A Pulitzer Prize–winning critic reflects on the meaning and emotional impact of a Bach masterwork.
As his mother was dying, Philip Kennicott began to listen to the music of Bach obsessively. It was the only music that didn’t seem trivial or irrelevant, and it enabled him to both experience her death and remove himself from it. For him, Bach’s music held the elements of both joy and despair, life and its inevitable end. He spent the next five years trying to learn one of the composer’s greatest keyboard masterpieces, the Goldberg Variations. In Counterpoint, he recounts his efforts to rise to the challenge, and to fight through his grief by coming to terms with his memories of a difficult, complicated childhood.
He describes the joys of mastering some of the piano pieces, the frustrations that plague his understanding of others, the technical challenges they pose, and the surpassing beauty of the melodies, harmonies, and counterpoint that distinguish them. While exploring Bach’s compositions he sketches a cultural history of playing the piano in the twentieth century. And he raises two questions that become increasingly interrelated, not unlike a contrapuntal passage in one of the variations itself: What does it mean to know a piece of music? What does it mean to know another human being?
In this uneven debut, Washington Post and Pulitzer Prize winning art critic Kennicott recounts his efforts to learn to play Johann Sebastian Bach's renowned Goldberg Variations to cope with his grief following the death of his mother from cancer. Kennicott is unabashedly honest, stating he wanted to avoid the fate of his mother, who was "unhappy and died that way, unfulfilled and angry about what she sensed was a wasted life." This thoughtful mission, nonlinearly told, helps him to better come to terms with their complicated relationship (she "is my other ear... always listening for something simple and sweet," yet she would also beat him). He focuses on Johann Sebastian Bach himself, offering insight into his approach to composing, suggesting he went to "great lengths to subvert our efforts to comprehend the formal structure of the variations." Kennicott does not skimp on details, causing the narrative to feel more like a scholarly thesis devoted to the composer than an account of his own personal experiences, which tend to take a distant backseat and disappear. About the Goldberg Variations, Kennicot admits, "I had no illusions that I would ever master them well enough to be satisfied by my performance," yet he realizes that life will never be perfect, though one can still find purpose and peace. While the memoir elements get lost here, aficionados of music theory and Bach will take delight in this raw and cultured narrative.