Saturday Mar. 21, 2015

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Really Eternal City

After we’d walked for at least an hour,
heading toward the Vatican
on a broiling August day,
I began thinking about how long
the tour we’d signed up for was going to be,
and how many sacred things would be on view,
and how much complicated information
the guide would tell us about the ancient paintings
and Roman numerals and relics
and tombs and holy knuckle bones.

I knew it would all kind of just melt together
and congeal into one big lumpen mass
of guilt and suffering and miracles
and gloomy old men in sandals.

And as I was thinking this
we were passing through a shady little square
where a couple of bare-breasted marble nymphs
were playing in the fountain,
and there were no tour guides anywhere,
there was no suffering or crucifixions,
nor was there even one important name or date
I would have to try to remember.

And the cheap red wine at the sidewalk ristorante
where we ended up spending the afternoon
instead of going to the Vatican
was wonderful, even miraculous,
as was the spaghetti bolognese.

“Really Eternal City” by George Bilgere. © George Bilgere. Reprinted with permission of the author.  (buy now)

It’s the birthday of Baroque composer Johann Sebastian Bach, born on this day in Eisenach, Germany (1685) according to the Old Style calendar. He was born into a family of professional musicians; the Bachs were well known throughout the region as town organists, pipers, cantors, composers, or directors. When one local count needed a music director, he put out the word for “a Bach.”

Bach’s parents died when he was young, and he went to live with his brother, a church organist. The story goes that Bach’s brother did not allow him access to precious handwritten musical scores, so every night Bach stole his music and copied out pieces by moonlight. Bach went on to a prestigious music school, and then worked as an organist for various churches. He often quarreled with his employers. He was accused of putting unnecessary flourishes and harmonies into simple church music. Once he was given a four-week leave to go hear a master organist perform — a journey of 250 miles by foot — but without informing anyone, he didn’t return for four months. Another time he was reprimanded for letting an “unauthorized maiden” into the choir loft. When Bach was working as a court musician, he found a better position in another town and asked to resign; when the duke refused, he tried to sneak away, so the duke threw him in jail for a month.

During his lifetime, Bach wasn’t famous as a composer, but as a gifted organist, and an excellent builder and repairer of organs. When he died, his estate listed his valuable assets: 19 instruments, a collection of theological books, and various household items. None of his compositions were listed as valuable. It wasn’t until 1829, when Felix Mendelssohn conducted Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion,” that there was serious public interest in Bach’s compositions.

When he was praised for his skills as an organist, Bach replied: “There is nothing very wonderful about it. You have only to hit the right notes at the right moment and the instrument does the rest.”

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.

He wrote:
I knew when I said
I love you
that I was inventing a new alphabet
for a city where no one could read
that I was saying my poems
in an empty theater
and pouring my wine
for those who could not
taste it.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®