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‘Counterpoint: A Memoir of Bach and Mourning’: A son escapes into music after his mother’s death

The author and his mother, Carol, on a Florida beach in 1974. (Family photo)
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Philip Kennicott is the chief art critic for The Washington Post. This article was adapted from his new book, “Counterpoint: A Memoir of Bach and Mourning” (Norton, February 2020).

For children, the discovery of death is shocking, perhaps in the form of a schoolmate’s accident, or a grandparent’s failure to appear at some appointed holiday. But with our parents’ deaths we rediscover it as unavoidable and universal. Ideally, they help us learn to die, sometimes explicitly, giving us insight, consoling us for their death, so that ours will be easier when it comes.

But that wasn’t my mother. Death brought her no wisdom, life brought her little joy, and when she died it was in anguish, without resolution or any sense of peace. Hers should have been what was once called a “good death,” after a long life, filled with children and grandchildren, and surrounded by family. My mother had the best treatment that medicine could provide, and when it could provide no more, she had the kindest and most professional care from nurses who knew how to relieve pain and tend to a failing body. My mother died at home, with all her children fully launched in life, secure and perhaps successful. Not one of her children or grandchildren preceded her in death; not one of them deviated from the usual trajectory of middle-class life. There were no broken homes or abandoned children, no chronic gamblers or heroin addicts. We were by no means a perfect family, but if any ordinary person had come in to assess the fullness of my mother’s life, he would have found the balance sheet laden with things that ordinarily make people happy, and mostly devoid of the usual causes of sadness.

But she was unhappy and died that way, unfulfilled and angry about what she sensed was a wasted life. She had wanted to be a violinist, and when I was young she used to play along with my piano; but over time, she gave up on the instrument, just one of many things she abandoned, until late in life even the mention of the instrument would make her grimace with disgust. She also dreamed of being a dancer, but she said it wasn’t the decent thing for a girl to show her legs in the 1940s, so nothing came of that. Later she hoped to be a doctor, but her father refused her bus fare to the West Coast, where, she said, she had a scholarship to a good college. A few years after my mother died, when my once-reticent father was surprising all his children by speaking easily and candidly about a past we had assumed was closed for discussion, I asked him about the scholarship story, which I had always doubted. He said yes, it was true, and that my grandfather had indeed crushed his daughter’s dream, and though I never met my maternal grandfather and he was, for me, mainly a figure of myth constructed by my mother, I felt a flash of hatred for him, as if he had entered the room uninvited. After that, my mother’s life was given over to marriage, raising a family, and being a woman in the 1950s and 1960s didn’t help. By the time she was in her forties and had the freedom to do exactly as she pleased, she was embittered, and spent much of her time resentfully cleaning a house that was never dirty. She loved her children, but fretfully and it seemed without pleasure. She was seventy-four when she died, still waiting for the world to sort itself out, to remove its impediments to her happiness.

In the last few days before her death, the futility of this wait struck her with its full, terrifying force. She had always been an atheist, and sometimes stridently so. Now, when we were alone, she asked if I believed in God, if I thought there was anything that came after death. I was horrified by these questions, in part because they struck at my most unresolved thoughts, and also because I didn’t know whether to lie and say the consoling thing, or speak a truth that is unnerving even to a healthy person with no intimation of death on the horizon. So I said I didn’t know, that nobody knows, nobody has ever known, despite all the certainty of religion, and atheism. I said that the only thing in which I had confidence was that death brings an end to suffering, and a cessation of all things, including regret, worry, and fear. My mother died the day after that conversation.

I bristle at the idea that music is consoling or has healing power. It is a cliché of lazy music talk, the sort of thing said by people who give money to the symphony and have their names chiseled on the wall of the opera house. It is the drivel of disembodied voices narrating bad documentaries about Beethoven and Mozart. I don’t find music consoling. I’m not sure I even love music. Sometimes I wonder if in fact I hate it, the way one hates a drug, or resents a weakness. It unsettles more than it satisfies, and increases the very appetites it is supposed to sate. At best, it is a distraction from things that are more painful in life. If we confuse its power with consolation, it is through sloppy thinking. Consolation requires a reassuring statement about the world, or life, the kind of philosophical statement that music can’t make in any definitive way. Consolation helps us order our thoughts so that life is less painful. Very often these are clichés like the ones I repeated to myself while my mother was dying; for some people they are bromides found on calendars and inspirational posters; for many others, they are the wishful thinking that grounds religion. We think of music as consoling perhaps because it is so often the handmaiden to religion, amplifying our emotional response to religious ideas. But by itself music, if anything, makes us raw, more susceptible to pain, nostalgia, and memory.

