.

Listening to Bach While the World Falls Apart

for Adrianna, Paul, and Beth

I

Sight isn’t needed—the continuous cracking of all
The pillars supporting civilization, is audible.
Thunderous crumbling of longstanding structures we thought indestructible
Pierces our ears with the harsh horror of sordid disorder:
Disquieting societal fortissimos,
Scored in oppressive percussion, escalate. Towering crescendos
Separate brick from mortar,
Shatter well-framed windows,
Splinter lintels and beams, split the brittle seams of our fracturing culture.
Grounded among the wreckage
Of architectural carnage,
Shards of sculpted cherubim—cantors of Christendom’s chorus—
Grieve the loss of all that was built before us,
Their voices drowned by the savage drum of pandemonium.
Noise’s poisonous cadence
Replaces humanity’s fragile harmonies
With perpetually unresolved dissonance,
Disturbs its essential balancing elements,
Levels centuries of civic communities
Based on brilliant blueprints,
Devastates all recognizable remnants
Of an eloquent opus now silenced.
Scandalous vandals bursting with envious fury
Barbarically break civility’s crucial borders,
Shock earth’s crust to the bedrock, bury
All its seen and invisible girders,
Tearing board from dovetailed board,
Ripping society’s symphony, chord
From chord, till nothing is left but cacophony.
Stately colonnades that braced elaborate temples, topple;
____Ornate balustrades embellished with figured foliage, rattle;
________Music’s joists that buttress notes and measures, crumple.
____________All structures formerly stable
Drop in startling staccatos.
Gilded walls and vaulted ceilings, detailed domes and apses
Deafeningly descend.
Everything bequeathed to future people collapses
In haphazardous tempos,
Screaming with evocative echoes:
Yet another Babel
Has come to its inevitable end.
All things inspired, designed,
And laboriously raised with many heirs in mind,
Are razed, until the disconcerting rhythm
Trembles with terminal schism.
Scarcely a sculpture is left on its pedestal
As a sign of a civil world whose quaking dais—
Made of the fine marble of benign logic—
Is sinking into enervated earth. Sonic chaos
Occasions madness, mutilates the public’s vital music,
____Makes havoc
Of human harmony. Concord is uncreated
By the clamorous hammer of hatred
For the creator, till creation can no longer
Endure the continuous horror
Of discordant sound,
Or remain standing on disintegrating ground.

.

II

With melody for granite, chords for mortar,
And ivory keys for tools, a skillful sculptor
Begins to build Sebastian’s castle—plays,
From musical blueprints, a fugue whose complex order
Is gracefully revealed by human fingers. Phrase
By phrase it rises: auditory architecture
Erected as a living citadel,
Invisible and yet discernible.
Its surely indestructible construction
Offers us a hope of resurrection
Amidst the outside world’s uproarious thunder. Undemolished
Among earth’s ruins, its rhythms smoothly polished
Like piano keys, it forms, by its figures, a fortress
Not of this world—outside its constant chaos—
A steadfast and enduring acoustic cathedral.
Founded on its bass line’s somehow supple
Bedrock—strong yet tranquil, such as Bach
Could build—it rises over all the wreck
Of cultures. Spiral stairs contrived from treble
Baroquely climb in pianissimo
Above a diminuendo of breaking rubble.
Strong walls ascend to form a barricade
Against crude crashes trying to invade
The contrapuntal profundity: demolition
Noises fade, too weak to overwhelm
The elegance of fugal composition.
An extraordinary juxtaposition
Of order and disorder haunts earth’s realm
With such bewildering disparity:
A tower of lyrical polyphony
Rises over the ravages; serene
And seamless sequences coil in between,
Around, above, the stately colonnade
Of counterpoint columns bracing an unseen,
Overheard world that muffles the aural debris
Of our finite society’s rapidly falling façade.
This music’s language is as reassuring
And elevating as the Sistine ceiling
That Michelangelo composed; as thrilling
As angel dreams, expectant and enduring:
Life-giving sounds above our mortal commotion.
From the wrecks of history’s complexities,
It ceaselessly reaches toward eternity’s
Perfection, frees us from earth’s disintegration
And discord, to intense anticipation
Of even higher good that was created—
And with which all our souls have resonated—
In the beginning, when heaven’s arches, higher
Than castles, echoed with God’s timeless choir.

.

.

