The Comfort of Bach

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Q. 1. What is your only comfort in life and in death?
A. 1. That I belong — body and soul, in life and in death —
not to myself but to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ,
who at the cost of his own blood has fully paid for all my sins
and has completely freed me from the dominion of the devil;
that he protects me so well
that without the will of my Father in heaven
not a hair can fall from my head;
indeed, that everything
must fit his purpose
for my salvation.
Therefore, by His Holy Spirit, he also assures me of eternal life,
and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.
— The opening of the Heidelberg Catechism


When I ordered My Only Comfort on 1.1.16 I had no idea that my sister would die two weeks later. All I knew was that this book scratched two of my favorite itches: the music of Johann Sebastian Bach and the Heidelberg Catechism. Margo’s death and my grief are inextricably knit into my response. A Bachophile, she listened nightly to a ‘Bach’s Variations’ CD as she fell asleep.

There was no way I could simply read this book. I was compelled to listen multiple times to Bach’s chorales, cantatas, and arias while Stapert explained the structure and form, exposed the chiasms, and pointed, whispering See what he did there? I switched from being a reader to becoming a student, immersing — bathing in Bach. I discovered a whole realm of YouTube videos that opened up a kingdom of sublime, profoundly sad, and intensely joyful music.

“Over and over we hear the dissonance of pain resolve into the consonance of joy.”

“The heaven-haunted music I hear in Bach can be found in any of his instrumental genres — suites, sonatas, concertos, fugues — as well as in his church music. But, of course, in his church music, words can lead us to places where there is likely to have been a special intention to try to capture something of what ‘ear has not heard’ and make it audible.”

My current favorite aria is from St. Matthew’s Passion.

The translation for Enbarme dich —
Have mercy, my God, for the sake of my tears!
See here, before you heart and eyes weep bitterly.
Have mercy, my God.

Reading, studying through this book was one of the most profoundly comforting experiences of my life. Bach’s glorious music pierced me, the beauty often leveling me to sobs. But after the leveling was a lifting: it refreshed my spirit.

Hence, I have resolved two things:

1. To read the other four books Calvin Stapert has written. (Haydn, Bach bio, The Messiah and Early Church Music await me.)

2. To systematically listen through Bach’s canon. I’m not sure how I will sort this, but there are too many wonderful pieces I have never heard. Simply working through the cantatas might be a starting point. I don’t care about BMW‘s; it’s BMVs (Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis — a number assigned to each known composition of Bach’s) for me! Do you have any ideas?

I could easily begin again at the beginning of My Only Comfort for a second harvest. I probably won’t right away, but the book will remain on my shelves (the highest compliment I can give these days).

Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog

DSC_8942My husband, home sick from work, was fixing to fascinate me with stories about locks at the hospital. My responses cycled between “Hmmm” “Oh?” “yeah” and “wow.” He shook his head in exasperation and complained, “I’m trying to impress you and you aren’t responding!”

“Babe,” I lifted my head and made eye contact. “I have three pages left of this book.”

“Oh?” he said. “What are you reading?”

“Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog … a book about diagramming sentences.”

We dissolved into laughter at the absurdity of diagramming edging out locksmithing.

When I was a student, I was not gripped by grammar. Caron, my camp friend, used to amuse herself by counting the spelling and grammar mistakes in my letters. The fun flattened when the error count declined to three or four. I still stumble over less and fewer, lay and lie, hopefully and I hope.

Kitty Burns Florey is a fun look back. Moderately fun. To those who suffered through grammar, it has about the same nostalgic power as a teeter-totter has to two chunksters in their fifties. (Have you noticed that teeter-totters disappeared from playgrounds? Hmmm?)

Relax! Florey’s acerbic tone spices up this bland subject. She calls Eats, Shoots & Leavesa “popular scold-fest.” I enjoyed her prose and reveled in her side notes.

The fact is that a lot of people don’t need diagramming or anything else: they pick up grammar and syntax effortlessly through their reading—which, in the case of most competent users of words, ranges from extensive to fanatical. The language sticks to them like cat hair to black trousers, and they do things correctly without knowing why.

I learned details about words, a bonus she couldn’t resist throwing in. (When Kitty isn’t writing books, she is a copy editor.) I learned that enormity means a very great wickedness, not a very large hugeness. Likewise, infinitesimal means endless, not very, very small. She explained that a Lion’s share is 100%, not a majority. Ain’t, don’t you know, exists because we don’t have a contraction for “am not.” So ain’t used with the first person singular (the pronoun I) is technically correct.

My opinion is that English grammar can be taught with more ease and more adhesion through the ear rather than the eye, with vocal chants/songs such as those used in The Shurley Method or Grammar Songs. But, I enjoyed the refresher course on sentence diagramming.

The visual delight of the book are the diagrams of unwieldy sentences by James, Hemingway (whose sentences are normally spare), Fenimore Cooper, Twain, Proust, Oates, Updike, Kerouac, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Welty and Powell.

I couldn’t resist trying a long sentence myself. Above is the answer to the first question of the Heidelberg Catechism. Corrections are welcome.