tone. When I started to play, I was advised at the outset that I would have to play a full year before I obtained satisfactory sound. Almost a year later, I’ve “played” through Book I, and I’m holding out that in the next month I’ll obtain real sound. How can he touch the instrument and it sings? I touch it, and it squeaks. It does not yield that sonorous hum that drew me to itself, and induced me to study it.
It made me think about people whose faith I’ve admired. The way they hold their faith, speak to others, and speak to God is like this. They touch God in prayer and together they make music. Elijah prayed that it would not rain. It stopped raining. He prayed again three years later, and in response to only 45 Hebrew words, the heavens opened. True piety is like playing the cello. It takes practice. It requires diligent attention. The results are not immediate, which is why I guess so many people neglect it, the way kids give up on stringed instruments.
Finally, we can turn that round the other way. When God touches us, he can bring forth amazing things from us. He can make music out of inferior, or even damaged or broken instruments. I’m sure Dr. Baldwin’s cello is exceedingly expensive and of rare quality. I was close enough to hear the purity of the sound. But I am equally sure that if he played Bach on my starter instrument, it would be just as amazing. Just the thought of it inspires me to keep going.