Cynthia Erlandson is a poet and fitness professional living in Michigan.  Her second collection of poems, Notes on Time, has recently been published by AuthorHouse, as was her first (2005) collection, These Holy Mysteries.  Her poems have also appeared in First Things, Modern Age, The North American Anglican, The Orchards Poetry Review, The Book of Common Praise hymnal, and elsewhere.


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16 Responses

  1. Sally Cook

    Dear Cynthia, thank you for paying homage to JS Bach with your magnificent poem!
    He is the best of the lot, not only because of the music he wove, but because of the overwhelming logic of the keys he pressed. Such as he may be the only one to save us.

    Reply
      • Sally Cook

        Dear Cynthia —
        More on Bach. During my college years I played a lot of his work as a church organist. My father, who had immense talent but somewhat inferior tastes, always wanted me not to do this, but to play some hymn. Yet I had to do it. Each fugue I played was like a prayer; it seemed the more I played, the stronger I became. Later, playing for a ballet school, I had to play other more
        danceable things, but the Bach was like a rock to me for all the time I performed in publc, Bach protected me. Do you play? Do you have that kind of connection to him? If so, I would like to hear about it.

    • Cynthia Erlandson

      Thank you so much for all you’ve said about Bach! He is my hero, and I’m sure he will be the organist/choir director in heaven. I did not grow up with any good classical music; it wasn’t till I took Music Appreciation in college, that this whole new world opened up to me. I very much admire church organists (and singers) and have had my faith greatly deepened by great church music, so I understand what you mean about music being a kind of prayer. I consider harmony to be about the most profound thing in the world. I have no real musical talents, unfortunately; poetry is my musical practice, musicality being one of my main goals when I write. Since we’re talking about music and poetry, I’ll add that my recent (March of this year) collection of poems is called “Notes on Time” (“notes” has a double meaning), and is my tribute to music. Some of the poems in it that are about specific pieces of music include “Stairway to Heaven: ‘The Dorian'” (Bach’s); “Organ Recital Invitation”; “March 21st: Saints Cranmer and Bach”; “Anthem: Byrd in Flight”; and “Orchestra Tuning Up”.

      Reply
      • Sally Cooke

        Dear Cynthia –

        You have obviously delved into the meaning of music and the way it melds with poetry, painting and dance. I also love the early Baroque — do you –,and the way it becomes full blown .
        When, later on, I joined a madrigal group, it was like being inside a wonderful complex of tones and sequences. What fun it was to sing those early songs ! And I found it contributed a richness to my paintings and poetry.
        I have a friend who hasn’t a musical bone in her body. She was married to one of the
        members of the madrigal group. They moved away, and a few years later he died.
        And then he began to return, and she asked where he was now and how it was. In answer she was given a few moments of song which she
        described as “unearthly” and the most beautiful music she had ever heard. Unearthly! wwas the word she used.
        He continued to return, sometimes with pets they had loved, until she married again, and it was only then that he stopped.

  2. Daniel Kemper

    Thrilled to see this. Love the heterometricals, love the music captured.

    And finally, love Glenn Gould w/Bach especially!

    Reply
    • Cynthia Erlandson

      Thank you, Daniel! Yes, Gould is wonderful; I love Feltsman, too. Heterometricals is a pretty cool word!

      Reply
  3. Brian Yapko

    Cynthia, thank you for a compelling read. A challenging one, too. I’m never that confident about my reading so if my remarks are off-base please forgive me. I have to confess that I tried to analyze this two-part poem for form and gave up. You’ve written a poem on your own terms and I respect that. In Part I that lack of form serves the subject of chaos and anarchy very well. In fact your work becomes something of a poetic scream. It’s exciting and disturbing.

    Having accepted that Part I’s structure represents a metaphor for our collapsing civilization I anticipated a respite in Part II – one to represent Bach’s beauty and order. On my first reading, although there was indeed more structure, your use of meter and the unclear rhyme scheme still made it difficult for me to discern the architecture of the piece. But on a second reading I became sensitive to the fact that the overarching pattern of Part II involves five stresses per line irrespective of number of syllable – almost the way a composer can fit any number of notes into a measure of music – highly appropriate to a discussion of Bach. Beauty and order seem to build as one approaches the final couplet — a structural reflection of the triumph of order over chaos – always a wonderful thing. May the rest of the world follow.

