Mar. 21, 2014

In My Long Night

by Charles Simic

I have toiled like a spider at his web
In the dome of a church
Where only the upraised eyes of martyrs
In their torments could see me.

Where one cold spring day,
With rumors of war in the air,
My young parents brought me
To be baptized by the priest.

Where years after, my grandmother
Was to lie in an open coffin
Looking pleased to be done with
Having to bury other people.

Where I once saw a crow walk in,
Lured by the gold on the altar
And the light the candles cast,
While I dangled up there by a thread.

"In My Long Night" by Charles Simic from Master of Disguises. © Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of poet Nizar Qabbani (books by this author), born in Damascus, Syria (1923). His mother, who was illiterate, sold her jewelry to raise money to publish his first anthology, Childhood of a Bosom (1948), and he went on to become one of the most popular poets of the Arab world, publishing more than 20 books of verse. Much of his poetry was influenced by the tragic deaths of two women he loved. When he was 15, his older sister committed suicide rather than be forced into marriage with a man she did not love, and he turned his attention to the situation of Arab women. He wrote romantic, sensual poems and poetry demonstrating the need for sexual equality and women's rights. Many years later, in 1981, his second wife, an Iraqi woman, died during the Lebanese Civil War when the Iraqi Embassy was bombed. Qabbani was grief-stricken and frustrated with the political and cultural climate of the Arab world, and he lived in Europe for the rest of his life.

It was on this day in 1963 that Alcatraz, the infamous federal penitentiary in the middle of San Francisco Bay, was closed. The main reason behind the closure was that, given its isolation, "the Rock" was simply too costly to operate — the most expensive of any state or federal prison. Now it's a part of the National Park Service. Many of the gardens maintained by prisoners were preserved, including 15 species of roses that survived in the barren environment through 40 years of neglect. About 500 people visit the gardens every day.

It was on this day in 1965 that thousands of marchers, led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., left Selma, Alabama, headed to Montgomery, to protest the disenfranchisement of black voters. They had attempted the march twice before, earlier in the month, but the first time they had been badly beaten by state troopers and deputies, and the second time they were ordered to turn back. This time, under court order, they were allowed to proceed, and by the time they reached the state capitol in Montgomery, there were 25,000 marchers, many answering King's call for people across the country to come and join. One of the people marching at the front of the line, arm in arm with Dr. King, was Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, King's friend and colleague. Heschel said: "For many of us, the march from Selma to Montgomery was about protest and prayer. Legs are not lips and walking is not kneeling. And yet our legs uttered songs. Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying."

And today is the birthday of German composer Johann Sebastian Bach (according to the Old Calendar), born in Eisenach (1685). He was born into a large extended family of Lutheran musicians — most of whom were also named Johann; they were distinguished by their differing middle names. Bach's parents both died when he was 10, and he went to live with his older brother Johann Christoph, who was a church organist. The younger Johann soon followed in his brother's footsteps, and held a series of organist jobs in churches all around the region. He also gave lessons to the church choirboys, but he did so reluctantly, refusing to spend much time on rehearsals. Worse, he would sometimes take off for weeks at a time, traveling to meet other musicians and not letting his employers know when he would be back. And he was known to sneak off during the sermon for some hanky-panky with a local girl in the church's wine cellar. The local girl was most likely his second cousin, whom he would soon marry.

Many of his best-loved pieces — like Toccata and Fugue and Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring — were composed while he was an organist in the court of the Duke Wilhelm Ernst in Weimar. The duke was so pleased with Bach that he had him arrested: Bach had accepted another position with Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen and the duke did not want to let him go. Bach was jailed for several weeks before the duke relented. Leopold was a young man with a consuming passion for music, and Bach grew very fond of him. It was an enjoyable and productive time for the composer. While with Prince Leopold, Bach composed the Brandenburg Concertos, as well as The Well-Tempered Clavier, a set of exercises for students of the harpsichord.

In 1706, Bach married his second cousin, Maria Barbara Bach. They had seven children together in 14 years of marriage. Along with Maria came her unmarried sister, Friedelena. Maria died in 1720, but Friedelena remained, helping to run the Bach household until her own death in 1729. Bach remarried a year after his first wife died, this time to a singer named Anna Magdalena Wilcke. His patron Leopold married soon after that, and Leopold's new bride didn't care much for music, so his support of Bach waned, and Bach moved on to Leipzig. There he became the musical director of Leipzig's main churches and also Cantor of St. Thomas, a boarding school. He remained in Leipzig for the rest of his life.

Bach and Anna had 13 children, but less than half of them survived past the age of five. Four of Bach's children — two from his first marriage and two from his second — went on to become musicians and composers in their own right, carrying on the Bach family tradition. Bach was a happy family man and proud of his children. He was also deeply devout, and he once wrote that music "should have no other end and aim than the glory of God and the re-creation of the soul; where this is not kept in mind there is no true music, but only an infernal clamour and ranting."

By about 1740, Bach's eyesight had begun to deteriorate. For several years, he was still able to perform and even traveled to Prussia to perform for King Frederick the Great. But by the spring of 1750, it had gotten so bad that he allowed an English surgeon to operate on his eyes. The surgery had disastrous results: he was completely blind, and he developed complications after the surgery that may have contributed to his death of stroke, complicated by pneumonia, a couple of months later.

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