Mar. 21, 2008


by Kim Addonizio

It's noisy here. The kids run around, screaming, their mothers slap them and
they cry. I have the bottom bunk, I hang a blanket from the bed above me for
privacy. In the middle of the night it's finally quiet. I lie awake and think
about goals. Sheryl, the worker, says I need some. She says What do you want
Rita? and I say peace and quiet, maybe someplace sunnier than here. I say I'd
like to have a dog. A big one, a retriever or shepherd with long soft fur. What
else? she says. I remember my dad's garden, how I used to like sitting with
him while he weeded, putting my toes in the dirt. He grew tomatoes, corn, peas.
There was a rosebush, too, once he let me pick a big rose and there was a spider
in it, I got scared and shook it and the petals went all over me and he laughed.
He showed me how to put my thumb over the hoze nozzle so it sprayed. Sheryl
says I could garden. I think about the coleus Jimmy and I had, how I would take
cuttings, put them in water and they'd grow more flowers. But then they all
died. At night I listen to everybody sleep around me, some people snoring, some
starting to say something and then stopping. It's pitch-dark behind the
blanket. I try to see it sunny, a yard with a dog lying down under a tree. I
try to smell warm tomatoes. Curl my toes in the sheets. Try to sleep.

"Shelter" by Kim Addonizio, from Jimmy & Rita. © BOA Editions, Ltd., 1997. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is Good Friday, observed as the anniversary of Jesus' death on the cross. Good Friday is not a federal holiday in the United States, but many Christians observe it by fasting and attending church services. Christians in other countries keep Good Friday in different ways. In the Philippines, for example, a passion play depicting Jesus' walk to the cross is re-enacted by participants who whip themselves as a form of penitence. Some even volunteer to be nailed to crosses in San Fernando in the Pampanga province. Jesus' crucifixion is described in the Gospel of John in the Bible.

Today is the birthday of Johann Sebastian Bach, born on this day in 1685 in Eisenach, Germany. Bach's baroque compositions are some of the most famous in the world, although at the time his work was considered old-fashioned. Bach grew up in a family of musicians and learned the violin from his father at an early age. He sang in the choir of St. George's Church, where his father was the organist. Bach would later become the choirmaster of a similar boys' choir at his church in Leipzig.

Bach was 10 years old when his parents died, and he went to live with his older brother Johann Christoph in Ohrdruf. His brother was the organist at St. Michael's Church and taught Bach the harpsichord. When he was 17, Bach graduated from St. Michael's School in Lüneburg and accepted a position as a violinist in the chamber orchestra of Duke Johann Ernst in Weimar. The organ, however, was always his favorite instrument, and Bach spent hours practicing on the church organ in Weimar. He became so good that when he demonstrated the new organ at a church in Arnstadt a year later, the church offered him a permanent position.

Unfortunately, Bach's relationship with his choir at Arnstadt was less than ideal — after the performance of his first church cantata on Easter 1704, he asked to be released from the responsibility of conducting the choir. The church administration replied that maybe the friction was his fault, and the whole thing culminated in a street fight where he apparently called one of his orchestra members a "nanny-goat bassoonist."

Bach was not the most considerate employee. He asked for a month off to travel to Lübeck (a 200-mile walk), where the famous organist Dietrich Buxtehude played at St. Mary's Church. Bach loved Buxtehude's music so much that he stayed an extra three months without letting anyone in Arnstadt know. When Buxtehude retired and Bach was offered his position, however, the young organist turned it down. If he had accepted, he would have been expected to marry one of Buxtehude's daughters, all of whom were much older than he.

Instead, Bach married his cousin Maria Barbara Bach, after accepting the organist position at the Church of St. Blaise in Mühlhausen in 1707. Although Mühlhausen as a city had a deeper musical appreciation than Arnstadt, Bach still ran into trouble with his employer. The pastor of St. Blaise, Reverend Frohne, was a strict proponent of Lutheran Pietism, a movement that stripped liturgy (and liturgical music) of all frills and complications. Bach's growing experimentation in the other direction caused him to look for another position.

Returning to Weimar, Bach became the court organist of Duke Wilhelm Ernst. His residence there from 1708-1717 produced some of Bach's most famous works, including Toccata and Fugue in D Minor and Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor. Bach's reputation as an expert organist grew, and his compositions moved away from reliance on common forms into the realm of intricate, ingenious tonal design. Bach was especially skilled at counterpoint, an aspect of baroque music that involves two or more melodies playing at the same time.

After accepting a better-paying job in Cöthen in 1717, Bach produced mainly instrumental music for the chamber orchestra there. His wife Maria Barbara died, leaving him with seven children. Bach chose a young, 20-year-old woman, Anna Magdalena Wülken, for his second wife and married her in 1721. Anna Magdalena went on to bear him 13 children. Bach supplied his children with harpsichord instruction books of his own invention, many of which are considered masterpieces today.

When Prince Leopold of Cöthen married a woman who disapproved of spending so much time and money on music, Bach began looking for another position once more. He became the choirmaster at St. Thomas' Church in Leipzig in 1723 and remained there until his death in 1750. In Leipzig, for the first time, Bach's talents as an organist were not required as much as his skill as a composer. Here Bach composed the majority of his choral music, including The Passion According to St. Matthew (1729), Mass in B Minor (1733), and the Christmas Oratorio (1734).

Four of Bach's sons went on to be great musicians themselves: Wilhelm Friedemann, Carl Philipp Emanuel, Johann Christoph, and Johann Christian.

Alan Rich once said of Johann Sebastian Bach: "No composer in history ... has been so widely jazzed up, watered down, electrified and otherwise transmogrified, debated, and admired as this German provincial."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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