    Reply
    • Cynthia Erlandson

      Thank you so much, Brian; your comments and thoughts are very perceptive. I knew that the subject matter, at least in part I, demanded a rough sort of meter; that is one of the reasons that this was the most difficult poem I’ve written. (I thought of the title while listening to a piano recital in April, 2020, and it has been in process until recently.) I am glad that, in part II, you were able to discern more order, which is how I hoped it would be heard. I love your comparison of fitting words into a line, to fitting notes into a musical measure! Thank you for taking the time to read and comment!

      Reply
  4. Margaret Coats

    An extremely challenging work, Cynthia, especially in Part I where you seem to be trying to fail at using free verse. Part II does have comprehensible meter, which is clearly part of the plan of contrasts. I take it the overall structure is not musical, but a kind of rich word symphony held together through terms and concepts adapted from classical music. This is a daring technique that requires readers to recognize and at least partially understand musical terminology. But I think you make it work well. By way of contrast, I knew one modern pianist-poet who gave Italian tempo indicators before each of his short poems, and left readers to apply them. The result was usually unsatisfactory to readers, who remained unsure if they had read either the words or the musical pointers properly. With your longer opus, the reader becomes increasingly sure of his responses as music and images proceed.

    Reply
    • Cynthia Erlandson

      I’m deeply grateful, Margaret, for your reactions to the poem, especially for your brilliant phrase “trying to fail at using free verse”, which really is a perfect articulation of what I was trying to do, though I hadn’t thought to phrase it that way. I don’t write free verse; yet I knew that a perfectly flowing, identifiable form wasn’t what this idea needed. I am thrilled that you think the technique I used worked well — thank you!

      Reply
  5. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    Cynthia, it is obvious to me that an awful lot of work has gone into this stunning piece. I love the way the words fit together to create both discord and harmony – a masterly stroke. I am swept up in a plethora of poetic device that has my head reeling in wonder. I really need to read this a couple of times to understand and fully appreciate the literary journey. The passion is palpable and powerful. Wow!

    Reply
    • Cynthia Erlandson

      Thank you so much, Susan! It did take a long time; I didn’t start it till several months after I’d thought of the title, because the idea of combining architectural and musical imagery, and also not using traditional meter, made it seem a daunting challenge. I am certainly passionate (as I know you are as well!) in my views about the horrors happening in our world; and I am passionate about the beauty of Bach’s music; and the contrast between those two things overwhelmed me with this idea that I knew I had to pursue.

      Reply
  6. Jack DesBois

    Cynthia, I’ve only given one whirlwind reading of this and will come back to it tomorrow – but the ride it took me on the first go around needs a comment.

    I love Bach. I am a classically trained singer, a bass, and Handel and Bach are the greatest composers for bass voice I’ve come across. I sang Jesus in Bach’s St John Passion several years ago, and I regularly sang St Matthew Passion arias at my church.

    Since the lockdowns began, I have been without a church community and without a professional musical performance community. I miss church, and I miss singing in an ensemble, but more than either, I miss Bach. I listen to recordings (especially the Cello Suites), but it’s not the same, doesn’t resurrect the spirit of that great man in the same way as making his music does, especially making his music in a church.

    Shortly before I left my church, a fellow parishioner gave me an old Baroque tenor recorder she had gathering dust in her attic. I’ve had some time on my hands the past couple of years, and so I decided to take a crack at teaching myself the instrument. I can now play a modified and somewhat halting “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” at my family’s house-church services. Out of the chaos, J.S. Bach’s spirit lives again.

    Your poem has brought this loss and recovery-in-new-form viscerally before me. Thank you for your transportive words.

    Reply
    • Cynthia Erlandson

      Thank you so much for these comments, Jack. I love Bach’s and Handel’s vocal music, too (and also bass voices!), and wish I could have heard you sing the Passion music. I know musicians have suffered a lot of loss during this time, and I think it’s tragic; it’s dehumanizing to be deprived of music!
      I’m sorry to hear about your church situation. We also “lost” a church during lockdowns, when they gave in and closed. We found others that didn’t close, though, and didn’t require us to cover our faces, and are very happy in the new church we’ve been led to.

      Reply
  7. Tamara Beryl Latham

    Wow, Cynthia! Your poem and its form is more challenging than a sestina. And with the current lock-down, so to speak, music is a nice release.

    Having visited the Sistine chapel, my favorite verse in your poem with comparison to Bach’s music is the following:

    “This music’s language is as reassuring
    And elevating as the Sistine ceiling
    That Michelangelo composed; as thrilling
    As angel dreams, expectant and enduring:”

    Great job! 🙂

    Reply

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