by Bill Holm
The champion inane question that journalists ask writers is this: What one book would you take to a hypothetical desert island? Halldor Laxness, Iceland's Nobel Prize-winning novelist, answered courteously, but oddly: "The Well-Tempered Clavier.
It contains everything."
When Laxness died at 95 in 1998, he left his home, Glufrasteinn, to the people of Iceland exactly as he lived in it for more than 50 years. His chair, his writing table, his tie rack, his big brass ashtray with a half-smoked cigar in it, his books and paintings, and his big Steinway grand. In June I went to see Glufrasteinn and found the Henle Bach Well- Tempered Clavier No.1 open on the music rack to the A-flat Prelude. Gudny, the manager of the house, gave me permission to play Halldor's piano. I played the A-flat and C-minor Preludes and Fugues. "Halldor's favorite," she said. "He played Bach every day."
Laxness, who trusted words enough to make 50 books out of them, once said in a radio interview that Bach's music "could hardly be captured by words alone." His view:
"I have not lived a single day when I doubted the superiority of music to literature for expressing the revelation that the human mind experiences from the cosmos. I seldom hear music so bad that it does not tell me more than the spoken word."
I spend my whole summer next to the sea a few hundred miles north of Glufrasteinn, writing, staring out the window and practicing Bach every day. His music, mysteriously, orders and cleans the brain- maybe even enlarges it for a paragraph or two. You feel the cosmos wobbling around in your hands a little when the voices of a fugue begin sounding together. No matter how many times you play--or hear with the inner ear-Bach's solution to whatever problem he has set himself, it never fails to surprise, even astonish.
I spent part of 2005 reading about Albert Einstein for the centennial of his great 1905 physics papers. Einstein,like Laxness, was a Bach man. For much of his life, he practiced the violin daily-used it to clear his head when he was trying to think his way through abstruse mathematical quandaries. His sister Maja more than once witnessed him solve a problem after a session on the violin or piano. He would play, then suddenly stop to cry out "There, now I've got it!" So Bach, as Laxness thought, leads to the cosmos, even to E=mc2.
Mozart, Einstein's other hero, was almost an old man- near 30!-when he discovered Bach at the Vienna house of Baron von Sweiten. He set himself the task of arranging a half-dozen Bach fugues for a string trio. Mozart presumably played the viola for these Sunday afternoon Bach musicales. He also began writing keyboard fugues, and generally upping the contrapuntal ante in his other works. Not surprisingly he was a master crafter of fugues. His much-loved wife Constanza, who found fugues very sexy, also encouraged him. Happy Wolfgang. The cosmos again.
Pablo Casals brought Bach's solo cello suites to life for the 20th century. He performed them all over the world; they became theme music for Casals' famous resistance to tyranny and violence in Franco's Spain- and everywhere else. He was a pianist, too, who even as
a very old man rose every day in his house in Puerto Rico to play alone a half-hour of preludes and fugues from The Well-Tempered Clavier. "It is a benediction on the house;' he said. A blessing. A move into the cosmos.
Maybe Americans should make it our national habit to begin every day with a half-hour of Bach. It couldn't hurt us in either our private or public lives.
Bill Holm summers at his house in north Iceland, winters in Minneota, and teaches half a year at Southwest State University in Marshall. He is the author of nine books, both poems and essays. Two new ones will appear in 2007: Cabins (MinnesotaRisfurical Society Press) and The Windows at Brimnes (Milkweed), essays about what the world looks like from Iceland. He takes his own advice and practices Bach every day.