Bach in Heidelberg

for Marjorie

Bach’s chorus didn’t leave us much to say
After the Easter Monday concert in
The Holy Spirit Church. Taking our way
Over the Old Bridge seemed like we’d just been
Visiting Heaven.  The flooded Neckar’s din
Blurred the cantata fading in my head,
As memories of the recent passed grow thin.
Sensing my grief, at last our good friend said
“In us she still lives. Other gifts have wholly fled.”

“Reams of Bach’s scores are gone, yet reams remain
Of what may be 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.”

“Polyphony had ruled four hundred years,
But now the Ariesque hung in the wings.
Wisely, Bach chose to polish what his peers
Despised as out-of-date: structure that sings
To brains that strive to think why dying stings.”
Following Bach you promised me you’d wait
For me where good souls join the precious things
We’ve lost on Earth in that eternal state.
More cause to pray I too may pass through Heaven’s Gate!



Lionel Willis was born in Toronto in 1932. He has been a mosaic designer, portrait painter, watercolorist, biological illustrator, field entomologist and professor of English Literature as well as a poet. His verse has appeared in A Miscellany of Prints and Poems, The Canadian Forum,  Candelabrum Poetry Magazine, Descant, Dream International Quarterly, Harp Strings Poetry Journal, Hrafnhoh, Iambs & Trochees, Light, Romantics Quarterly, The Classical Outlook, The Society of Classical Poets, The Deronda Review,  The Eclectic Muse, The Fiddlehead, The Formalist, The Lyric, The Road Not Taken, Troubadour and White Wall Review, and in two books, The Dreamstone and Other Rhymes (The Plowman, 2003) and Heartscape, a Book of Bucolic Verse (EIDOLON, 2019).  

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7 Responses

  1. Cynthia Erlandson

    Thank you, Lionel. This is a lovely, fitting tribute to the musician whom I have long believed will be organist/choirmaster in heaven! I can’t imagine anyone could ever surpass his profound and beautiful complexity, composed “Soli Deo Gloria”!

  2. C.B. Anderson

    The very first line is belied by how much you actually did have left to say, and I’m glad you said it, especially those lines in which you note how much Bach’s music stimulates the cerebrum.

    In the seventh line of the first stanza, should “passed” be “past?”

    • Lionel Willis

      Thanks, C. B. The “recent passed” refers to Marjorie, to whose memory the poem is dedicated. I think you may be right to question the participle. In the poem she seems too recent to be passed. My memory links the lost to the past. In the poem, my pain at losing the cantatas is linked to a more immediate pain.

  3. James A. Tweedie

    Lionel, Lovely sentiments beautifully expressed in a difficult and challenging rhyme-pattern that you manage to carry off without making it sound stilted and forced. Well done. And Heidelberg (“where the River Neckar flows”) is indeed a lovely place, especially when viewed from the bridge below the castle. I also liked your riff on “old fashioned”–and aren’t we all glad that J.S. did what he did!

  4. BDW

    as per Ewald E. Eisbruc:

    At moments, in Mr. Willis “Bach in Heidelburg”, one hears Wordsworth, and a few of the other Romantics, especially in their use of the Spenserian stanza.

    It is true that “reams of Bach’s scores are gone, yet reams remain”; the Bach edition of his complete works (Gesamtwerk) have left this afficionado in despair of ever encompassing his musical power with well over 150 CDs. This last week, for example, only the occasional air was dared in produced poesy; though German engineering was assented to.

    It is true the “Ariesque” moved into the Classical era, and much was lost; yet Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven acknowledged Bach’s influence on their work; and every era in music, literature, etc. is so transformed, some parts to the better, some to the worse. No doubt, “Mammon rejoices/ To see earplugged consumers milling through/ His bedlam of manipulated choices”.


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