Thursday, December 17, 2009

J.S. Bach And Holiday Stress

I don't know about you, but a lot of Christmas music makes me nervous. I hear Jingle Bells and my breath begins to tighten, and the Rudolf song gives me the jitters. It's because of the association, over endless decades, of these tunes with stores, and gifts, and Time's winged chariot hovering near, plus the anxiety of finding perfect gifts for all the perfect people on my list.

So to destress these days, I put on some Bach. Bach without words is best. Bach without organs or harpsichords. Stripped down Bach, Bach for horse hair on cat gut: the Cello Suites.

The great Pau Casals, who discovered the long-forgotten Suites and performed them as no one else has, when he was in his 90s and couldn't play the cello anymore would play a single Suite on the piano every morning, as a kind of meditation. Casals was something of a Zen master, although he didn't know it, and the Suites were his mantra.

Bach has always induced a meditative state in me. I remember when I was in college, coming home in the afternoon and listening to the Brandenburg Concertos. “Why do you always play that record?” my mother asked one day. “It puts things back in order for me,” I told her.

Now that life is considerably more complicated, it takes the Suites to put things in order for me. But they always work, for reasons that I can't understand. And they work especially well in this, the most disordered of seasons.

Speaking of disorder, can you imagine what Bach's Christmases must have been like? With 20 children in the house? And little Johann Christian and Carl Philipp Emanuel tootling on flutes and the lady of the house, Anna Magdalena, practicing her harpsichord? Sure, he had two wives, but only one at a time (his first wife died young). And he didn't have a ton of money. How did he manage to write such peace-inducing music, in the midst of all that chaos?

Maybe in the coming days, when there will be a mere eight of us at our house, I can channel Bach, and keep my wits about me.


  1. The cello suites are probably my favorite music on this earth and the best recording is of course by the immortal Casals. Moment of silence.

    Don't you think it likely that Bach is so organized and soothing precisely because of the cacophony at home? Perhaps he needed to create an ordered alternative universe...

  2. Order out of chaos...yes, I guess that's art.

  3. Christmas music makes me nervous too. Good idea -- the Bach.

  4. what a wonderful relationship you have with music. i love christmas music, but only when sung by the mormon tabernacle choir. it's what i grew up on, and it says christmas to me.

  5. I listened to the Brandenburgs all the time in college too. I found baroque, in its beauty and order, one of the few things I felt I could count on.

  6. Odd, Indigo, the musical tastes we share--the Brandenburgs in college, Pink Martini in Vermont.