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What I Did For Bach

Damn Near Dead at Yale

by DAVID YEARSLEY

It’s 250 miles from Ithaca, New York to New Haven, Connecticut where I spent last weekend discussing J. S. Bach and women at a conference held at the Institute of Sacred Music at Yale. That’s a bit longer than the distance the 40-year old  J. S. Bach walked in the late Fall of 1705 of Lübeck on the Baltic sea. Unlike Bach I didn’t walk, but flew by way of Philadelphia, which punished me on the return trip with a nine-hour stay punctuated by a nearly lethal airport cheese steak.

From Tweed New Haven airport (that Tweed, a most apposite name for an Ivy League landing field) a taxi took me down I-95 to the Luxury Suites, where the conferees were staying.  This complex is plunked down in a desolate expanse of parking lots between the train tracks and the freeway. On the way from the airport to the hotel, I asked the taxi driver, a New Haven local in his sixties, how far the walk was from the Luxury Suites to the music building, where the keynote address was to commence in an hour’s time. “It’s not so far. And it’s safe,” though he hesitated a bit before the word “safe.”There are districts of New Haven that aren’t. “But you don’t want to walk it.  Kinda complicated.”

I went to check and ran into a group of the conferees about to trundle into the shuttle bus.  “We’ll wait for you,” offered an eminent hymnologist and expert on Bach’s theology, abjuring the aforementioned tweeds for a black leather jacket. “Go ahead without me,” I responded. “I’m going to walk.”  Skeptical looks greeted that utterance. Funny how walking immediately brands one as an eccentric, especially when the proposed route takes one through a wasteland of access roads, parking lots, and post-industrial blight. I tried to save the situation and my already flagging reputation: “It’s a conference about Bach.  A good excuse to do some walking.”

There was something to their skepticism, however.  More than a few misadventures have attended my attempts to emulate Bach’s walking and his organ playing, if in both cases on a small scale. Once when traveling to play an organ concert on one of the great 17th-century instruments made by one of the builders Bach most admired, I set off across the flat fields along the North Sea. After a couple hours of walking, I tried to leap a small canal with a good-sized duffel bag on my back. I didn’t quite make it, fell back into the canal and after pulling myself from the mud found myself covered from head to toe in fine, almost black, North Sea silt. On arriving in the village I was apprehended by a gang of ten-year-old boys on bicycles. They did what was required of them, and mocked me through the narrows streets and to my lodging, where I proceeded to make a unique first impression on my host. Some years later I attempted to scale the last undeveloped, and extremely steep stretch on the west face of Capitol Hill in Seattle on my way from the ferry terminal to practice for an all-Bach concert on the famous organ in St. Marks Cathedral only to have my hands and trousers bloodied by brambles after a spectacular tumble.

New Haven is at least flat. I checked in and threw my bag in my room, and when I came back the shuttle had indeed gone.  I asked the woman behind the desk how far I was to campus.  “About a mile to Starbucks,” she said.  I took this as a good sign, since my proposed contribution to the conference for the next day was a renewed look at Bach’s Coffee Cantata, arguing that the Bach women may well have performed in coffee houses. In the 1730s Bach was director of Leipzig’s collegium musicum, which held its concerts in one of these establishments. Bach was prone to boast of his second wife’s “good clear soprano”—she had been a star singer when he married the twenty-year-old fifteen years his junior—and of the voice of his eldest daughter. In the Coffee Cantata  a spoiled, coffee addicted teenager is threatened by her overbearing father with the removal of a host of privileges, from getting the latest and most fashionable hoop skirt, to bits of jewelry, to evening walks, and permission to attend wedding receptions. That is, if she doesn’t kick her habit, she’ll be denied the accoutrements and social outlets necessary to land a husband.  Brandishing the ultimate threat the father ,Schlendrian, tells her that she’ll have “to get used to the idea of never having a man.” The daughter Liesgen brushes these attempts at paternal control aside, saying that she’ll do without all of these luxuries so long as she gets her coffee. Only when Schlendiran changes his tactic from the stick to the carrot and promises to get his daughter that man after all, does apparently Liesgen accede to father’s designs. But immediately after this sudden turn towards apparent obedience does Liegen outwits her father by having her coffee addiction sanctioned in the wedding contract. My intent was also to cast new, historical-informed, light on the nature of the cantata’s misogyny.

