The church was already well filled that Sunday morning, some 15 minutes before the Bach-cantata-recital would start. I had only just managed to find a seat, squeezed in between two bulky men. Around me there was the usual pre-concert noise of people meeting & chattering and of chairs scraping over tiles. And within my head there was the even louder, anxious whirl of practical and sentimental worries.
So I could barely concentrate on the program-notes which were explaining how Bach’s music expressed the libretto’s message that the Lord always comes to the aid of his hapless creature. But while futilely browsing the erudite explanations, a phrase uttered by a woman behind me snapped me out of my own hapless fretfulness.
“Rappelle-toi, on s’était croisée une journée de pluie”, said this woman, talking to her neighbor.
And in a flash all of my worries were dissipated by this ordinary image of two friends meeting in the street, on a rainy day in the city, chatting under their umbrellas, amidst passersby hurrying along in the pouring rain. (2)
Still under the spell of this phrase, I gasped when the choir started singing “Fürchte dich nicht, ich bin bei dir”/ “Fear not, I am with you” . Just as almost 300 years ago a faithful peasant attending Mass must have gasped, also with tears in his eyes, deeply stirred by this music. (3)
Bach’s genius is often described in terms of contrapuntal complexities, producing music that would only appeal to the intellect. How very wrong! His cantata’s and his Passions are profoundly moving, expressing the whole gamut of human emotions. They bear no trace of romantic navel-gazing, nor do they vainly flaunt their undeniable complexity – but there’s a touching humility to them, expressing as they do shared human doubts, joys and fears, all momentarily redeemed by sheer musical perfection. And there’s humility, and heartbreaking beauty too, in the way a human voice intertwines, in companionable sonority, with, for instance, an alt-violin in a Bach-aria (4).
After the concert, while queuing to leave the church, I passed in front of the podium where the musicians were preparing to leave. And as I was watching how the alt-violinist lovingly put her instrument back in its case, I mused about the many different manifestations of beauty and art. How they can range from sumptuous displays of glory to humble marks of caring attention for the quotidian (5).
Ah, the consolations of the quotidian! That Sunday-afternoon I could rejoice all I wanted in the marvels of a rainy day, which had even turned into a stormy one.
But instead of cozily watching the rain lashing the windows, philosophizing about Art, I had to go out again and brave the wind-swept streets on foot.
Because C, who was visiting, had alas encountered the sorry Brussels habit of well hidden temporarily no-parking signs, which are then scrupulously enforced by the police-forces. So we had to venture out, first to a local police post manned by a police-woman from the provinces doing a tour of duty in depraved Brussels (and who was positively happy to speak Flemish to a pair of naïve women having had their car towed away).
And then on we walked, fighting gusts of rain, to a bleak garage in a bleak street, looking so very shabby & drab that it did acquire a certain urban romance. Behind a high fence there was the yard with forlorn looking, towed away cars . The garage-office itself, with a lone woman behind a large counter, was protected by a makeshift plexi-glass door with bell and looked like a perfect setting for some noirish police series.
Sitting there on a worn bench, while C was negotiating the administrative and financial details of car release with the lady in charge, I counted the stains of cigarette-burns on the furniture which, together with the musty stench of old smoke, belied the big no-smoking sign on the door. There was a big clock on the wall and many shelves with surprisingly neatly arranged dossiers. Sometimes a voice crackled from a radio and the lady behind the counter then spoke in a microphone to give directions, all the while continuing to fill out the multiple forms for car release. She had a briskness of voice and manners which was quite astonishing in so drab an environment.
Quite a bracing example I thought: definitely temperament over matter! (6)
By the time we got back outside, the elements were really unchained.
And truly, there’s a special elation and companionship in braving together adverse weather, just as encounters in rainy streets can be of a heart rending coziness.
Amongst the saving graces of life certainly have to be counted: rough weather walks, rainy flâneries and Bach-cantatas.
Fear not, the footnotes too are with us
(1) “remember, we had come across each other in the street, on a rainy day”
(2) The extraordinary appeasing power of this ordinary image surely has something to do with the element of simple shared humanity in it and with its consoling evocation of the many ordinary struggling lives that are lived in a city. As Orhan Pamuk writes in “The Museum of Innocence”: “The city was teaching us to see the ordinariness of our lives, teaching us, too, a humility that banished guilt; There was a consoling power I felt mixing with the city crowds in shared taxis and buses”
(3) And I am always touched too by the torch-song- naïveté of some of those Bach cantata-libretto’s, so endearingly & trustingly evoking an informal intimacy between a frail & frightened human and his almost motherly- reassuring God. “Herr, […] du bist mein, ich bin dein, niemand kann uns scheiden ” sings the Choir …. Though not a believer myself, I can of course very well relate to this longing for an all-understanding source of consolation and support. And somehow, from time to time at least, the music produced by the happy conjunction of this longing and a human genius, is in itself redemption and consolation enough.
(4) Tricky word, humility. Before you know it people might think that I, the proudly promethean autonomous human, am promoting self-abasing submission to some authority. No no! I speak of humility as very humanely defined by the OED: “the quality of not thinking that you are better than other people” – or as the 1st connotation offered by Merriam Webster: not proud or haughty , not arrogant.
(5) There’s the writhing splendor of a Rubens with his “assez vain déploiement d’une illusion de triomphe” (Y. Bonnefoy) and there’s the endearing attention paid by a Van Eyck not only to the rendering of sumptuously rich materials, but also to all the tactile details of a simple chair (on which a angel-musician sits in a panel of the famous Ghent altar piece) or of a pair of homely slippers (in the Arnolfini painting).
(6) Actually, I collect such edifying and bracing examples, being always in search of evidence of human resilience and dignity ( perhaps out of a desire for self-improvement, by putting my own all too often frail and willfully sad ways to shame)