Semiquin- and Sesqui-centennials: Bach and the Catskill Golden Spike

One thing the American public schools used to teach—or tried to—was the memorization of dates. At the top of that list were 1620, 1776, 1861, 1945. One of my favorite bathroom books remains the Timetables of History: A Horizontal Linkage of People and Events.  This hefty paperback proceeded year by year with events and accomplishments of Great Men (and a very few Great Women) organized by categories of culture and politics: wars and battles, novels and symphonies. From behind these temporal grids the zeitgeist peeked through.  The book’s original German title, Kulturfahrplan (cultural time-table), captured the concept with Teutonic succinctness: the past could be efficiently and illuminatingly viewed from the compartment window of train speeding through history. If no locomotive was available, your own loo would have to do.

Before rail service between the Upstate town of Ithaca and New York City was suspended in the 1970s, I might have been on a train enjoying the view of the fabulous fall color through the Catskills. Instead, I was behind the wheel of a battered Subaru Impreza thumping along Route 17, hopefully, signed in some stretches with the red-white-and-blue escutcheon of (Future) Interstate 86.

The federal pork has still not yet been shoveled for the final transformation and wiped out the last few intersections that would bestow on the roadway the coveted Eisenhower Necklace of Doom.  For now, as the Beatles sang on the opening track of their debut album of 1963, “She was just 17 …” Autobahn is a feminine noun in German.

In this country, generations of motorists are deeded generations of motorways.  My forbears from Rockland County on the Hudson River thirty miles would drive up to visit their German relatives in Buffalo every summer along what is now called Old Route 17, a snaking two-lane byway that comes in out of view along the flanks of its four-lane replacement.

The route traverses the drainage between the two great eastern rivers that feed the Chesapeake Bay. The highway runs along the Susquehanna River, the West and East Branches of the Delaware, and its tributaries—the Beaver Kill, the Little Beaver Kill and Willowemoc Creek.

The beauty is disconcerting. The fall color is still painting the steep hills on this shirt-sleeve day in late October.  It feels like spring, looks like fall. With the dazzling sunshine and reflected glory of the leaves playing off the blue water, one expects to see lots of anglers standing in the fly-fishing mecca of the Willowemoc, but there aren’t any.  The fish are probably as confused as the fisherman.

Just west of the town of Roscoe, home to a famous diner that welcomed motorists on Old Route 17 running just in front of the place, is the single rest stop in the 150 miles from the Susquehanna to the Hudson. Whenever I pull in here, I take the time to read and consider the historical marker, though I’d forgotten that it was put up for a centennial and, this year of 2023, marks a sesquicentennial for the area. The memory isn’t as supple as it was when dates had to be memorized for a test in school.

That the Catskill Golden Spike of 1873 was put in place four years after Leland Stanford drove in the far more famous predecessor uniting the Union Pacific and Central Specific Railroads at Promontory Point, Utah (1869:  I’ve got that date down!) speaks to the unpredictable, non-linear progress of Manifest Destiny.  The vast inland empire of the Empire State was still to be exploited, developed for timber and tourism, which, from the look of the towns along the, seems not exactly to be thriving. Much of the area appears more remote than much of the high-tech, post-rural West.

There’s a lot of history lurking in the golden letters of the Roscoe rest-stop plaque: the rise and fall of Catskill leisure, the auto roads laid on railroads.  The so-called Quickway is not quicker by car than a modern train on its built-back-better tracks would be.

The zeitgeist is always ready to hitch a ride to another anniversary, thumbing its way from sesquicentennial to semiquincentennial. Accompanying my drive through the Catskills was a riveting recording of C. P. E. Bach’s six string symphonies of 1773 from the period instrument ensemble Gli incogniti (the unknowns) issued two years ago on the Harmonia mundi label and led by the dynamic, exploratory French violinist, Amandine Beyer. These Bach works were commissioned by the widely traveled Dutch diplomat and later Imperial librarian in Vienna, Baron Gottfried van Swieten, also a patron of Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven.

Across the eighteenth century, C. P. E. Bach was far more famous than his father, who died in 1750, had been before him. This second son of Johann Sebastian was revered by his European contemporaries, among them Haydn and Mozart, who led performances of C. P. E. Bach’s music at van Swieten’s Vienna resident; Bach was sought out and corresponded with by the likes of Diderot; he was friend to literary titans such as Klopstock; he was pestered by the young poet Matthias Claudius of “Der Mond ist aufgegangen” fame; his music was known to Thomas Jefferson and many other monarchs and statesmen.

The same year that Bach wrote his six-string symphonies for van Swieten, the English musical traveler and historian Charles Burney published a diary account of his own 1772 visit with the composer during which his celebrated host improvised at the clavichord after a dinner at his Hamburg home. “[Bach] grew so animated and possessed,” wrote Burney, “that he not only played, but looked like one inspired. His eyes were fixed, his under lip fell, and drops of effervescence distilled from his countenance. He said, if he were to be set to work frequently, in this manner, he should grow young again.’” Burney brought some of Bach’s keyboard music to London where there was at times similarly fevered fascination with these often-wild works of flashing virtuosity, harmonic collisions, elliptical asides, puncturing silences, and an enthralling lyricism in which devastating sincerity could just as easily be confused for ironic posturing.

The 1773 symphonies are a sonic Golden Spike splitting the spur lines of the Baroque from the Classical. In this collection, the keyboard genius demanded that an orchestra respond to his whims and fancies as fast as the clavichord could his fingers. The fourteen players of Gli incogniti are sparked by that same electric spontaneity—lightning in a Bachian bottle.

From the CD’s opening track, the first movement of Symphony in G Major (Wq. 182/1—the number given the work in the first catalog prepared by the Belgian musicologist Alfred Wotquenne in 1905) the high-minded seriousness of the symphony is both embraced and mocked. A slashing G-major chord in the violins leads to a unison high G from which the lower strings immediately jolt down an arpeggio that spans an octave. The first violins cling to their opening pitch for just another quarter note and then charge down across not one, but two octaves only to land and linger on becalmed D around which the lower strings circle in now slower arpeggios and longing sighs that, willfully de-energizing a movement marked Allegro di molto, threaten to disappear beyond the other side of the faintest pianissimo. From this blatantly premature reverie the entire band breaks out into high-voltage fortissimo unison scale that stutters and shakes back upwards, surging at last into shocking silence. We’re a few measures and a few seconds into the opening movement and already we’ve been all over the map.

The music is as full of as much vibrant color and variety as the autumnal hillsides.

The Incogniti treat every next moment as an unknown, make it a discovery.

There are lessons for life in that scintillating semiquincentennial pleasure:  listen, be alert and welcome surprise, from Route 17 to Wotquenne 182, or, when the zeitgeist waves its baton, all together now.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com