Once, many years ago, I used to visit an elderly friend who was dying of cancer, and one evening he asked me to put some music on the stereo, anything I liked. His record collection was vast, and there were dozens of recordings — obscure Baroque operas, rare recitals by singers known only to fanatical lovers of the human voice — that I would have gladly chosen. But I worried that his mood was fragile and his mind cloudy, so I sought out something simple, sentimental, and easy to follow. Bach wouldn’t do, Wagner was too heavy, Beethoven too dramatic, so I chose the “Liebesleid,” a salon trifle by the great violinist Fritz Kreisler. It is musical kitsch, an Austrian ländler, which flows like a waltz, with a melodic line jumping up in hope and expectation, then falling downward by steps, a generic melodic pattern but one that seems to trace the desire and disappointment implied in the title: “Love’s Sorrow.” It is the sort of music my mother loved, and I thought it innocuous enough to “console,” for a moment, a professor of great brilliance, worldliness, and trenchant wit who was struggling with his own mortal fears and regrets. I put the LP on the turntable and carefully dropped the arm on the right track. When I came back into the dining room, where he sat in a wheelchair in front of a cold, picked-over supper, he was in tears. Not the delicate, glycerin tears of Hollywood, but a red-faced mask of quivering lips, swollen eyes, and snot. “Leave it on,” he said in a choked voice, and I did. But the evening was over.

On the morning after my mother died, I took a walk in the hills above Albuquerque, and stood for a while in a grove of aspen trees, their branches animated by a sharp, early winter wind. A poem I had learned many years earlier, and now considered something of a chestnut, kept running through my mind: “Margaret, are you grieving / Over Goldengrove unleaving?” The English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote those words in an 1880 poem called “Spring and Fall,” addressing them “to a young child”:

Margaret, are you grieving

Over Goldengrove unleaving?

Leaves, like the things of man, you

With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?

Ah! as the heart grows older

It will come to such sights colder

By and by, nor spare a sigh

Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;

And yet you will weep and know why.

Now no matter, child, the name:

Sorrow’s springs are the same.

Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed

What heart heard of, ghost guessed:

It is the blight man was born for,

It is Margaret you mourn for.

Throughout the fall, as the trees were unleaving, my mother had been unleaving the last of her life. But what haunted me about the poem was its insistence on the deep, self- regarding sense of fear that loss, including the deaths of other people, inspires in us: “It is the blight man was born for, / It is Margaret you mourn for.”

Margaret, it is Margaret you mourn for.

My mother’s death left me terrified about my own mortality, first in small ways, wondering how I will die, whether it will be alone, or in the company of loved ones, in poverty, or surrounded by comfort, in despair, or rich in memories and meaning. But it also aggravated a larger sense of dread, the ever-present but often mute fear we carry with us that our lives have been wasted, that life will simply run out and in the last hours or minutes or moments of awareness we will perhaps feel cheated, or horrified, to have moved so relentlessly and blindly toward nothingness. It was a feeling of panic, followed by a resolution to do something, accomplish something, at the very least to understand Bach’s music, which had obsessed me during the last days of my mother’s life, at a level that had until then eluded me.

What, in fact, does it mean to know a piece of music? When we hear a new work for the first time, we barely scratch the surface of its content. A few more times through and we have a basic road map, a set of expectations and desires, a craving to hear certain particularly affecting passages, a sense of satisfaction to be enveloped for a few measures here and there in increasingly familiar melodies or harmonic progressions. Multiple hearings may exhaust our pleasure, and some pieces are more easily exhausted than others. Popular music is designed to be spent, arriving everywhere at once with a built-in obsolescence, and often disappearing as quickly as it came. Deeper music may exhaust us for a time, but remains itself inexhaustible.

This basic question, what does it mean to know a piece of music, seems to me very close to all of the questions that really matter in life. Attempting to answer it — if it is, in fact, answerable — draws one down avenues of thought parallel, or perhaps identical, to the most fundamental question of all: What does it mean to be alive? Simply being a bystander, a passive listener to music, isn’t an entirely satisfying form of understanding. For years, I had felt this way about the great piano works that were beyond my abilities, among them Bach’s Goldberg Variations. The Goldberg Variations encompass everything that Bach has to say within the parameters of a single instrument. They are comprehensive, demanding, and infinitely rewarding, and yet I had never quite had the courage to approach them.

People who don’t make music, who don’t play an instrument or sing, often sense the presence of a deeper understanding that eludes them, as if the ability to perform a piece of music might unlock the real substance of the composer’s thought. But the sad truth is that even the ability to play through a Mozart sonata or sing a Schubert song leaves one with the same elusive sense of a yet deeper understanding lurking beneath the notes on the page. The musician asks himself: Have I understood it when I can play it? Or when I can play it flawlessly? Or when I have memorized it? Or when I can analyze its structure? At every level of yet deeper engagement, the thing-in-itself, the musical unknown, remains, taunting us with a sense of unachieved enlightenment. There is always a nagging feeling that the reach exceeds the grasp. I had felt this way about the Goldberg Variations for a long time, in love with them from the recordings of other pianists, yet in love with a definite sense that something was unrequited. At a moment when it seemed imperative to understand the world and life more deeply, I wondered if the Goldberg Variations might test the possibility of achieving true knowledge of music. I wondered if perhaps I should learn how to play them.