As the Midwestern fall turned into a frigid, icy winter, I listened to Glenn Gould playing Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” and read Philip Kennicott’s Counterpoint: A Memoir of Bach and Mourning. Alternating between listening and reading, I found myself overwhelmed by emotion and flooded with the desire to do something. I wanted to clean house, dance around the room with my infant son, and, in certain moments, weep. After a week of being transfixed by Bach’s music and enchanted with Kennicott’s story, I wondered if I might even return to the piano (like Kennicott, I began playing at four years old) and begin learning the “Goldberg Variations.” What kept me from dusting off the keyboard was Kennicott reminding me that Bach’s music “doesn’t tolerate any kind of bluster, and ruthlessly exposes inadequacy.” I decided the “Goldbergs” would be too difficult for me to attempt, but living vicariously through Kennicott—that is, reading his memoir about learning the variations after his mother’s death—I began to feel like less of an outsider to Bach’s universe of beauty. Which is to say that Counterpoint is not just an astonishingly moving memoir about losing a parent; it is an uncommonly graceful, precise meditation on learning a very difficult piece of music. In fact, the book accomplishes through language something I’ve thought absolutely impossible: it makes Bach’s keyboard masterpiece vivid.
Counterpoint begins with Kennicott’s heart-wrenching account of how he listened to Bach’s Partita in D Minor—specifically the last movement, the Chaconne—while watching his mother die from cancer. The Chaconne, he writes, “mimicked grief, a sense of being in the grips of something primal, commanding, and persistent.” The music didn’t “console” him but it busied his mind. After his mother died, he shelved his recording of the Chaconne (for who wants to be reminded of grief on a daily basis?), but Bach’s music continued to press down on him. He thought about the pieces by Bach he’d attempted (and perhaps failed to master) as a younger man; and then, serendipitously, on a trip to Chicago he stopped in a music shop and picked up sheet music for the “Goldbergs.” He believed that they “adumbrated something that comes later in bereavement, the elastic sense of confusion that comes from knowing where you are while being lost at the same time.” Learning this masterwork would be “a way to test life again, to press upon it and see what was still vital.” In other words, Kennicott wanted to see if he could still play something this difficult. He also wanted to know Bach’s music at a level that had previously eluded him.
At the heart of this book are two interrelated questions: What does it mean to know a piece of music? And what does it mean to know another person? As Kennicott endeavors to answer these questions, he recalls what it was like to learn piano as a boy under the eye of a moody, perennially angry mother. His mother, who had once dreamed of being an accomplished violinist, never settled happily into her role as a suburban wife and mother of four. She’d wanted more for herself, and when music didn’t provide a path out of a humdrum domestic existence, she grew resentful. Kennicott remembers how, when he asked his mother to play her violin, “she would look at her left hand with quiet fury, as if the hand itself had willed some mysterious affliction that estranged her from making music.” She was also a difficult audience when Kennicott practiced piano. Although she was surely proud of her son, she was often agitated by his playing. It was “when things grew lyrical, when the storminess of a Beethoven sonata subsided to a pastoral episode, or Mozart’s quicksilver figuration gave way to a longer, more ardent line… [that] I knew she might catch the thread and be pleased with my efforts.”
This book, marvelous as it is, might be merely another contribution to the subgenre of grief literature, were it not for Kennicott’s extraordinary gift for writing about mourning alongside music. Take, for example, these few sentences that elucidate loss as it relates to the aria that bookends the “Goldbergs”:
When grief loosens its hold, you return to the world you once knew, only to find it transformed by the thing that is missing; when, at the end of the Goldberg Variations, Bach repeats the aria with which it began, it is utterly transfigured. It is like the river in which one can never step foot twice, and Bach seems to say: “You’ve never heard this thing you think you know so well.”
And yet Kennicott does so much more than discover parallels between mourning and Bach’s music. As this book moves along, he probes the 30 variations as well as ideas about the pleasures and perils of playing “great” music, originality, and more. Along the way, he also provides an absorbing history of Bach’s life, the “Goldbergs,” and piano playing in the 20th century. His writing about history is seamlessly woven into his personal narrative, making this work feel of a piece.
By the end of Counterpoint, Kennicott has somehow managed not only to meditate on loss alongside Bach’s work, but to say something, without resorting to cliché, about what it means to be alive and do meaningful work. I, for one, felt compelled by this to listen to more of Bach’s music, and to play it. I also found myself looking at my infant son and promising that even if I can’t ever learn the “Goldbergs,” I will keep playing Gould’s recording. Because Bach’s masterwork, particularly the aria, is as Kennicott writes, “wonderfully exhausting and perfectly beautiful, and if you haven’t heard it, you should, before you die.” ¶