Today has been a difficult day he thought, as there on his desk, finally, lay some evidence of his struggle with the music he was writing. Since early this morning he’d been backtracking, remembering the steps that had enabled him to write the entirely successful first movement. He was going over the traces, examining the clues that were there (somewhere) in his sketches and diary jottings. They always seem so disorganised these marks and words and graphics, but eventually a little clarity was revealed and he could hear and see the music for what it was. But what was it to become? He had a firm idea, but he didn’t know how to go about getting it onto the page. The second slow movement seemed as elusive today as ever it had been.
There was something intrinsically difficult about slow music, particularly slow music for strings. The instruments’ ability to sustain and make pitches and chords flow seamlessly into one another magnified every inconsistency of his part-writing technique and harmonic justification. Faster music, music that constantly moved and changed, was just so much easier. The errors disappeared before the ear could catch them.
Writing music that was slow in tempo, whose harmonic rhythm was measured and took its time, required a level of sustained thought that only silence and intense concentration made properly possible. His studio was far from silent (outside the traffic spat and roared) and today his concentration seemed at a particularly low ebb. He was modelling this music on a Vivaldi Concerto, No.6 from L’Estro Armonico. That collective title meant Harmonic Inspiration, and inspiring this collection of 12 concerti for strings certainly was. Bach reworked six of these concertos in a variety of ways.
He could imagine the affect of this music from that magical city of the sea, Venice, La Serenissima, appearing as a warm but fresh wind of harmony and invention across those early, usually handwritten scores. Bach’s predecessors, Schutz and Schein had travelled to Venice and studied under the Gabrielis and later the maestro himself, Claudio Monteverdi. But for Bach the limitations of his situation, without such patronage enjoyed by earlier generations, made such journeying impossible. At twenty he did travel on foot from Arnstadt to Lubeck, some 250 miles, to experience the ***** improvisations of Dietriche Buxtehude, and stayed some three months to copy Buxtehude’s scores, managing to avoid the temptation of his daughter who, it was said, ‘went with the post’ on the Kapelmeister’s retirement. Handel’s visit to Buxtehude lasted twenty-four hours. To go to Italy? No. For Bach it was not to be.
But for this present day composer he had been to Italy, and his piece was to be his memory of Venice in the dark, sea-damp days of November when the acqua alta pursued its inhabitants (and all those tourists) about the city calles. No matter if the weather had been bad, it had been an arresting experience, and he enjoyed recovering the differing qualities of it in unguarded moments, usually when walking, because in Venice one walked, because that was how the city revealed itself despite the advice of John Ruskin and later Jan Morris who reckoned you had to have your own boat to properly experience this almost floating city.
As he chipped away at this unforgiving rock of a second movement he suddenly recalled that today was the first day of Epiphany, and in Venice the peculiar festival of La Befana. A strange tale this, where according to the legend, the night before the Wise Men arrived at the manger they stopped at the shack of an old woman to ask directions. They invited her to come along but she replied that she was too busy. Then a shepherd asked her to join him but again she refused. Later that night, she saw a great light in the sky and decided to join the Wise Men and the shepherd bearing gifts that had belonged to her child who had died. She got lost and never found the manger. Now La Befana flies around on her broomstick each year on the 11th night, bringing gifts to children in hopes that she might find the Baby Jesus. Children hang their stockings on the evening of January 5 awaiting the visit of La Befana. Hmm, he thought, and today the gondoliers take part in a race dressed as old women, and with a broomstick stuck vertically as a mast from each boat. Ah, L’Epiphania.
Here in this English Cathedral city where our composer lived Epiphany was celebrated only by the presence of a crib of contemporary sculptured forms that for many years had never ceased to beguile him, had made him stop and wonder. And this morning on his way out from Morning Office he had stopped and knelt by the figures he had so often meditated upon, and noticed three gifts, a golden box, a glass dish of incense and a tiny carved cabinet of myrrh, laid in front of the Christ Child.
Yes, he would think of his second movement as ‘L’Epiphania’. It would be full of quiet and slow wonder, but like the tale of La Befana a searching piece with no conclusion except a seque into the final fast and spirited conclusion to the piece. His second movement would be a night piece, an interlude that spoke of the mystery of the Incarnation, of God becoming Man. That seemed rather ambitious, but he felt it was a worthy ambition nevertheless.