Bach Pilgrimage Blog Episode 5

Thursday 17th May Book of Mysteries

I must have opened the little facsimile volume of Sei Solo countless times. It was given me by my godfather in 1973 or thereabouts as a birthday present. I often just open it and inspect it - and marvel. But I find the whole thing strangely touching too. There is a firmness, a certainty in the way the notes have been put down. But there is also the flimsiness of the thing. It is after all just paper. Even my facsimile copy - perhaps no more than a mere 45 years old - is now starting to disintegrate; a stain on the front cover might have been from some tea – spilt when I can’t remember; perhaps in the 1980’s when I began to really use it. It also carries an inscription from ‘Uncle Ray’ inside. Uncle Ray was how my very eminent godfather styled himself to me – he was already by the time of its giving part of the German department at Manchester University. He later rose to head of department at St Andrews and then to Emeritus Professor publishing many works on Expressionism, Wagner and related topics - along with a couple of fine novels in his retirement. A remarkable and inspirational man of whom I think JSB would have approved. Bach, above all, wanted his sons (and I’d like to think had it been possible, his daughters too) to go to university - an opportunity denied him. How contemporary and familiar this aspiration makes him seem.

With only the help of a few words of encouragement from a teacher Ray got himself a university education. This at a time when someone of his background would have needed huge amounts of determination and self belief, to say nothing of flair and ability, to get there. And he would too have had to rise above the incredulity of family members. Now in his mid-eighties he struggles with the ever-tightening grip of Alzheimers, so I was infinitely touched that he was able to make my concert in St Andrews and that it clearly reached him. We exchanged looks as I passed him walking off having just played the D minor and E major Partitas - he was beaming. His hope of 1973 inscribed into my little book – ‘hoping to hear you play them all one day…’ - delivered at last.

But to get back to the autograph manuscript; I want to dwell on a few of the puzzles it contains. First there is the title of course. Well, I’ve scribbled a few thoughts on that already. But further down the page there is the indication that this is Book One – ‘Libero Primo’ it says. And in big letters too. So, where is book two? Along with lots of people I’ve always assumed that Book Two would be the cello Suites. But we can’t know this because for those works no autograph survives and on Anna Magdalena’s manuscript copy – now widely regarded as the primary source – there is no mention of it being Book 2. So might a second book of violins solos have been lost? Imagine that! Or was he planning a second book but never fulfilled the plan? And when for that matter, were the works actually composed? Was this ‘fair copy’ something for an archive in a drawer or cupboard and he is saying that he made the copy in 1720 or that the whole project came from that year? Here one’s imagination can take over – he sits down in the evenings to write out these pieces perhaps copying from less organized or properly bound papers in an effort to finalize the work. Does he do one work in a sitting? Does he need to remove himself to a quiet room for this work or does he do it with children about and the smells of cooking wafting in? Apart from the C major, each work begins on a fresh page. Is there perhaps significance here or is this just JSB not wanting to waste too much paper with only the final three lines of the Chaconne making it onto that page?

But there’s something truly mysterious on the very last page of the book which I’ve never heard any talk of. After that last little Gigue of the E major, there are two lines of something scratched out. And these notes have not just been crossed out but erased with great care and thoroughness. What were these lines? Another movement started but abandoned? That looks most likely. But could they be something entirely unrelated – an idea for another piece perhaps? We’ll never know. But they act as a reminder of the humanity behind what we take as the fixedness of Sei Solo and of Bach in general. Here is a human being after all, a family man who wants nothing more than that his children to do well in the world. It is a reminder that nothing written by him was inevitable. It was given shape by countless decisions and by will and effort.