In a way it did strike me as seem strange to use Starbucks as the geographical reference point rather than something more venerable like the New Haven Green, Yale’s Old Campus, the First Church, or the courthouse. America has moved on from defining its cities in this way: a ubiquitous brand now represents not only safety, but its logo and look are more recognizable than a white spire or even a park. In New Haven Starbucks marks both the border of civilization—and also just how depleted that concept has become.

With a small, flimsy map in hand, I set off across the tundra of asphalt, working my way past a defunct meat-packing plant and other giant relics of an industrial past. After ten minutes I cam to the train tracks. My map suggested there was a path of some kind, under or over them.  I continued into the maze of barbed wire fences and abandoned parking lots and vehicles, half expecting to see a mafia murder underway. In a chain-linked cul-de-sac, I finally came to conclusion that I couldn’t get there from here. I now had thirty minutes before the opening lecture.

I scanned the horizon behind me, like Lawrence of Arabia, except in in a dark suit. Hovering above the tarmac like a distant mirage, I spied a blue box with yellow lettering, the Interstate roiling along behind it. IKEA! I, too, parse the landscape by the architecture of brands. I set off and eventually reached the access road that led along the highway. Four lines for cars and a wide sidewalk led towards an underpass and bridge over the tracks.  After another ten minutes, and thousands of cars and not a single pedestrian, I came to the underpass only to find that it was closed to pedestrians, the organ cones and concrete barriers left nowhere to walk, except directly in the wide road and across the onramp that fed onto the entrance to I-95.  Was a conference on Bach worth dying for?  What would the great walker have done?  Onward! The honks, some angry, some merely puzzled, of the careening Friday afternoon commuters urged me on to the safe haven of a smaller road and a provisional sidewalk.  Ten minutes till showtime.   I broke into a full run: across more big roads, past the Knights of Columbus Tower (what looked to be the highest building in New Haven), along the massive, castle-like parking garage that defends the old town, past the vacant Ecuadoran Consulate and the Army Recruiting Center, past the homeless  hunkering down in the bus shelter, and then, at last, past Starbucks. Then through the Yale campus and past the alcoholics on the Green and finally to the Music Building. Breathless and bathed in sweat, I took my seat in the campus-gothic lecture hall as the lecture began, the golden auctumnal light slanting through the mullioned windows, as if a thousand miles and a couple centuries removed from New Haven’s post-urban horrors.

The conference proceeded over its days of introductions and acknowledgements,  lectures and questions, coffees and cakes, dinners and fitful hotel nights. An excellent  performance of the Coffee Cantata with fine student singers took place on Saturday night, not in Starbucks but up on the cloistered hill graced by the Divinity School and the Institute of Sacred Music. Puerto Rican, Fabian González sang the part of Liesgen with brash beauty. She promises great things beyond intermezzos like this one. Most scholars assume the part was taken by a male falsettist, which makes the humor in the piece all the more vicious. No one has the nerve to try that in modern times. Stamping about the chapel floor with his glorious head of dozens of black, shoulder-length braids threshing the air, bass Dashon Burton’s voice, both big and agile, laughed comic life into Schlendrian’s thin temper and wit.

On Sunday after the close of the conference I couldn’t resist a trip to Ikea. I was the only one to walk there, though inside all are walkers, milling about among the   endless wares, trying to imagine their own Scandinavian accented living space even as the other shoppers throng past along the communal, maze-like pilgrimage route.

I stocked up on several boxes of candles and in the bistro bought two small jars of pickled herring. With my newly-bought blue Ikea bag—a steal at 59 cents—I set out again through the icy rain towards downtown where a Taxi took me back to the airport.        Sadly, the herring didn’t make it through security, too big by a couple of fluid ounces. The candles didn’t get any attention whatever, though they look to my untrained eyes quite like sticks of dynamite.

On one of his teenage walks back from Hamburg, Bach—so the anecdote runs—stopped outside a tavern, hungry and out of money. After a while some herring heads came flying out the window. Bach loved herring and scurried to pick them up, and found hidden inside coins that then paid for a full meal inside. But he ate the herring heads, too.

Three centuries on in New Haven, the impatient, but bemused passengers queuing up behind me, watched as I excused myself from the line, slinging my belt over my shoulder and kicking my shoes along the linoleum. I pulled out a plastic Ikea fork grabbed an hour before in anticipation of precisely these security issues, and proceeded to an impromptu feast, braced against the public disapproval by the scent of the Baltic filling the small waiting room and the thought that Bach would have done the same.

DAVID YEARSLEY teaches at Cornell University. He is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London”, has just been released by Musica Omnia. He can be reached at dgy2@cornell.edu