Though many scores were lost, those that remain
May well be thought the richest heritage
Ever bequeathed by one blessed human brain:
Incomparable gems on every page,
Now reverently passed from age to age,
But when the ink was fresh how roughly tossed
Aside as passé! And who now can gauge
How huge the treasure that was blindly lost
Of which our world must now forever mourn the cost!

“What does it matter? Music comes and goes,”
Someone will shrug. Most music, it’s true.
Like junk food for the brain, it fills up those
Who know no better. Like a sudsy brew,
Most music that the masses listen to
Dulls with emotion. How Mammon rejoices
To see earplugged consumers milling through
His bedlam of manipulated choices!
Most music’s a drug. Why lament a few lost voices?

But music isn’t all the same. Bach’s kind,
Where several voices join in harmony,
Demands one’s close attention. All one’s mind
Craves to sing too, following lovingly
How the selection moves from key to key
As one voice, then another, leads. A lot
Of mental discipline, as you can see,
Is both demanded by Bach’s art and taught
By it. It celebrates the joy of taking thought.

An enemy more fell than time destroyed
Them as it has so much for which we care:
The randomness that hisses in the void,
Devouring hopes, laughing at our despair.
Wilhelm Friedemann, Bach’s principal heir,
At first ably conserved his father’s papers,
But his strength flagged. Depression, booze and bare
Necessity dogged him. Sold to the neighbours,
Fragments  were torn for weigh bills and lighters for tapers.

When we revisit a familiar song
We find new charms. In Bach we may well hear
New works, for every time we sing along
With well-known themes his further themes appear,
As if the very randomness we fear
Had somehow been enlisted by the soul
To make fresh anthems in the inner ear,
And through them all one lesson seems Bach’s goal:
To show how every voice contributes to the whole.



Lionel Willis was born in Toronto in 1932 and served as Professor of English Literature at Ryerson University in Toronto 1958 to 1992. His publications including The Dreamstone and Other Rhymes (The Plowman 2002), Heartscape, a Book of Bucolic Verse (Eidolon 2019). He currently lives in Toronto. 

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6 Responses

  1. Lawrence Fray

    A great beautifully made, extolling the best music ever. It’s a tragedy that some cantata are lost; to misquote Oscar: humanity tends to know the price of everything and the value of nothing.

  2. Cynthia Erlandson

    “Incomparable gems on every page,” indeed! Though I’m not a musician, Bach is my hero. I understand just enough about music to hear the incredible complexity and profundity in his compositions. His picture hangs, to inspire me, over my desk where I compose poetry. I am so glad you wrote this lovely elegy.

  3. Paul Freeman

    I enjoyed reading about the tragic story running through this poem. For want of a better term your poem is a ‘page turner’ (or ‘stanza-turner’!). To light tapers? My word.

    It saddens me beyond measure to hear of treasures like this being destroyed.

    And yet in writing of about Bach’s lost cantatas, you’ve produced a valuable document yourself, Mr Willis, which is both a poetic and informative warning to us to conserve works of art through thick and thin.

    Later today, as I work on my long-postponed novel, I will put on Bach’s ‘unlost’ cantatas, which I see proliferate on YouTube.

    Thanks for the enlightening poetry.

  4. Sally Cook

    Dear Mr. Willis —
    Thanks for a sincere tribute to the most masterful composer of all. I enjoyed reading about his heir, whose
    presence you cleverly inserted into your poem. Thanks
    very much for that valuable information.
    While I appreciate that you revere Bach, (as I also do), have you considered this:
    Bach never thought once about including everyone. He was a professional, and simply wanted to choose the best instruments to express his music. No matter what instrument, external or internal, the music always came first.
    We are now, in this time of smug virtue-signaling, in a situation where the individual seems insignificant, almost irrelevant. That spells doom for the artst. If Bach chose the chorale to express some of his music, he did not do it to bring people together – he did it to enhance his music, as it does.
    Thank you again for honoring this great man.

    • lionel willis

      Thank you, Sally. I take your qualification of your praise for my poem, mostly in its Moral-seeking ending, to heart. I think I agree with you about this age we are becoming familar with. Bach’s bow to democracy may have been merely an artifact of the polyphonic style which dominated his time. It may, however had had a potent teaching effect on later educated listeners after audiences were re-acquainted with his work in the 19th Century by Felix Mendellsohn. For every artist who is true to an art, all allegiance must be to the internal laws behind its beauty. So, I think, with J. S. Bach.
      Lionel Willis


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